All types of yoga are different, but the most unique may be Bikram. Known as the original hot yoga, Bikram yoga was created by yoga guru Bikram Choudhury and is done in a heated room around 105 degrees Fahrenheit and 40 percent humidity.
Bikram advocates claim that the heat warms up and stretches muscles, ligaments and tendons, in the order in which they should be stretched. By doing Bikram yoga, proponents say you'll increase your flexibility, balance and muscle strength.
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But the heat does come with some risks, which means it may not be something you do every day. Read on to learn why.
What to Expect in a Bikram Yoga Class
It's not only the heat of the room that distinguishes Bikram yoga from other forms. The classes are standardized, always including a set sequence of 26 asanas (poses) and two breathing exercises, according to an October 2015 review in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
Each 90-minute session starts with standing pranayama, or deep breathing, followed by 45 to 50 minutes of standing asanas and then a sequence of floor asanas. These poses are familiar to anyone who has practiced any form of yoga previously. They include the Half-Moon pose, Eagle pose, Triangle and Cobra, among others. In Bikram, you will typically hold poses for 10 to 60 seconds.
"The postures are deliberately designed to be held long enough and in a precise order, so that the body warms up naturally, even without the heat," Eddie Garner, yoga teacher and owner of Bikram Yoga Baltimore in Maryland, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Students will notice their heart rate going up and, at times, a burning sensation in their muscles, as if they were running or lifting."
Because the asanas in Bikram yoga require sustained contractions of all muscle groups, it increases your heart rate, according to the Mayo Clinic. Over time, Bikram yoga can improve your balance, lower-body strength and range of motion, the review in Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine reports.
How Often Should You Practice Bikram Yoga?
The ideal frequency for practicing Bikram yoga depends on your goals, but three times a week is enough to help with improving overall fitness and health, Garner says.
"The postures are designed to be therapeutic, strength- and flexibility-building and improve cardiovascular health," Garner says. Bikram is good for all fitness levels and can be added into your routine in rotation with other forms of yoga.
However, if you're looking to lose weight and shed fat, note that doing Bikram yoga will make you sweat, but it won't necessarily help you burn fat. In order to truly lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you consume, according to the Mayo Clinic. When you restrict your daily calorie intake and burn those calories through Bikram yoga, you'll start to shed more fat.
If you don't have time in your jam-packed workout schedule to devote three days a week to Bikram yoga, don't discount the practice altogether. "Three times a week is a wonderful start, but there's tremendous value to even once a week."
Is Bikram Yoga Safe?
Although Bikram yoga may improve your overall fitness, it's not without risks. Exposure to high heat (like that in Bikram yoga) can put you at increased risk for heat illness, skin issues like heat rashes, exercise-associated muscle cramping and heat exhaustion, according to November 2019 research published in Exertional Heat Illness: A Clinical and Evidence-Based Guide.
In fact, a small June 2015 study published in The Gunderson Medical Journal found that the average core temperature of 20 Bikram yoga participants was 102.4 degrees Fahrenheit, with the highest recorded temperature being 104.1°F. Both are well above the range of normal temperature, which is between 97 and 99°F.
Your body regulates its core temperature via a process called thermoregulation; however, that process becomes challenging for your body when you're in a heated environment, such as a Bikram yoga class, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
You're bound to sweat during Bikram yoga, and as you sweat more, it's important to replace the fluid loss. If you don't replenish the lost fluid, it becomes more difficult for your body to regulate your core temperature, increasing your risk of dehydration, per the ACE.
Dehydration symptoms include extreme thirst, dark-colored urine, fatigue, dizziness and confusion, according to the Mayo Clinic, and complications can lead to heat injury, urinary and kidney problems, low blood volume shock and seizures.
Because of these health risks, the Mayo Clinic recommends that people check with their doctor before trying any form of hot yoga, including Bikram. As a general rule, pregnant people and anyone with heart disease or a history of heat-related illnesses should avoid Bikram and other forms of hot yoga.
Heidi Kristoffer, creator of CrossFlowX and the CrossFlow Yoga app, cautions most people against practicing Bikram yoga. "The heat Bikram uses gives your body a fake sense of flexibility," she says, noting that the heat allows the body to take your muscles, tendons and ligaments past what they can normally do.
"It is only when one warms their body up from the inside out — and not the outside in — that flexibility can be increased safely," Kristoffer explains.
This false sense of flexibility may lead to injuries because "the heat in the Bikram room can get your muscles into positions they have never been in before, which can allow a range of motion that's too extreme for your anatomy," Kristoffer says. While you might not feel pain during class, your muscles may spasm in response to the extreme positioning once they cool down.
How to Stay Hydrated and Injury-Free
Whether you decide to practice Bikram yoga three times a week or more, it's important to take measures to avoid dehydration and heat-related illness.
Drink 17 to 20 ounces of water at least two hours before a Bikram class and sip frequently — before you get thirsty — during exercise, according to the ACE. Look for light yellow urine to make sure you're staying hydrated, or weigh yourself before and after a hot yoga session and drink 16 to 24 ounces of water for every pound of body weight lost during class.
Garner recommends eating a small meal or snack, like a piece of toast, before Bikram, too. "I would avoid eating too much before class at any time of the day," he says, but he advises students who have diabetes or issues with blood sugar to follow what works best for them.
Finally, bring along a towel to line your mat. All that sweat can make hot yoga slippery. A yoga mat towel provides more grip, so you don't risk injuries from toppling over.
- Mayo Clinic: "What is Hot Yoga?"
- Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: "The Effects of Bikram Yoga on Health: Critical Review and Clinical Trial Recommendations"
- Gunderson Medical Journal: "Heart Rate and Core Temperature Responses to Bikram Yoga"
- American Council on Exercise: "Q and A: What’s the Best Way to Get Acclimated to Hot Yoga Classes?"
- Exertional Heat Illness: "Predisposing Factors for Exertional Heat Illness"
- Mayo Clinic: "Dehydration"
- Mayo Clinic: "Calorie Counting: Get Back to Weight-Loss Basics"