The first time that I saw an online video of a Bikram Yoga class I was shocked. "Is this really yoga?" I asked myself. I thought that I would never try such a "style of yoga" but of course the only way to experience what Bikram Yoga is is to actually practice it, so while I was visiting my sister in Miami, US by the end of 2012 I decided to give it a try.
I actually wanted to practice ashtanga yoga with Kino McGregor, an awesome ashtanga yoga teacher, but all her courses were fully booked and since the Bikram studio was just a block away from my sister's apartment the decision was pretty easy to make.
My experience with Bikram Yoga
What is Bikram Yoga?
Bikram Yoga is a style of yoga created by an Indian man named Bikram Choudhury. It is an intense physical practice, a sort of boot camp training where people work really hard by practicing 26 yoga postures constantly pushing their bodies to the limits and in a yoga hall that is heated to about 40°C (105°F). For this reason it is also called Bikram Hot Yoga.
Even though I had already heard about Bikram Yoga and had seen some videos my first class was still a shock for me. Nothing really prepares you for the actual experience, specially if you are used to a traditional form of hatha yoga like I am. I practice mainly Sivananda style but I'm also familiar with the Satyananda and Himalayan tradition.
Push! Push! Push the body beyond its capacity!
My first thought was that people in Bikram Yoga seem to have never heard about the very first moral rules described in Patanjali's 8 Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga, which is ahimsa or non violence. In a physical yoga practice ahimsa can be interpreted as being gentle and caring with the body.
However in a Bikram class the way they deliver the instructions, shouting like an army officer, and the emphasis in constantly asking you to push your body beyond its capacity seems to completely violate this very basic principle in yoga. Bikram himself call his yoga studios "torture chambers"!
During the class they would shout things like:
Push! push! push!
Push back! more back! more back! (during backbends)
Lock your knees! lock your knees! lock your knees! (in standing balancing postures)
If it hurts it's good! keep pushing! (in any posture)
Your elbows must hurt! that's ok! (in salabhasana, the locust)
Your hips must hurt! then you know you are working (in single wind relieving)
Don't kill yourself at the beginning, kill yourself at the end (of each posture)!
I think this way of teaching is dangerous a can lead to many injuries specially for people that has not tried yoga before and who are not aware of the limitations of their bodies. Sure, the heat will make your body "feel" more flexible but that doesn't mean that you need to treat your body in that way, right?
This attitude also violates another principle in yoga called satya or truthfulness. The way I see it, constantly pushing the body beyond it's capacity it's a way of not accepting and honoring what is true for the body in the present moment.
Feeling dizzy during a Bikram Yoga class?
One of the things that I hated the most was how they force you to stay in the room even if you feel dizzy. Because of the intensity of the exercises and the high temperature of the room it is very common to feel dizzy specially during the firsts days of practice .
In the short time that I practiced Bikram I was able to see at least two people that couldn't take it anymore and had to leave the room in the middle of the class. When they were walking out of the hall the teacher would shout "stay in! stay in! go back to your place!". Fortunately none of them stayed in the room.
I think this is a dangerous attitude because it can create a psychological pressure in the students forcing them to stay in the room even if their bodies can't take it anymore. You know, who wants to be shouted like that? And in the middle of the class! I do have heard about people fainting during Bikram Yoga classes.
After almost two weeks of practice one day I felt very dizzy. I wanted to reach till the end of the class but even though I remained seated for a while, breathed deeply, took long breaks and drank plenty of water the heat just didn't allow me to recover.
At some point I started to feel really sick so I sneak out of the hall without nobody noticing it. But when I left the hall the girl at the reception said "Hey what happen? you are almost finished, go back!" Of course I didn't pay attention to her and I just ordered a drink. Only with the fresh cool air and some coconut water I was able to recover.
Do you want to relax? Try if you can
I believe the most important part of a hatha yoga practice is the final relaxation when you allow all the energy that has been moved to settle down and go back within. However in Bikram, at least in the studio that I practiced, even though is such an intense practice the final relaxation was very poor.
Sometimes the teachers guide you, sometimes they just say thanks an leave the room, some times they play music and sometimes they don't, but either way you have just 2 to 5 minutes to relax and since everybody leaves the room whenever they want you can't really relax and even if you want to stay longer you can't because the students for the next class starts to arrive. That was my experience in the studio in Miami where I practiced Bikram.
No space for centering and going within
Although yoga is a spiritual practice in the west is probably not always possible or appropriate to do an opening prayer to connect with the external guru or the guru within, however I think that at least two minutes of silence to allow the students to center themselves before starting the class is necessary, even if you have to teach yoga in a gym.
This is completely absent in a Bikram Yoga studio, as soon as the teachers enter the class the teachers starts shouting. In my opinion starting a yoga class without creating that space for centering yourself with a least two minutes of silence misses completely its purpose.
What are the benefits of practicing Bikram Yoga?
But I must say that there were many things that I did like about Bikram Yoga. These are some of the benefits that I perceived or things that I liked:
- In every class you do exactly the same practice, the same 26 asanas which are repeated two times each. I think that's a good way to deepen the experience of a yoga posture and to perfect the posture. And this also makes it a very focused practice.
- Balancing yoga postures helps to develop concentration and in Bikram Yoga you do several standing balancing postures which are physically demanding and which are held for a long period of time. I loved that!
- Being aware of the rhythm of the breath is part of any yoga practice but in Bikram Yoga because of the intensity of the practice and the heat I was forced to constantly focus on my breath, making sure that my breath was even, deep and continuous otherwise I would start to feel dizzy, maybe because I tend to have low blood pressure.
- I do like working out with intensity and I'm sure that by doing Bikram Yoga because of the intensity of the practice and the heat you burn lots of calories, build some muscles and gain strength. However you also loose a lot of water which might give the illusion to be loosing weight, and this can be dangerous specially if you don't rehydrate properly before, during and after the class. And even if you do I still have my doubts that loosing so much water each day is good for the body.
- One of the things that I liked the most was the energy and enthusiasm of the teachers, obviously needed to lead such a class. They were all very friendly, warm and welcoming which made it a joy to come to class each day. Sure they shout at you during the class but that's just part of their training.
Is Bikram Yoga really Yoga?
But the question is... is this really yoga? During the class they say things like "this is a meditation class", "focus on your breath" or "relax, concentrate, meditate", but... is that enough to call it yoga? Or are these words just cliché?
This is not such an easy question to answer and if I we get into the philosophical aspects of yoga this could become a very long discussion... even brushing your tees can be a form of yoga.
But considering that ahimsa and satya are not incorporated into the practice, and because of the lack of a proper relaxation and space to center yourself I wouldn't call this yoga, at all. In my opinion the emphasis in Bikram Yoga is basically to have a good workout and that's not the goal of yoga.
To give you a different perspective. If you see somebody sitting in a meditation posture you might think that the person is meditating but if in reality that person instead of making an effort to focus the mind on an object of concentration is actually using that time to think about all the day's activities and what needs to be done the next day then that can't be called meditation, although externally it might look like the person is actually meditating.
In the same way if somebody practice the hatha yoga postures without incorporating some basic elements then in my personal opinion that can't be called yoga.
"The vehicle [body] is run through the infusion and interaction of subtler forces and essences. The practice of Hatha Yoga is incomplete unless some of these subtler essences such as mind and prana are understood. The moment these forces are understood, the practice of hatha yoga unblocks the channels through which the essences are infused into the body during the practice of hatha. Without this hatha merely becomes another system of physical exercise. [...] It is imperative that yoga should not be reduced merely to another form set of physical exercises. The science of yoga should remain a method for gaining the higher ground of awareness." Swami Veda Bharati - Philosophy of Hatha Yoga
Would I recommend Bikram Yoga?
If somebody asks for my opinion my straight answer would be:
If you want to practice the science that was developed by the ancient Indian yogis not only for its physical benefits but for its mental and spiritual benefits then I would have to say stay away from Bikram Yoga.
But if you like to workout with intensity and to push yourself to the limits while at the same time developing flexibility, concentration and stamina then you might like to try a Bikram Yoga class. However do listen to your body, rehydrate properly and if you have low or high blood pressure you better consult with your doctor before going to a class.
I know Bikram Yoga is really popular, probably one of the most popular forms of "yoga" practiced nowadays, they have centers all around the world and I'm sure there are many positive stories like this one shared by another blogger: My First Time Doing Hot Yoga. Personally I would love to try it again but certainly not as a yoga practice, instead just as a good workout.
What is your opinion? Have you practice Bikram Yoga? What is your personal experience with Bikram Yoga? Is this really yoga? Or do you prefer not to judge and just practice? Please feel free to share your thoughts.