Is Bikram Yoga good for you?
July 4, 2011 6:11 AM   Subscribe

Is Bikram Yoga good for you?

I've been hearing different thing about Bikram Yoga (or otherwise called Hot Yoga). Does anyone know of any scientific studies that shows a proof its dangerous to your body?
posted by TKL0125 to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
There are many studies showing the benefits of hatha yoga. It's the heat that is the controversial part about Bikram, and much of the evidence on both sides is anecdotal.

You asked for proof of Bikram's dangers: I don't know of any scientific studies that demonstrate this. I'd point you to this study from Boise State University, where 51 healthy people undertake an eight-week Bikram yoga program. The concusion:

"The sample in the current study experienced significant improvements in mental and physical health in the short period of eight weeks. Levels of mindfulness and perceived stress improved significantly and were significantly correlated, and there were significant improvements in flexibility, balance, and cardiorespiratory endurance."

The paper, which is someone's thesis, talks about how it should be the jumping-off point for future research. There just isn't much out there as far as I'm aware.

But this research supports the conclusion that I think most people would come to on their own: hot yoga isn't for everyone, and like any vigorous exercise could be dangerous to certain folks, but for generally healthy people, it's a challenging workout with benefits.
posted by jeffmshaw at 6:59 AM on July 4, 2011

I was in a hot yoga class yesterday and a woman, somewhat disoriented by the heat, slipped on her mat, which was drenched in sweat, and hit her head on the wall. That's something that's less likely to happen in a non-hot class.
posted by grouse at 8:02 AM on July 4, 2011

The heat, ~100F, is the source of a lot of the controversy around Bikram Yoga. If you're not used to it, it's definitely going to be uncomfortable for you at first but it's not going to be anything like that sweat lodge incident. Being well-hydrated is a good idea, as it is for any strenuous exercise.

Most of the rest of the controversy is around Bikram himself and his business practices.
posted by tommasz at 8:05 AM on July 4, 2011

I only know anecdotal positive evidence from a friend who claimed it cured her of migraines. She also said that people coming to class for the first time would sometimes have to run out, vomiting from the heat. It happened to the men more frequently -- her instructor said they had a harder time managing the heat. She did a lot of research on it but no scientific studies come to mind, sorry.
posted by Sylvia Plath's terrible fish at 8:27 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've had yoga instructors who really advocated against Bikram, or any hot yoga, largely because the heat allows you to push your body past where your body is ready to go. You may be able to achieve a particular pose after 45 minutes of hot yoga that you would not be able to achieve without the heat. My teachers have by and large thought this was dangerous because you are not actually achieving the pose -- your alignment may not be proper, you may not have gotten into the pose properly, etc.

If you're more interested in hot yoga because it's a kick-ass workout (which it probably is), these concerns are probably not going to deter you and maybe shouldn't. Just be careful to avoid injury and dehydration.

If you are interested because you think it might add a dimension to your existing yoga practice, there could be some negatives. I don't think any of my teachers thought it was expressly dangerous other than that you can end up way overstretching your body beyond its capacity, which can certainly result in injuries that prevent you from practicing for some time (or limit your practice to restorative poses).
posted by devinemissk at 8:40 AM on July 4, 2011

Practicing hot yoga for me has been fantastically beneficial for my body and mind.

Having said that, I don't believe it is for everyone.

Give it a try and find out for yourself how you end up feeling afterwards/during.

If you practice hot yoga when you are sick, dehydrated, or if you overwork yourself during a class it could be a negative experience for you.

For me learning how to pace my efforts through a class was very important and can make the difference between leaving a class feeling exhilarated or leaving feeling completely exhausted.

Being mindful of your breath is key. The great thing that at any time you can always just lay down on your back and take a shivasna (aka lay down on your back and do nothing) and it's no big deal.

It does not surprise me that yoga instructors would advocate against's kind of like my eye doctor advocating against lazer eye surgery...

I don't believe that the heat allows 'you to push your body past where it is ready to go'...You are always able to push your body past where it is ready to go...You need to be smart and listen to your body.

The end.
posted by stealabove at 9:01 AM on July 4, 2011

I'm hoping you get some real studies here rather than just anecdotes, but it is my opinion that Bikram yoga caused me to injure my back. I did not start out "a hater;" I initially really liked it. Being in heat did have a benefit for me (but one I could have received at a hot spin class). Explained more here.
posted by slidell at 10:01 AM on July 4, 2011

It does not surprise me that yoga instructors would advocate against's kind of like my eye doctor advocating against lazer eye surgery...

I don't really understand this. All of my yoga instructors have been more than happy to help me develop a home practice, and it's not like Bikram is exactly something you can do at home. (In fact, because of the aforementioned business practices of Bikram, you probably can't really practice Bikram at home.)

I don't believe that the heat allows 'you to push your body past where it is ready to go'...You are always able to push your body past where it is ready to go...You need to be smart and listen to your body.

I think this is what most people don't do in Bikram or hot yoga -- listen to their body. They take the opportunity that being hot gives them to move their body past where their body is ready to go, and they injure themselves. If one approaches Bikram or hot yoga with mindfulness and is aware that the increased flexibility caused by heat isn't necessarily an invitation to move all the way to the extreme, Bikram can probably be a good experience. I think most people, though, don't necessarily practice hot yoga in the same mindful way they might practice at home or in a studio. (And when I say studio, I don't mean those "Power Yoga" storefronts or the random assortment of yoga classes that your gym might offer. I think those are fine for exercise, but not necessarily -- though it of course depends on the person! -- for building an intentioned, mindful yoga practice.)
posted by devinemissk at 10:15 AM on July 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Some anecdotes may be more encouraging than others.

I was partially paralyzed from the waist down by a spinal injury seven months ago and used hot yoga as one method of my physical and mental rehabilitation.

Seven months have gone by and yesterday I went for a run!

I'm not saying it's because of hot yoga but it definitely made a huge positive difference for me.
posted by stealabove at 10:16 AM on July 4, 2011

Upon further research, there are apparently several studies of Bikram that are in progress right now, but haven't published conclusions. Consider that Bikram yoga is fairly new, especially in the US, and many studies are long-term in nature.

In addition to the BSU study I posted above, I found another: this study that concludes Bikram is beneficial for skeletal health and preventing bone loss in women.

The forum I found it on claims it's the only completed scientific study of its nature so far, but I can't verify that.

Upshot: I could only find two scientific studies specifically about Bikram/hot yoga, both of which point to very real health benefits.
posted by jeffmshaw at 11:16 AM on July 4, 2011

I should point out in the interests of full disclosure that a) one of the authors of that second study is a Bikram yoga instructor, and b) I've been doing Bikram yoga for years and believe it does a lot of great things (although I'd certainly concede it isn't for everyone).

I am interested in what rigorous, peer-reviewed research will tell us over the next several years, though. Generally, I think it'll verify what I said above -- not for everybody, and like any vigorous exercise has risks, but for generally healthy people, has the tangible benefits you'd expect from an intense workout -- but I'm looking forward to seeing what the forthcoming studies tell us!
posted by jeffmshaw at 11:20 AM on July 4, 2011

Having tried it once, my bigger concern lies with the facility/room itself. Obviously it depends where you go, but one I attended in Vancouver, popular with rich housewives, hippies etc., had the most god-awful, nostril-cauterizing stink. I don't know if there are bacteria all over the place but it revolted me so profoundly I couldn't go back.
posted by teedee2000 at 1:15 PM on July 4, 2011

I've done yoga for about a year, and went to three hot yoga classes. Is it good for you? Sure, hot yoga is exercise and any exercise beats out being sedentary. Any weight-bearing stress on your body is good for skeletal health, as the link in jeffmshaw's study points out. The heat will also stress your body and get your sweat glands working. Assuming you listen to your body and properly hydrate, don't push past your limits, and don't fall down, it's probably good for you.

However, the poses are the same every time; it's rather robotic. There aren't any accommodations made for people who have limited flexibility, like Iyengar Yoga; in Bikram you simply can't do anything other than to push harder (which may be the cause of injuries). Its current popularity brings large class sizes, which will prevent the instructor from any kind of personalized instruction. It's hard to gauge if you're achieving any progress (compared to something like running or weight lifting with actual numbers), so there is a tendency to slack off and not try as hard once you achieve your desired level of fitness.

I found it an interesting change of pace but wouldn't substitute it for something with more established benefits such as running or weight lifting.
posted by meowzilla at 2:27 PM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I haven't done bikram yoga but have done other forms of yoga. If you've never done any yoga at all, I'd recommend starting with something a bit more gentle, like Iyengar or Anusara yoga. These forms focus on body alignment, and you generally hold the poses for long periods of time, which helps develop your muscle memory for the poses.

Once you get the basics down, you can move on to more strenuous yoga practices, like bikram and ashtanga. I've been doing ashtanga for a couple years and love it -- the room isn't heated as much as in bikram, but you can expect it to be pretty warm (80-something degrees, usually). And it's a very dynamic, athletic form of yoga that will work every part of your body.

As people said above, strenuous yoga isn't for everyone, and I'd be especially careful about bikram unless you're in very good shape. Overheating can stress the body and exacerbate some health conditions. Maybe consult your doctor about it.

The logic behind heating the room is that you "sweat out" impurities from your body, but this is pretty much hooey -- scientific studies have found that sweat does not contain toxins; it's just salt water. But the gentler warmth of ashtanga helps you achieve greater flexibility, and heat will also make your blood circulate faster, which is good for keeping it oxygenated. And exercise is of course beneficial in a lot of ways. Just be sure not to push yourself too hard with the hot yoga. Best of luck!
posted by phoenix_rising at 3:36 PM on July 4, 2011

re: phoenix_rising and the heat. the whole sweating out impurities thing is suspect, but the caloric effort required to maintain homeostasis in the heat passively improves the intensity of the workout.
posted by Freen at 8:49 AM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

re: Freen yes you do burn more calories in the heat and this makes exercise more intense; I mentioned the "sweating out impurities" things bcs that's the reason that most yoga teachers give for the high temperatures (at least, that's my experience with several yoga teachers I've had).
posted by phoenix_rising at 9:24 AM on July 5, 2011

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