A native of Colorado, Dr. Ben Zorensky, ND is a naturopathic doctor, a Bikram Yoga Instructor, and a very savvy entrepreneur. A former basketball player at Johns Hopkins University, once Ben discovered Bikram Yoga, he noticed old injuries finally started to heal, and he’s been hooked ever since. Like so many other athletes and outdoor enthusiasts, he was quick to appreciate the dramatic changes Bikram yoga had on his athletic performance, his endurance, his flexibility, and his overall quality of life.
He and his wife Elaina own and operate Wellspring Holistic Health Center as well as Bikram Yoga Tempe. The couple recently spent $100,000 renovating the studio into a state-of-the-art green facility, equipping it with the most technologically-advanced heating and ventilation systems available.
When he’s not leading yoga classes at his studio, or helping people lead healthier lives at his health center, you might catch him wandering with a pack on his back and camera in hand, somewhere deep in the backcountry of Arizona.
You can check out his photography here
Bonus – If you live in Tempe, Arizona and want to limber up at the Bikram Yoga Tempe studio, bring your red card in and receive 10% off!
For more information, be sure to check out their website: www.BikramYogaTempe.com
HF: What sort of benefits could firefighters expect to get out of practicing Bikram Yoga?
BZ: Well, I’ve done some backpacking, but I have never fought fires. A heavy backpack can place a lot of pressure on your spine, and can compress the vertebrae. With many of the postures in Bikram Yoga, you’re creating a natural human traction device. You’re helping to train yourself to stand up straight, and you’re taking pressure off your discs, and reducing pressure on the spine. For firefighters I think that’s key–creating awareness and strength in the core and lower spine so that they can work hard throughout a shift and not be crippled with pain at the end of it.
I also think the breathing techniques would be incredibly beneficial for firefighters, because obviously oxygen is an issue when you’re fighting fires. Most people are only breathing in and out through their mouth during the day, using only their accessory muscles. This limits the amount of oxygen saturating the blood and causes a sympathetic or ‘alert’ response. When you practice deep breathing–drawing air in through the nose, through the throat and deep into the lungs, you stimulate a more relaxed or parasympathetic state of being. The difference being that sympathetic is where you have that flight or fight response. You have to run from the bear, it’s about survival, and that’s when you need your larger muscles to have that oxygen because you need that short burst of energy. Whereas the parasympathetic state is a more relaxed state, and you’re accessing the lower lobes of the lungs, and you’re using less adrenaline, and it’s more restorative. That deep breathing is really helpful for dealing with stressful situations, which most firefighters are in when they’re doing their job. I think that being able to access that slow, deep breathing, would help hotshots remain calm in very stressful situations.
Bikram yoga would be great for helping firefighters acclimate to the heat. When you’re fighting fire, you’re wearing all that protective gear, plus you’re battling with the heat of the fire, and the outside temperature. If you can stand in the studio, maintain your breathing, and keep calm in a hot, humid environment, I definitely believe that hotshots would carry that with them to the fire-line. Also, endurance. We have a lot of triathletes and professional football players who use Bikram Yoga as cross training, because increasing the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood helps them improve their endurance.
HF: So how did you get into Yoga?
BZ:My wife, Elaina and I moved out to Arizona so that I could attend the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine, and she found a Bikram Yoga Studio in Scottsdale, and she kept encouraging me to try it. At the time, I was jogging and playing basketball regularly, but I was starting to feel some knee and hip pain, and I realized that running on concrete wasn’t something that I could do forever so I started doing Bikram Yoga, and immediately started feeling more endurance, more strength, and more flexibility than I really ever had. It was reassuring, and a lot of my old nagging injuries began to fade away.
HF: How does Bikram yoga differ from other styles of yoga?
BZ: The Bikram sequence, in addition to the heat, is what really makes it unique. The Bikram Sequence is like a song with notes. You start with pranayama breathing, which is a deep breathing technique that really builds up your energy, and increases the oxygen-carrying capacity of your blood. You’re essentially warming up your body from the inside out with the breathing. Then, you begin the half-moon sequence, where you’re lengthening and stretching the spine, and backward bending and forward bending right off the bat, so you’re moving the spine in all directions, and then the standing series, which comes right after the awkward pose and eagle pose, is really strengthening for the legs, and testing your balance, but the standing on one leg, is not just for developing strength, but when you lock the knee, you’re carrying that through your core, a lot of times during class you’ll hear the instructor say “suck your stomach in” and that’s not for vanity reasons, it’s so that you engage the deep psoas muscles connecting the lower spine with the legs. The connection between your upper and lower body is essential for walking and breathing at the same. If you’re bringing awareness and strength to your core, and that’s what you do in the standing series, and then from there you do more stretching in the legs, triangle pose creates a natural human traction, so that’s another thing that’s great about yoga is that you’re contracting muscles while you’re stretching at the same time. Think about it, when you’re doing curls, you’re increasing the size of your biceps, but you’re also shortening the muscle. Most people do triceps to even it out. But in yoga, you can create strong muscles that remain long and lean.
HF: Had you done other forms of yoga prior to getting into Bikram Yoga?
BZ: No, I had never taken any classes besides taking Bikram. It just works for me. It’s been a great sequence, and series of postures for me, so I don’t have any interest in trying other styles at this time.
HF: Talk some more about the positive changes that you’ve noticed in your body.
BZ: This is one of the things that Bikram Choudhury touches upon in his book “Bikram Yoga” and in his teachings, and it’s really something that has changed my perspective on exercise. Running and weight lifting, while it may help me look a certain way, or give me specific strength, is not working my entire system, my vital organs, my ligaments, or helping to realign my skeletal system, or lengthening my muscles. Running is great for getting your heart rate up, and increasing your circulation, but the way that you move in the asanas (the postures) is you’re compressing certain parts of your body, then extending them, so you’re also increasing circulation. With running and bike riding, the circulation is going to be steady, you’re going to move the blood throughout your body, but it’s going to be a uniform flow. With yoga, you’re creating a tourniquet effect, so you’re damning and stopping the blood flow, and when you come out of the posture, and you release the dam, and you have all that blood flushing through those areas. It’s a different way of increasing that circulation. You’re getting more blood flow to circulate into those areas.
HF: Talk a little bit about Pranayama breathing. It can increase the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood? That seems like it would be great to help build endurance.
BZ: Anytime you’re doing deep breathing, you’re using your entire lung capacity. With pranayama breathing, it’s a six second inhale following by a six second exhale. Most people breathe in and out through their mouth throughout the day, and when you do that, you’re only accessing the upper portion of your lungs, but with deep breathing through the nose, you’re using your nose as a passageway, and drawing that air through your nose brings it down into the lower lobes of the lungs, and if you’re bringing more air into your lungs, more of that oxygen is going to go into the avular sacs, and get into the blood. Anytime you have more oxygen in your blood, it’s going to enhance the different functions of your body. Which is why we start class with that deep, standing breathing.
HF: Obviously, one of the defining aspects of Bikram Yoga is the heat – how hot is it in there?
BZ: The optimal temperature is right around 105 degrees, with 40% humidity. The heat is to facilitate stretching. Once class starts you’re immediately sweating, which is a good thing, because it helps your body detoxify. Your skin is the largest organ of elimination. There are a lot of different reasons why it’s hot in the studio, but most importantly, it helps prevent injuries. Originally the sequence wasn’t designed with heat in mind, it came in later, but if you try it, you’ll see after a couple of classes that it’s tough to imagine doing some of the poses without the heat.
HF: It seems like with all the sweating, you’d be setting yourself up for a pretty serious case of dehydration. Is that a factor? Any advice for pre / post workout
BZ: We stress that you have to come to class hydrated. Don’t do Bikram Yoga if you’ve just hiked a mountain with a 16oz water bottle in the middle of June. Hydration is important. You’re obviously going to sweat. Some more than others. Some people will get on the scale before and after class and see that they dropped five pounds of water weight, so it’s crucial that you rehydrate, and take a good multivitamin along with electrolytes to help replenish what you lose. But it’s important to remember that sweating is really good for you, but it’s only good for you if you’re making sure that you’re replenishing the vitamins and minerals that you’re losing. Coconut water is really great because it has a lot of potassium and natural electrolytes. Pickle juice too. A lot of NFL teams use pickle juice, because of the sodium. Also, Celtic sea salt is great for restoring sodium. I encourage people to not use refined table salt like the kind you would find at a restaurant, but look for whole-grained sea salt that hasn’t been stripped of all its minerals. V8 tomato juice is great too. You don’t want to go overboard with the sodium, but you definitely need to refuel.
HF: Why do you think yoga still carries a reputation as being a little hippy dippy, and something that men who drink Budweiser and watch football shouldn’t be caught dead doing?
BZ: You know, I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve lost that opinion, or judgment, on yoga. At my studio, we have plenty of serious athletes that come in and train. There are some styles of yoga that incorporate more meditating and chanting that might fit that stereotype, but Bikram Yoga isn’t like that. This style really helps put you back together again. Bikram says ‘it’s never too late, and you’re never too old to start from scratch again’. If you study Bikram Yoga, you’re going to feel better, and your old injuries are going to start to heal. The benefits are incredible. These days, I’m less concerned about what people think about it. I know what it’s done for me. But I’ll be honest, if you told me I’d be doing yoga when I was in high school, I would have thought “No way, that’s not for me!” But now, I wish I had been doing it!
HF: Let’s say you already have a workout routine in place. What’s the best way to implement Bikram Yoga into an existing routine?
BZ: We tell people that it’s most important to be consistent. If you just have time once a week, that’s good, but the benefits aren’t going to be as great as if you were able to do it three times per week. You’re going to have more energy, need less coffee, and require less sleep. If you’re doing it five or six times per week, you’re going to be glowing, you’re going to feel great. I think Bikram Yoga is a great way to supplement any routine. I don’t do weights anymore, because I think of exercising more in terms of function: What do I want to be doing for the rest of my life? So for me, there’s not a lot of value,in say, bench pressing. I don’t need to do that motion very often – so why do it day in and day out? While yoga helps with everything in my life, from breathing and walking, there are so many benefits that permeate into different parts of my life. We have triathletes and runners who come in to the studio, and Bikram enhances their existing training by improving their breathing and flexibility. A lot of times, those triathletes will train for a race, and do their running, hiking, swimming and bike riding before, but then after the race, they’ll take a break from that and do more yoga. Many other athletes will come in and do a weight routine in the morning, and then take a yoga class in the afternoon. Some will swap out a run or a weight routine with a Bikram Yoga session once a week. But truthfully, even just a little bit of yoga can be great.
HF: Firefighters are on the fireline for up two weeks at a time, and often don’t have the time or the space to go through all 26 sequences. Are there any asanas (poses) that might be especially helpful for firefighters to help them maintain their flexibility?
BZ: Sure, I think the pranayama breathing is something that they can do anytime, anywhere. In addition to oxygenating the blood, it also stretches the shoulders, and creates traction through the spine by stretching. Also, the half-moon series where you’re stretching the spine and really working the core is a good. The backward bend moves the spine in all four directions. The cobra series too, where you arch your spine off the ground, really works your lumbar, and the muscles on the backside of your body. If you have back pain, that’s a good stretch.
HF: Obviously, the best way to learn about Bikram Yoga is to go to a studio. But what if someone doesn’t have easy access to a studio, or can’t afford it? What suggestions do you have for them?
BZ: Bikram has two great books about Bikram Yoga (Bikram Yoga: The Guru Behind Hot Yoga Shows the Way to Radiant Health and Personal Fulfillment, and Bikram-Yoga ) they run through the whole sequence, and give directions about all the postures, and all the actions that you should be doing. My wife’s sister doesn’t have access to a studio, but she does it consistently in her apartment. She sets up a space heater and a mirror. Those two things are important. If you don’t have a space heater, you can dress warmly with pants and a sweat shirt. The mirror is important so that you can see your alignment. She listens to his CD, Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class Vol. 1 , which is basically just a recorded class. It works for her.
HF: Are there any classic mistakes that beginning students make?
BZ: I think people think that just because they’re not flexible, or they’re too heavy, that they think yoga just isn’t for them. I always stress that this is a beginning class, and anybody can benefit from this. As long as you show up and put in the work, and try to setup the proper alignment, you’re going to get something out of it. Initially, it can be overwhelming with the heat, and all the directions, and you have no idea what you’re supposed to be doing, and maybe the guy next to you is doing everything perfect. But it’s not about what your neighbor is doing, you’re here for yourself.
HF: Ben, that’s fantastic advice. We really appreciate you taking the time to show us the studio, and answer our questions.
BZ: Anytime. Thanks for stopping by!
If you’re ever in Tempe, Arizona, and want to stop in for a session, Bikram Yoga Tempe is located at 1825 East Guadalupe Rd on the southeast corner of McClintock and Guadalupe. Police and Firefighters receive 10% off with valid ID’s! For more information, including rates and class schedules, check out their website: www.bikramyogatempe.com
[googlemap address=”1825 East Guadalupe Rd tempe, az” zoom=12]