Thursday, May 2, 2013

Bikram Yoga: Not for Beginners

I am fidgeting with my tank top and short-shorts which are entirely too tight and reveal more than I would like, but what else would I wear? I'm in a 105ºF room, with 40% humidity. The room stinks of stale sweat, and the heat is oppressive. I can deal with it. My body starts sweating before class begins. I can handle it. I'm in a Bikram Yoga class, and the only thing that really irritates me is the claims and directions of the Bikram standardized script, a script which is repeated almost verbatim in all Bikram Yoga studios. In this yoga room my back bends should hurt, a comment that I have never heard in any of my other yoga classes in nine years practice. In fact, all my other yoga instructors advised students to back off when they felt pain. 
Woman doing forward fold at Bikram Yoga conference
My spine hurts just looking at this
CC BY 2.5 by yanivmord
In this room, it's like a different yoga world. In here pyramid pose (called standing separate leg head to knee pose in Bikram) improves the functioning of my thyroid. In here, I should not keep a micro-bend in my knee to protect my ligaments and joints from tears. No. In here I lock my knee. I hear this command from the front of the room, and in my mind I can see my yoga instructors, their eyes wide and mouths agape. I am hyperflexible, and without trying I can hyper-extend my knee, increasing my risk of injury and damage to my knee joint.
In this room, wind-removing pose not only stretches my hip flexor, but also massages my transverse, descending, and ascending colon. Do I want my colon massaged? In this hot, sweaty room, wind-removing pose seems, at best, like a bad idea, and, at worst, a private joke played on the masses by Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram Yoga.
And why is it so hot in here? The script via the teacher says it's to remove toxins from my body. At these words, I find myself mentally rolling my eyes. “Toxins” is used as such a vague buzzword that it hardly has meaning. Is the instructor talking about exogenous or endogenous toxins? Heavy metals? Pesticides? Bacteria? Viruses? What kinds of toxins could she possibly mean, and does she even know? Is a system which is designed for keeping my body cool really a productive way of removing them?
At least a dozen times, I have gone through this or similar mental chatter while in a Bikram Yoga class, the same questions rattling around in my head.
I asked questions of my instructors after classes, once the mask and words of Bikram Choudhury have fallen away. Outside of class, they are more like the yoga instructors I'm used to; accommodating; understanding. Outside of class they seem to recognize that people have different bodies and different levels of skill. They are no longer barking half-instructions at me over a microphone. I immediately like them more after class. The answers are informative, but incomplete. The words I'm looking for don't appear in their speech --words like 'research', 'studies', and 'safe'. I know their answers would be only a jumping-off point even if they were more research-based, after all their livelihood is intertwined with Bikram Yoga's success. Thus I send myself deep into the bowels of Google Scholar, searching for studies on Bikram Yoga. The research is few and far between, although I am happy to see that the Bikram Yoga studio I attend works with The University of Texas to change that. I found a study that suggests Bikram Yoga improves pulmonary function and potentially blood pressure, but does not give adequate stimulus to change resting heart rate, or aerobic fitness [1]. Big deal? Other research has found that yoga that includes pranayama breathing exercises, like Bikram, improve lung function [1,2] and yoga in general helps control blood pressure [3]. Research on the effects of yoga on the thyroid show similar results. Rawal, for example, showed that participants released more thyroid hormones after they practiced yoga [4]. Anu S and Senthil Nathan showed that inversions in yoga increase blood flow to the thyroid [5]. However, there is no research saying how great an affect this has on the thyroid. And again, this is common to any hatha yoga practice, not just Bikram. I did find one intervention study that used women diagnosed with hypothyroidism as participants. The study found that doing yoga everyday for one month improved their quality of life [6], but not that it improved their thyroid.
Why then is all the sweating and heat necessary? According to a Bikram website, the heat “allows for deeper stretching, purifies the body, increases circulation and strengthens heart rate for a better cardiovascular workout” [7]. I've already stated that there hasn't been sufficient evidence to claim that Bikram Yoga is an aerobic workout. Heat does allow for deeper stretching and increased circulation, but if you're hyperflexible like me, is that a good thing? Experts say 'no'. The director of orthopedic and sports rehabilitation at the Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan, Dr. Robert Golin says “[h]eat increases one's metabolic rate, and by warming you up, it allows you to stretch more...But once you stretch a muscle beyond 20 to 25 percent of its resting length, you begin to damage a muscle” [8]. The New York Times article in which Dr. Golin was consulted, goes on to say that any pose requiring extreme bending of the knee such as Bikram squats or fixed firm pose “are the most likely to cause tears in knee cartilage” [8]. The news just gets worse for Bikram lovers as far as the knee goes. The truth is, you should never hyper-extend your knee, not even if your quadriceps are engaged. Both the Yale Medical Group and the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons advise not to lock your knee during weight lifting or stretching [9, 10]. As for those who are hyper-flexible and can easily hyper-extend the prognosis is worse. Hyper-extension of the knee can overstretch ligaments, stresses the front of the knee joint surface and weakens the quadriceps” [11]. Lee Staebler, a licensed physical therapist, says that “[l]igaments, tough bands of fibrous tissue that connect bones or cartilage at a joint, do not regain their shape once they are stretched out... A loose joint can be a like a loose door hinge that prevents the door from closing tightly” [8]. 
Bikram Choudhury doing toe stand
CC BY 2.5 by yanivnord
So while the heat does not help with cardiac function, it does allow for increased stretching, but that can damage muscle tissue. Surely there must be something redeeming about the hellacious heat. To all my Bikram lovers, I can offer you a few bones. Research done on sweat has shown that along with water, minerals, urea, and lactate, the human body does release heavy metals such as cadmium, arsenic, lead, and mercury in sweat [12 ]. Thus, one can say that the heat does help remove toxins from the body. From personal experience, I can tell you that Bikram Yoga reduces my recovery time from Crossfit in a way I've never experienced in any other form of yoga. 
Bikram Choudhury standing on a student
CC BY 2.5 by tiarescott
I think my truth is that Bikram Yoga makes me nervous. I see in it a lot of my potential downfalls, such as its focus on flexibility, which I have too much of already, and the external world. In Bikram, students are not supposed to take their eyes off of the mirror for the standing series. This forces me to focus externally on how I look, as opposed to noticing my internal state or how I feel in a pose. Recently, The New York Times posted an article called “How Yoga Can Wreck your Body.” In it, there are some spectacularly horrifying stories of how bad yoga can be. Don't get me wrong, yoga has many many benefits, but these benefits come only if we are mindful of our bodies. As yoga teacher David Bauer said, “[w]hen you are in a hot studio filled with Hard-core Type A personalities, and everyone's adrenaline and endorphins are pumping, you're not feeling any pain... and it may mask how far you can go” [8]. This more than anything makes me nervous about Bikram; the thought indicates to me that because I am competitive and I do push my physical limits, I might hurt myself --badly.
Will I go back to Bikram Yoga again? Of course I will, my muscles feel better when I do. But I have nine years of yoga training to lean on to prevent me from hurting myself.
Would I recommend Bikram to someone who's never done yoga?
Not a chance.

Works Cited
1. Abel, A. N., Lloyd, L. K., Williams, J. S., & Miller, B. K. (2012). Physiological characterisitcs of long-term bikram yoga practitioners. Journal of Exercise Physiology Online15(5), 32-39.
2. Hewett, Z. L., Ransdell, L. B., Gao, Y., Petlichkoff, L. M., & Lucas, S. (2011). An examination of the effectiveness of an 8-week bikram yoga program on mindfulness, perceived stress, and physical fitness. Journal of Exercise Science and Fitness,9(2), 87-92.
3. Jayasinghe, S. R. (2004). Yoga in cardiac health: A review. European Journal of Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation11(5), 369-375.
4. Alexander, T. (2011, May 26). Does yoga bridge pose help the thyroid gland?. Retrieved from
5. S, A., & Nathan, S. (2013). Doppler monitoring of thyroid blood flow before and after yogasanas.National Journal of Basic Medical Sciences3(1), Retrieved from
6. Singh, P., Singh, B., Dave, R., & Udainiya, R. (2011). The impact of yoga upon female patients suffering from hypothyroidism. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice17, 132-134.
7. Bikram Yoga of Ashland. (n.d.). Faq. Retrieved from
8. Kreahling, L. (2004, March 30). When does flexibile become harmful? 'hot' yoga draws fire. The New York Times. Retrieved from
9. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. (2009, February). Knee exercises. Retrieved from
10. Yale Medical Group. (n.d.). Simple exercises to make you limber. Retrieved from
11. Cole, R. (n.d.). Please your knees. Retrieved from
12. Sears, M. E., Kerr, K. J., & Bray, R. I. (2012). Arsenic, cadmium, led, and mercury in sweat: A systematic review. Journal of Environmental and Public Health, Retrieved from
13. Broad, W. (2012, January 05). How yoga can wreck your body. Retrieved from

Other Relevant Resources

Here is some research done by an Austin Texas Bikram studio, along with The University of Texas

This is a video done by Leslie Kaminoff, author of Yoga Anatomy