Monday, May 6, 2013

My experience with Bikram Yoga. Is this really yoga?

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.


  1. I've heard about Bikram Yoga and I'm always asked about how good it is by my friends living abroad, I always say go try it and see for yourself. As I have no personal experience i couldn't give any explanation, but this experience of urs has given me a clear picture.

    I'm not quite sure if I would want to put myself through such torture, but don't know when the curiosity will take over... :)

  2. Hi Anisha, nice to hear from you! Well if you get the opportunity I would suggest you to try it, who knows your experience might be quite different than mine... although I don't really think so :-P Is there any Bikram Yoga in Cochin?

  3. Goodness yes, but even more worrying, the mirrored walls and scantily clad ladies. I thought I had entered one of Dante's circles of hell when I tried it out, once, never to return. Bramacharya in Bikram? Not a chance. :D Great post Marco.

  4. Hi Niramisa, you are totally right about Brahmacharya :-D lol, and I didn't mention about the adjustments. Imagine a half naked man laying on top of you to help you go deeper in forward bends!

  5. Oh wow, big EEK!

  6. wo, marco, check what flew by my fb this evening

    1. That's crazy, difficult to prove if if is true or not but if it is it might be the end of Bikrams empire just like what happened with Anusara yoga. Intersting that this news came out just after I publish this article on my bog.

  7. Great article Marco , it could hurt people especially for those who want to learn yoga to heal or recover from an injury

  8. Great insight and article... Thank You. I was lead here through your post on Satya on Google+.
    As I understand, essentially there are only 4 basic principles to Yoga... Action, Breath, Knowledge and Wisdom.
    Awareness (kutastha Chaitanya) can be reached by concentrating on any one of these with complete concentration.
    If Bikram's program consists of the elements as you described then definitely, it is just a workout routine. Yog is much more than that.
    I also loved the article on Satya and truthfulness... a very pleasant read.
    Arise Awake and Stop Not Till the Goal is Reached.

    Tat Twam Asi


  9. I fully agree with you Marco! Bikram is just a workout (more of a booth camp actually) and I always come out of a YB class mentally abused by the teacher yelling at you for one hour and a half!!

  10. Thanks for sharing it. Actually i had no clear concept about it but now i am clear about it. Also i want to know more from your next blog. Thank yoga mat

  11. Hola Marco!! Narcis escribiendote de Bruselas :-) hace mil anos, heh? ya estoy aprendiendo espanol, pero todavia no me siento capaz decirlo todo en espanol... :-p

    so i switch for a bit. Its so good to read you every once in a while, congratulations and respect for having the courage to go find and follow your path and your heart! i read you but not constantly, however now smth led me back here, i wanted to say hi and a few words.

    bikram was my first experience with yoga, some 2 years ago, in the end it led me to others, but i must say that it can be less torturing than what you describe here :) i had the luck to try it with teachers who were both encouraging and motivating in a way that i wanted to push myself, no shouting and no military locked up inside the room. But indeed its very strong physically, most schools in bxl though strongly recommend to read all the helpful instructions first to know what to expect. i loved it for a while, also due to the fact that being so hard on the body, the mind has to focus there and then, cant wonder too much, it helped to stay in the moment, letting go of all the little million thoughts and worries of each day. There was always time to relax after class, i guess the indians in bxl are softer than the ones in the US :-)

    but after a while i started to want smth else and is how i discovered vinyasa, later on hot flow, which around here is basically more or less the same, vinyasa done at 30 celsius, not 40 like bikram. my preferred for now is this hot flow :) im proud to say i practice quite regularly at least once a week yoga, while also going on with my sports training and swimming weekly as well.

    i recently came back from india, in fact, in what it was supposed to be a spiritual experience. I was in the south, in Auroville, close to Pondicherry, with a group organized by someone in Belgium. Not quite what we were promised but the experience proved very intense even so, thanks to unexpected circumstances, and i mean that in a very good way :) we stayed at a tibetan family so my experience is less indian related than it is very much linked to the tibetan compassion and kindness i was emerged into for nearly 2 weeks. Such a amazing time, such a different culture! it was my first time in india and of course ive seen almost nothing of the country, but quite curious to discover more. Maybe next year, maybe in the north this time, Id love to go to Dharamsala.

    Marco, i wish you all the best in the world, lots of love and peace of mind, keep following your path, your heart, keep writting to all the rest to encourage more of us to do the same :)


    1. Narcis!!! I'm so happy to hear from you and to get a comment from you on my blog :-)

      Hey, it's good to know that you have a positive experience with Bikram Yoga and that it can be more enjoyable at other places. I must say that I still like that sequence, it felt complete and challenging, and yes you are right, being so challenging helps to keep the mind quiet cause you have to fully focus on the practice, or on surviving the practice :-) The challenge with a gentle hatha practice is to keep the mind present. I haven't tried those other styles yet, just with some videos so not sure if they are the same but I'll keep exploring for sure :-)

      And why you didn't tell me that you were coming to India??? Well, such a big country and I haven't being in the south for a while so highly unlikely that we could have met :-) but good to hear that you made your way to India and have a nice experience within a Tibetan community. If you enjoy the tibetan culture and Buddhism then you should definitely go to Dharmasala, I haven't being there yet but I've heard good things. I can also recommend this beautiful place in Kathmandu, Nepal called Boudhanath, it's fantastic and that's where I'm writing this message from :-)

      Well maybe our path will cross in the near future, that would be great. Thank you for all your positive wishes and encouraging words, I really appreciate those :-) take care and keep smiling :-)

      big warm hugs,