Ninety minutes, 105-degree heat, 40 percent humidity, and the same 26 postures every class: It may not sound like something you'd voluntarily sign up for, but Bikram Yoga devotees will tell you that this routine is the best thing they can do for both their mind and their body. Bikram is a type of yoga founded by instructor Bikram Choudhury in the 1970s, now practiced at hundreds of studios around the United States and the world. What sets it apart from other forms of yoga are its two very specific tenants -- a hot, humid studio (often referred to as "the torture chamber") and its never-changing sequence of poses.
According to Bikram's Yoga College of India, the practice's official headquarters located in Los Angeles, Bikram's 26 postures "systematically work every part of the body, to give all the internal organs, all the veins, all the ligaments, and all the muscles everything they need to maintain optimum health and maximum function." [Source: Bikram Yoga] Doing the sequence in a heated room keeps muscles loose and flexible, and encourages students to sweat out impurities during class. (Bikram is also known as "hot yoga," but not all hot yoga classes follow the Bikram sequence or are taught by certified Bikram instructors.)
Many Bikram teachers and students will attest to the practice's potential to build strength, alleviate chronic pain or injuries, and improve both physical and mental health. But it is also an intense, and somewhat controversial, method: Dizziness and weakness during or after class are not uncommon, and doctors may advise against Bikram for people who have heart disease or other existing health conditions, or women who are pregnant. [Source: Laskowski] Whether you're thinking about trying Bikram for the first time or you already attend class regularly, it's important to be aware of both the benefits and the risks.
What to Expect in a Bikram Class
Like most modern yoga styles practiced today, Bikram stems from Hatha yoga -- an umbrella term that simply means the physical practice of doing poses, or asanas. Unlike other Hatha derivatives (like Vinyasa), however, every Bikram class follows the same sequence of 26 postures, designed to help oxygen flow to every part of the body and to stretch muscles and ligaments in a systematic way.
"It can be very addictive, because you're doing the same thing every time and you can get very good at the postures; you always know what to expect," says Sophie Herbert, a yoga instructor based in Brooklyn, New York. "People who get into it tend to do it every day for a week or two weeks at a time, so you can see the improvement day by day." In fact, Bikram's Yoga College of India recommends that newcomers start a practice by taking class every day for two months straight.
It is also recommended that you don't eat for two to three hours before a Bikram yoga class and that you drink plenty of water (and cut back on caffeinated beverages and processed foods) for several days beforehand. You will sweat -- a lot -- so you should wear clothes that help you stay cool and move freely (no baggy t-shirts), and bring a towel to lie on top of your yoga mat.
In each 90-minute Bikram class, wherever you are in the world, your instructor will lead you through the following series of poses.
Sanskrit Name: English Translation
Pranayama: Standing Deep Breathing
Ardha-Chandrasana: Half Moon Pose
Utkatasana: Awkward Pose
Garurasana: Eagle Pose
Dandayamana-Janushirasana: Standing Head to Knee
Dandayamana-Dhanurasana: Standing Bow Pose
Tuladandasana: Balancing Stick
Dandayamana-Bibhaktapada-Paschimotthanasana: Standing Separate Leg Stretching Pose
Trikanasana: Triangle Pose
Dandayamana-Bibhaktapada-Janushirasana: Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee Pose
Tadasana: Tree Pose
Padangustasana: Toe Stand
Savasana: Dead Body Pose
Pavanamuktasana: Wind-Removing Pose
Pada-Hasthasana: Sit Up
Bhujangasana: Cobra Pose
Salabhasana: Locust Pose
Poorna-Salabhasana: Full Locust Pose
Dhanurasana: Bow Pose
Supta-Vajrasana: Fixed Firm Pose
Ardha-Kurmasana: Half Tortoise Pose
Ustrasana: Camel Pose
Sasangasana: Rabbit Pose
Janushirasana and Paschimotthanasana: Head to Knee Pose and Stretching Pose
Ardha-Matsyendrasana: Spine-Twisting Pose
Kapalbhati in Vajrasana: Blowing in Firm Pose
[Source: Bikram Yoga]
Bikram's Benefits, Risks, and Controversies
When practiced regularly, there's evidence that Bikram yoga can do a body good. A 2013 study from Colorado State University researchers found that adults who participated in three Bikram sessions a week for eight weeks showed increased strength, improved flexibility and slightly decreased body fat compared to a control group. (They did not, however, show any change in cardiovascular or aerobic fitness.) [Source: Tracy] And in a 2008 study, also from Colorado State, a regular Bikram practice was associated with improved balance, leg strength and muscle control, as well. [Source: Hart]
Choudhury claims that being in a heated room allows for more flexibility and looser muscles -- but this can have risks as well as benefits, says Herbert. "It really does allow you to stretch further than you would be able to in a colder room, but for someone who's already hyperflexible, that could actually be detrimental. If you're not careful, you can hyperextend and injure yourself."
The heat brings other potential dangers with it as well, especially for people who may be dehydrated or who have underlying health conditions. If you feel dizzy, lightheaded or sick to your stomach during class, stop and take a break. In addition to the risk of heatstroke or another heat-related illness, you're also more likely to injure yourself by slipping and falling if you feel this way. [Sources: Aldonas, Martin] And here's something you may not have thought of: Not drinking enough water before or after class can cause obvious problems -- but so can drinking too much. In 2012, the British Medical Journal reported on a woman who drank 3.5 liters of water after a Bikram class and suffered breathlessness, nausea and stomach cramps -- and eventually, seizures -- related to hyponatremia, a dangerous deficiency of sodium and electrolytes related to profuse sweating and drinking too much water. [Source: Reynolds]
Still not sure if Bikram is for you? "As long as you're aware of the precautions about the heat and you don't have any medical reasons not to, you should go ahead and try it," says Herbert. "Some people will absolutely love it, and for others, it's not for them. But it's definitely an interesting experience, either way."
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- Aldonas, Noah. "The Hidden Dangers of Hot Yoga." Outside Online. February 21, 2013. (March 26, 2013) http://www.outsideonline.com/fitness/The-Hidden-Dangers-of-Hot-Yoga.html
- Bikram Yoga. "About Bikram Yoga." (March 26, 2013)
- Bikram Yoga. "Bikram Yoga 26 Postures." (March 26, 2013) http://www.bikramyoga.com/BikramYoga/TwentySixPostures.php
- Bikram Yoga. "FAQ." (March 26, 2013) http://www.bikramyoga.com/BikramYoga/FAQ.php
- Despres, Loraine. "Yoga's Bad Boy: Bikram Choudhury." Yoga Journal. March/April 2000. (March 26, 2013) http://www.yogajournal.com/lifestyle/328
- Hart, CE, et at. "Yoga as Steadiness Training: Effects on Motor Variability in Young Adults." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2008 Sep;22(5):1659-69. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18714217
- Herbert, Sophie. Yoga instructor. Personal interview. March 21, 2013.
- Laskowski, Edward R., M.D. "What Is Hot Yoga?" Mayo Clinic. (March 26, 2013) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/hot-yoga/AN02185
- Martin, Clancy. "The Overheated, Oversexed Cult of Bikram Choudhury." Details. February 2011. (March 26, 2013) http://www.details.com/culture-trends/critical-eye/201102/yoga-guru-bikram-choudhury
- Reynolds, CJ, et al. "Exercise Associated Hyponatraemia Leading to Tonic-Clonic Seizures." BMJ Case Report. 2012 Aug 27;2012. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22927272
- Tracy BL, et al. "Bikram Yoga Training and Physical Fitness in Healthy Young Adults." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2013 Mar;27(3):822-30. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22592178