Bikram Yoga: Benefits, Tips & "Is it for you?"
Bikram yoga differs from other yoga more dramatically than I expected. Heated to 105ºF with humidity at 40%, just entering the room is an experience all by itself. Bikram is like doing yoga in a sauna in that respect. But much more importantly, the series of postures are designed with specific medical benefits in mind that are more powerfully achieved by the addition of heat and humidity.
Bikram Yoga's Lymphatic System Impact
I've personally struggled with a lot of lymphatic build-up issues, particularly around my thyroid and other throat glands. I've co-taught classes on the lymphatic system. Many years ago I bought a fancy rebounder (trampoline) and I enjoy using it and demonstrating its use to others. I practice lymphatic massage, and get a lymphatic massage done on my face and chest several times per week. So when I say this class has a dramatic impact on my lymphatic system, I know what I'm talking about and I'm really not kidding.
After my first two classes I had one of my routine lymphatic massages on my face. The forehead-presses that usually feel intense as my stagnant lymph fluid is forced into motion felt . . . uninteresting. No particular pain. Just some pressure. Then my eyebrow area (a huge build-up area, especially for me) was also quite clear. And my sinus area. Everything had drained from the top portion of my head. The glands around my ears and throat were tender as if I'd already received a very intense session of lymphatic massage.
After a short amount of lymphatic massage on my throat and ear area, the soreness was incredibly relieved, and I didn't have that sense that I wanted more, more, more as I often do. It has been hard for me to feel like I could ever get enough squeezing and wringing of my lymphatic system.
I've done many other forms of yoga, even taking as many as four back-to-back classes, and never have I had Bikram results. I've done saunas, hot-tubs, and run a humidifier in my room, but these have not had the same results as Bikram either. There is a magic in its combination of heat, humidity, postures, timing and potentially more.
Friendly Bikram Atmosphere
It is also the friendliest yoga class I've ever attended. Maybe that's just the studio – Pure Sweat, in Ithaca, NY. Upon reading about other studios, I have discovered that mine might be unusual. For example, one article tells me that carpeting is a common feature of Bikram, but the class I took had wonderfully clean floors that felt warm and comforting to my bare feet.
I believe one reason this class is so friendly is because of the "shared ordeal" aspect. Most feel that they've just gone through the wringer after class, creating a sense of camaraderie. There is also a timing aspect. The women's changing room is full of women stripping off wet clothing, showering and putting on fresh clothing after class. That takes a lot more time than the "clean up" after a typical yoga class. Why not talk to each other? And so we do. Naked. It's really quite nice.
Like most yoga classes I've taken, the teacher dictates directions while walking around the room and occasionally offering individual advice. My first three classes have had three different teachers. Most of what they say is the same, but their individual flares do make a difference. Some speak faster and more high-pitched. Some speak slower and more low-pitched. I prefer the later, as it gets me into a more deeply relaxed state.
Speaking of which, another difference about Bikram is the mirrors and the emphasis on keeping one's eyes open. "Stay alert," the teacher says, "Keep your eyes open." And "watch yourself in the mirror." This disturbed me at first. I'm used to yoga being an internal exploration. I feel my body more easily and more completely with my eyes closed. I'm more present with my eyes closed. I was tempted to just ignore the directive to keep my eyes open (which came again and again), but I decided to really keep my eyes open for my entire third class.
Well, something interesting happened: Integration. It is typical for us to dissociate the meditative part of ourselves with the busy-bee aspect of ourselves. Yoga tends to be a soft-gaze, meditative practice. Our daily life tends to be more of a busy-bee nature. By harnessing my meditative self and my analytical self simultaneously, I found myself entering a deeper state of ease and balance.
Perhaps this was only possible because I've been striving to integrate these aspects of self through multiple forms of consciousness alchemy since 2013. Or maybe anyone could increase their integration through Bikram, regardless of where they are now with their consciousness development.
Bikram is a much more form-focused practice. Instead of focusing on marrying breath to movement (like vinyasa flow yoga), or listening to your body (which is the highest practice, above all other practices in my opinion), the focus is on staying in good form and going as deeply as you can into each posture without causing yourself any sharp pain.
This focus, at first blush, put me off. But I felt so good after my first class, I stuck with it. To my astonishment, I'm realizing that this focus also lends itself to integration. It is giving my busy-bee analytical mind a lot to stay busy with. Instead of turning off my analytical mind, I'm engaging it. I'm bringing my analytical mind together in harmony with my feeling-based aspects of self.
Who Takes Bikram Yoga?
I was also surprised at the diversity of the Bikram classes. In a class of twelve, I'm seeing an average of three elderly people, three middle-aged people and six younger people. I'm seeing at least three men per class. I'm seeing at least four significantly overweight people per class. Clearly a wide variety of people are drawn to this yogic practice.
Handling Bikram's 105ºF Heat
Many people have trouble getting past the 105ºF aspect of the class. But this isn't as challenging as I imagined it would be – with a few key pointers.
- Don't wipe sweat. Sweating is urinating out the skin. Toxins are leaving the body. Wiping it pushes some of it back in and can cause the skin to burn and become irritated. Also, the layer of moisture on the skin has a cooling, regulating impact.
- Bring an insulated canteen – or two! I bring my two quart-sized, insulated Klean Kanteens with the sport-caps for easy drinking during class. Put room-temperature water in your canteens and you'll be drinking water that is 65º to 75ºF while you're in a 105ºF room. This feels refreshing and helps keep your body regulated. (Don't use cold water in your canteens or you will shock your digestive system and negate some of the benefits of Bikram.)
- Dress appropriately. For me, I've found that slightly loose clothing that covers me down past my elbows and knees work best. It takes longer for the heat to penetrate when you're wearing clothing, creating a slower, more gradual temperature increase in your muscles. It also means you keep an air pocket next to your body, creating further regulation and temperature stability. Most, however, choose to wear short shorts and sport bras.
- Hydrate thoroughly both during and before the class. If you're even remotely thirsty before class, drink. Drink some even if you don't feel thirsty. The more hydrated you are, the more you will adapt well to the temperature. (Don't chug your water though. This can cause nausea or stomach cramps.)
- Don't leave the room even if you feel dizzy or highly uncomfortable. Lay down in savasana pose (on your back) and breathe calmly while holding your body still, at ease. Wait for the dizziness to subside, sip some water, and drop back into class. Don't be embarrassed to do this as many times as you need to. I've seen it a lot, and done it too. You'll still get a lot of benefit from the class.
- Avoid dense or inflammatory foods, particularly in the hours leading up to class. Save dense foods for a couple hours after class, or six hours prior to class. This will help with heat regulation because digestion itself generates a lot of heat, especially when what you're eating is inflammatory (such as conventional/pasteurized dairy products, wheat products, etc).
I've been surprised to find myself handling the heat better than many people who've been taking the class for ten or more years. I strongly believe it is because of the above choices that I make. Also, I wear all natural fibers – organic cotton primarily. Some recommend synthetic clothing for staying cool, but science and experience both tell me that synthetic fibers are not good for our health. (Polyester contains an estrogen-mimicking component that irritates hormonal balance, particularly in women.)
Is Bikram Good for Weight Loss?
Considering how many more overweight people I'm seeing at Bikram than at other classes, people must believe that. One study of Bikram showed that participants burned 330 to 450 calories during a ninety-minute Bikram session. That may not sound impressive, but given the benefits I'm literally feeling in my thyroid, I think this practice is about more holistic benefit than calorie burning.
Bringing one's mind into balance with one's body is (in my well-studied opinion) the most important part of weight-loss. If you want to change your body's form, you have to change your thought forms. What you eat, what you do, and what you feel all work together to create what you look like. If you want to look healthier, sexier and slimmer, then Bikram has many components that will help with that.
However, if you use Bikram practice as an excuse to eat a bunch of unhealthy food that you've now "earned," you're unlikely to get the full benefits of Bikram, and unlikely to loose much weight. If you're craving salt and oil after class, have an oily, salty salad. No kidding! You'll be amazed how great simple salad tastes a couple hours after class.
Sweating Out Electrolytes at Bikram
During class you'll sweat out a lot of electrolytes along with toxins and water. This means that drinking water alone isn't going to replenish your body. In particular, potassium and sodium balance needs to be restored. Drinking a smoothie with coconut water and/or bananas will help with potassium. Eating a large salad with sea salt (or pink salt, or Hawai'ian red salt, or French gray salt, or pan-salt, or a mixture of all of these) is a very good idea. Which ever you're craving more – potassium or sodium – lets you know which one you need more.
You will also find that foods rich in magnesium will help your muscles recover faster and more completely between classes. For a complete chart of what foods are rich in what, check out my Ultimate Nutrition Reference Guide. Or, if you want the easy answer – eat leafy greens!
Don't turn to sugared electrolyte drinks. While these are rich in the electrolytes they claim, the sweeteners will harm your pancreas and liver over time, negating many of the benefits to your organs that Bikram is bringing you.
Another aspect of sweating so much is the smell. On my second class I couldn't believe how rank I smelled to myself. At first I thought perhaps someone had peed, but then I realized that was my own sweat. I usually have to pee a lot, even during a short one-hour yoga class. But in these ninety-minute Bikram classes, I have yet to need to pee during class once. I've realized that this is because I'm sweating out the toxins and acids instead of urinating them out. No wonder I smelled so rank!
Interestingly, my friend had the same experience with her second class – feeling that her own smell reminded her of urine in an unpleasant way. The good news is that it gets better. By my fourth class I felt like I knew what to anticipate, and my sweat was much cleaner. Only four classes and I'm already experiencing cleaner sweat. Incredible, right?
Does The Yoga Room Stink?
You might think the whole room smells bad considering what I just wrote above, but to my surprise, it doesn't seem to. Perhaps this varies depending on the studio, but at Pure Sweat, Ithaca, NY, my experience has been that the room is surprisingly neutral. I'm very sensitive to odors and fumes, so I'm guessing this is due to a good air recirculation system.
Can I Do Bikram At Home?
This was one of my own questions, and on day five, I did it. This was remarkable for me. Prior to January 2017, I'd never managed more than a twenty-minute practice at home. I started doing yoga back in 2009, and in eight years – not more than twenty minutes! The peer pressure was required to pull me through. I could teach a full class to others, but not manage them on my own.
But doing Bikram at home was different. I had the weight of four prior days in a row driving me forward. The teachers' voices were fresh in my mind. And there was the added challenge of remembering all the postures in their sequence. My ego got involved in a good way. (That's a life hack for a healthy mind and body: get your ego working for the benefit of your whole self!)
It is important to remember that heat and humidity is part of the practice. To accomplish this, I chose my bathroom. Running the shower on maximum heat with the shower curtain shut and the tub plugged, I created a humid environment. The hot water building in the tub helped to retain heat and moisture in the room. I put the space heater to its highest settings, closed the bathroom door and put a towel at the base of the door to prevent air from escaping.
Of course, before doing all of this I did the usual preparations: water canteens, appropriate clothing, yoga mat and towel. I set an alarm for ninety minutes and left it on the opposite side of the bathroom door to let me know when I was done. (That's right, I didn't look at a clock the entire time. Impressive, huh?)
And then I did the practice from memory. Five times I went back and did a posture I had forgotten in its appropriate sequence, but I remembered all of them by the end, and ended right in line with the timer. Incredible. I'm not sure if others could repeat my performance after four days of Bikram in a row. Please do feel free to try it and let me know how it goes!
The advantages of doing it at home:
- No waiting in line for a shower or worrying about others waiting for you. This allows a deeper clean. I showered with hot water first, then cold.
- No transportation; no gasoline used, no transit time.
- No tuition.
- Test your memorization, focus and discipline.
- If you lose your place, the class keeps going and you jump back in.
- They provide the heat and humidity and clean/maintain the space for you.
- You get to meet other people interested in this healthy practice.
- You get to see yourself in the large full-wall mirrors.
- Peer pressure carries you forward even when you feel like you've had enough.
- If you do the posture wrong, you may receive highly beneficial correction.
All in all, doing Bikram at home seems unlikely to be practical for most people, but I'm glad I discovered that I could maintain my practice at home on a snowy, slippery day.
Should You Take Bikram?
If you're looking for a different experience, or a new challenge, then go for it. Try two classes. And yes, try two. The second class really feels different from the first. Whether or not you take it up as an ongoing practice from there will be up to you. It is a time commitment, but I'm noticing that I'm meeting a lot of different needs all at once with Bikram:
- Challenging myself
- Integrating my analytic and feel-y aspects
- Cardiovascular and muscular exercise
- Lung cleansing
- Lymphatic drainage
- Digestive support
- Full muscular relaxation
- Skin cleansing
Usually I would have to steam my face, jump on my rebounder (trampoline), receive a lymphatic massage, go for a jog, take a bath and exfoliate, receive a stomach massage, visit a sauna, and invite a friend over for board games to accomplish all of the above in one day. Honestly, ninety minutes is very efficient for so many benefits!
And, in conclusion, I personally dub Bikram yoga to be a high form of consciousness alchemy.
~ Raederle Phoenix
The Consciousness Alchemist