Bikram yoga, commonly known as “hot yoga,” continues to draw ardent supporters as well as harsh critics.
This style of practicing yoga in a heated room is still popular with a slice of yoga enthusiasts despite a scandal that apparently prompted the creator of this form of yoga to leave the United States (more on that later).
Overall, yoga continues to grow in popularity in the United States.
A 2016 survey estimated that 36 million Americans practice some form of yoga. That was up from 20.4 million in 2012.
Women make up 72 percent of yoga participants. People between the ages of 30 and 49 make up 43 percent of practitioners.
There aren’t any firm numbers on how many of these people practice hot yoga, but those that do say they enjoy sweating it out.
A Bikram yoga class moves through a fixed series of traditional poses in a 90-minute session, in a room with an air temperature of 105℉ (40℃) degrees and 40 percent humidity. Many studios tinker with the formula in order to offer their own versions of hot yoga.
However, you won’t find such a setting at Yoga Shala in Portland, Oregon.
For the 25-year yoga devotee, “hot yoga” is a contradiction in terms. Classic yoga should be practiced without profuse sweating or an elevated heart rate, she told Healthline in 2015.
And the practice is not about extremes. It’s about listening to your body without distractions, she said.
“The idea is if you’re sweating a lot, the session is too difficult. You can be lightly sweating, but if your [breathing] or your heart rate starts to go up, you’re supposed to take a break.
“So to put yourself into a hot room, and do that on purpose, it’s not what yoga was designed to do,” she said. “You’re supposed to be cultivating prana, or energy, not dispersing it.”
She says hot yoga practitioners get addicted to the endorphins their bodies produce in response to being pushed further than they want to go.
“Yoga is not about extremes,” Kurilla said. “As the Dalai Lama said, the highs are very high, the lows are very low, and the middle is very boring. But after time, it becomes much more profound.”
Caplan briefly tried Bikram and doesn’t recommend it for students.
Pregnant women and people with diabetes or any sort of cardiovascular problem, including high blood pressure, should avoid hot yoga, according to recommendations from ACE and Canadian health groups.
Rissel said she’s seen pregnant women in hot yoga classes, but they were acclimated because “they’d been doing it for years.”
People with preexisting health conditions should talk to their doctor before beginning a hot yoga program to make sure they aren’t at a higher risk for complications.
When taking a hot yoga class, it’s also important to pay close attention to the way your body’s feeling.
Healthline’s medical network advises anyone who experiences adverse effects while in a hot yoga class to leave immediately and seek medical care.
Bikram Yoga instruction style
Critics say part of what sets Bikram apart even from other forms of hot yoga is the style of instruction.
While most yoga classes, including many hot ones, encourage students to take things at their own pace, Bikram instructors often don’t.
According to critics, teachers trained at the Bikram Yoga College follow a script.
The script calls for them to encourage students to stretch further into their poses and to not leave the room if they feel overwhelmed by the heat. Instructors sometimes follow students out of the room to persuade them to come back in.
Some liken the instructional style to boot camp.
But Rissel defended the instructors’ efforts to keep students in the yoga studio. The rationale is “mindfulness,” she said, or encouraging students to simply accept their feelings rather than escape them. Mindfulness can be effective at helping people handle psychological stresses.
However, the persistent urgings of Bikram instructors make it difficult for some people to listen to their own bodies, Caplan said.
It’s hard to recognize your limits, she said, “when you’re pretty much being told, ‘This is how you do it: Go deeper, go deeper!’”