So last week a friend roped me and another pal into signing up to what turned out to be a trip to the depths of modern Hell: Bikram Yoga classes.
I have always been a fan of the warmth and crave sunny days and the heat of the sun on my body. I even moved to the south of Ecuador desperate for humidity and 40degree plus days. It’s safe to say I am a lady who can stand the heat. But for those who don’t know, Bikram is yoga undertaken in a scorching room, heated to over 40degrees – an environment that feels so intense on the body and mind, that contrary to what I ever felt about the heat, It almost put me off forever!
Bikram followers claim it to be the most powerful form and swear by its ability to transform the body, mind and health. It is now so successful that it’s taught in 1,600 studios worldwide. Even members of Fulham and Chelsea football clubs apparently practice it.
Based upon the traditional Hatha yoga, Bikram beginners learn 26 positions and two breathing exercise over 90 minutes in an environment which is heated to, I’ll repeat it again, over 40C (105F). Sweat literally pours from their bodies and pools on (smelly) mats on which they practice, holding the moves in complete silence except for the occasional grunt, whilst the instructor chants instructions non-stop, pushing and lulling the participants into the next move or breathing exercise. The aim of each position is to systematically work every muscle, ligament, tendon and joint, even glands, moving oxygenated blood to every part of the body and thus restoring a healthy balance to the system. It is said to help with muscle strength, flexibility and weight loss, as well as developing self-control and determination. In my opinion, those who love it are addicted to the adrenalin rush of pushing themselves mentally across those pain barriers, staying in the room itself and holding positions which can also be extreme in their most advance forms – think bodies literally bent over and contorted into the most unnatural of poses. The heat apparently helps the body to hold these positions as the warmth loosens muscles and tendons making it easier to bend. How they find the determination to want to stay in those positions in that heat is beyond me.
I lasted 1.5 sessions of the 20 I booked and I’m not ashamed to admit it. During the first session, I almost passed out from the heat. I was struggling to breathe after 20 minutes and felt dizzy after about 45minutes so finally I reached for my water, only to be scolded into not drinking it by the instructor. A minute later, I decided to escape and I wasn’t sorry at all. In fact, I felt as though I’d saved myself from death.
The second class was better as I had decided to take it very slowly. I managed to complete the first hour before the dizziness hit again and I escaped again. Outside I sat, head in hands, sweat pooling at my feet, and yoga enthusiast and receptionist Kay handed me a drink with electrolytes, ‘to replace all the good minerals and vitamins I’d lost’ such as potassium and magnesium and which the body needs. The sweat, by the way, is 99% water and cannot be considered to be a detox of any biological truth or goodness. She told me everyone felt like this the first few times but that the body gets used to it and then, once you’ve mastered staying in that heat, gone beyond what your mind tells you is dangerous, it then becomes addictive; for some. I went back in to finish the class as I felt better after the drink and I wanted to see how the class ended, but I vowed this was to be my last. And it was.
I’ve since read many reviews online and the world seems to be divided on this extreme form of Yoga. Some love it, swear by it and say it has transformed their lives. A lot of people, especially in the US seem to be addicted to it, practising for hours every day and meeting in secret clubs. But I’ve spoken to personal trainers who have told me they believe that Bikram is not as good for your health as the avid followers and instructors would have you believe. Subjecting your body to temperatures at which it’s possible to suffer heatstroke or pass out, can never be good. A report in The Telegraph newspaper last year quoted Professor Susan Yeargin of the Department of Applied Medicine and Rehabilitation at Indiana State University, a researcher of extreme temperatures and heat-related deaths, as saying, ”Most of my work is telling people to avoid that exact situation – when I study heat stroke, I put people into a room that is 104F to purposely stress their bodies. That type of situation can be devastating if core temperature rises to a dangerous level, leading to rapid deterioration of organs, coma, death.’’
Yoga in its original forms (Hatha, Ashtanga) IS fantastic for the body and mind, of this I have no doubt. Being able to gently practice the 26 positions of Bikram could be good for toning and shaping the body and help with balance and poise. Even the breathing exercises must be good for the system. But practising with hot steam gushing in your face and with sweat filling up your eyes and soaking into the mats (which get a quick spray down at the end of the class but are then used over and over again, without being washed), cannot possibly be good for anyone. There was no flow of air in the class I took either and the second instructor kept opening the two doors on either side of the room ‘to give us a flow of fresh air’ (as she told me after the class). I came out of the first class with a sore throat (my friend came out with one too). I’m no doctor but the idea that practising sweaty exercise in a hot and humid room with no airflow surely meand that germs and bacteria get trapped in the room. This bothers me.
Suffice it to say, and call me old-fashioned, but I shall be sticking to the original sun salutations of Ashtanga yoga in the future. Check out the advice from respected Yoga teacher Supodh Gupta above or visit your local class (though I wouldn’t recommend it!) and make up your own mind.