Bikram yoga is well defined on the UK website. Here, a Bikram yoga class is described as “a 26 posture classical Hatha yoga series. Every posture is performed in the given order, to the best of one’s ability. Students of all levels practise together. One learns to work as deeply as one’s flexibility allows.”
Significantly, ‘The Bikram Method’ takes place in a heated room (105° Fahrenheit/40º Celsius and around 40% humidity). It is claimed that this is in order to “ease muscles and joints, prevent injury and aid the healing of existing injuries, as well as promoting detoxification through sweating.” Classes are 90 minutes long.
Where did the name come from?
Bikram is the first name of Bikram Choudhury, who apparently began studying yoga at the age of four and who, by age 12, was the youngest ever national yoga champion of India. His is a great story: apparently, while pursuing an athletic career as both a marathon runner and champion weightlifter, setting world records and competing in Olympic-style weightlifting, a weightlifting accident ‘crushed’ his knees, severely crippling him. Told by doctors he would never walk again, he had himself carried to his yoga guru (Bishnu Ghosh) where he created his yoga series with the aid of Ghosh and remarkably restored himself to full health.
Having set up a yoga studio in Hollywood in 1971 and becoming the personal teacher to numerous celebrities, Bikram Choudhury has now achieved celebrity status himself. In an interview published in The Sunday Times newspaper in 2009,1 his estimated wealth was suggested to be $7m (according to The Wall Street Journal), although Choudhury himself, according to The Sunday Times, has previously admitted to earning “$10m a month”.
It would appear that Choudhury obtained copyright for his method in 2003 by registering his sequence of 26 asanas and two breathing postures, and also patenting his 90-minute method dialogue in 2002 (he vigorously pursues infringements of copyright).
Some of the controversy regarding Bikram yoga is focused upon the issue of whether it is ‘right’ to be able to copyright yoga poses that are literally thousands of years old. Choudhury’s argument appears to be that he has created something unique in the way he has researched and packaged the poses, class and dialogue, and it is this that is copyrighted and operated effectively as a franchise.
To circumvent copyright infringement, some studios that also practise Hatha yoga poses in the heat advertise these classes as ‘hot yoga’.
Where’s the science?
Other than the anecdotal and testimonial, there appears to be little in the way of published, peer-reviewed research data to directly endorse this method of yoga. However, discussing the general practice of yoga in a recent review article, Lee Lipton2 comments that “although yoga has been practised for centuries, most of the theory behind the practice has not been systematically studied using the rigorous tools of modern medical science.” However, Lipton acknowledges and references a number of well-carried out research studies supportive of the practice of yoga to improve certain symptoms of back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome and osteoarthritis.
In addition, Lipton notes that yoga can improve balance, muscular strength and endurance, with positive “carryover effects” to activities of daily living and sports participation. Other less stringent research reviewed by Lipton showed promising scientific evidence for the management of attention deficit disorder/hyperactivity, anxiety, depression and menopausal symptoms.
In a study by the American Council on Exercise in 2005 looking at exercise intensity,3 researchers found that a 50-minute session of Hatha yoga resulted in an average energy expenditure of 144kcal (equivalent to a slow walk) and provided no significant benefit.
Higher-intensity ‘power’ yoga resulted in an average energy expenditure of 237kcal, leading the researchers to conclude that “it’s a great muscular workout and you certainly sweat, but it’s not an aerobic workout.”
Are there safety issues?
Generally, yoga is considered to be safe in normal, healthy individuals when practised appropriately. However, the NCCAM cautions that “people with certain medical conditions should not use some yoga practices.
For example, people with disc disease of the spine, extremely high or low blood pressure, glaucoma, retinal detachment, fragile or atheroscerlotic arteries, a risk of blood clots, ear problems, severe osteoporosis or cervical spondylitis should avoid some inverted poses.”
And what of Bikram yoga specifically? Well, the heat and humidity may well pose a problem for some individuals, particularly if they are not acclimatised, not well hydrated to begin with and do not continue to hydrate appropriately throughout the class; points that are certainly made on the UK website.
In other sports and activities, well-researched and documented guidelines exist for training or competition in the heat and at 40º Celcius and 40% humidity. Typically, under such conditions, the comment is that “heat cramps or heat exhaustion are likely, with heat stroke possible.”4
- Britten F (2009), The man who started the Bikram yoga craze, The Sunday Times, 6 September.
- Lipton L (2008), The latest yoga research, IDEA Fitness Journal, June (www.ideafit/fitness-library/yoga-research).
- Anders M (2005), Does yoga really do the body good?, ACE FitnessMatters, September/October, pp7-9.
- Solkin M (www.marathonguide.com/training/coachmindy/heat.cfm).
This feature was first printed in the June/July 2011 issue of Fitpro magazine.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Fitness Professionals Ltd or Virtual Magazine. Consult a qualified health or fitness professional before making changes to your diet or exercise.