A woman in a yoga pose during a hot yoga class

Bikram yoga: medical experts say seriously hot yoga is a bad idea, but are they right?

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If you’ve ever been into a hot yoga studio, you’ll know how overwhelmingly sweaty and suffocating it can be. But you’ll also remember how much more flexible and powerful you felt holding poses in the heat. That conflict is dividing experts between those who see it as a danger and those who think it’s a useful exercise tool. So, who’s right? Hatha devotee Samia Qaiyum has been investigating.

A hatha yoga loyalist, 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 wouldn’t ordinarily feature in my day-to-day life. I tried it. I hated it. I buried the memory deep in my mind, chalking the whole thing up to a personal preference. 

Cut to October 2021, and I’m face-to-face with a clinical dietician who happens to be a breast cancer survivor. “Bikram yoga was an addiction,” says Tina Chagoury, who practised several times a week for three years before becoming ill. “What makes it addictive is that you can perform three times better than in a regular class because of the flexibility that comes with the warmth. There’s such an adrenaline rush that you don’t want to return to normal yoga. Just talking about it makes me miss who I was afterwards.”

Despite that, however, she has no interest in returning Bikram and our conversation takes me back to the hour I spent trying to move in a hellish 40ºC studio It was so painful that I couldn’t face the full 90-minute class (interestingly a 2015 study on Bikram yoga concluded that reducing the duration of a class to 60 minutes or less could help minimise the potential for heat intolerance based on the somewhat risky core temperatures of the participants after 90 minutes).

Bikram is the pineapple pizza topping of yoga

Bikram yoga is the fitness equivalent of pineapple on pizza, and even opting for that ‘express’ class was too much for me. The wave of nausea that made an appearance early on never quite diminished. I was breathless, my lungs felt heavy, and my heart was pounding – but not from physical exertion. It felt like every ounce of my body was more focused on fighting the urge to throw up and pass out. And that’s with years of experience in hatha, yin, vinyasa and kundalini yoga. Heck, I’ve even dangled ungracefully from a hammock during aerial yoga and loved it.

“What you’re describing is dehydration,” says Dr Kate Jordan, a sports medicine physician who practises ashtanga yoga. “There are two mistakes that people commonly make when it comes to hydration during exercise. 

“Firstly, they underestimate how much they sweat and, if you think about it, the level of sweat loss in Bikram is unbelievable. Secondly, people hydrate with something that is not equivalent to sweat, which contains salt and electrolytes – rehydrating with water is not the same as what you’ve lost.  

One reason people love hot yoga so much is because the heat makes you a lot more flexible. That doesn't mean, however, that you'd still be able to touch your toes outside of the class.
One reason people love hot yoga so much is because the heat makes you a lot more flexible. That doesn't mean, however, that you'd still be able to touch your toes outside of the class.

“If you weigh yourself before and after Bikram, you’d be surprised because that’s only sweat you’ve lost. You haven’t burned fat,” she says. Oh, and more sweat does not equal more calories expended either. “Again, it comes down to that perception of exertion. 

“There’s evidence that hot yoga does not make you expel any more calories than normal yoga. It just makes you feel like you do.” In fact, according to researchers at Colorado State University, Bikram burns through energy at the same rate as going for a brisk walk.

Can hot yoga really ‘detox’ our bodies?

One of the biggest claims made by this branch of yoga is its detoxifying benefits. Almost every studio riffs on the claim that hot yoga uses heat to enhance the ‘cleaning process’ – flushing out impurities through the skin. Can that possibly be true? 

“There are two basic excretion routes from the body: the liver and the kidneys,” continues Dr Jordan “There is a belief that you’re sweating out toxins, but you are not. Sweat is there to help you to expel heat, to use radiating heat to lower your body temperature, so it can feel nice. Your body releases endorphins in response to vigorous exercise, so from a physiological perspective, I suspect the reason people feel better after bikram is more that perception of fatigue.”

Personally, I felt infinitely worse afterwards. “I came, I saw, I don’t need to conquer,” I thought as I slipped outside at the halfway mark to escape the overwhelming heat, only to be encouraged to step back in and rest on my mat if needed. But resting on a mat in a cloud of humidity did nothing to help. Additionally, water breaks were mandated by the instructor, so it was common for people to disrupt class because they needed a breather. 

Post-class, I looked like beef carpaccio – much like everyone else around me – with the following 48 hours a blur of migraines, toe cramps and a general feeling of misery. I missed deadlines, I cancelled plans with a friend, and the sense of euphoria that I was promised never actually arrived. It’s unfathomable for me to feel that way after a swim, a hike, or just about any other workout imaginable.

As someone who is more than familiar with the likes of cobra, camel, and standing bow pose, I took absolutely no issue with the 26 postures and two breathing exercises themselves, nor did I find them all that challenging. I am also relieved to report that the teacher never once asked me to “suck that fucking fat stomach in”, as Bikram yoga founder Bikram Choudhury is reported to have once barked at a former student.

However, I couldn’t help but notice just how many times we were encouraged to push harder and go beyond our flexibility, both of which felt like red flags to a yoga traditionalist like me. I later learned that such jargon is part of ‘the dialogue’, a script from which Bikram teachers may never deviate, as per Choudhury’s instructions. 

Every single Bikram yoga class is exactly the same, regardless of where you are – the same verbiage, the same poses, the same sequence of poses. Considering that yoga is rooted in respecting your body’s physical limitations, this one-size-fits-all approach isn’t for everyone. 

Fans claim that practising in the heat boosts immunity, mental health and more

One of the main reasons people love Bikram and other forms of hot yoga is the heat, Melissa McIntyre included. Currently the studio director of The Hot Spot Yoga in London, she underwent teacher training in 2010, and a lot of what you see in the Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator documentary was filmed during her course. She says that the heat is more than a prop: “It’s there to assist you, like a block. But its byproducts are far greater: increased blood flow, a more efficient cardiovascular system, a calming effect. I also cannot tell you the last time I had a cold.

“The husband of a friend of mine had really bad eczema and nothing worked, but Bikram yoga cleared his skin up. Yes, a lot of this is anecdotal, but I strongly believe that the heat has healing properties as much as it’s a prop in terms of executing the postures.”

Admittedly, during my class, I’m able to move deeper into the fixed firm pose with remarkable ease – a first for me. After all, a warm muscle is a flexible muscle, but at what cost? Somewhere between the increased pliability of muscles and a script that encourages students to push past their limits, the risk of injury is real. 

“From a tendon/muscle perspective, the heat does add to your range of flexibility and reduce your risk of muscle tear. It also increases your risk of joint injury because you are able to get more range of motion through your joints than you ordinarily would,” explains Dr Jordan. “To go into a hip extension position, you’d be limited by your hip flexor, but if it is really loose, then you can take that hip into increased range. I use hips as an example because that’s the most common yoga injury I see in terms of people overreaching.”

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 warm up like muscles do, so if you stretch a joint beyond its normal range, you can cause a stretch injury to the nerve.” Even worse, nerves heal really slowly, she says.  

Body awareness, according to physiotherapist Jeelna Ruparelia, is key: “I can safely say that the heat benefits certain individuals, depending on their strength and physical capabilities. If you understand your body, you know how far or not far to push it more than someone who is new to yoga purely because there are so many components in a class – what my neighbour is doing, what the instructor is advising, the breathing instructions. “The heated environment becomes quite stressful for people who are not body-aware.”

Like Dr Jordan, Ruparelia has encountered injuries not only as a result of the wide-legged forward folds, but also the excessive back and neck extension encouraged by this practice. 

I can’t help but notice that the description of the session I attended had the word ‘warriors’ in it. I also find it telling that both Choudhury and his ex-wife are hailed for their achievements in the world of competitive yoga – an oxymoron in itself. 

At the end of the day, if Bikram yoga has helped you overcome an injury, heal from a respiratory issue, or even learn how to re-inhabit your body, more power to you. As for my stance on this somewhat masochistic practice? Never again. 

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Images: Getty

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