Expectations of a relaxing, low-intensity yoga session will evaporate—literally—when you step into a Bikram studio. Everyone from Jennifer Aniston to Kevin Garnett to Lady Gaga has taken sessions in these sweltering 105°F classrooms, but is Bikram all that it’s cracked up to be or just a hot mess? We talked to Wendii Brooks, a Bikram yoga instructor in New York City, and Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise, about whether or not doing yoga while sweating buckets really provides the injury-healing, body-detoxifying, fat-frying benefits its advocates claim.
During the 1970s, Bikram Choudhury developed his sultry sequence, which features 26 postures and two breathing exercises, and was designed to be accessible to beginners in America. In 2002, Choudhury famously copyrighted his Bikram practice. This trademark prevents replication of the dialogue, his name, and the intellectual property rights. To further preserve his practice, Choudhury mandated rigid rules instructors and studios must follow: Only Choudhury himself can certify teachers, and only certified Bikram instructors can own and operate studios; and the yoga space must be titled Bikram Yoga or Bikram Yoga College of India. What’s more, additional building regulations—including studio layout, aesthetic guidelines, and approved vendors—set Bikram studios apart from other yoga classrooms. Therefore, Bikram yoga is hot yoga, but not all hot yoga is Bikram approved. (Video: Feel-younger yoga)
Counting humidity, the studio’s heat index notches 145°F to replicate India’s tropical climate, and therein lies its magic. Choudhury believes the heat allows yogis to stretch deeply and enter postures—think half-moon, eagle, and triangle—that work to maintain optimum health and maximize body function.
Practicing yoga in a heated room makes your body more flexible—pliable muscles mean a greater range of motion—and Bikram enthusiasts also claim the 90-minute sequence helps your body detoxify. “You do sweat out some things from the kidneys and the pancreas,” Brooks says. (Search: Yoga poses for men)
Even after the closing savasana, you’ll continue to reap the practice’s benefits, according to Bikram’s claims. Muscles and connective tissues become increasingly elastic and flexible, and the body begins to burn fat more effectively. “You kind of get to where your body’s supposed to be,” Brooks says. “If you have weight to lose, [Bikram yoga] does that easily.”
Various studies tout yoga’s restorative physical and mental effects, but there isn’t a ton of scientific literature dedicated to the study of Bikram. However, Choudhury himself commissioned Tokyo University to conduct a research project, which found that regularly practicing hot yoga could help regenerate tissue and alleviate chronic ailments.
But how hot is too hot? McCall says a higher heat index subjects your body to increased stress. “When you do this type of training in the high heat, your body has to work a lot harder to thermoregulate. If you jump right into a 90-minute workout, then you could be overtaxing your body.”
So does the high mercury reading make for a more effective workout? “If your goal is to enhance flexibility, then possibly, yes,” McCall explains. “But if you’re looking for strength or some of the other benefits, then it might not have an effective response.”
One prominent promise is weight loss. According to Elysium yoga's website, Bikram yoga torches 630 calories per hour, while Power and Vinyasa burn 300 and 445 calories per hour, respectively. McCall says Bikram yoga will make you sweat more, but practicing won’t necessarily lead to the energy expenditure necessary for weight loss. “In order to lose weight, you have to expend energy,” he says. The room’s temperature causes the body to release a copious amount of sweat, and it is this water loss Bikram buffs misinterpret as weight loss. “When you look at the claims on weight loss, it’s more water weight than anything else because you’re perspiring so much.”
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