Stern: Bikram Yoga: the bad and the ugly

For the 15-dollar student discount price of one class at Bikram Yoga New Haven, one would hope you get at least some of the benefits claimed of hot yoga practice, like increased flexibility, strength, lung capacity and blood circulation. But it turns out that you may also be paying for a practice that actually impairs your health in some ways. According to its founder, Bikram Choudhury, this style of yoga increases mental and physical health by pushing both beyond their everyday limits. While we can all probably agree that some challenge is healthy, some people condemn the practice for pushing yogis beyond a reasonable, gainful strain to a realm that is taxing, stressful and contrary to the fundamental yogic principles.

Critics believe that the extreme temperatures and dampness of Bikram yoga rooms poses a high risk of causing overheating or dehydration. Since classes are usually an hour and a half long, the likelihood of these is high; so high, in fact, that next to Choudhury’s San Diego training center, medical professionals have set up a tent for those who experience these symptoms, suffer seizures or even pass out.

A more severe concern of these symptoms is heat stroke — when the body rises over 105 degrees Fahrenheit, people become confused, dizzy and nauseous, and the person’s pulse and sweating rates slow down dramatically. Drinking water, which many teachers discourage during the hour and a half long classes, doesn’t rectify these problems because sweating causes a loss of salts in addition to the liquid. In fact, drinking only water without the accompanying salts like potassium or sodium can lead to a condition known as hyponatremia, which can cause sudden death from a heart attack. And this isn’t the only threat to your heart.

Choudhury argues that Bikram yoga helps blood circulate through the body by the acts of extension and compression associated with holding and releasing muscles in the exercises. Modern medicine has seen little proof of the positive effect of oxygenated blood rushing after it was cut off from a local region of the body. In fact, many physicians in India advise patients with blood disorders such as high blood pressure, hypertension and heart disease to avoid yoga asanas (postures) like headstands and handstands that cause a rush of blood to the torso and cut off circulation from the limbs. Even some seated postures can cause blood flow complications; the rapid exhaling of “kabalabhati breath” performed at the end of a Bikram session can cause internal bleeding for patients with ulcers.

Athletes seeking muscular cross-training with Bikram yoga should beware too: Doctors are seeing a surge of patients whose misapplied yoga practice has caused injuries in both muscle and bone. Bikram followers believe they can obtain deeper stretching because the extreme heat facilitates elasticity in the muscle tissue. But this deep stretching can easily cause tears because muscles that are stretched beyond 20 to 25 percent of their resting length begin to be damaged, according to Dr. Robert Gotlin, director of orthopedic and sports rehabilitation at the Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan. The contortions associated with Bikram’s 26 poses, particularly the Hero and Camel poses, are especially likely to cause damage to lower back, groin, knees and ankles. The 12th pose in the Bikram sequence, “toe stand pose,” has been the cause of knee cartilage and cruciate ligament tears.

You might wonder how this dichotomy is possible: How can so many people praise a practice with myriad potential harms? The answer may lie in a misunderstanding: not of the yoga postures, but of the human body performing them. Many Bikram teachers do not take appropriate precautions to protect their students, sometimes because they are trained inadequately or incorrectly. One of Bikram Yoga Manhattan’s teacher, Jeanne Heaton, claims “if it hurts, do it more” to cure ailments. While these words may be alluring to those suffering from excruciating herniated discs or arthritis, they have the potential to lend false hope. In fact, many people take up Bikram yoga to heal herniated discs, but the Mayo Clinic recommends a conservative treatment of “avoiding painful positions.” Blame for yoga injuries is also on the patient’s shoulders: disillusioned by celebrity hype and a desperate hope to heal, the injured student should not decide to engage in exercise that involves conditions they are advised to avoid.

On a more spiritual level, a lot of the problems associated with Bikram yoga seem contrary to traditional yoga themes of peace, meditation and oneness. One of the most controversial aspects of Bikram yoga is its support of competition. But wait … isn’t yoga supposed to decrease or moderate competition and stress associated with our day-to-day lives? Choudhury doesn’t think so. In a recent interview, he said: “Competition is the foundation for all democratic societies. For without ‘competition,’ there is no democracy.” Choudhury’s yogic style certainly caters to American values in other ways as well; he’s working on a reality show, merchandise line and Bikram radio channel. His style is promoted by famous people like Lady Gaga and Richard Nixon, and Bikram himself is a celebrity; he charges for book signings, owns over 40 Rolls Royces and Bentleys, has a watch collection worth millions of dollars — and he shamelessly flaunts it all.

But Choudhury’s personal behavior shouldn’t deter you from pursuing Bikram yoga; as Charles Lamb once said, “He who hath not a dram of folly in his mixture hath pounds of much worse matter in his composition.” Rather, you should enter Bikram’s practice with a knowledge of these concerns and understanding of your own goals — oh, and don’t forget your 15 dollars.

Rebecca Stern is a junior in Berkeley College.

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