Bikram yoga is a unique style of hot yoga. Many of us stumble into a hot yoga class by accident or unaware of the lineage. When I found myself in a Bikram classroom, I was simply looking for yoga classes and found a coupon online for a discounted 30-day trial. I found the practice to be very rewarding, but also very physically and emotionally challenging.
If you are interested in learning more about this practice and wondering if its right for you, this is a great place to start. Begin by learning some of the history of this practice, its intended beneficial purposes, and the sequence of poses that the classes follow. Getting a clear picture of the experience may help you decide if you would like to give it a try. And if you've already tried Bikram and found it wasn't a great fit for you, this article could help to explain why, or perhaps even encourage you to try it again with different expectations.
Bit of Bikram's History
Bikram yoga is rooted in Hatha yoga, but differs greatly in its design and in the hot environment it is practiced within. Bikram Choudhury was the first to popularize practicing yoga in a heated room in 1972 in California. The class he created is taught identically all over the world, as teachers share the same script in every class. It includes the same sequence of asana in the same temperature room.
Who Is Bikram Choudhury?
Bikram Choudhury was born in 1946 in Calcutta, India. He is the founder of Bikram’s Yoga College of India. He began practicing yoga when he was four-years-old under the guidance of the younger brother of Paramahansa Yogananda, Bishnu Ghosh.
When Bikram was 13, he won the National India Yoga Championship three times in a row. However, after hurting his knee when he was 17, doctors told him he would never walk again. Within six months of continuing to practice yoga his knee healed and thus yoga was first scientifically documented as a powerful healing tool.
In the 1970s, he created the Bikram yoga sequence of 26 postures, wrote several books, later became a singer, and has had some recent controversy regarding his personal life.
Aims of Bikram Yoga
The Bikram yoga sequence aims to positively affect every area of the body. Bikram yoga’s official website asserts that it stimulates every organ, vein, ligament and muscle with newly oxygenated blood. It claims that the practice detoxifies the body and improves circulation.
The heated room combined with the asana creates a scientifically designed yoga class that allows muscles and ligaments to warm and stretch. The order of the targeted body parts within the asana sequence is the order in which it is believed the body should be stretched.
Bikram asserts that postures should be done completely accurately in order to achieve the intended benefits. Teachers are trained to push students until they reach their best expression of these postures, as Bikram says that students cannot get all the benefits “until it is done 100 percent correct.”
Anyone who has been to a Bikram yoga class will agree that it greatly differs from its roots in traditional Hatha yoga and many other styles of yoga. It is taught in a classroom that is heated to 82 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) with 40 percent humidity, which is said to mimic the climate of Calcutta.
Classes are taught in front of full-length mirrors so students can check their alignment and expression of the pose, which is a very different environment than traditional Hatha yoga spaces that typically are known to have an altar, no mirrors and a more serene atmosphere.
(Read here on The History of Hatha Yoga.)
I practiced Bikram yoga for a few months in my early yoga days and at the time, I really enjoyed the challenge. I experienced a whole body workout that simultaneously challenged me mentally. Sometimes I would lose my breathing, then the heat would overwhelm me. During these times I personally found the Bikram style yoga teachers to be intrusive as they are taught to be very direct and enthusiastic in their script. However, I followed their directions that as a beginner I should focus on maintaining a calm breath and by staying in the room. On one occasion, I began to experience a panic attack and had to leave the room. Overall, I experienced a physical and emotional transformation after a period of a few weeks of daily practice.
Like many of my fellow students, I found it difficult to replenish my electrolytes throughout this experience without regularly purchasing the packets of electrolyte powder that they sold at the yoga studio's reception. It is very important to make sure you hydrate well before you come to class, and to replenish your electrolytes after each class. If you are not cognizant of this then you may begin to experience lightheadedness, extreme fatigue, nausea or exhaustion as I and many others have.
You may also experience deeper stretching due to the heat in this class. This can be a great tool, but newer students should also ensure they are mindful as it is common for strains and overstretching when the body is not used to these movements. And since you will sweat, it is best to wear minimal clothing; preferably not cotton as it does not breathe easily. You should also bring a towel to place on your yoga mat to prevent slipping.
The Bikram yoga sequence is a set of 26 postures and two pranayama. They are designed to intentionally work every part of the physical body, including external muscles, joints, bones and internal organs in an exact order. In chronological order, the postures are:
- Standing deep breathing (pranayama)
- Half moon pose (ardha chandrasana)
- Awkward pose (utkatasana)
- Eagle pose (garudasana)
- Standing head-to-knee pose (Dandayamana-janushirasana)
- Standing bow pose (Dandayamana-dhanurasana)
- Balancing stick pose (tuladandasana)
- Standing separate-leg stretching pose (dandayamana bibhaktapada paschimottanasana)
- Triangle pose (trikonasana)
- Standing separate-leg head-to-knee pose (dandayamana-bibhaktapada-janushirasana)
- Tree pose (tadasana)
- Toe stand (padangustasana)
- Dead body pose (savasana)
- Wind-removing pose (pavanamuktasana)
- Bikram yoga sit up (pada-hasthasana)
- Cobra pose (bhujangasana)
- Locust pose (salabhasana)
- Full locust pose (poorna-salabhasana)
- Bow pose (dhanurasana)
- Fixed firm pose (supta-vajrasana)
- Half tortoise pose (ardha-kurmasana)
- Camel pose (ustrasana)
- Rabbit pose (sasangasana)
- Head-to-knee pose and stretching pose (janushirasana and paschimottanasana)
- Spine-twisting pose (ardha-matsyendrasana)
- Blowing in firm pose (kapalbhati in vajrasana)
Still Sweating It?
Bikram yoga has many benefits. It is said to expand lung capacity, improve balance, strengthen muscles, promote kidney function, balance sugar levels, develop patience and much more.
Bikram says, “Give me 30 days, I’ll change your body. Give my 60 days, I’ll change your life.” Some individuals -- like those that have vata or pitta doshas according to Ayurveda -- may be drawn to this practice, but find it actually throws them into imbalance. Individuals who experience anxiety could also have adverse effects.
All that being said, anyone interested in this practice should give it a try and see how it works for them! As long as you are making sure to listen to your body and its cues, it can be a powerfully healing practice. It is also a great way to connect to yoga for those individuals looking for a more high intensity workout. This practice incorporates a workout with the mental components of yoga very effectively.