The Bikram “hot” yoga craze is all the rage at our gyms, but with so much conflicting information on whether it’s actually good for us, it’s hard to know what to trust. Here’s what Bikram yoga is all about and what the most recent scientific research says.
What is Bikram/Hot Yoga?
The exercise plan was developed by Bikram Choudhury who created a 90-minute, 26-posture series of moves (loosely based on existing postures) and two breathing exercises which he has dubbed Bikram yoga. The sequence, which must be followed precisely, is done in a room heated to 40 degrees Celsius, or 104 degrees Fahrenheit which, Choudhury says, is supposed to mimic the climate of India, his home country.
Bikram yoga has become a celebrity darling with enthusiasts including David Beckham and Lady Gaga, and many gyms now offer hot yoga programs. However, it’s worth mentioning that while hot yoga and Bikram yoga are usually thought of as synonymous, Choudhury owns the rights to the particular sequence of moves that make up Bikram yoga, so while Bikram yoga might be hot yoga, not all hot yoga programs are necessarily Bikram yoga.
What Do Bikram Yogi‘s Claim are the Health Benefits?
We’ll put aside a series of disturbing sexual harassment allegations and lawsuits made against Choudhury, and concentrate instead on the actual claims made about his exercise regime.
General claims say that because the very hot temperatures and challenging yoga poses require the body to work even harder than a normal yoga session would allow for, practitioners should expect to lose weight rapidly by burning more calories, or so the theory goes. Some practitioners even claim you can burn 1,000 calories per session. There are also “detoxification” claims, but these are very nebulous and mean very little in terms of real-life science.
There are also anecdotal reports of various posture-related health problems being eased or even “cured” by Bikram yoga–that’s not that surprising given that yoga has shown some promise in helping manage joint pain relating to things like arthritis. It is worth noting that there’s also some evidence that yoga can make things worse for joint pain sufferers, though this may be due to performing the exercises incorrectly or too frequently.
Hot yoga is credited with helping fight mild to moderate depression in some people–but this probably because all meditation (mindfulness being key) has been shown to potentially help people deal with some depressive symptoms, as well as exercise’s known ability to boost mood in most people.
There are other claims that are somewhat wilder–for instance, that Bikram yoga has cured conditions like Lyme disease, Hepatitis and, yes, even cancer. Needless to say, there’s no testable evidence for these claims.
What Does the Science Actually Say About Bikram: Can Hot Yoga Help You Lose Weight?
Given all those health claims, you might think that Bikram or hot yoga has been heavily studied, that the weight loss claims at least are verified and that it’s been shown to be safe to be that warm for that long and with that much physical exertion. Unfortunately, not.
There are very few scientific studies published and while a number are currently in the works, particularly looking into how hot yoga might help elevate mood, there’s very little in the way of hard facts.
That’s where researcher Dr. Brian L. Tracy, a scientist at Colorado State University, hoped to make a contribution with his latest study, and though it is a relatively small one, it is the first of its kind to tackle the weight loss claims.
Tracy and his team took 19 regular Bikram practitioners aged 18 to 40. The group was comprised of 11 women and eight men. They put them through a Bikram session and tracked what happened to their bodies.
The research showed that participants had an elevated heart rate of about 160 beats per minute (which for exercising is within tolerance) and had core temperatures at about 100.3 degrees Fahrenheit, again a safe range for someone exercising. The latter figure supports previous research that says that Bikram yoga is safe for most people, though the very obese or pregnant women, or those with underlying or long term conditions should consult a doctor before participating.
But, what about those weight loss claims?
From tracking the body’s average metabolic rate, or in essence how many calories the activity burned, the results were perhaps more disappointing. The research showed that calorie expenditure was roughly the same as walking briskly at 3.5 miles an hour/5.6 kilometers an hour, for 90 minutes.
As to the claim that you could burn 1,000 calories per session, the research found that the men in the sample tended to burn 460 calories while the women hit around 330–this difference is attributed to body composition, though with a larger sample size that difference might have narrowed. This 1,000 calorie claim may be due to an honest mistake however. The calculation that you would use to work out how many calories would be burned during this session isn’t applicable in hot temperatures, and so would have artificially elevated the calorie use score.
Tracy also tried this on a similarly-sized sample who didn’t regularly exercise. They showed about the same rates of calorie expenditure. Researchers were particularly disappointed with this as usually when people first begin exercising there is a pronounced effect on the body.
“To be honest, we were pretty surprised by the small size of the weight change, because when you’re in the Bikram studio you feel like you’re working really hard,” Tracy is quoted as saying.
However, Tracy’s team has previously found that Bikram can offer significant gains in things like muscle control and balance, and can lead to small increases in muscle mass. There may also be mood boosting effects.
Is Bikram Yoga Right For You?
If your primary goal is weight loss, hot yoga probably isn’t the ideal fit for you, especially because the larger you might be the more likely you are to suffer the effects of the heat in which Bikram yoga is practiced. Better alternatives might be the brisk walking suggested above, which would feel challenging but probably not as much as the yoga, or alternative activities like swimming or running. You could supplement this with yoga if you liked but for expending calories it isn’t the smartest choice.
For those looking for as much of a mental challenge as a physical one though, Bikram does seem like a safe option for many people, and if you are looking at improving your stability and posture there is at least some data to say that Bikram is at least as good as most other forms of yoga.
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