Is Bikram yoga really good for you?

Milly Stilinovic
Thursday, December 16, 2010
"A drop in blood pressure, loss of consciousness and healthy brain function can be disrupted"
Milly Stilinovic

While many enthusiasts preach of the benefits of Bikram yoga, some critics deem the practice at such high temperatures unsafe. Milly Stilinovic, 31, takes on a five-day challenge to find out.

In the sweltering heat of the studio graceful swans in the front row lunge into an elegant triangle pose. The back row rookies, looking more like broken fence posts, attempt to mimic the experienced students.

It was the last day of a five-day stint and I was hell-bent on being victorious. Through the sweat and light headedness I slowly lurch to the right.

My sweaty palm wraps around my big toe, my left arm reaches to the sky, and for a millisecond I am the embodiment of mind over matter — before I crumble out of alignment.

What is Bikram?

Bikram, created by yogiraj Bikram Choudhury, is a school of hard knocks-style yoga taking Australia by storm. The practice is a series of 26 traditional yoga postures and breathing exercises in a studio heated to 38 degrees celsius with 40 percent humidity.

While many enthusiasts preach of the benefits of Bikram, some critics deem the practice at such high temperatures unsafe.

"Yoga and exercising is important for health but I don't see any benefit of the heat," says Dr Vijay Solanki, head of cardiology at Hornsby Hospital.

Dr Solanki advises there is a potential risk of dehydration which could lead to a number of complications. "A drop in blood pressure, loss of consciousness and healthy brain function can be disrupted," he says.

Despite these potential hazards, many studios recommend a 30 to 60-day (daily) Bikram challenge to reap the full benefits.

"A fever is your body's way of healing itself. That is why we use the heat," says owner of Bondi Junction's PureBikram studio Scott Valentine.

With yoga mat in hand I embark on five days of Bikram to get to the bottom of the Bikram debate, right down to the last Asana (pose):

The challenge

Milly's before stats:

  • Weight: 53.8kg
  • Waist girth: 64cm
  • Blood pressure: 96/55 (healthy low).
  • Blood test: healthy

Day one

Every hamburger and extra glass of wine I have ever consumed is being sweated through my pores. I have officially sworn to a future diet of wheat grass shots and organic food. Being so taxing on the body, Bikram has three golden rules:

  • Drink two litres of water before arrival.
  • Come on a near-empty stomach.
  • Front row leads and the back row follows (you will be grateful for the guidance experienced students offer).

Day two
The voice of the instructor, Marketa, echoes through the class coaxing us through the uttanasana or forward bend pose. "Last chance to lock your knees!" she says.

Remembering the encouraging words from systems administrator and Bikram enthusiast Imelda Gunawan, I push through the pain and try to touch my nose to my knee caps.

"There are days where my practice isn't perfect, but just in like in life there are always ups and downs," she says.

Gunawan has practiced Bikram on an almost daily basis for the past three years. The 31 year old has noticed a dramatic change in her energy levels, strength and attitude towards life.

"There are always struggles inside the class, but if you can overcome the struggles, you are ready to face the world in real life," she says.

I won't be locking my knees but I won't be giving up so easily either.

Day three
The musty smell of the studio is bothersome and I feel like a broken human water bottle.

Associate Professor in Exercise Science and president of Exercise and Sports Science Australia (ESSA), Jeoff Coombes, emphasises the importance of going at your own pace.

"As with any physical challenge you need to allow the body to adjust to the increased load and this needs to be done progressively," he says.

Professor Coombes, who does Bikram once a week, has completed the 30-day challenge and recommends the experience.

"As long as (you) prepare appropriately. This includes discussing it with your doctor and building up to going three to four times a week before starting the challenge," he says.

I heed the words of Professor Combes and move to the back row. No human pretzels for me today.

Day four
Blood is pulsing in my temples and the ceiling wavers before my eyes, but the stifling heat has become tolerable after four classes.

"Choudhury loves his cars, particularly Toyotas, and his philosophy is the body is like a car," says Valentine.

The 46 year old has been practising Bikram for more than 15 years and teaching it for eight.

"Bikram gives us a check list to follow. If the check list is followed correctly your body, like a Toyota, will be fine tuned," he says.

Valentine, who was once a gymnast, stunt double and all-round daredevil, spent most of his life suffering respiratory problems and placing his body in extreme conditions.

After suffering debilitating lower back injuries he was introduced to Bikram by a friend. Ever since then he has made it his life calling to share the practice of Bikram with others.

"Something happens to you inside a practice which is unexplainable. The only way you can debate the positives or negatives is to experience the practice for yourself," he says.

Day five
Sydney-based general practitioner, Dr David Pan, reads over my results:

Milly's after stats:

  • Weight: 53.7kg
  • Waist girth: 64cm
  • Blood pressure: 101/55
  • Blood test: Healthy

"There has been no change whatsoever, therefore, it is up to you to decide whether the practice was beneficial or not," he says.

And it comes to an end

Grateful to enjoy the last few minutes of the class in Savasana (corpse pose), I allow the cool breeze coming from the open window wash over my sweaty and tired frame.

Bikram is not for everyone. It's for goal-orientated individuals who seek focus and have a desire to push their limits of endurance.

Follow instructions and do not expect your practice to be perfect. That is why it is called a practice.


Have you benefited from Bikram? Have your say below!

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