I took my first yoga class five years ago. It was on a university campus, and I was in the company of a group of dancers. Being a dancer myself, I took yoga’s stretching and balancing like a fish takes to swimming. While I fiercely reached for that last millimeter my limbs could flex, holding every muscle with bulldog determination not to lose balance the yoga instructor calmly repeated her gentle instructions, “listen to your body, know where your body’s limits are, focus inwardly, and do not compare yourself with your neighbor.” Huh? Don’t try to compare yourself with your neighbor?! The idea was quite novel to me.
As the class progressed the instructor continued to emphasize that yoga was not a competition to see who could stretch the furthest or balance the longest, rather it was an opportunity to connect our minds and bodies and generate a sense of calm within. I was instantly sold on yoga.
Fast forward a few years to the present, where I found myself chatting with a few yoga instructors about Hot Yoga. It seemed to be a trend, and I wanted to know what it was about.
My curiosity opened the flood gates to knowledge, the knowledge that Hot Yoga wasn’t as sunny a topic in the yoga community as their bright yellow advertisements would have you believe. I was confused. Was there really a form of yoga that even yoga instructors didn’t recommend?
There didn’t seem to be much middle ground for Hot Yoga—either you were for it, or you weren’t. Articles I read about it broadcast conflicting messages, “Hot Yoga: Best Exercise Ever” or “Hot Yoga: Extremely Dangerous.” I needed to know what was going on, so I signed up for a Bikram Hot Yoga class to find my answer.
Hot Yoga is a trend initially developed by Bikram Choudhury, a former National Yoga Champion in India. Bikram founded his Yoga College of India in Beverly Hills in 1974 where he was encouraged by his many celebrity students to copyright, brand, and franchise his methods. As his classes grew in popularity, other yoga instructors began offering similar classes. Copyright lawsuits ensued and now Hot Yoga exists either in Bikram’s original form with certified Bikram instructors or in Bikram inspired classes, which are usually simply called Hot Yoga.
From the moment I walked into the Bikram Hot Yoga studio, I was overwhelmed with peculiarities, including bright lights, padded carpeting, three entire walls of floor to ceiling mirrors and, most noticeably, the heat. Everyone had yoga mats like usual, and water—lots of water, and beach towels. I couldn’t imagine sweating enough to need a beach towel, but I was wrong.
The classroom filled up with 25 bodies, spaced two feet apart, mostly dressed in a bit more than beach attire. The instructor closed the doors and walked to her raised platform, a trickle of sweat rolling down her forehead, even though we hadn’t even begun. She announced to the first-time Bikram students that our goal was simply not to leave the room for the duration of the class. That was unnerving, to say the least.
The class consisted of a series of 26 asanas, or poses, and two breathing exercises that were performed twice during the 90-minute session. By the third asana, my heart was pounding. I was slick with sweat; and I hadn’t done much more than bend and squat a little. I knew to pace myself from previous yoga classes, and to listen to my body’s limits, but the instructor encouraged the class to push on.
“Lock your knees,”“Reach until you feel some pain in your back” and “It is normal to feel dizziness in this pose” were all things the instructor said as we were working out. I was in disbelief. She was encouraging things I’d always been instructed never to do. About twenty-five minutes into class, I felt nauseous and had to lie down. Later, when it came time for the posture known as camel’s pose, which I’ve done in countless yoga classes with ease, I was too lightheaded to even attempt it. It was clear that many others in the class were struggling with the pose, as the instructor chimed in, “It’s so good your body can’t even handle it.” A few grim chuckles acknowledged her joke.
I spent about ten minutes outside the classroom recovering before I felt steady enough to speak. It was an intense work out. I felt like I had just run a marathon. I definitely didn’t feel the state of calm I had come to love with my usual yoga classes. My silence and stillness were simply from physical exhaustion.
After speaking with both the Bikram Hot Yoga instructor and yoga instructors that practice a traditional vein of yoga known as Vinyasa, it occurred to me that likening a traditional yoga practice that focused on the eight sutras, or paths of yoga, with Hot Yoga was like saying apples and oranges are the same because they both come from trees. Yes, their asana practices seem similar, but it’s a difference in approach that clearly set them apart.
The first traditionally certified Vinyasa yoga instructor that I spoke with, who asked to remain anonymous, said that, “yoga students should experience peaceful, serene, non-competitive, introspective, reflective, embodied practice that unifies the body with the mind and the spirit. The practice is about listening to one’s self and understanding one’s own personal task.”
Sandra Lee, my Bikram certified instructor, answered the question by saying that students should feel, “a lot of confidence in themselves, to know that they can go in a room and they can work out. You can go into Bikram Yoga and burn 700-900 calories a session. Where can you do that if you are unable to jump, run, kick, tumble, or whatever? People who aren’t able to be that physical can go into a Bikram Yoga class and burn as many calories as an athlete does.”
While the stark contrast between a traditional yoga class like Vinyasa and Bikram Hot Yoga is apparent, that is not what is sparking the controversy. Medical professionals and yoga instructors alike voice doubts about the safety of exercising in such hot conditions. Dr. Anders Coen of the Brooklyn Hospital Center told NBC’s The Today Show that Bikram Hot Yoga practitioners risk dehydration and heat stroke. Many yoga instructors also worry that the unnaturally hot conditions afford students a heightened range of motion that enables an individual to over-stretch, thus endangering this or her body.
Yoga instructor Ashley Lawless, who received her Vinyasa certification in New York City, advises against the heated environment because “you’re manipulating the body’s temperature instead of letting your body slowly arrive at a warm state. It’s like running. You walk before you run, or you warm up before you start dancing so that your muscles are in the right condition to do the movement. You don’t just throw yourself into a hot room so you can be ready to run. That’s cheating the body.”
Hot Yoga instructors see it another way. Bikram Hot Yoga employs the heat to increase flexibility and to supposedly prevent injury. “It’s safer. It also increases your metabolism. You’re getting a good workout, and you get a cardio workout,” Lee said.
The biggest issue that traditional yoga instructors have with Hot Yoga is that it’s purely a fitness regimen that focuses on the body’s outward appearance, rather than the mind-body-spirit all-encompassing journey that yoga has been for over 5000 years. “It’s more for those who want it for the physical benefits,” added Lee. “Bikram calls it a 90-minute meditation; however, it’s very intense, and very physical. I do think it is more of a physical exercise for those of us who don’t want the Ohm type of yoga.”
In the end, all of this boils down to deciding which practice is right for your life and body. The benefits of a traditional yoga practice have been recognized for thousands of years all over the world, and the direct health benefits of yoga practice have been well documented and repeatedly recognized by American and global medical communities. Hot Yoga has only been practiced in the US for around 30 years, and the safety of exercising in the extreme heated environment is up for debate. Still, millions of individuals enjoy and swear by Bikram’s methods, some even returning daily to feel the heat.