Everything You Need to Know About Bikram Yoga and How to Stay Safe in the Heat

Bikram yoga is usually taught in a heated room, where you do a standard set of 26 poses and two breathing exercises.
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If all you've heard about Bikram yoga is that it's a demanding, intense practice, know there's more to this style of yoga than heat and humidity.

Bikram yoga is a specific type of hot yoga that focuses on 26 different postures and two breathing exercises. Proponents of Bikram yoga claim that these 26 poses stretch the muscles according to their correct order. By performing these poses throughout class in a heated room, Bikram yogis say you'll increase your flexibility and range of motion — and may even lose weight.

But before you sign up for Bikram yoga, here's everything you need to know about the class structure and how to practice it safely. Plus, we'll break down the 26 poses.

What Is Bikram Yoga?

Created by Bikram Choudhury in 1974, Bikram is a derivative of Hatha yoga, a traditional school of yoga that blends breath with postures and is taught at a slower pace.

Unlike some hot yoga classes, which are taught in heated rooms around 90 degrees, Bikram yoga is specifically practiced in a room heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit with 40 percent humidity. Every Bikram class is 90 minutes long and involves doing the set 26 poses in exact order.

"The idea is that every posture prepares the body for the next posture," explains Donna Noble, founder of Curvesome Yoga, a community focused on making yoga and wellbeing accessible and inclusive. "The class is constantly building on itself."

Choudhury has been accused of sexually assaulting some of his students, as documented in the Netflix documentary Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator. Because of this, "some studios have changed their name from 'Bikram' to '26 and 2' (after the 26 poses and two breathing positions) or 'original hot yoga' to deliberately distance themselves from the founder," Noble says.

Others who have been practicing Bikram have grown an appreciation for this style of yoga outside of Choudhury's reputation. "While there are the things the founder has done, the yoga style he created has become so much bigger than him — and many of the people who have tried it still love the methodology," Noble says.

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The Benefits of Bikram Yoga

It Can Strengthen Your Muscles

Unless a class is labeled as recovery or "slow burn," most yoga classes qualify as body-weight strength training sessions. After all, you're basically doing variations of squats, push-ups and lunges.

But in Bikram yoga, you're holding poses for a longer period of time than at other yoga classes — usually 10 to 60 seconds, says Ashish Painuly, a Yoga Alliance-certified teacher and Bikram yoga instructor.

Because you're holding the poses for a longer period of time during Bikram, you're increasing the time your muscles are under tension. The longer your muscle is under tension, the greater the muscle and strength gains, says Grayson Wickham, DPT, certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and founder of Movement Vault.

It Can Improve Your Core Stability

While you can expect strength gains all over, including your triceps, shoulders, biceps, quads and glutes, every position requires core activation, so practicing Bikram yoga will also naturally help you build core strength and stability, Wickham says.

"When you improve your core strength, you decrease your risk of lower-back injuries and pain," he says.

It Might Help Reduce Stress

Bikram yoga has been linked to lower levels of stress. In a small August 2017 study in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, stressed and sedentary middle-aged adults who did Bikram yoga three to five times per week for 16 weeks had lower stress levels than adults who didn't do any yoga.

It Can Increase Range of Motion

Beyond the strength benefits, Noble says, "that by stretching and lengthening your muscles all class long, you can see increases in mobility and flexibility with a regular Bikram practice."

In fact, Bikram yoga has been shown to improve total-body range of motion and balance, helping in turn to reduce the risk of fractures and falls, according to an October 2015 review in Evidence-Based Complementary Alternative Medicine.

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Is Bikram Yoga Safe?

Many Bikram instructors believe Bikram yoga is safe because you can sit down, take a break anytime you want and scale the positions to your current ability.

However, the room is incredibly hot, and some health experts say that exercising in a room that hot is dangerous because it can put you at risk for heat-related illnesses, such as heatstroke and dehydration, according to the Mayo Clinic.

An April 2015 study commissioned by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and published in the Gundersen Medical Journal found that practicing Bikram yoga in a room heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit can raise internal temperatures and heart rates to dangerous levels.

The study found that the average highest core temperature for men was 103.2 degrees Fahrenheit and 102 degrees Fahrenheit for women. Heart rate increased to 80 percent of the predicted maximum heart rate for men and 72 percent for women.

"The dramatic increases in heart rate and core temperature are alarming when you consider that there is very little movement, and therefore little cardiovascular training, going on during class," Emily Quandt, one of the study authors, said in an ACE press release about the study.

Kelly Bryant, a National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)-certified trainer and Yoga Alliance-registered yoga teacher, taught Bikram yoga but no longer believes it's safe. "I was teaching Bikram when I concluded that most people should not be trying [Bikram yoga]."

While the heat helps relax muscles during Bikram, there is a much higher likelihood of going into a stretch that your body isn't ready for, Bryant explains. This can lead to over-stretching or even pulling your muscles, she says.

Bryant noticed that rather than helping folks meet their fitness goals, Bikram yoga, in many cases, actually sidelined people with injuries.

What also might make Bikram dangerous is that many instructors discourage leaving the class, even if you're uncomfortable or not feeling well from the heat. Noble says that instructors believe that once you leave the heated room, quitting will become a regular part of your yoga practice and life.

This type of mindset may pressure people who are experiencing symptoms of lightheadedness, nausea or dehydration to tough things out and put their health at risk. For this reason, you should consult your doctor before trying a Bikram yoga class.

Warning

Pregnant people and people who have heart disease, issues with dehydration or a heat intolerance should avoid hot yoga, including Bikram, altogether, according to the Mayo Clinic.

What to Expect in Your First Bikram Yoga Class

Each Bikram class begins with a standing paranayama (deep breathing) and then a sequence of standing asanas (poses) for 45 to 50 minutes. After the standing sequence, expect a two-minute Savasana (Corpse pose) before transitioning to a sequence of floor asanas for 30 to 40 minutes, according to the same October 2015 review in Evidence-Based Complementary Alternative Medicine.

Noble says that Bikram yoga is accessible to yogis at all levels, including beginners. Her advice: Prepare the morning before your class by drinking plenty of water. Then, when you get to class, "see if you can identify the coolest part of class and lay your mat there," she says.

Once you start moving, she says to go at your own pace. "Try to avoid the temptation to compare yourself to anyone else in class." Be sure to drink water throughout class as well to stay hydrated.

She suggests trying two or three Bikram classes before deciding whether the yoga practice is for you. "The first class is going to be challenging, but by the second or third class, you'll begin to move past that experience into something greater," Noble says.

How often you should take a Bikram yoga class depends on your goals and current fitness level. "But as long as you're staying hydrated and are in good health, you can do it two or three times a week," Noble says. "The more and longer you do it, the more benefits you'll experience."

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What to Bring and Wear to a Bikram Yoga Class

Noble advises bringing a water bottle and a yoga towel to lay on your mat to help soak up the sweat during class. Using a yoga towel will also help provide some grip so you don't slip and fall while performing the poses.

"It's not a must, but most people will practice Bikram yoga in short shorts," Painuly says. Leggings and slightly longer shorts are fine, too, as long as they're moisture-wicking. Most Bikram yogis also practice shirtless or wear only a sports bra as a top to stay cool, so feel free to follow suit if you're comfortable.

If you're not, opt for a moisture-wicking, tight-fitting shirt or tank. This will keep you dry and make you feel more comfortable while moving in the heat. The idea is that you want to wear something that'll keep you relatively cool and dry.

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How to Find a Bikram Yoga Class Near You

A quick and easy web search will help you find the closest Bikram yoga studio near you. Read the class descriptions carefully on the studio's website to ensure you're taking a Bikram class and not just any hot yoga class, Noble says.

You can also check out Yoga Alliance and ClassPass to find a yoga studio that offers Bikram yoga classes. Some larger chains of gyms, like Equinox and Crunch, may offer Bikram classes or another hot yoga class, so be sure to ask about their yoga class offerings if you're a member.

If you prefer working out at home, Noble recommends checking out whether your local studio is offering Zoom or online classes. "You can get the heated element with a space heather or by donning more layers," she says. You can also check out Bikram Yoga Works, which offers on-demand classes.

The 26 Bikram Yoga Poses

Before you turn a corner of your house into an at-home Bikram studio or bee-line to your local Bikram studio, you probably want a rundown on what exactly the 26 Bikram yoga postures entail. Here's a complete list and a description of the poses.

1. Pranayama

You'll start class by breathing deeply from a standing position.

2. Half-Moon Pose (Ardha-Chandrasana)

This standing side stretch helps warm up your spine, core and shoulder muscles.

3. Chair Pose (Utkatasana)

Also known as "Awkward" pose, you'll engage your core and lower-body muscles (especially your glutes) to shift into a half- or quarter-squat.

4. Eagle Pose (Garudasana)

You'll intertwine your arms and entangle your legs into a move that challenges your core and opens up all your major joints.

5. Standing Head-to-Knee Pose (Dandayamana-Janushirasana)

While balancing on one foot, you'll straighten the other leg and attempt to bring your head to your knee, testing your balance and stretching your lower back and hamstrings.

6. Standing Bow Pose (Dandayamana-Dhanurasana)

In Bikram's iteration of Dancer's pose, you'll use coordination and core strength to hold one leg out behind you while reaching your arm out in front.

7. Warrior III (Tuladandasana)

You'll balance on one leg while lengthening your other leg out behind you and reaching your arms forward or behind you.

8. Standing Separate Leg Stretch (Dandayamana-Bibhaktapada-Paschimottanasana)

This wide-leg forward fold will release tension in your lower back and upper legs.

9. Triangle Pose (Trikonasana)

Using core strength, you'll twist your upper body open from a leg-strengthening lunge position.

10. Standing Separate Leg Head-to-Knee Pose (Dandayamana-Bibhaktapada-Janushirasana)

You'll begin in a staggered stance before bending at your hips to bring your head to your front knee, which strengthens and lengthens the muscles surrounding the spine.

11. Tree Pose (Vrikshasana)

In this hip-opening, core-strengthening pose, you'll stand on one leg and bring your other foot to the inner thigh of that leg.

12. Big Toe Pose (Padangusthasana)

This is basically another version of Tree pose, but your dominant leg is bent and the heel is lifted in the air. This stretches and strengthens your hips and feet.

13. Corpse Pose (Savasana)

You'll rest on your back and close your eyes to help your body return to a state of balance.

14. Wind-Relieving Pose (Pavanamuktasana)

While lying on your back, hug your knees in toward your chest to stretch your hips and back.

15. Hand Under Foot Pose (Padahastasana)

This straight-leg forward fold helps brings elasticity to the spine and mobility to the hamstrings.

16. Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)

You'll flip onto your belly and use your core, back and leg muscles to peel your chest off the ground.

17. Locust Pose (Salabhasana)

Keeping your stomach flat to the ground, you'll lock your legs straight together while using your glutes and hamstrings to lift them up toward the ceiling.

18. Full Locust Pose (Poorna-Salabhasana)

Building from Locust pose, you'll engage your shoulders and core to shoot your arms straight out behind you while peeling your chest off the ground.

19. Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)

Building off of the above pose, you'll reach your hands back to grab your feet.

20. Fixed Firm Pose (Supta-Vajrasana)

From a kneeling position, you'll stretch your quads by tilting back. This is also known as Reclining Hero pose.

21. Half Tortoise Pose (Ardha-Kurmasana)

You'll sit back on your feet while stretching your hands out ahead to softly open your hips and shoulders as your body resets.

22. Camel Pose (Ustrasana)

This full-body stretch involves doing a backbend while maintaining a tall kneeling stance.

23. Rabbit Pose (Sasankasana)

From a tall kneeling stance, you'll break at the hips to bring your upper body close to your thighs while reaching back toward your toes with straight arms. You'll feel this stretch head to toe.

24. Head-to-Knee Pose (Janushirasana-Paschimottanasana)

This pose entails taking a straddle and bringing your head to one knee. You'll feel this in your hips, hamstrings, feet, shoulders and back.

25. Spine Twisting Pose (Ardha-Matsyendrasana)

You'll stretch your back muscles by twisting side to side using your knee as leverage.

26. Skull Shining Breath (Kapalbhati-Pranayama)

Also called Blowing pose, this is the basic kneeling posture you'll close out class with.

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