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Sweating it out: The workout that brings UFC fighters and the mayor’s showgirl to the mat

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Photo: Jennifer Grafiada

“Stretch your knees from New York to L.A. Elbows to the floor. Touch your forehead to your knees. Now pull your heels up as far as possible, hips up, pull on your heels, elbows straight, push hips forward more, keep pushing forward, keep pushing, push, hips up more, pull …”

Thirty tense faces are pouring sweat as the students strain to contort their bodies into the correct position.

“If you think, ‘Oh, I can’t do this,‘ you’ll never do it,” continues the instructor. “You have to change the mind so you can change the body.”

Bikram yoga

Bikram yoga has been changing minds, bodies and lives since it was created three decades ago by Indian Hatha Yoga Master Bikram Choudhury. Choudhury developed Bikram, which involves 26 yoga postures and several deep breathing exercises performed in a room heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, to heal himself after he was injured in a weight lifting accident at age 20. Doctors told him he would never walk again, but Choudhury didn't listen.

His regime, now called Bikram yoga, fully healed him. As it did Stacy Shea, a longtime model, showgirl, professional dancer and Strip performer who, at the age of 30, suffered a crippling disk herniation that resulted in nonstop back pain and confined her to her bed for six months.

“I live in a pain-free body thanks to Bikram… and I look at least 10 years younger,” testifies Shea with the enthusiasm of an infomercial. There’s good reason for her energy: Shea opened the boutique-studio Bikram Yoga Green Valley last year. Her classes—one taught by Jersey Boys actor John Salvatore, another by Terry Fator assistant and Oscar Goodman showgirl Janelle Lewis, are now packed with people from all backgrounds and ages. Doctors, lawyers, housewives, grandparents, kids, UFC fighters, professional athletes and Cirque du Soleil performers sweat side-by-side.

“It’s like a fountain of youth,” claims Shea, who is a lithe and exotic natural beauty. “The heat is your friend because it allows your capillaries to expand and oxygen to flood your blood, flushing out toxins and healing your body quicker. It purges your skin and you look like you’re 10 years younger. It changed my life physically, mentally and spiritually.”

Shea and many Bikram fans claim that the practice not only helps them get in knockout shape but also think more clearly and feel more grounded and serene.

Showgirl, professional dancer, Terry Fator assistant and Bikram yoga fan Janelle Lewis.

Another perk students extoll is the sense of community. Shea says she noticed Vegas needed a place where people can hang out that isn’t a bar, club, or “a dirty gym.” So, she deliberately designed a yoga studio “where you can meet interesting people, form relationships, have healthy conversations and create friendships in a nontoxic atmosphere.”

She succeeded. The students and teachers are friendly with one another, and in some instances, even flirtatious.

“I want to be a MILF,” says 63-year-old Karen Heath, who asks to be called Bambi. “I come here trying to find the boys from UNLV. You’re never too old if you’re in shape.”

“[Bikram yoga] is a part of my training,” says UFC Fighter Josh Burkman, who attends class up to five times per week. “A lot of the fighters are starting to do yoga … The fighting and training that we do is really tough on our bodies, and Bikram heals our bodies and repairs all the kinks, and you still get a hell of a workout. For fighters, that flexibility [from yoga] is so important, because it helps with speed, helps you to hit harder, to kick higher and helps with injury prevention.”

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More Info
Green Valley Bikram Yoga
Prices
Drop-in: $18/class
Introductory Week: $20/7 Days
Introductory month: $100
10 Class Card: $150
30 Class Card: $390
Annual Pre-pay: $999/Year

Bikram also helps with weigh-ins: Burkman claims to lose seven pounds per 90-minute session. It also incited him to eat healthier, because he would feel sick in class if he binged on pizza beforehand. He is also more relaxed, mellow and no longer subject to road rage. When someone cuts him off on the freeway, he lets them go ahead instead of flipping them off like he used to. But those aren’t the only things that entice him to return again and again.

“When I first started coming in here there were like three dudes and 30 girls,” Burkman says. “10:1 odds, I’ll take that any time. This is my new favorite spot—and they’re in their workout clothes. I’m just saying, nobody’s wearing a lot of clothes.”

While most people don’t look their best when drenched in sweat and awkwardly twisted up on a mat, Shea claims Bikram yoga will bring out the innate natural beauty in everyone.

“Everything is derived from the inside out, so if your insides are good, you are going to look beautiful, young and gorgeous,” says Shea. She explains that Bikram yoga, unlike a regular gym workout, massages and detoxes the liver, kidneys, stomach and spleen, ensuring that your internal organs are getting as much of a work out as your outer muscles.

“People say, ‘I’m going to get Botox, fake eyelashes and a spray tan!’ You’re going to look cute for a minute, for a quick photo shoot, but it’s not really lasting. It’s not going to make you feel good or give you longevity.”

Yoga can also help you sleep better, breathe deeper and walk taller. “You get so much more than you expect,” says Salvatore, who, with defined pecs, clear skin and vivid emerald eyes, looks great at 47. “It’s a mind, body and soul connection. Medically and scientifically, it’s like a prescription for perfect health, because you’re working the body from the inside out instead of the outside in. You end up getting a meditation, a physical workout and a sense of self-realization.”

All those rewards don’t come without some serious effort, though—and gallons of sweat.

“Bikram says this too: In order to get to heaven you have to go through hell,” continues Salvatore. “It’s never really comfortable, the 90 minutes, but after you’re done, the rest of the 22 and a half hours of your day are total bliss.”

Inside the studio, the students are now flat on their backs, in a state of rest called “Savasana,” which concludes a yoga session and literally means “Corpse Pose” or “Death Pose.” Indeed, everyone looks near death.

“The more dizzy you feel, the happier you should be,” says the instructor. They don’t look so happy now, but if Salvatore is right, they will soon and for the rest of the day. Their stress and pains will have drained out onto their drenched towels and they will be ready for a fresh-squeezed wheatgrass shot at nearby Jamba Juice, trim enough for those $40 spandex shorts that Shea sells at the studio and perky enough to hit on a UFC fighter or a newly christened MILF.

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Jennifer Grafiada

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