I did Bikram yesterday for the first time ever at a nice little studio in Louisville, Kentucky, called Bikram’s Yoga College of India – Louisville. My friend suggested that I try out Bikram since my wrist is still in recovery, and I can’t really do much vinyasa flow these days. (Bikram is ideal for people with wrist problems because you never really place your hands on the floor.) Even though it took us almost two hours to get there, I’m glad I went and finally had a chance to find out what this whole Bikram craze is all about.
The first thing to say about Bikram yoga, of course, is that IT’S HOT! The room was pre-heated, and the instructor kept the class around 105 degrees Fahrenheit the entire time. He did open and close the door a few times in order to let in some cool air, but, for the most part, the entire class was conducted in excruciating heat. I had images swirling in my head of doing yoga in the middle of the Mohave Desert or something like that, and was frequently wondering to myself during the class, “Is this safe?!”
Needless to say, I was sweating my butt off and even found myself at times feeling lightheaded, dizzy, and towards the end of class, somewhat nauseous. Afterwards, and for the next few hours, I felt totally spent, as if I had run a marathon. I can’t help but wonder though if I really got a good workout, or if I just sweated a lot. The next morning, I had very little soreness anywhere in my body, but still felt kind of exhausted (like the kind of exhaustion you get from traveling for 24 hours across globe on a intercontinental flight). In other words, my suspicion is that Bikram does not give you the kind of strength building workout that power yoga, astanga, or vinyasa flow does.
But this is not to say that there is nothing to gain from Bikram. One thing I noticed is that my heart rate shot up, way higher than it does during a flow class or an astanga class. The added heat in the room, I guess, causes the body to react in ways that it usually doesn’t when the room is at a (comparatively comfortable!) 85 or even 95 degrees. I certainly had to take a few breaks during my first Bikram class, usually because I was starting to feel dizzy and, quite frankly, like I was going to throw up. I’ve been told though that your body’s tolerance for hot yoga goes up rather quickly if you stick with it. I don’t know if I’ll be going again anytime soon, mostly because the drive is so long, but I’d like to try it out again a few more times to see if my experience of it changes with time. All in all, I think I have a better idea of what Bikram yoga is, now that I’ve actually tried it, and, to be honest, I have a more positive opinion of it than I did before. There is a certain kind of intensity in a Bikram class that you normally don’t get out of any other kind of yoga. And to the extent that a Bikram class pushes you mentally and physically, it is a bona fide yoga class.
Even after just one experience with Bikram, though, I can already see why people call Bikram yoga studios “Bikram torture chambers.” Because of the intense heat, and because there are only 26 poses (which you always do in the same exact order), the overall yoga experience of a Bikram class is quite different from astanga or flow. I’d say, in some very important respects, Bikram is a totally different beast, and (I really hate to say this) I think this Bikram Choudhury guy is actually justified in copyrighting his type of yoga. For someone newer or totally new to yoga, Bikram might not seem all that different from astanga, vinyasa, Iyengar, Anusara, etc., but to someone with more experience with yoga, Bikram is clearly its own thing. The poses are called different names, the alignment is often different in subtle but very important ways, and the overall experience is really, first and foremost, about survival, which is certainly not the case in most other styles of yoga.
All in all, I’d say that Bikram is a low-impact workout, but super high intensity. I don’t know that I’d personally like to make this kind of yoga my whole practice, but I see some great value in it.