ScientiFIT The Truth About Bikram Yoga

Published on March 12th, 2012 | by ScientiFIT

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The Truth About Bikram Yoga: Torture Chamber or Just a Fancy Cane?

Establishing the Basics: 

Also known as “hot yoga,” Bikram is a 26-series of yoga poses that are performed in a room heated to at least 105° F with 40%-60% humidity.

Resource for This ScientiFIT Investigation: 

PubMed* search using the keywords “bikram yoga” (search performed in March 2012), returns two results (one positive, one negative)! Just by way of comparison, a keyword search of “hatha yoga” returns 69 hits.

Understanding the Little Dichotomy Known about Bikram Yoga:

“The Positive”: One paper (Hart and Tracy 2008 J Strength Cond) investigates the effect of an 8-week Bikram yoga practice (24 sessions total) on the contractions of a number of muscle groups, as well as on balance time. The data only reveal an increase in balance time of Bikram yoga practitioners.

“The Negative”: The second paper (Lu and Pierre 2007 Am J Psychiatry) suggests negative psychological effects associated with Bikram Yoga. This paper is a case-study of a 33 year-old man with a history of psychosis, who experienced severe hallucinations associated with practice of Bikram yoga. He reported seeing owls speaking to him, “cat-like slits” in people’s eyes, and a cross on his own forehead), paranoia, and a disturbing sense that there was “a battle for control of [his] mind” and that he had “betrayed God.” The patient was later hospitalized and treated for psychosis.

Caveats: 

In the first paper, a multitude of other parameters (with known benefits in other types of yoga) were investigated, none of which showed even modest differences after practice of Bikram yoga. As well, the subjects of the study by Hart and Tracy were healthy young adults (with an average age of 27 years) and no previous history of health/psychological problems. It is not clear whether the modest effects observed in balance time would hold up in a an older population or those with health concerns.

In the second paper, the patient had a history of paranoia and psychosis. As well, he had been eating/drinking poorly in the days leading up to the episode. However, the patient had also been in full psychological remission for 10 years and mild/moderate under-eating/dehydration should not lead to hallucinations.

Conclusions:

1) ScientiFIT finds the minimal amount of empirical evidence in support of Bikram yoga highly disturbing. Not surprisingly, the first paper is widely cited by many Bikram yoga websites. Perhaps not surprisingly, the paper by Hart and Tracy is the only evidence for a single benefit of Bikram yoga (i.e. increase in balance time). Again, just by way of comparison, there are hundreds of scientific papers regarding the multitude of beneficial effects in practice of other types of yoga, such as Hatha and Iyengar.

2) Based on the second paper, it can be concluded that Bikram yoga likely results in severe dehydration that may lead to psychosis, especially in patients with a history of psychological disorders. The effects of Bikram-based practice on the psyche of healthy individuals has not been studied.

Claims for the beneficial effects of Bikram yoga are almost entirely anecdotal and scientific data regarding this type of practice is close to nonexistent. Yet, Bikram yoga has gained significant popularity in the western culture and new “hot yoga” studios are on a rise. 

ScientiFIT Recommendation:

To our knowledge, Bikram yoga has little to no known beneficial effects and even has a documented case of one severely negative outcome. While practice of Bikram yoga may cause release of endorphins (“feel good” chemicals in the brain) primarily caused by the excessive sweating, similar effects can be achieved in a sauna!

ScientiFIT recommends that a far more healthy, physically and psychologically effective, and well-balanced form of yoga is performed at temperatures not exceeding 80° F and with exercises that challenge the body and calm the mind instead of non-strenuous poses that may result in psychosis!

*PubMed is a search interface to Medline, a database consisting of over 12 million citations from over 4,000 journals indexed by the National Library of Medicine in the United States. PubMed is the most common “go-to” website for almost all scientists and is the primary resource used in the writing of all Scientifit articles.

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ScientiFIT is a site that translates the most recent scientific findings in the fields of fitness and nutrition into a language that is easy to understand by all.



12 Responses to The Truth About Bikram Yoga: Torture Chamber or Just a Fancy Cane?

  1. Dan Wilson says:

    I find this very interesting as I started Bikram 2 days ago and I’m very sceptical of all the claimed benefits… :/

    • ScientiFIT says:

      Dan,
      Thank you for your comment. We at ScientiFIT continue to hold our skepticism regarding Bikram yoga as well. We have no bias either for or against it and rate the validity of all health habits based on the evidence that either supports or rejects them. As well, we should mention that since the publication of the ScientiFIT article above, there has been one more peer-reviewed article regarding Bikram yoga that suggests this type of practice improves sleep in young adults (Kudesia et al. ISRN Neurol 2012). The significant limitation in that study is the wide and uncontrolled range of practice days (2-11 days). If one were to rate this study objectively, a 2-11 day range is far too wide to make any conclusions about the link between yoga and sleep. Further, no correlation analyses between number of days of yoga and sleep patterns are provided. Thus, we continue to adhere to our original conclusion that Bikram yoga has limited evidence supporting its benefits. If you have any further feedback in this regard, we would love to hear it. Please do not hesitate to share your comments regarding your practice.

  2. Archie says:

    skepticism based on what? There’s no exercise program that 3x/week for 8 weeks results in anything significant.. Whats the point of BLABING on it when you write there is no empirical evidence..

    • ScientiFIT says:

      Dear reader,

      Thank you for your comment, which raises two very important points:

      1) In fact, there are a multitude of studies demonstrating the beneficial effects of specific exercise regimens in as little as 4 weeks. In fact, we have previously performed a thorough review of just some of these studies (for referenced sources, please refer to: http://www.scientifit.com/intervaltraining/). There are, doubtless, many studies demonstrating similar results with other types of exercises.

      2) One of the main purposes of this website is to provide information and raise awareness. The information provided in the Bikram article (as well as all other articles) is unbiased and reviews both the positive and negative evidence (albeit, in the case of Bikram, limited on both sides- a fact that we clearly indicate). It is then up to the reader to decide whether or not he/she chooses to participate in such exercise regimen. Our job is to be critical, to write articles that are grounded in scientific findings, and inform the public.

  3. Dan Wilson says:

    Hi ScientiFIT,

    I continued with the bikram 3-5 times a week for one month and cancelled my subscription once the time was up. I havent done enough reading into the pros and cons of Bikram itself but I’d like to make a few points.

    The Bikram yoga class I attended was £100 a month, the price of some of the top gyms in London.
    The claimed benefits such as release of negative energy and “toxins” through sweat is total nonsense.
    The military style in which some of the instructors choose to teach the class (and apparently reminiscent of Bikram’s own style). Is annoying, frustrating and completely the opposite of everything yoga is about. Shouting and clapping and singling out students who aren’t performing as well as others totally put me off this complete con.

    Thanks for the reply by the way!

    • ScientiFIT says:

      Dear Dan,

      Thank you for updating us on your status. I think that other readers will find your experience helpful. If you get a chance, would you please let us know if you have tried other forms of yoga? We have previously commented on the potential benefits of traditional yoga (please see http://www.scientifit.com/yogabenefits) and would be curious to know if you have any experiences to share in that regard.

  4. bob says:

    I do Bikram once a week as supplemental training, I believe that is beneficial enough for me, though i don’t see the benefits doing it every day. From my personal experience I have found Bikram to improve DOMs muscle recovery and a calmer focus on my tolerence to pain. I do strength and cardio cross training 5 days a week in conjunction to martial arts. The “sweating out toxins” is a known myth. But i like the sessions, it does push the body hard in regards to mind body focus. Though I agree, extensive peer reviewed scientific research needs to go into finding out what effects Bikram actually has. I believe there are some out there, though there may be bad ones too. Bikram Choudry has been unscrupulously cashing in on these claims he makes so they need to be settled.

  5. Alizabeth Wilson says:

    Here’s a master’s thesis from 2010 that documents improved “mindfulness, perceived stress, and physical fitness”: http://scholarworks.boisestate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1112&context=td

    I’m not biased for or against Bikram, I’ve only gone to two classes and am a bit meh about it. I really can’t stand all the stuff they say during the class about how Bikram benefits the body (because I have a strong feeling they are just spouting nonsense), so I looked up whether there is any scientific study of it and found that thesis and this page. Just thought I’d put it on this page for further reference.

    • ScientiFIT says:

      Dear Alizabeth,

      Firstly, thank you very much for doing your due diligence and investigating the matter independently. This type of attitude is precisely what ScientiFIT aims to cultivate. Second, thank you for sharing your findings with us and the rest of the ScientiFIT community. We sincerely appreciate this type of active engagement.

      We just want to point out a couple of items:

      1) While incredibly valuable, theses (whether master’s or doctoral) are not the same as peer-reviewed publications. In the latter, the findings have been vetted and criticized by a group of scientists and therefore, the impact of the data is significantly increased. At ScientiFIT, we predominantly limit our source of references to peer-reviewed publications.
      2) Again, while we appreciate the work done on this thesis, it is important to note (and the author also points out this limitation) that there is no control group included in the study, which makes the interpretation of the results very difficult.

      Having said that, we are happy that you have shared your findings with us and please continue to engage!

  6. Yvonne says:

    Well…
    I started Bikram Yoga 15 months ago and truly believe that it is very beneficial!!
    A practice regime of 3x/week for 8 weeks will not show a great deal of change.
    The results come gradually with time.
    We shall not forget our determination and full commitment to each class during the progress.

    There were 3 major health problems that I have been dealing with for more than 10 years.

    1. Plantar plantar fasciitis; diagnosed 4 years ago. Orthodic devices did not help!
    I was in constant agony – day and night. Cortisone injections were the only solution which I rejected. Instead I picked up Bikram Yoga.
    After a month of Bikram Yoga the pain declined immensely and has now completely diminished.

    2. Polycystic ovarian syndrome; diagnosed in my mid 20’s (now 37). After a year of yoga practice
    I put “Eagle Pose” to the test and took myself off the pill. According to Bikram, this pose
    strengthens lower extremities, joint mobility for hip girdle and all 12 major joints.
    By creating pressure in the joints and releasing allows fresh blood supply to flow in.
    Control of sexual energies, improves function of central nervous system
    Within 4 weeks I menstruated the 1st time in my life completely naturally.
    Yes, before my yoga regime the same trial was excecuted; I had taken myself off the pill …12 months later – no period.

    3. Pelvic Hip Rotation. Kept me suffering since my early 20’s.. Constant back pain. Chiro visits 3 x per month at least. When I started Bikram, it actually got worse than better. I found a FANTASTIC chiropractor, with his help and in accordance with practice I’m as good as new. Mind you, some poses required a much gentler approach during the “healing process”. 6 months later… I never felt better in my entire life and chrio visits have gone down to 3 visits a year.

    This is my personal experience with yoga. It requires dedication, patience and commitment.
    People that have been practicing yoga for many years should be part of a “scientific approach” because it takes time seeing the results.

    Based on my own journey I’m actually considering becoming a Bikram Yoga Teacher

    • ScientiFIT says:

      Dear Yvonne,

      We appreciate you sharing your feedback and thank you for engaging in this very important conversation. There is no doubt that different individuals will have different experiences from the same practice and your comment is a testament to that rule. As well, we agree that there is a necessity for more long-term research on Bikram/hot yoga.

      Having said that, we just want to remind the readers that the goal of our website is precisely to explore the SCIENTIFIC aspect of popular health habits, which is why we steer clear from anecdotal feedback. While we appreciate the value of individualized experiences, we believe that for the majority, scientific data should guide health habits. As a result, we encourage everyone to turn to evidence in their lifestyle choices. We merely want to instigate critical thinking.

      Regardless, we wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors and thank you again for sharing your experience with us.

  7. Very nice article, just what I wanted to find.

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