Bikram Yoga is Idiotic and Dangerous, Pt. 1

Posted May 11, 2012 by

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.

Comments on Bikram Yoga is Idiotic and Dangerous, Pt. 1 »

  1. I totally agree with you. Bikram Yoga is just another way to get dangerously dehydrated.

  2. Peter Symonds

    Not it you prepare properly – you could say the same thing about long distance running, or playing tennis on a hot day!!

  3. Lynn

    I’ve practiced Bikram yoga in the past, and it greatly improved my flexibility, and in general made me feel great – you just have to make sure to hydrate properly or yes, you’ll reach dangerous levels of dehydration.

    Professional athletes, including NFL players, have also used bikram with positive results.

    Most people don’t need scientific, peer-reviewed proof to start to believe something is effective – if it works for them and others around them, that can be enough. Of course, if you are waiting on scientific proof from the powers that be, you may be waiting quite a while.

    Of course, then again, why try bikram yoga when some pretty boy with a shaved chest and some lame tattoo says that it’s nonsense, just because he’s gone to nutrition school?

  4. Anon

    Making fun of Bikram Yoga using scientifical nonsense. Try doing a full side split without training. When young this can be achieved maybe in a few months, when older maybe in a few years. “Theres no such thing as lengthening a muscle” is a false statement. Muscles grow with weight training and lengthen with stretch training. You are not born with that but you can train to achieve it. This does not happen in one day, and a heated room does help. I do not train in Bikram but 12 years of Kung-Fu has taught me that. I can now do a side split, I could not when I first started training.

  5. Gigi

    Why would I want to do a full side split? I’m not a gymnyst.

  6. Maritza McGill

    Tried this. In Texas summer – was positive I would just die >_<. Took forever and a year to feel able to cool back down ( HA- Texas summer so is only 500 degrees out anyway or something close )
    Seriously – I will still to plain ole yoga please and thanks. 🙂
    PS. Is cheating and we all know it to just to AC off in the gym to yoga room and claim is "hot yoga" or whatever other names this is trend is being given.

  7. Peter

    Bikram yoga has worked for me – totally changed my life. I am a 57 year old man and have never been fitter. And all the professional sportsmen in my area (in the UK) go – Rugby, Soccer, Cricket, Boxing (a world champion), martial artists triathaletes. All the stuff about dehydration is ridiculous – you have to prepare, that’s all. I’ve now seen thousands of people do a class – no-one collapsed, no-one was injured – and we are well known to be the hottest in the UK. Certainly hotter than the studios I have visited in the US.

  8. It is great to not be the lone ranger anymore warning people of the dangers of bikram yoga. I am a licensed massage therapist, posture educator and long time yoga practitioner who invented a style of yoga called YogAlign over 20 years ago. It combines self massage, core breathing and poses that simulate natural anatomical function with somatic techniques to change posture at the nervous system level. The only ‘goal’ is naturally aligned posture which happens as a result of balancing the tensional forces in the body but not trying to stretch out the parts. I have treated hundreds of yoga practitioners with a condition I call the SSS or sagging sacrum syndrome. Many yoga poses are based on bending over with the knees straight which causes the sacral lumbar and knee ligaments to get too lax. Many famous yoga teachers now have hip replacements too and they all say that yoga did not cause it. check out my sites at http://www.yogalign.com or http://www.yogainjuries.com where I have a survey I am conducting to get a baseline of data about how and why this is happening. Cannot wait to read the next two parts. It would be great to communicate with you as I have written a book on my method and the hidden dangers of doing yoga poses like the ones used in Bikram.

  9. I read about 4 paragraphs in this article to realize this author has no idea what he’s talking about. I understand that Bikram tries to talk about scientific proof that claims how Bikram does specific things to benefit your body. Looks like these “scientific” lab results were made up – more of an exageration by Bikram himself – but let’s say Bikram lied about it for the author’s sake.

    Let’s say there is no scientific evidence to prove that Bikram is beneficial to the human body or mind. Try it and you will see – if not the first time (the day after practicing one 90 minute Bikram class), you will feel the benefits with a few days of practice.

    The author is a moron. He says he likes to do “normal yoga.” What the hell is that? It hurts to read such dumb shit. Did this guy read anything before writing and criticising. God bless America.

    Another idiotic thing the author said was: what the heck does elongate a muscle even mean (apparently a Bikram claim) – because the author is well versed in physiology or anatomy or whatever. What a jerk. That sparked my interest so I looked up elongating muscles and came to this MIT website about stretching:

    “The muscle fibers are in turn composed of tens of thousands of thread-like myofybrils, which can contract, relax, and elongate (lengthen).”

    Go and do your normal yoga – I’ll sweat it out in a room with 95% hot naked chicks.

  10. The keyboard warrior is strong in this one. An enraged response filled with logical fallacies… why am I not surprised?

  11. kobio

    It sounds like you need more yoga! To spend your time spreading negativity seems counter intuitive to peacefulness.

  12. Ryan Parker

    I don’t practice Bikram but if you want to build active strength and increased mobility and flexibiiity through activation, practice Ashtanga. It’s not to “get flexible”. In fact Guruji never said be more flexible. He would say be stronger though. I’m a BJJ black belt and I can one hundred percent say that a full primary or second series and beyond practice is one hundred and fifty percent a full work out. The process is as hard as Jiu Jitsu and even harder in some aspects. The body is fully engaged to support the postures and requires an immense amount of strength and stamina to do them all and complete all the jump backs and jump throughs in between. I would give it a try if you’re unsatisfied with the typical westernized yoga that’s all over the mainstream. Mysore style is the best way to practice to ensure that the body is prepared for the postures that are given by the teacher.


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