On the hot seat: Bikram Yoga

Each week, a new coupon or special deal is offered for Bikram Yoga classes.  But if you’ve never heard of or participated in Bikram Yoga, how do you know if it’s an appropriate form of exercise for you?  Before you pay for that great deal, make sure you know what to expect!

What is Bikram Yoga?

Bikram Yoga is the most popular form of “hot yoga” created by Bikram Choudhury.  Derived from Hatha Yoga  principles, each Bikram Yoga class consists of 26 specific postures and 2 breathing exercises performed in standing, supine (on your back), prone (on your belly), sitting, and kneeling.  All classes are 90 minutes in length and performed in a room set at 105°F (≈ 40.6°C) and 40% humidity.

Why so hot?

Bikram calls his 105°F yoga studios “Torture Chambers”.  His rationale for the “extreme heat” is to “soften [your body], because a warm body is a flexible body. Then you can reshape the body any way you want”.  Also, he writes, “When you sweat, impurities are flushed out of the body through the skin”.

Research

In general, yoga’s most common benefits include improved strength, flexibility, posture, breathing, concentration, and mood.  Unfortunately, there is only one research article supporting Bikram Yoga’s affects at improving balance and leg strength in young adults.  The majority of research on yoga practice has been conducted by and published in Indian journals, particularly yoga specialty journals.   As the West further embraces yoga, however, research from the U.S. and England has emerged, but additional high-quality randomized control trials are needed to confirm and further illuminate its effects.  With increased popularity of alternative medicine, you can expect to see future research on yoga and its benefits.

Controversy

Despite the potential benefits of yoga, there are several aspects of Bikram Yoga that are controversial:

 Bikram Principles & Theories

Controversy

  • ONLY Bikram’s 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises are performed through each class.
  • Performing the same exact exercises over an extended period of time does not provide the variability and progressive strengthening most people need.   The body adapts to exercise and needs to be constantly challenged in order to continue to develop and evolve.
  • Teachers to teach from the podium at the FRONT of the room.
  • Can the Bikram yoga instructor see that each student is performing the yoga posture correctly and safely if they never move from their podium?  This principle is especially controversial given that each Bikram studio must be a minimum of 3000 square feet – that’s 2/3 of a basketball court!  That does not provide for a very intimate setting.
  • NO PHYSICAL, HANDS ON CORRECTIONS or adjustments of students.
  • Each individual has a different body type with strengths and weaknesses unique to them.  Can Bikram yoga students perform and maintain these postures safely without cues provided by their teacher?
  • When you sweat, impurities are flushed out of the body through the skin.
  • Sweating is the body’s way to regulate temperature.  Sweat consists of mostly water with trace (0.2-1%) minerals, lactate, and urea.  Toxins or impurities are filtered through the kidneys and intestines and exit the body as urine and feces.  Perspiration, although imperative to our health, have no part in excreting toxins or impurities.

Bikram Yoga and your health

We can all agree that exercise is an important aspect of health and wellness, but it’s always important to check with your doctor before starting a new exercise regimen.  Because of the extreme heat, Bikram yoga may increase the likelihood of heat stroke in children and the elderly.  It may also cause a sudden increase in blood pressure which may be dangerous for those with heart conditions.  It is not recommended for women who are pregnant.  Even in young and healthy individuals, the risk of dehydration when performing “hot yoga” is much higher, thus drinking plenty of water is imperative to avoid dizziness, fainting, and heat stroke.

The most important thing to remember when experimenting with any form of exercise, including yoga, is that it should be fun and safe.  So if you love the heat, bring your water bottle and a towel, and we’ll meet you on your yoga mat!

References

Bikram’s Yoga College of India: http://www.bikramyoga.com/

Hart CE, Tracy BL.  Yoga as steadiness training: effects on motor variability in young adults.  J Strength Cond Res. 2008 Sep;22(5):1659-69.

A Yoga Heat Wave.  American Fitness. 2003 Nov/Dec;21(6): 32-35.

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