As I entered a mirrored room resembling a dance studio, an overwhelming heat filled my lungs. I was at my first Bikram yoga class. Yoga is a mental, spiritual, and physical practice meant to strengthen both the body and mind. Many know the benefits of yoga—increased strength, flexibility, and weight loss. The Bikram yoga craze takes things to the next level. Classes are 90 minutes long and consist of 26 beginner level yoga poses in a room heated to 104° F (40° C) with 40% humidity. To many people, this extreme climate of the room may sound unbearable or even dangerous, but to others it’s just another weekly activity! During the first ten minutes of class, I felt so nauseated and dizzy that I ran out of the room. These symptoms of hyperthermia and dehydration are common for newcomers and speak to the potential risks of practicing yoga in such conditions. My experience made me question the potential risks and benefits of Bikram yoga. Does the popular exercise actually offer all the proclaimed benefits? Could it end up being more harmful than helpful?
The answer is, if not practiced with care, it can indeed pose health risks. Bikram yoga causes heart rates and core body temperatures to climb to high levels, causing extreme sweating. Because of the conditions of the room, the sweat does not evaporate, preventing the body from cooling down. It is important to note any signs of nausea, dizziness, and cramping either during or after a session, and rest if necessary to prevent heat stroke. Additionally, it is essential to replenish the body with electrolytes, easily done by drinking sports drinks and not just plain water. A typical session can cause the body’s levels of sodium and potassium to drop dangerously low without proper hydration. Though Bikram yoga should be practiced with caution, it can provide health benefits when done correctly.
A study conducted at Colorado State University indicated that when adopted by those with a sedentary lifestyle, Bikram yoga moderately improved strength, muscle control, and flexiility, and greatly improved balance; however, no cardiovascular changes were observed. Additionally, participants in the study experienced only slight weight loss. While many claim that Bikram yoga burns 1000 calories per session, in reality, men only burn an average of 460 calories, and women, only 330. The modest numbers reflect the fact that the metabolic rates of experienced yogis in 90-minute sessions were roughly equivalent to those of a person walking briskly. Studies have found that the heavy sweating of practitioners during Bikram yoga sessions releases toxins, including BPA and phthalate compounds.
Source: Eva Katalin Kondoros
While the scientifically proven benefits of Bikram yoga are small, those who practice it claim improved mental health, clearer skin, increased energy, and improved function of the thyroid and pineal glands. These claims have yet to be studied, as have the benefits of Bikram yoga over other schools of yoga. Still, the new form of an ancient practice continues to gain wind across the world.
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