Bikram Yoga: Fit or Fad?

The heated argument over the pros and cons of this form of hot yoga, plus tips on surviving your first class.

Bikram yoga is hot these days, and in more ways than one. While the typical 105-degree Bikram yoga classroom is physically hot, this slightly sadistic form of exercise — founder Bikram Choudhury calls his yoga rooms “torture chambers” — is also picking up steam in pop culture. Beyoncé swears by it, although maybe less now that she’s sporting a baby bump. It makes Lady Gaga go gaga. George Clooney reportedly makes it his go-to when he’s traveling. And Ashton Kutcher told Men’s Health that it’s how he stays fit enough to survive any impending Armageddons. But is Kutcher just being punk’d?

Yes. No. Maybe so. On one hand, you have Dr. Anita Green from Sports Medicine Australia telling media that the Bikram yoga world is  “cult-like.” On the other hand, you have Kate Walter. “Bikram yoga is an incredibly effective way to detoxify your body,” says Walter, who holds an E-RYT certification through the Yoga Alliance. “The room is heated and you are constantly moving. Due to the heat, your muscles warm up faster and stay warm longer, allowing people to go deeper into the yoga poses and stretching further than they might be able to achieve in an unheated yoga class.”

This sort of environment may help maximize the results you see from your workout and makes it appropriate for nearly all types of physical training. For example, Runner’s World magazine recently noted that Bikram yoga can make a good substitute for more traditional treadmill runs.

“It is fantastic at building up endurance,” says Ronald Johnson, a yoga instructor in Portland, Oregon. “The length of the class, the temperature in the room and the level of difficulty of the poses make for a  very strenuous, demanding and ultimately uplifting workout.”

Ask people who have stuck through the classes and you’ll often hear glowing reviews. “It improves flexibility and stamina, reducing risk for injuries,” says Dr. Mary Clifton, who practices general internal medicine in Traverse City, Michigan. “I have been doing Bikram yoga for five years, twice a week. It’s changed my skeletal system. I’ll never quit.”

But others think that the rave reviews of Bikram yoga aren’t just a lot of empty, hot air, but potentially even dangerous. Health risks include dehydration — some medical experts estimate that the average Bikram practitioner loses approximately one litre of water in a single yoga session — and physical injuries related to the stretching, compression and extension moves incorporated into Bikram’s 26 postures.

Part of the reason for the increased injury risks may be because the room’s heat affects your body differently compared to a traditional pre-exercise warm up. “Muscles and soft tissue will lengthen more readily when warmed, but the risk of overstretching to the point of injury is lessened when the heat is generated internally rather than externally, as in an extra-heated room,” warns Karen Whittier, a yoga teacher who runs a health and wellness company in Sammamish, Washington.

Walter agrees. “I would caution against beginners taking a Bikram yoga class. Because the heat allows your muscles to relax and become warm, many people can overextend and cause injury to themselves,” she says. “If they have never done yoga before and do not know where their workout ‘edge’ is, they can push past this in a Bikram class and hurt themselves.”

The potentially confusing pros and cons have done nothing to diminish this form of yoga’s skyrocketing popularity. Yoga attendance in general has grown by upwards of 20 percent in the last decade, and Bikram yoga ranks as the most popular form of hot yoga. These days, it’s hardly surprising to see young urbanites carrying their yoga mats through the streets of Manhattan and Vancouver. If you wish to join the masses, a few tips can make your first class a little less like hell.

Four tips to surviving your first Bikram class

1. Drink three to four litres of water per day, starting several days before your first class so that your body has time to become fully hydrated. This helps combat dehydration and overheating. “Overheating may lead to fatigue, lightheadedness and fainting,” says Walter. “If a person has consumed less than their required amount of water for the day, I would recommend not taking a Bikram class, as they will be prone to dehydrate.”

2. Stock up on electrolytes. Eat a banana a few hours before class, and consider adding an electrolyte supplement to the water you bring to your class. After class, try some coconut water to rehydrate and replenish your body’s electrolytes.

3. Watch the mirrors, but not too closely. Every Bikram room is lined with mirrors so you can view and improve your form. While helpful, don’t get distracted by watching your classmates. There will always be fitter people around you, and it can be easy to feel intimidated. But yoga is all about you and how well you can complete each form, not how well you can do it compared to others.

4. Get plenty of sleep after your first class.  Rest is one of the most important elements of muscle recovery, and sleeping will maximize the results you see from your Bikram workout. Additionally, your body releases the most growth hormones while it’s asleep.

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Joshua Duvauchelle is a writer and editor specializing in health and wellness topics. He earned a nutrition certificate from Cornell University in 2011, although his passion for fitness started when he was five and his parents told him carrots were a dessert. In his spare time, you can usually find Josh at a Bikram studio in Vancouver.

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