Whether you’re a yoga novice or a tried-and-true veteran, it can be challenging to determine the best yoga style for you. With all the different types of yoga, comes different benefits, techniques, and philosophies. Some focus more on breathwork and form, while others require more athletic ability and strenuous movements. Some put an emphasis on meditation and mantras, while others place flexibility and body toning at the core. Regardless of your preference, it’s important to reflect on your reasons for practicing and consider your personal needs. A particular style stands out from the rest, arguably one of the most revolutionary and distinct practices. Bikram Yoga, also coined as “Hot Yoga”, is at the centre of the spotlight today. In this article you will learn about Bikram yoga benefits, drawbacks, and what scientific studies say about this practice.
The Birth of Bikram Yoga
Today, Bikram Yoga is popularized as “Hot Yoga” and is practiced all around the world. The traditional poses and methods of Bikram Yoga were developed in Calcutta, India, between the 1930’s and 1960’s. In fact, this yoga method was created by Bishnu Ghosh, a Bengali bodybuilder and hatha yogi who mentored several students. One of his students, now the face of Bikram Yoga, was Bikram Choudhury, who would later bring the practice to America. The sequences taught by Ghosh were eventually refined by Bikram, also adding the element of heaters in the yoga room. His trip to Japan in 1970 was where he observed the use of saunas by his students, inspiring him to recreate something similar. This, along with his attempt to simulate the temperatures of his hometown of Calcutta sparked the birth of Bikram Yoga.
They started certifying students in their 9-week teacher training sessions in 2006.
The hot yoga boom took place in the 1980’s, when Bikram established The Bikram Yoga College of India in Hollywood. The practice was a massive hit, with thousands of students eager to take an official class hosted by the yogi. As a result, hot yoga spread across the Western world, with over 1,650 studios opened in 40 countries by 2006. In addition, Bikram introduced his “teacher training sessions”, where hundreds of students would take part in a nine-week program. With this training, these students would become certified Bikram instructors and could open up their own studios.
What Is Bikram Yoga?
Although Bikram Yoga and Hot Yoga seem to be interchangeable, it’s important to understand why they are different. Specifically, it should be noted that Bikram Yoga is Hot Yoga, but not all Hot Yoga is Bikram Yoga. Often times when you see studio classes for Hot Yoga, this is probably a variation of Bikram with small tweaks. Traditional Bikram Yoga consists of 26 sequenced poses and 2 breathing exercises done over 90 minutes. Moreover, every class is practiced in a heated room at precisely 40℃ degrees and 40% humidity. Every official Bikram Yoga class should be exactly the same, meeting all these conditions with no alterations. Hence why Bikram launched his teacher training sessions, so his exact practice could be replicated in newer studios. On the contrary, Hot Yoga classes offer a similar practice, but different studios will sprinkle in their own modifications and versions.
According to the official Bikram Yoga Site, the chosen 26 poses “systematically move fresh, oxygenated blood to 100 percent of your body, to each organ and fiber”. Thus, these specific hatha poses such as triangle pose, tree pose, and cobra pose, were chosen for their health benefits. The site also highlights how the heat helps release toxins, stretches muscles, and improves circulation throughout the whole body.
An official Bikram Yoga class has a room temperature of 104ºF (40℃) and 40% humidity.
The Benefits of Bikram
It’s no question that yoga has several physical and mental benefits, but what happens when you add heat into the equation? With thousands of yogis swearing by it, but also many critics pointing out the dangers, let’s start with the pros. To start off, one study indicated that hot yoga could improve glucose tolerance, blood lipid profile (a measure of cholesterol and fats in the body), and bone density. Here’s a closer look at the benefits of this sweaty practice:
Burning calories is a no-brainer when it comes to any physical activity that increases your heart rate. However, Bikram Yoga takes it up a notch with the heat, revving up your metabolism and burning loads of calories each class. In fact, an average Bikram class can have you burning anywhere from 300-600 calories. According to research conducted at Colorado State University, women and men on average burn 330 and 460 calories respectively, during a single class.
2. Improves Flexibility
There’s a reason why it’s always recommended to stretch and warm up your muscles before a workout. When your muscles are cold, it’s more difficult to stretch deeply and have blood flow thoroughly to the body. Thus, the heat during Bikram Yoga promotes flexibility, warming up your stiffened muscles and increasing mobility in your stretches. The humidity loosens your joints and muscles, allowing you to go deeper into each stretch and pose. A study concluded that after 8 weeks, participants of Bikram Yoga had increased flexibility in their hamstrings, back and shoulders.
The heat during Bikram Yoga promotes flexibility.
3. Alleviates Pain and Prevents Injury
Yoga is a common practice for all ages, with promising benefits for those looking to alleviate joint pain and strengthen bone density. As Bikram Yoga works on using each joint and muscle in your body, regular training can improve mobility and strength. In addition, the heat opens up joints and loosens muscle fibers, allowing individuals to move more swiftly in their practice. One study revealed that hot yoga is safe and effective for individuals with arthritis, reporting that they felt physically stronger after 8 weeks of practice. Another study found that pre-menopausal women experienced increased bone density in their lower back and hips over a 5-year period.
4. Builds Muscle Strength
This particular yoga practice consists of 26 poses, all requiring you to maintain balance through using your body’s muscles. As you go through the sequences, your focus is on maintaining each pose with concentration and balance. An article by Sports Rec mentions the involvement of isometric muscle contractions in Bikram Yoga poses. For instance, many poses like “Triangle” pose and “Awkward” pose consist of intense muscle contractions of the leg muscles. Poses like “Standing Head To Knee” or “Balancing Stick” contract the arm and shoulder muscles. The focus of Bikram is strong muscle contractions in the absence of movement, which allows muscle toning and strengthening. A study published in 2008 found significant improvements in quadricep and hamstring strength in young adults after 8 weeks of practice.
The focus of Bikram is strong muscle contractions in the absence of movement.
5. Detoxes Your Skin
Bikram Yoga is all about sweating, and sweating is proven to be good for your skin – opening up pores and releasing toxins. When you sweat in a warm environment, you increase circulation and bring oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to skin cells. Dermatologist Dendy Engelman, M.D., claims that just 15 minutes in a sauna increases perspiration and circulation. Thus, skin capillaries and vessels dilate, pumping nutrients to the cell and giving us that fresh dewy and glowing look. In addition, recent studies highlight a natural antibiotic known as “dermcidin” in sweat, which can kill bacteria on your skin.
6. Stabilizes Mental Health
Aside from all the physical benefits of Bikram Yoga, there are several mental health benefits as well. Whether it’s alleviating stress, improving anxiety, or fighting off depression, the practice is proven to put you in a better headspace. With required focus and concentration during each class, you can experience decreased levels of stress. A 2018 study involving stressed and inactive adults revealed self-reported lower levels of stress after a 16-week hot yoga program. Furthermore, according to the American Psychology Association, hot yoga is an effective treatment for reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.
You can experience decreased levels of stress with every Bikram Yoga class.
The Potential Drawbacks of Bikram
Despite its’ praise and popularity, there are also many critics of the practice. Consider the following before you decide to take a hot yoga class:
Spending 90 minutes in a hot and humid room is bound to make you break a sweat. Now, add in a sequence of strenuous poses and movements, and you’ll be sweating buckets. As you’re sweating through a Bikram class, your body loses essential water and is very prone to dehydration. With dehydration, many students may also feel nauseous or dizzy. It’s important to drink lots of water before and after class, with experts recommending 3L a day with yoga.
2. Heat Exhaustion
As the studio is heated to 40℃ degrees every class, it’s clear that one of the major risks of the practice is heat exhaustion. Not only is the external heat source turned up, but your own internal heat will increase as you engage in more movements. As your internal heat rises, your body’s reaction is to produce sweat in an attempt to cool the body down. At the same time, the room is heated, so there’s no way your body can actually cool down, which can lead to heat stroke. A research study stated that the dramatic increase in heart rate and body temperatures could pose as alarming, especially with such little movements.
Although Bikram Yoga is a fit for most people, it is not recommended for certain individuals with pre-existing cardio-vascular problems. If you are suffering from any heart related issues, this is not the yoga to practice. In addition, the heat and strenuous poses of Bikram are not suited for pregnant women, and therefore should be avoided entirely.
Avoid Bikram entirely if you are pregnant or with pre-existing cardio-vascular problems.
Is Bikram Yoga For You?
Bikram Yoga is a fun and challenging way to work up a sweat, while strengthening your body and practicing mindfulness. The hype around it is polarizing – with some individuals swearing by it, and other individuals putting it on the back burner. Most experts recommend trying it at least twice, as the second class really opens your eyes to the benefits. Give Bikram Yoga a try for yourself and see if it really is as addicting as it’s claimed to be.
Do you have any experience with Bikram or Hot Yoga? If so, please share it so we can all grow from your wisdom.