Bikram yoga is a style of hatha yoga developed by Bikram Choudhury (1946–) in Calcutta, India, and brought to the United States in the 1970s. Also known as hot yoga, Bikram yoga's most noteworthy—and controversial—feature is its insistence on practicing in a room heated to 105°F in order to improve joint flexibility and induce heavy sweating. Another distinctive feature is its use of a standard series of 26 breathing exercises and asanas (body postures) that the student is supposed to work through in an unchanging order during each practice.
Bikram yoga claims to improve health, rejuvenate the body, and rid the tissues of toxins through the sweat produced during practice sessions. Many individuals practice Bikram yoga because of several fitness benefits associated with it, including:
A 2016 report by Yoga Alliance notes that 15% of Americans (about 36.7 million) practice yoga, which is an increase over the number in 2012 (20.4 million). The report also found that 28% of all Americans have practiced yoga at some stage of their lives. Gender findings reflect that 72.8% are women; and 27.2% are men. About 10 million men practiced yoga in 2016, up from 4 million in 2012. As the interest in yoga continues, many programs align themselves with areas of the fitness and wellness industry, offering yoga enthusiasts programs that include nutrition and spa services to further enhance the overall physical benefit of this activity.
Bikram yoga is one of the major styles of yoga practiced in the United States; the others being Anusara, Ashtanga, Hatha, Iyengar, Restorative, and Vinyasa.
Although some of Bikram's books include brief discussions of teaching yoga to children, his website and classes are geared primarily to young adults. He maintains that his program helps to ward off the effects of aging on the body, but it is doubtful that many seniors would be able to perform all of the asanas in the standard set.
Choudhury's copyrighted regimen of 26 breathing exercises and asanas grew out of his work with Ghosh. Although Ghosh, like most traditional teachers of yoga, worked one-on-one with students in order to make allowances for specific health problems they may have had, Choudhury thought this pattern was too limiting. In order to bring his version of yoga to as many people as possible, he created the series of 26 poses that “would address the most common health problems and still be easy enough for beginners in the West,” according to an interviewer from Yoga Journal.
Bikram yoga is controversial within the larger yoga community for two reasons, one ethical and the other medical. The first concerns Choudhury's personal lifestyle and business dealings. His central office is located in Beverly Hills, California, and his taste for luxury and his frequent name-dropping are the opposite of the traditional image of the Indian yogi as an ascetic who seeks spiritual enlightenment through physical self-discipline and a simple lifestyle.
Choudhury has also been criticized for his claims to hold a copyright on his series of 26 asanas, which he made in 2002. In 2005 he sued another group called Open Source Yoga Unity for violation of copyright. In response, historians of yoga have searched ancient Hindu texts for proof that the yoga postures in the Bikram series of 26 asanas are thousands of years old and predate any contemporary copyright. Moreover, there is no standard set of postures prescribed in traditional Indian yoga. Some ancient gurus (teachers) defined an asana simply as a “firm, comfortable [seated] posture,” while more recent teachers have variously listed 66 basic asanas with 136 variations or 908 postures with 1,300 variations. In none of these cases are the 26 postures of Bikram yoga defined as a standard series to be used by all practitioners of yoga.
Another source of contention is Choudhury's establishment of a franchise system for his studios. His official website has claimed in the past that a franchise system is necessary to protect the reputation of Bikram yoga from damage due to “a lack of uniform standards among existing studios” and to “bring enforcement actions against those who infringe upon his intellectual property rights.” The charges for a Bikram yoga franchise are high; the initial fee for a franchise as of 2015 was US $10,000, plus three ongoing monthly fees: “the royalty fee (monthly fee equal to greater of 5% of gross revenues or US $1,000), advertising fund fee (monthly fee equal to greater of 2% of gross revenues or US $200) and technology fee (currently US $100 per month).” Choudhury's business practices are the subject of Yoga Inc., a book by John Philp published in Canada in 2009.
Lastly, Choudhury has been criticized for his outspoken attacks and comments considered offensive on other schools of yoga, which is surprising given a tradition of tolerance and acceptance of different approaches to yoga within the wider yoga community.
Bikram yoga is a form of hatha yoga, the physical discipline that most Westerners think of when they refer to yoga in its simplest sense. Although it can be practiced at home, Bikram yoga is taught in classes held in studios heated to about 105°F (40.5°C), 7° above the average normal temperature of the human body. During a typical 90-minute class, the students move through a series of breathing exercises (pranayama) and the asanas that are considered essential to this form of yoga. Choudhury's explanation for the specific asanas that he selected and the order in which they are performed is the so-called tourniquet effect: that is, each specific pose applies pressure to a selected group of arteries in the body. When the pressure is released at the conclusion of the pose, “a lock gate effect is created, causing blood to rush through veins and arteries, flushing them out. Also, pressure is applied to the heart by its relative position to the rest of the body.”
Each asana is performed twice, with students being urged to move a bit further into the pose the second time around. Bikram yoga studios are lined with mirrors so that students can observe whether they are performing the poses correctly. This innovation has been criticized by some observers who maintain that it encourages excessive concentration on the physical dimension of yoga as well as a competitive attitude among the students. Others have noted that it is mostly practitioners of Bikram yoga who are pushing to make competitive yoga an Olympic event. Competitive yoga became an event at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
The Yoga College of India requires all Bikram yoga instructors to complete a nine-week course of training that includes 500 hours of study.
Preparation for Bikram yoga includes dressing appropriately for the heated studio in shorts, swimsuits, or sleeveless leotards and drinking plenty of water before a class session. Most students of Bikram yoga feel a need to rehydrate after a class session, so bringing water to a class is recommended.
Most beginners report feeling dizzy, lightheaded, or nauseated during a Bikram yoga class. These reactions are the result of the cleansing process of excessive sweating. Beginners are advised to drink more water (64–80 oz per day). These feelings typically pass after the individual becomes better hydrated and accustomed to performing in the hot environment.
In addition to dehydration and heat exhaustion, other risks associated with hot yoga are damage to joints and ligaments resulting from overstretching in an overheated studio. There are also anecdotal reports in psychiatric journals of people having psychotic episodes following a Bikram yoga class.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) recommends that anyone considering any form of yoga practice should consult their healthcare provider before starting the program. They should not use yoga as a substitute for conventional medical treatment and they should not postpone seeing a doctor about any health problem they already have. Lastly, they should ask the instructors at a yoga studio about their training and certification, and about the physical demands of the type of yoga taught in the studio. A competent instructor will not object to such questions, and will usually modify the yoga program to meet a new student's needs whenever possible.
One issue that many mainstream physicians have with Bikram yoga is its claim that the heavy sweating induced by practicing in a highly heated studio purifies the body by removing toxins. In fact, sweating is primarily a means of regulating body temperature rather than detoxifying the body; it is the liver and kidneys that are primarily responsible for filtering toxins from blood and other body fluids. Moreover, in a typical Bikram yoga class, the heat in the studio prevents sweat from cooling the body, and there are no air currents to move hot air away from the body.
Another medical issue is the emphasis placed on increasing joint flexibility in Bikram yoga. A heated studio makes it easier for joints and muscles to move freely; however, overstretching can result in both short- and long-term damage when the body cools down. The ligaments in the human body do not resume their original shape after being stretched beyond normal limits; over time, they become loose to the point of weakening joints and damaging cartilage. Some physical therapists point out that joint flexibility carried too far can lead to pain and inflammation rather than increased vitality.
Bikram yoga should not be undertaken by anyone with high blood pressure, obesity, or a smoking habit. This precaution is necessary because of the extra demands on the circulatory system in such an environment. Bikram yoga should also not be undertaken by anyone known to be sensitive to heat or with a history of dehydration and heat exhaustion.
Primary care physicians (and in some cases, specialists in fields like orthopedic surgery, cardiology, sports medicine, or physical therapy) may be consulted by patients for a health evaluation before starting a yoga program as rigorous as Bikram yoga.
Bikram yoga is said to slow down the effects of aging, improve flexibility, boost the immune system, and convey an overall sense of wellness. Many students take classes to improve strength and lose weight rather than to gain flexibility. Those who have tried Bikram yoga are divided about results; some maintain that it has changed their lives in many positive ways; others find it unsatisfying and unhelpful because of its repetitive and regimented quality. Still others report having injured specific joints or ligaments from pushing too hard to conform to the ideal version of each asana rather than respecting their bodies' internal limits.
See also Blood pressure and exercise ; Hatha yoga ; Obesity ; Yoga .
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Rebecca J. Frey, PhD
Revised by Laura Jean Cataldo, RN, EdD