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Bikram Yoga is Idiotic and Dangerous, Pt. 2

Posted May 14, 2012 by

This article series contains a collection of criticisms I have for one of the newest fads to hit the fitness industry in general, and the yoga scene in particular—Bikram or hot yoga. In the first part of this article series, I talked about how the entire premise of “loosening muscles” was misinformed, and that the purported benefits of “deeper stretching” were in fact not benefits at all, but risk factors for the development of joint instability and/or hypermobility.

In part 2 of this series, I’m going continue down the list of supposed benefits to Bikram yoga by refuting the claims that Bikram yoga benefits practitioners by strengthening the spine and increasing lumbar flexibility, and that it burns more calories than exercise performed in a room of normal temperature.

First of all, you don’t want to have a flexible (i.e. mobile) lumbar spine! Most of the issues involving the lumbar spine are due to a lack of stability in the vertebrae. Lumbar vertebrae are not designed to be overly mobile and uneven pressure on them can cause disc issues. Call me crazy, but an unstable, injury-prone lower back seems like a piss-poor pay out for all this work these instructors make their clients do to increase the lower back’s “flexibility.”

Secondly, spinal strengthening is more or less a meaningless term—what it really means is that the muscles that stabilize the spine (such as the multifidus and transverse abdominis) are being strengthened through exercises. This is a good thing—but ironically enough, is directly contrary to the concept of increasing spinal flexibility. In other words, on one end of the spectrum you have flexibility of the lumbar (bad) and on the other end, stability of the lumbar and endurance of the stabilizing musculature that surrounds it (good).

The best way to strengthen your stabilizing muscles is to perform anti-rotational and anti-flexion/extension movements. In other words, doing things that prevent your spine from moving under tension provides the best workout for these muscles and keeps your spine safe. An example would be an ab plank, or a controlled quadruped movement (on hands and knees). Bikram yoga has many of these exercises wrapped into it, but so do other forms of yoga and pretty much any quality form of exercise out there so it’s not really a unique benefit. When you couple it with the negative aspects of all the spinal “flexibility” exercises that are done in hot yoga, it probably renders the benefits from the stability exercises moot anyway.

Finally, the idea that hot yoga (or exercise in a heated room in general) burns more calories than regular temperature exercise is misleading. It’s pretty common for people to equate a lot of sweating with a good workout, and the Bikram yoga instructors bank on this misconception. Sweating doesn’t really have any correlation with the quality of a workout. Here’s how I can prove it. Ever tanned in the hot sun for an extended period of time? Did you sweat? I may be mistaken but I think that sitting on a lounge chair not moving is probably the worst “workout” you could do. Yet we still sweat.

This is because sweating is simply a reaction from our body to heat. It’s how our body regulates our temperature. What I’m getting at here is that the only reason you sweat profusely during hot yoga is because it’s hot… pretty simple. Now, as to whether or not exercise in a heated room burns more calories… the answer is possibly, but at such a minuscule amount that it’s not worth mentioning.

Once our body begins to heat up internally (not just on the surface, which takes time), it has to expend some energy to maintain proper temperatures within the body. However, the amount of energy it uses isn’t very much, and since it takes a while to initiate, a 90 minute session isn’t going to amount to a significant amount of calories being burned. In fact, you’d burn a lot more calories exercising in an ice-cold room because your body would immediately induce the shivering response, which does burn a measurable amount of calories.

“But what about thermogenics?” you might ask. Well, it’s important not to confuse cause and effect. Thermogenics such as the now banned ephedrine/caffeine stack that used to make up most effective weight loss supplements do work by increasing metabolism, which indeed raises core temperature. However, the increase in body temperature is simply an effect of the rise in metabolism. The rise in heat doesn’t cause an increased metabolism.

A basic understanding of thermodynamics is important to understand how thermogenics work. Energy comes in the form of “work” or “heat” and unless the heat is harnessed in a system that can use it to produce work, the energy in the form of heat is lost into the atmosphere. The increased energy requirements cause the body to release fatty acids for energy, which is where the fat-burning power comes from. The increased heat is the energy leaving our body, not a form of “work.” Sweating and body heat are byproducts of the use of thermogenics—not the reason that the thermogenics work. There is a ton of misinformation on this topic—pretty much every website I’ve seen that isn’t a medical website gets this subtle but critical point wrong.

The reason I’m even bringing this up is because I want to show again that just because you’re hot and sweating a lot doesn’t mean you’ve increased caloric your expenditure, increased your metabolism or burned more fat. Here’s another example: doing interval cardio as hard as you can will burn a good amount of calories. It will also make you breathe hard. Entering a chamber with low oxygen will also make you breathe hard… does that mean you’re burning a bunch of calories? No.

As a final resort, denialists point out that people lose 5-10 lbs of weight in the first week or two of class. Yes, you will lose weight doing hot yoga. The weight will be pure water weight, from the sweat you just lost. No fat loss will be involved. Ironically enough, one of the best ways to induce optimal fat loss is to hydrate the body and avoid dehydration. One of the best ways to inhibit fat loss is to dehydrate the body. Americans tend to be chronically dehydrated anyway, so adding in 90 minutes of dehydration through excessive sweating on a regular basis is pretty counter-productive to say the least. Consider the fact that you should drink ~10 oz water per 15 minutes of exercise in the heat, plus 24 oz within 2 hours afterwards per pound of weight lost during the workout—that’s often more than most people drink in an entire day.

Assuming someone worked out for 90 minutes and lost 2 pounds in the process, they would need to drink 108 oz of water/sports drink in less than 4 hours… that’s almost a gallon of liquid in less than 4 hours, in other words, pretty ludicrous  for most people it’s highly doubtful that anyone who takes hot yoga actually drinks that much. I doubt the teachers tell their clients to either, because if they did, the client wouldn’t lose any water weight—in other words, they wouldn’t lose any weight at all.

In conclusion, no, exercising in a hot room isn’t going to lean you out. What leans you out is eating a proper diet, building muscle with heavy weight lifting and using high intensity cardio along the way when needed to optimize results. None of those factors are present in hot yoga (or any yoga class, for that matter). Like I said before, yoga is for maintaining functional flexibility, and that’s it!

In the final part of this series, I will discuss the claims that Bikram yoga helps lubricate the joints and that it detoxifies the body by “flushing toxins out through the sweat.”

Comments on Bikram Yoga is Idiotic and Dangerous, Pt. 2 »

  1. Jayden

    While I agree Bikram yoga is dangerous on many accounts, it is untrue that yoga asana is only for maintaining functional flexibility. Many poses build strength, endurance, and challenge cardio. Yoga is an amazing mindful practise that has the capacity when followed correctly and consistently to restores one to true health and radiance. Have you tried Iyengar yoga? This is a lineage based practise taught by highly experienced teachers.

  2. Judith

    I love that I found this article. I tried Bikram Yoga for a summer and nearly passed out at a session. The instructors ask that you wait until you are given a break to drink water or until you reach floor postures. They also do not advise that you leave the room if you feel dizzy or faint the first few times you try hot yoga because your body needs to “get used” to the suffocating heat of the room.
    When I told the instructor that I felt I was about to pass out his response (to the room, not me) was a chuckle and a light hearted “Don’t we all?” and he told me to take a seat on my mat.
    I never went back.

  3. Estefania

    Hi Judith,

    It is not because you had a bad experience and that because you did not appreciate your professor’s answer to your physical state (i rather say to your beginner phyisical state) that Hot Yoga is the worst sport ever. Try to make the difference,and please, try to come again.

  4. Emily

    This post comes from a good place (if you ignore the ad hominem attacks), but I think there are a number of errors here. First, it’s definitely NOT simply maintaining flexibility. The sheer strength one needs in their quads and glutes to properly execute standing bow-pulling pose rivals anything I’ve done with dead lifts (although dead lifts certainly improve the yoga practice and vice versa). Secondly, Bikram IS most certainly HIIT training. The series moves quickly and your heart rate is only allowed to rest for brief intervals between postures.

    The heat allows you to *more* safely stretch into your muscles and tendons. That doesn’t mean you can be an acrobat immediately if you don’t have the body for it. But keep practicing and “eventually or in the future” you will. There’s a balance to be struck between strength and flexibility. This series helps you do that.

    Let’s talk about weight loss. It’s no instant-miracle-fix. You can’t leave a class and eat a cheesecake slice daily and expect to lose weight. However, if you eat a balanced, fitness inspired diet (6 small meals, high protein and dark green leafy veggies with PLENTY of water, replacing your electrolytes), you WILL see results. I have and while I’m not generalizable to the whole population, you can’t just ignore me either!! Plus, check out plenty of testimonials from regular practitioners. It’s amazing, actually.

    Yes there are bad teachers out there…but there are also bad personal trainers. I think that people can get carried away with their egos, especially after being able to accomplish something so intense as a class or teacher training. People that belittle or teach without compassion are bad teachers. It’s much like you wouldn’t say every clergy member or every CEO is inherently evil. There are bad ones out there, but there are great ones too. IT’s a very polarized way of looking at the world.

    In conclusion…this was an unfortunate post, well intended but riddled with errors. Sorry.

  5. fab

    Interesting article:it shows that your knowledge of yoga is quite inexistant.It demonstrates that you obviously ,never have tried Bikram Yoga .It is the safest existing hatha yoga practice ever .

    You have knowledge of anatomy and you can talk about anatomy for ages,yet your lack of experience in any yoga makes you dull.

    You can speak about something you know like bodybuilding for instance,but please my friend ,when you have zero knowledge and zero experience in yoga then you should enter full silence.

    We aren’t all gifted with the ability to perceive and distinguish what works from what doesn’t equally.Bikram yoga works.Some people might not fall for it and that’s fine,but those who criticize it negatively like crazy because they couldn’t handle it for some reason or because it was to hard for them ,should start wondering why their lives remain so miserable.

    We don’t have to be jealous,Bikram Choudury is a savior for mankind with his training method,one of these people who changed millions of lives .What have you changed?You haven’t even changed yourself,you are still miserable talking like this.Go for a one month Bikram Yoga challenge,and see if your cardio doesn’t improve like never before,see how your spine feels;you will breathe like you never have ,your body will feel so young ,so strong that you will look back at yourself writing all these bad comments thinking:”This is when I was a miserable ,jealous and fearfull man.Now I’m adventurous and I recently started growing a pair of balls….thanks to Bikram Yoga!”

  6. Sean

    Sorry to the folks here who think they know what they’re talking about when they clearly do not. This poster is basically 100% correct. I too am a personal trainer with rather advanced certifications and was a devoted practitioner of yoga for many years until I started noticing many of the same problems with Bikram, particularly the lumbar spine flexibility (lumbar spine flexibility = TERRIBLE!!!! YOU DO NOT WANT LUMBAR SPINE FLEXIBILITY!!!!!!!!!). And the ones who are drinking the Bikram Kool-Aid have an advanced case of cognitive dissonance when it comes to some of the dangers of Bikram. I’m also glad he pointed out the risk of joint instability and hypermobility, because those were the first things I started to notice in my own body. Once my lumbar spine started doing things I knew would lead to debilitating back injuries once I was “advanced” enough to do the poses, I knew I had to get out immediately and I tell all my clients to avoid Bikram yoga like the plague. Maybe I had a bad studio, but my own experience is 100% consistent with what this author is saying. Bikram can be rather dangerous.

  7. Amanda

    It’s is obvious that you don’t understand yoga. I do agree that Bikram yoga is stupid but to say yoga isn’t exercise is ignorant. Yoga has a much longer history(thousands of years) than your supposedly all knowing western medical science(a few hundred years).

    Yoga is not just a way to maintain flexibility and nothing more. It’s a lifestyle and philosophy. It encourages healthy eating and more self awareness. It is also a hell of a workout and has definitely made me stronger and more in shape. It’s helped combat my sugar and caffeine addiction. If anecdotal evidence is not enough for you I suggest reading one of the studies that will show you the benefits of yoga are actually scientifically proven as well.

    Please try to understand something before you bash it. Your belittling of yoga is quite ignorant.

  8. Marianne

    Bikram does assist in losing weight. I am a long distance runner and could never shift my stomach weight. A month of bikram completely changed that. I’ve never been so lean and toned, it’s amazing. So i’m afraid you’re wrong….

  9. ann

    Why do people feel so triggered? Its just your opinion. Geez! Its not a personal attack. I do not take hot yoga…my body hates it…love Mysore ashtanga yoga. It is self led do at your own pace. Feels more self loving. My feeling is that people are brainwashed into following cool trends and dismiss their body’s needs in the name of being cool. Hot yoga is not loving to the body….if we allow ourselves to notice.

  10. Ann, when you challenge someone’s beliefs, many people resort to a defensive position and feel like the person challenging those beliefs is personally attacking them. It’s a knee-jerk reaction that most aren’t aware of. It’s ok though—I have been enjoying all the attention this article series has received—Negative Nancy’s and all 😀

  11. Bikram is the crossfit of yoga in the sense that it stirs up so much controversy. Ironically enough, I hate crossfit but love bikram yoga. I’m a former gmnast and acrobat (5th-12th grade) so yoga appeals to me on a number of levels. I was also a collegiate track athlete for a D1 university. It’s true, I almost passed out during my first three bikram sessions- likely due to dehydration. I’m also a dietian and fully aware that you don’t burn more calories in hot yoga over “regular” yoga practices. Also, Bikram, the founder, has countless charges of sexual assault against him. So why do I love it? I love that yoga focuses on your own journey/practice which was the complete opposite of college athletics. I was genuinely under psychological torment in undergrad b/c I was constantly comparing my performance to my teammates. Bikram, and yoga in general, teaches you to focus on yourself and no one else. I also enjoy the way I feel after my practice even if I’m not actually detoxifying my body. Honestly, I don’t believe a lot of the things they say in terms of how hot yoga is better but the instructors aren’t intentionally lying- they genuinely believe in the practice and its benefits. Hey why do we smoke, drink, or partake in other seemingly destructive activities? Bikram is my “guilty” pleasure if you will. Judge as you see fit, I’m not offended. I love the practice and the people who do it. But thanks for posting, it was an educational read!!! #namaste 🙂

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