Wall Street Sweats Stress in Bikram Yoga That Soothed Nixon

The night before the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index took its biggest drop in two years, futures trader Corina Cotenescu said she sensed something coming. So she spent 1 1/2 hours in a muggy, 106-degree room, stretching and contorting her body.

Cotenescu teaches and practices Bikram yoga, a 40-year-old branch of the ancient discipline conducted in heat and humidity that has found a niche on Wall Street and Hollywood and grown into a $365 million-a-year business, based on the practice’s own figures.

“I had it in the back of my mind,” Cotenescu, 34, said of her Aug. 3 premonition, which was followed the next day by a fall in the S&P 500 index of 4.8 percent to an eight-month low, its biggest drop since February 2009. “The class helped me let it go.”

When she teaches, in a mirror-lined room on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the only sounds are her commands for the 26 poses of yoga and two breathing exercises. A practitioner since 2003, Cotenescu trades crude oil derivatives at CEC Futures LLC in the morning before her class at Bikram Yoga NYC in the afternoon. She said the heat of the Bikram floor is a respite from the heat of the trading floor.

“If I lost money, I go straight to class, because I know I have emotional baggage that I need to get out,” she said in June, with the temperature outside about 15 degrees cooler than in her workspace. “Bikram yoga gives me the physical and emotional gratification and trading gives me the intellectual gratification,” said Cotenescu, who came to the U.S. when she was 23 from Romania.

Football More Dangerous

People practicing Bikram must make sure to drink plenty of water, said Julie DiMartini, director of research for the University of Connecticut’s Korey Stringer Institute, which is dedicated to preventing sudden death in sports.

“If you’re not used to it, physiologically your body is working a lot harder to keep your body temperature at a comfortable and safe limit,” DiMartini said.

Yoga itself is less dangerous than practicing football or going for a 5-mile run in 106-degree heat because it is less strenuous, she said.

The Los Angeles-based Bikram’s Yoga College of India said classes cost around $20 each and an estimated 50,000 people attend studios each day. The number of certified studios in Manhattan has grown to 14 from eight, or 75 percent, in the past five years, according to the discipline’s global headquarters.

In New York state, the number of health clubs overall declined 8.9 percent to 1,760 from 1,933 over the past five years, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.

‘Recession Proof’ Yoga

Cotenescu said that Bikram is “recession proof.”

“People are at yoga in good times and bad times,” she said. “In good times, the rooms are full because people feel good about themselves and want to look good. When it’s bad times, the rooms are full because people want to relieve the stress.”

Bikram Yoga NYC was New York’s first studio, company co-founder Jennifer Lobo said in an interview. She said teachers make from $55 to $110 per class.

Michael Pintar, a fixed income and currency portfolio manager at Cura Capital Management LLC, goes to Bikram six days a week. Earlier this year, the 38-year-old Manhattan resident married his former Bikram teacher, Lorenza Chiaramonte.

“To me it’s something now that is so intertwined in my life that I really don’t view it as repetitive because it’s just part of a daily practice or daily routine for me,” Pintar said in an interview. “You never get to perfection.”

Rolls-Royces, Bentleys

Only those who pay $11,000 for a nine-week training session conducted by the discipline’s founder, Bikram Choudhury, are certified to teach. Participants sleep about two hours a night. The 65-year-old Choudhury, who teaches wearing only a Speedo and a Rolex, declined to divulge the annual income of his closely held yoga empire, but said he keeps 35 Rolls-Royce and Bentley automobiles in his Los Angeles garage.

Since the discipline’s official creation in 1971, Bikram has been practiced by celebrities such as Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers’ All-Star guard; Andy Murray, No. 4 on the ATP World Tour in men’s tennis; and the singer Madonna.

Choudhury says President Richard Nixon came to him for help in 1972 while suffering from advanced thrombophlebitis, a swelling of veins due to blood clots, in his left leg.

Treating Nixon

Choudhury said he was asked to treat the late president, who was unable to walk because of his pain. He instructed Nixon to do yoga in a bathtub filled with hot water. After three days, Nixon was walking again, and the pain never returned, Choudhury said.

“When I asked him a few days later which leg caused him trouble, Nixon said he didn’t remember,” Choudhury said in a telephone interview in July.

The Nixon Presidential Library & Museum doesn’t contain information regarding the former president’s medical records and thus couldn’t confirm Choudhury’s account, archivist Melissa Heddon said in an e-mail.

The Bikram heat and humidity increases blood flow, loosens the body and allows muscles to stretch more than normal, DiMartini said in a telephone interview. It also affects the body’s ability to cool off and is most dangerous if you aren’t familiar with the environment.

The heat doesn’t increase the risk of pulled muscles, and the nature of the discipline makes the workout safer than more intense training in a similar environment, she said.

“If you compare that to football practice or running 5 miles, the good thing is that yoga is a low-intensity type of activity,” said DiMartini, 26. “There isn’t as much harm potential.”

Staying Hydrated

DiMartini’s institute is named for Korey Stringer, an offensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings who died in August 2001 at the age of 27 after collapsing at practice on the hottest day of the year. She said that drinking at least one liter of water throughout each Bikram session is critical to staying healthy. Lobo encourages her students to hydrate throughout classes, in which she says they burn between 500-700 calories.

There are 21.8 million yoga participants in the U.S., 75 percent female, and 57 percent with a college degree or higher, according to the 2011 yoga participation report conducted by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. Yoga has increased by 23.2 percent in participation from 2008 to 2010.

Professional Success

“More people are coming more because they are stressed even if they are not necessarily traders,” Cotenescu said. “This market and this crash is affecting everyone, not only the traders, so people need to have a release.”

Pintar said Bikram is essential to his personal and professional success.

“I’ve been able to handle things much better,” he said. “There’s always going to be ups and downs in trading or managing money, and I think before I reacted much more negatively to bad things that would happen, you know, bad days trading, than I do now.”

(Adds when instructor came to the U.S. in fifth paragraph.)
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