I know a slew of die-hard yogis that wake up at the crack of dawn every morning to go to their Bikram yoga studios with insane attendance goals like 30, 60 or 90 classes in a row (don't you people ever get sick?) and I've always wondered: is Bikram yoga really a workout? I had always had my doubts, but when I actually tried it out for myself, those doubts turned into a big, whopping NOPE.
Before you start shooting off angry comments, emails and cursing my first born child, let me explain:
For those unfamiliar, Bikram yoga is a series of 28 specific poses and breathing exercises completed in a specific order, in a room heated to about 105 degrees. The whole thing lasts about 90 minutes. Bikram and hot yoga are different. While both are done in a hot room, with Bikram, the workout itself is always the same. Hot yoga is a bit of a blanket term and can involve any type of yoga practice performed in a heated classroom.
On average, a Bikram session will burn around 477 calories per hour for a 150 pound female. Impressive. (But compare that to the 660 calories the same woman would burn running for an hour at an 11 minute mile pace however, and you might not be that impressed anymore.)
Impressed or not, some of the elevated calorie burn of a hot yoga class is due to the body working hard to cool itself down. In any hot yoga class the heart rate does increase, but that doesn't mean there's a higher physical demand on your working muscles or lungs, and thus, a hot room does not make for a more intense workout.
One might also expect to see anywhere from a one to three pound weight loss during class, but this is purely water weight, and will return when you rehydrate. Wrestlers have been using this technique since the singlet was invented: sweat to drop weight. It works, you will literally weigh less (the amount of water you sweat out) but the second you rehydrate, you are right back to where you started. No extra calories have been burned and no extra fat stores have been utilized for fuel because you are sweating.
While the hot room does not make for a more intense workout, this brings us to the question, is yoga, heated or not, a sufficient workout? To put it simply, not entirely and it depends on the type. Flow and Power yoga, which are fast moving and challenging, will put enough stress on the muscles for them to grow stronger. Other, gentler forms will do little more than challenge your flexibility and mental focus--which we all need from time to time. Bikram falls into the latter category.
I knew Bikram was a series of 28 postures ahead of time. What I didn't expect, however, was how low-intensity those postures would be. Don't get me wrong: the balancing is tough, my poses were far from perfect and I left drenched, tired and sore. Granted, the soreness was more in my connective tissue from stretching rather than my muscles themselves and the sweat was from baking in a polished, hardwood oven.
You may think I just have a gripe with yoga--that I'm one of those "If I'm not slangin' iron it ain't real working out!" but au contraire, mon fraire. I love yoga. It helped me quit smoking, has brought my crippling back pain down to a dull roar and makes for impressive party tricks. What I do have a gripe with is people jumping on a fitness trend and pouring their whole health into it without knowing the facts.
I was shocked there was not a downward dog to be done, no inversions to try to perfect and I spent more time on my back and butt than anything else. But when it really comes down to it, if I leave a 90 MINUTE LONG workout and feel like I have quite a bit of gas left in my tank, I feel my time would have been better spent on something else.
That's not to say Bikram isn't without its benefits. A hotter atmosphere will make your muscles and joints more flexible, so holding these postures for an extended period of time will go further for increasing your flexibility than doing the same workout in a moderate temperature climate. Sweating is a very detoxifying, purifying process and you will leave feeling completely refreshed and rejuvenated. Your muscles will gain endurance as most of the postures are held for an extended period of time and I can't stress enough the importance of developing a mind/body connection.
Much about yoga is living the lifestyle, and many studios and die-hard yogis encourage you to practice every day, but Bikram yoga as your only form of exercise is counter-productive to your time and your results. Your muscles must be worked through their full range of motion, against resistance, a minimum of two times a week to properly develop. Yoga--in all forms -just doesn't offer that.
Does simply being in a hot room mean you are working out more intensely? No. The only thing that controls the intensity of your workout is you. The same amount of work is required to get you through your workout, you'll just feel more uncomfortable in a hot room because it's so. effing. hot.
I will be the first to admit that exercise isn't always about pushing your body as hard as it can go. I loved Bikram yoga, and have been back many times, but as a supplement to regular running, spinning and strength training. Bikram yoga cannot be your only form of exercise, but it's great for healing, stretching, detoxifying, mental focus, clarity of mind and muscle endurance. But in terms of weight loss and proper muscle strength and definition, you're better off burning calories through hard work, not a cranked up thermostat.
Kelly Turner is a Seattle-based ACE-certified personal trainer and professional fitness writer. She began writing after becoming frustrated with the confusing and conflicting fitness information in the media and the quick-fix, gimmick-centered focus of the fitness industry itself. Her no-nonsense, practical advice has been featured on DietsInReview.com, FitnessMagazine.com, Yahoo! Shine, and she has a regular fitness column in The Seattle Times. Kelly has her own blog at www.kellyturnerfitness.com or follow her on Twitter @KellyTurnerFit.