REVIEW OF BIKRAM YOGA
Why do they call it the torture chamber?
No, I did not make that up, they really call it that. This is straight from the lips of almost every Bikram yoga instructor I have had which is roughly 30 different instructors. The phrase is supposedly coined by Bikram Choudhury himself, the man who developed the practice and put together the sequence of postures that now has devotees and franchises all over the world. First, I will provide the details and description of what exactly Bikram Yoga is and then I will review Bikram Yoga with full disclosure that I have practiced this series for over 4 years and continue to practice it whenever I get the opportunity.
NOTE: Below is the description of Bikram Yoga as presented by their website literature, studio owners, and instructors.
Temperature: 105° Fahrenheit, 40% Humidity
Duration: 90 Minutes
Postures: 26 Hatha Postures, each posture done twice, 2 Pranayama (breathing exercises).
Level: Beginner, and all levels (please read the above note, then my review below)
Instructors: All certified specifically to teach Bikram Yoga.
Variations: There are no variations on the original series. Some studios may offer advanced level class (usually by invitation only).
Good to know: Instructors teach from a memorized “dialogue” (their word). There are no variations to the order of the postures unless the instructor makes a mistake.
MY RATING: ♦♦♦♦◊
Consistency. I started Bikram yoga after attending my neighbourhood yoga studio hot classes where every teacher had a different take on what they wanted to teach in their hot yoga class. Some teachers would launch right into dancer’s pose at the get go (which is not an appropriate way to start ANY yoga class), yet others would put a camel pose in the first 4 or 5 postures (that, folks, is not safe to do at the beginning of any class). In Bikram, that never happens. Every posture comes in the pre-ordained order, every instruction has been scripted, every detail of the poses spoken to by the instructor. You would think hearing the same “dialogue” every class would be boring, but actually knowing what is coming up next allows you (after a few classes) to take the attention off the instructor and onto yourself and you really notice how you are performing each posture. I do admit that I don’t understand why the teaching script is called a “dialogue” because it’s obviously a monologue (no one else is talking!)
Noticeable Improvement. Because you perform the same postures every class you will notice incremental improvements in your ability to do each pose. One day in the wide legged forward fold you will realize your head just touched your mat with ease where it was 5 inches off the mat a few weeks ago. Same goes for almost every posture. This, I would say is the most satisfying and rewarding part of practicing the same series over and over again on a regular basis.
Challenging. First off, I disagree with the Bikram notion that this series is for beginners. Case in point, I took a friend to Bikram with me who had done a few Hatha yoga classes but never hot yoga. After their first Bikram class, they said they never wanted to go back. Actually what they said is, “I’d rather lay in the middle of the Highway on a scorching hot summer day than go back to Bikram ever again.” This made me consider the fact that I had participated in at least 50 hot yoga classes as well as non-heated classes at my local studio for over a year before going to Bikram for the very first time. I have also seen numerous first time Bikram students in class, only to never see any sign of them ever again. So, how does this become a positive? Well, for those of us up to the challenge, it is an exhilarating feeling to go into the “torture chamber” and make it out of there feeling more alive than ever before. There is challenge in every class, sometimes every minute of every class. This for me, is a huge positive. For others it may not be.
Somewhat Militant. Yes, this to me is a positive. I have heard tales of Bikram teachers yelling at or berating participants for not trying hard enough or not doing postures correctly. This never happened in
any of the classes I attended but many Bikram instructors do take notice when you are “flaking out” and not keeping up. They tend only to call you out if they know you are a regular participant. They do expect you to try hard and do your best. It isn’t exactly a warm and fuzzy atmosphere in the torture chamber, if you know what I mean. Perhaps that is why the gender ratio in these classes is often close to 50/50. I once had a teacher come over because I was in Savasana when I should have been doing the triangle pose. He asked me if I was feeling ok, I said yes, but that I was tired. He said as long as you’re not feeling sick please get up and do the work because if you came all the way here then you might as well do the work. He was 100% right. Bikram instructors tend to be edgy, they drop the “f” bomb once in awhile and they will catch you out if you are lazy. If you’re a very sensitive soul, Bikram might not be your cuppa tea. Me, I can be a little lazy in a hot class (cuz it’s darned hot) and can use the extra push so yes, somewhat militant is fine by me.
International. There are Bikram studios in most major cities around the world so when I’m travelling I can practice anywhere. Language isn’t an issue because I know the whole series of postures, it’s the same everywhere so I don’t need understand what is being said and still participate.
Bikram for Weight loss. There was a recent study done by the American Council of Exercise (ACE) that disputed the correlation between Bikram yoga and weight loss. The same study also maintained that it could be considered a health hazard to practice hot yoga that could potentially raise your core temperature above safe levels. I am a member of ACE and I read their report very carefully, noting their concerns with interest.
However, I have also watched a man in his 40’s named Donald who started Bikram yoga after his doctor told him that if he didn’t change his diet and start exercising he would be dead in a couple of years. Donald weighed well over 250 lbs when he started. He went to Bikram 5 times a week, sometimes more. At the end of a year Donald was unrecognizable. I mean, literally, I didn’t know who he was because I had been practicing at another studio in between. I didn’t ask him how much weight he had lost after a year but it looked to be at least 50 lbs. He was also beaming from ear to ear. As for my personal experience, I started Bikram and during my initial 30 days of practice in July of 2008 I lost the proverbial last 10 lbs. But if anyone tries to tell you 30 consecutive days of Bikram yoga is a cinch, don’t buy it. It was a gruelling 30 days and I am still patting myself on the back for ever pulling that off.
Inconsistent Heat. This has been the case at each Bikram location I have practiced at (6 so far). Keeping the room at 105° with 40% humidity is apparently a difficult task. I have been to studios that were overheated to the point that more than 6 people were left the class. Sometimes you may get 1 person leaving the hot room if they aren’t feeling well, but if there’s half a dozen leaving there’s something wrong. I use this as an example because I was the 7th person out the door. I went back in as did the others but we all agreed the room was much hotter than usual. The opposite can also be true when the room isn’t hot enough. The humidity level is sometimes also an issue. One studio had numerous portable humidifiers lined up in the back of the hot room. This caused the humidity in the room to be uneven and if you were the last one in and got the spot right in front of the humidifier you were in for a double roasting. Still, this was not a new issue for me having come from another studio that offered mainly non-heated classes peppered with maybe 1 hot class a day. The temperature was sometimes 90°, sometimes 95° and so on, depending on how long beforehand they remembered to turn on the heat. In many studios that aren’t focused on hot yoga, just offering hot classes as an “add on” there may not be a humidity component.
Intimidating. This isn’t the case in all Bikram locations but in several that I’ve been to the front row is filled with die-hard practitioners, instructors practicing on their off time, and others who I am affectionately labelling the “human rubber band gang”. Even after practicing Bikram for over 4 years, I dare not breach the front row. I am not worthy or rubbery enough (or both). So, yes, I find the aficionados of this practice to be intimidating. They know they can bend in ways I never will be able to (or really want to).
Bikram Choudhury. This is the founder of the series based in Los Angeles, California and unless you’ve been under a rock somewhere for the last 10 years you will have heard some negative press about him. This is a review of the Bikram practice and not of Bikram Choudhury. In light of recent events and certain legal allegations in the last few years various owners of Bikram studios around the world have felt it necessary to distance themselves from the mother ship by clarifying in writing that they are independently owned and operated and are not funded or give funds to their namesake. Some Bikram studios around the world have chosen to change the name of their studios completely. I personally, will keep practicing this series of postures sequenced by Bikram Choudhury in the torture chamber because they work for me. Despite many in the Bikram fold who revere him as some kind of mega-guru, to me he is a person who may have done some reprehensible things, but just because I practise the yoga bearing his name does not mean I condone his actions or that I am obliged to worship at his altar. Enough said.
That’s all folks, my on review on the practice of Bikram Yoga. Click here to see my review of Bikram vs Moksha (Moda) yoga.
Your comments are welcome, please leave them in the comment box below. Thank you, Connie.