Bikram Yoga is Idiotic and Dangerous, Pt. 1
Over the next few days I’m going to assuredly infuriate some folks, but hopefully enlighten some others about the truth regarding one of the dumbest exercise fads that has become fairly popular recently—Bikram or “hot yoga.” For those who don’t know what Bikram yoga is, essentially you perform yoga postures in a room heated to between 105 and 115 degrees Fahrenheit for 90 minutes. Before I begin my arguments, let me clarify that this provocative title is aimed at Bikram instructors, not the general public. I don’t think people who do Bikram yoga are idiots, just misinformed.
Like most hippy-scientifical nonsense in the health and fitness industry, the supposed benefits of doing Bikram are (as far as I know) not at all based on any scientific evidence, and most claims are easily refuted by anyone who has some knowledge of biology. My advice whenever prompted on the subject has always been to avoid wasting your money on these overpriced, dangerous programs and instead to invest in an effective, proven form of exercise.
Let me be clear here: I am not a yoga hater. In fact, I think normal yoga is a very effective component in a well-rounded fitness program and often recommend it to my clients. Safe, responsible yoga can be wonderful for developing postural strength and dynamic flexibility. However, that’s it as far as I’m concerned. Yoga is a form of flexibility training, not a replacement for exercise. Just as you wouldn’t go to an orthopaedic surgeon to get your eyeballs checked, you don’t go to a yoga class to burn calories, build muscle and/or “tone and lengthen muscles” (whatever that means).
In each part of this article series I’m going to focus on one or two purported benefits of Bikram yoga that I find to be eyebrow-raising (at best). To be specific, the claims I’m focusing on include: that Bikram yoga loosens muscles and “protects them for deeper stretches,” that it increases lumbar spine flexibility/strength, that it burns a significantly higher number of calories than regular yoga or general exercise, that it lubricates joints and that it detoxifies the body by “flushing toxins out through the sweat.” I actually got these claims directly from a Bikram yoga website so I’m not just making this stuff up.
Today let’s discuss the claim that Bikram yoga helps loosen muscles and protect them from injury for deeper stretches. While it is important to warm up your muscles before most stretching (although I’ve heard arguments made that in some cases, cold, controlled stretches are important for inducing plastic deformation of the fascia and connective tissue), it’s not a case of “more is better.” In other words, muscles simply need to be “sufficiently” warm to be safe to move through their fullest range of motion. Either they are sufficiently warm or they aren’t. Considering that 5 minutes of simple cardiovascular work and/or foam rolling is sufficient to warm the muscles up for dynamic and/or static stretching, I fail to see what advantage Bikram yoga offers, which they seem to imply by saying that the warm room allows for deeper stretches.
Really, this comes down to a complete misunderstanding of the anatomical characteristics of muscles and what “tight muscles” truly means. Muscles don’t need to be stretched per se; there is no such thing as “lengthening a muscle” via stretching as many pilates and yoga instructors will have you believe. Unless you’re born with genetically shortened muscles (which would cause a whole host of obvious issues throughout your life and potentially require surgery for proper movement), then your muscles will never need to be “stretched” to a greater length.
We stretch to relax muscles that are overactive and in a partially-contracted state to return them to their proper resting length. Read that again—they return to their proper resting length, which is simply the length they’re naturally supposed to be. Our muscles work in tandem with other muscles and there is an ideal length (and tension) at which they are able to function most efficiently. When a muscle becomes “tight” (either due to being overactive and habitually contracted, to the opposing musculature being overly-weak and habitually extended, to an accumulation of scar tissue and/or knots, or to any combination of the three), it rests at a suboptimal length and thus functional strength is reduced and proper mobility patterns are affected. So, we perform stretches to keep our muscles at an optimal resting length to allow for intended mobility.
As stated above, there is an optimal level of flexibility. That is, our natural, optimal muscles’ resting length. When muscles are at a less optimal length, it means decreased mobility, altered movement patterns and potential for injury. However, when we stretch our bodies too ambitiously, we can end up on the other side of the coin, in a state of hypermobility. In addition to a whole host of issues I don’t want to go into in this article, hypermobility can cause muscles to rest an overly-lengthened state, which has the same negative affects that overly-short muscles do with regards to strength.
What I’m getting at with all this is that stretching deeper and deeper isn’t just pointless, it’s potentially harmful. There’s no reason to push yourself into positions that should be reserved for Chinese acrobats (who often have genetic disorders allowing them to contort as such, by the way—not something that should necessarily be envied). The goal of any flexibility training program should be to bring the body back to its natural, intended state of mobility—no more, no less.
The claim that Bikram yoga (or heated yoga in general) allows for deeper stretches due to the heat is untrue. As shown above, a stretch’s distance is going to be determined by the mobility of the surrounding joint structures, the presence of scar tissue and/or knots, and the condition of the fascia and other connective tissues surrounding the muscle. Assuming none of the three above elements are of issue, nothing more than a general warm-up is needed to prep the muscle for relaxation and for the ability to return it to its ideal length. If joint structure prevents a muscle from reaching its proper resting length, then surgery is probably the only thing that can address that. If there are knots and/or scar tissue present, or if fascia/connective tissue is the issue, then foam rolling, sports massage therapy or something like active release technique needs to be performed to address the issue.
Notice that increasing the warmth of the environment wasn’t mentioned as a potential solution to any of the above issues. That’s because it’s not a solution and serves no purpose in this regard. The only reason people assume deeper stretches in a Bikram yoga class is because the unqualified dipshit teaching the class is encouraging people to overstretch themselves and put their joints, ligaments and capsules in a potentially disastrous state of looseness, instability and hypermobility.
Stay tuned for the next part of this series in which I’ll discuss the claims of spinal flexibility/strength and increased caloric expenditure.