how dangerous is the practice of Bikram yoga?

True to hatha yoga, I attended my first Bikram session at a health retreat in Phuket in 2018, where I went in search of better fitness, wellness tools and holistic healing therapies that would not normally be part of my everyday life. I have tried it. I hated. I buried the memory deep in my mind, attributing it all to personal preference.

Cut to October 2021, and I’m face to face with a clinical dietitian who happens to be a breast cancer survivor. “Bikram yoga was an addiction,” says Tina Chagoury, who practiced several times a week for three years before falling ill. “What makes it addicting is that you can perform three times better than in a regular class because of the flexibility that comes with the heat. There is such an adrenaline rush that you don’t want to go back to normal yoga. Just talking about it makes me regret who I was after.

Despite this, however, she has no interest in returning Bikram and our conversation takes me back to the time I spent trying to move to a hellish studio at 40 ° C. A 2015 study on Bikram yoga has concluded that reducing the length of a class to 60 minutes or less could help minimize the potential for heat intolerance based on participants’ somewhat risky core temperatures after 90 minutes).

Bikram is yoga’s pineapple pizza topping

Bikram yoga is the fitness equivalent of pineapple on pizza, and even going for this “express” class was too much for me. The early wave of nausea never quite abated. I was out of breath, my lungs were heavy, and my heart was pounding, but not from physical exertion. I felt like every ounce of my body was more focused on fighting the urge to throw up and pass out. And it is with years of experience in hatha, yin, vinyasa and kundalini yoga. Heck, I even hung without a hammock during aerial yoga and loved it.

“What you are describing is dehydration,” says Dr. Kate Jordan, an athletic doctor who practices Ashtanga yoga. “There are two common mistakes people make when it comes to hydration during exercise.

“Firstly, they underestimate the amount of sweat and, if you think about it, the level of sweat loss in Bikram is amazing. Second, people hydrate with something that isn’t sweat, which contains salt and electrolytes – rehydrating with water isn’t the same as what you’ve lost.

One of the reasons people love hot yoga so much is that the heat makes you much more flexible.  That doesn't mean, however, that you will always be able to touch your toes outside of the classroom.
One of the reasons people love hot yoga so much is that the heat makes you much more flexible. That doesn’t mean, however, that you will always be able to touch your toes outside of the classroom.

“If you weigh yourself before and after Bikram, you would be surprised because it is only sweat that you lost. You haven’t burned fat, ”she says. Oh, and more sweat doesn’t equal more calories burned, either. “Again, it comes down to this perception of effort.

“Hot yoga is proven not to cause you to expel more calories than normal yoga. It just makes you feel like you do. In fact, according to researchers at Colorado State University, Bikram burns energy at the same rate as a brisk walk.

Can Hot Yoga Really “Detoxify” Our Body?

One of the main claims of this branch of yoga is its detoxifying benefits. Almost all of the studios claim that hot yoga uses heat to improve the “cleansing process” – by removing impurities through the skin. Can this be true?

“There are two basic excretion routes in the body: the liver and the kidneys,” continues Dr. Jordan. “It is believed that you are sweating toxins, but you are not. Sweat is there to help you release heat, to use radiant heat to lower your body temperature, so that you feel good. Your body releases endorphins in response to vigorous exercise, so from a physiological standpoint, I suspect that the reason people feel better after bikram is more this perception of fatigue.

Personally, I felt infinitely worse afterwards. “I have come, I have seen, I don’t need to overcome,” I thought as I slipped out halfway to escape the scorching heat, to be encouraged to step back and rest on my back. carpet if necessary. But resting on a mat in a cloud of humidity didn’t help. Also, water breaks were instructor imposed, so it was common for people to disrupt lessons because they needed a break.

After class I looked like a beef carpaccio – much like everyone else around me – with the next 48 hours a haze of migraines, toe cramps and a general feeling of misery. I missed deadlines, canceled plans with a friend, and the euphoric feeling I was promised never came. It’s unfathomable for me to feel this after a swim, a hike, or just about any other workout imaginable.

As someone more than familiar with the standing cobra, camel, and bow poses, I had no issues with the 26 postures and the two breathing exercises themselves, and I didn’t find them so difficult. I’m also relieved to report that the teacher never once asked me to “suck that fucking fat belly,” as Bikram yoga founder Bikram Choudhury once allegedly barked at a former student.

However, I couldn’t help but notice how many times we were encouraged to push harder and go beyond our flexibility, both of which seemed to be red flags for a yoga traditionalist. like me. I later learned that such jargon is part of “dialogue,” a script that Bikram teachers can never deviate from, as instructed by Choudhury.

Every Bikram yoga class is exactly the same, wherever you are – the same verbiage, the same poses, the same sequence of poses. Considering that yoga is grounded in respecting your body’s physical limitations, this unique approach is not for everyone.

Fans say practicing in the heat boosts immunity, sanity, and more

One of the main reasons people love Bikram and other forms of hot yoga is the heat, including Melissa McIntyre. Currently studio director of The Hot Spot Yoga in London, she trained as a teacher in 2010, and a lot of what you see in the Bikram: Yogi, guru, predator documentary was shot during his studies. She says heat is more than a prop: “It’s there to help you, like a block. But its by-products are much more important: increased blood flow, a more efficient cardiovascular system, a calming effect. I also can’t tell you the last time I had a cold.

“A friend of mine had very bad eczema and nothing worked, but Bikram yoga cleansed her skin. Yes, this is largely anecdotal, but I firmly believe that heat has healing properties as much as it is an accessory in terms of performing postures.

Certainly, during my course, I am able to go deeper into the fixed pose with remarkable ease – a first for me. After all, hot muscle is flexible muscle, but at what cost? Somewhere between increased muscle flexibility and a scenario that encourages students to push their limits, the risk of injury is real.

“From a tendon / muscle perspective, heat increases your flexibility and reduces your risk of muscle tears. It also increases the risk of joint injuries because you can get a greater range of motion through your joints than you normally would, ”says Dr. Jordan. “To go into a hip extension position you would be limited by your hip flexor, but if it’s really loose then you can bring that hip into an increased range. I use the hips as an example because it’s the most common yoga injury I see in people who go too far.

The discussion reminds Dr Jordan of a patient who suffered a nerve injury as a result of Bikram. “The problem with nerves is that they don’t heat up the way muscles do, so if you stretch a joint beyond its normal range, you can cause a stretching injury to the nerve.” Worse yet, the nerves heal very slowly, she says.

Body awareness, according to physiotherapist Jeelna Ruparelia, is essential: “I can safely say that heat benefits some people, depending on their strength and physical ability. If you understand your body you know how far or how far to go to push it more than someone who is new to yoga simply because there are so many components in a class – which my neighbor does, this as the instructor advises, breathing instructions. . “The heated environment becomes quite stressful for people who are not aware of their bodies.”

Like Dr. Jordan, Ruparelia suffered injuries not only from the front folds of the wide legs, but also from the excessive extension of the back and neck encouraged by the practice.

I can’t help but notice that the description of the session I attended contained the word “warriors”. I also find it telling that both Choudhury and his ex-wife are being praised for their accomplishments in the competitive yoga world – an oxymoron in itself.

Ultimately, if Bikram Yoga has helped you overcome an injury, heal a breathing problem, or even learn to re-habituate your body, more power for you. As for my position on this somewhat masochistic practice? Never again.

For more first-person pieces, follow us on Instagram (@StrongWomenUK)

Images: Getty