Yoga has always piqued my interest as a potentially useful tool to help unwind years of unyielding stiffness and poor mobility. Although modern yoga is not a complete movement practice, any method of training that has survived for thousands of years and is used by many of the world’s best movers has something going for it in my book.
The use of heat for the purpose of improving health is also centuries old, with a strong tradition of Sauna in the Nordic countries and Germany. Rhonda Patrick, a PhD in biomedical science, is a strong proponent of hyperthermic conditioning (sauna) for improved endurance, increasing muscle mass and formation of new brain cells, amongst other things. In this report she cites 37 studies to back up her claims that sauna is good for us.
With these things in mind, and with the increasing popularity of Bikram yoga, Sara and I decided to give it a go last week. Of course, it is usually unfair and impossible to judge a particular method after only one attempt. So, this blog is in no way a definitive judgement of Bikram yoga, rather, my thoughts after the first experience. Read on to find out if it was also my last.
As we took our place in 40 degree room, with the instructor standing on her podium at the top of the room, it didn’t take long to realize that the whole session was an ad-verbatim recital of a Bikram yoga script. It turns out that the script is standardized and instructors are told not to deviate from it, which made me feel like we were in the McDonald’s of Yoga, the same experience no matter where in the world you are. I haven’t asked a long-term Bikram participant yet, but surely this becomes very boring after a while, not to mention for the instructor who might do ten classes every week?!
Here are some of the things we were told during the session that provoked a critical ear.
“It should hurt” It is often said that the first job of strength and conditioning coaches is to ‘do no harm’. Encouraging people to move into pain seems to run contrary to this fairly sound advice. The ‘no pain, no gain’ culture has done more harm than good. While many good coaches and therapists are doing their best to help people out of pain, having Bikram yoga instructors all over the world advising people that yoga poses should hurt is bad practice.
“Flexibility/Mobility” These terms were always said one after the other, as if they are interchangeable but it is important to understand the distinction between the two. The differences between flexibility and mobility have important implications for how we train to improve joint ranges of motion and is described sucintly by Andreo Spina:
“Flexibility can be defined as the amount of passive movement available across an articulation…Mobility on the other hand, defined as flexibility + control, represents the amount of usable motion across an articulation under the direct control of the central and peripheral nervous system.”
Research has shown that too much flexibility can impede performance and actually increase the risk of injury in athletes, but you can not have too much mobility, as defined by Dr. Spina. The strength and active control we can exhibit at joint end ranges of motion is what makes flexibility useful.
“Feel the pinch in your hips” As a long-time sufferer of hip impingement (FAI), this one made me wince. After undergoing surgery earlier in the year to create some space in the hip joint and hopefully avoid grinding my hips to bits, one can imagine the shock and horror at being told that I should feel the pinch in my hips. Ahh! Closing angle pain at any joint is not a good sign, and if you value your hips more than satisfying your Bikram yoga teacher, should be avoided at all costs.
“Go beyond your flexibility” This oft-repeated line sounds both mysterious and magical, and to be honest I’m not quite sure what it is supposed to mean. Fair enough, if you are practicing yoga it is very possible that you want to increase your available ranges of motion, but I don’t think it’s as easy as she made it sound, and seems like another invitation to dive into the pain cave.
“Lock your knees” Turns out that this infamous phrase has been hotly debated in the online world of yoga, and with good cause. We were told to lock our knees, and that the pose doesn’t begin until your knee is straight. The meaning can be open to interpretation of course but it does appear to prescribe hyper-extension of the knee. While a healthy knee should be able to hyperextend by 5 degrees, and is used as a parameter for ACL rehab, loading the hell out of the knee in hyperextension doesn’t seem right. Now, in my quick google search on the controversial topic I came across this blog post in which a Bikram yoga teacher argues that the phrase means to have the leg straight, not hyperextended. However, in the heat of the moment (last pun of the article), I’m sure it isn’t always understood in that way.
My biggest gripe with the Bikram yoga script is not the odd phrase that may be interpreted in such a way that causes harm, but the fact that is is a one-size fits all approach, which is an inherent flaw in most class-based practices. In fairness, the friendly instructor did give specific instructions a couple of times to help participants who had trouble with certain positions. Another aspect that the class was missing, in comparison to other yoga classes I have attended, was the teacher leading by example and demonstrating the poses. Whereas, standing on a little step rhyming off a script is less than inspiring.
The Heat and Breathing
This was one of the aspects of the class that I was looking forward to the most. As the instructor pointed out, due to the high heat it is important to control the breathing in a relaxed manner throughout the session. There is a lot to be said for improving our breathing mechanics so that we are not chronically over-breathing, or entirely dependent on stress-inducing shallow breathing. I definitely enjoyed being forced to pay close attention to my breathing as we moved through the 26 poses, as well as during the two breathing exercises at the end of the class. Yoga and breathing are intricately linked, and there’s no doubt that encouraging better breathing during yoga, as during mindfulness practice, helps down-regulate the sympathetic nervous system, reducing stress and improving your inner peace.
Bikram Choudhury founded yoga studios in California and Hawaii after emigrating to the United States in the 1970’s, and began offering teaching certifications in the 90’s. He was indeed National India Yoga Champion three years in a row (who knew), but the more I learn about this fella the less I feel like being a follower of his practice. A classic Guru type, who tried to copyright yoga poses that are as old as the hills and is currently being sued for assault by five women. In fact, he is Dickipedia’s latest entry, with the Huffington Post’s fantastic video detailing this achievement.
The session was definitely challenging, no doubt about that. There is also no doubt that the participants, many of them decades older than myself, were much better at getting into positions and holding postures than I was. While most of the class could keep their arms over their heads for as long as was needed, my shoulders got sore and tired and wouldn’t stay up. I know that I would like to be able to keep my arms overhead without getting sore, so there’s something to be said for that.
It would be a stretch to say we were being taught anything rather than being told what to do. I had concerns going into the class about my recently-operated hip and I would still harbor some concern about that. The instructor did made it clear before we started that if a pose wasn’t comfortable we should rest. In saying that, when you are then told to ‘push harder’ and ‘it’s supposed to hurt’, it’s difficult to not keep going. With regards the yoga poses themselves, I don’t have enough experience with yoga to comment on them, but it did feel like there was a lot of forward spine bending. The first thing Sara said after we left was: let’s never return there, and I must admit I agreed.
I still feel like there’s value in being able to assume challenging yoga postures and I still like the idea of using heat to work on my breathing while moving. The other day I listened to an episode of Onnit’s Total Human Optimization podcast with Mike Grey, a yoga teacher who credits Bikram yoga with transforming his entire life for the better. I do find it hard to ignore, though, that Bikram Choudhury is a fraud by all accounts, so I think for now I’ll find a good yoga teacher, and just go to the sauna after a swim.
Something to look out for in the near future is Kinetic Stretching, which is Functional Range Conditioning‘s answer to yoga. We had the opportunity to take part in a Kinetic Stretching class during the FRC course in Toronto last November, it was hectic and brilliant, and I hope when it is rolled out that there is someone good enough to teach it here in Ireland.
Cairbre is the face behind Feed Me Strength. Currently the Head Strength and Conditioning coach for Arsenal Women FC. He has a passion for athletic performance and an endless curiosity about the inner workings of the body and mind.
UKSCA accredited, with a Sport and Exercise Sciences BSc, and Sports Performance MSc from the University of Limerick.