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Bikram Yoga: Not All It Is Claimed To Be

Photo by lululemon athletica via Flickr

A few blocks from my house, there is a Bikram yoga studio that I have walked past multiple times on my way to and from work.  And I have always wondered as I look into the steamed up windows whether there were any benefits to the average person of doing yoga in such extreme heat. Why would people choose this type of yoga over the traditional varieties?

What is Bikram Yoga?

First off, Bikram yoga is a style of yoga that is performed in a room that is typically heated to 105 F/40.5 C with a humidity of 40%.  Bikram classes are very rigid and strict in their routine and consist of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises that run for exactly 90 minutes.

Are there benefits to doing yoga in extreme heat?

From a scientific standpoint there is none.  In fact, exercising in a hot room with high humidity can actually be detrimental to one’s health.  Extreme heat puts extra stress on the body, which can lead to heat related illness, such as heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke if the body is unable to regulate the heat. That’s why people tend not to exercise during the hottest part of the day, especially in humid climates.

What happens to your body when you exercise in hot weather?

When you exercise in hot, humid climates, your core body temperature has a tendency to rise.  To help cool your body, your natural cooling system (skin, blood vessels and sweat) work to bring your body temperature down.  You start sweating, your blood vessels dilate and your heart rate increases, moving blood away from your muscles to circulate near your skin to help cool you down.  If the humidity is high, your sweat has less opportunity to evaporate from your skin, which in turn pushes your body temperature higher.  And if your body is placed under this stressful environment for too long, your natural cooling systems can fail, resulting in a heat related illness.

Are the claims of Bikram yoga fans true?

On the internet you will find lot of positive health claims for Bikram yoga made by the people that favor it.  Some may have some truth to them, but most have no scientific basis. Here are some that I ran into over and over again:

  1. Heavy sweating helps to detoxify the body: Actually, toxins leave the body via urine and feces after they are broken down by the liver and filtered by your kidneys and intestines.  Sorry, sweat has nothing to do with it. The main function of sweat is to cool your body down when it is overheated and not to detoxify you.  If you want to detoxify, eat healthier and give your body time to purge the toxins naturally.
  2. Warm muscles allow your body to burn fat easier: Actually, if you want to burn more fat, warm muscles have nothing to do with it.  Your best strategy is to increase your muscle mass by weight training and perform more aerobic activity. More muscle mass means more calories burnt during activity.
  3. Heat improves stretching and flexibility: You can get a deeper stretch if your muscles are warmed up first.  But you can get the same benefit by stretching after a 20-30 minutes aerobic workout.  Also stretching too deeply while the muscles are warm can lead to injury, so you have to beware of over stretching.
  4. The discomfort of a heated environment helps to increase willpower and mental strength: Well, anything uncomfortable that you have to go through in life will make you mentally stronger if you survive it. You don’t gain any special mental toughness specifically because you are exercising in a hot room though. It is just one avenue someone might pursue.

The bottom line:

When it comes to objective measurements, Bikram yoga appears to have few added health benefits to recommend it over standard yoga.  Unfortunately, it may also be more harmful for people that are unable to regulate their body temperature in the hot, humid environment it demands.  That’s not to say that no one can attend a Bikram yoga class safely, however, if you do attend one make sure not to ignore any signs or symptoms of heat related illnesses, such as muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting, weakness, headache, dizziness or confusion.  And during the class make sure to  wear light, loose fitting clothing and drink lots of water before, during and after to stay hydrated, since you will no doubt be sweating excessively.  The important thing is to take appropriate precautions to stay safe while enjoying your hot yoga class.

Sources used: Mayo Clinic and Medicinenet.com

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