There’s no doubt about it: you wish you were at my family’s breakfast and dinner table this holiday season. Beyond our discussions of whether one should be a citizen at birth or allowed to choose where they want citizenship at the age of 18 (imagine a room full of people who love to play devil’s advocate indulging in this debate), telling stories about older generations that made us all giggle and squirm a bit, and pondering together whether a $150 meal of a burger, fries and champagne was actually a good deal at a local diner, we also got into a heated debate about bikram yoga. You can bet all of us, from Dr. Dad to Dancing Brother to the Mom to Dancing Brother’s Lady had thoughts.
Bikram yoga, for those not versed in the language of yogi, is yoga that is performed in a room that is 100-104 degrees. In other, even more simple terms: it’s ridiculous hot, and you’re going to sweat like you’re in spin class or like you’re lying on a beach at the equator in summer time. So you get your downward dog and sun salutations on in this environment – actually, you move through 26 poses in 90 minutes; Bikram is very specific.
Why would yogarting out in a really hot room be appealing? The theory is that warm muscles are more limber. You’ll be able to stretch more, and increase flexibility. Not only that, but you’ll lose more calories with your massive amounts of sweat running off you like mini Nile Rivers. Your body softens, you loosen up, and you’re detoxing all the waste in your skin and pores at the same time. In theory, this helps with circulation and respiration. Sounds like a win-win, and efficient method of both working out and strengthen/lengthening, right?
Of course, there’s an opposing point of view, which Dr. Dad illuminated when I brought up the fact that I wasn’t clear as to why one would do Bikram in the first place (because honestly, it sounds really hot). He pointed out a few flaws:
1) Exercising in a room that is up to 105 degrees is really freaking hot, and depending on the humidity, really could be unhealthy. When it’s 105 degrees outside in Tempe, Arizona, no one is recommending you go for a run (unless perhaps you’re acclimated to the climate). In theory, yoga rooms are held at 40% humidity, but I’d be curious to know if anyone checks.
2) Yes, muscles you’ve warmed up do stretch more. But that also means it’s possible you put more tears in your muscles as you overstretch them. You can achieve the same effect by doing a series of jumping jacks or suicides or stepping up and down on a stool for ten minutes to warm up your body before your stretching routine. You’d get to stretch out without keeping your muscles and body at 105 degrees for a prolonged period of time.
All this was punctuated by Dancing Brother, who dragged out an article The New York Times posted a few years ago, How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body. A rather unpretty picture is painted of the yoga world, starting with a yogi who teaches simply and with emphasis on awareness, then counters him with discussing improperly trained instructors who are unable to recognize when they themselves or their students are heading toward injury. Fear is fathered with this passage:
But a growing body of medical evidence supports Black’s contention that, for many people, a number of commonly taught yoga poses are inherently risky. The first reports of yoga injuries appeared decades ago, published in some of the world’s most respected journals — among them, Neurology, The British Medical Journal and The Journal of the American Medical Association. The problems ranged from relatively mild injuries to permanent disabilities. In one case, a male college student, after more than a year of doing yoga, decided to intensify his practice. He would sit upright on his heels in a kneeling position known as vajrasana for hours a day, chanting for world peace. Soon he was experiencing difficulty walking, running and climbing stairs.
Even more drastic was the discussion of poses that require standing on ones shoulders, arching the neck, and rotating the head around. Want to know what happens when that is done wrong? (You might not. I wish I didn’t know). Here goes:
Extreme motions of the head and neck, Russell warned, could wound the vertebral arteries, producing clots, swelling and constriction, and eventually wreak havoc in the brain. The basilar artery, which arises from the union of the two vertebral arteries and forms a wide conduit at the base of the brain, was of particular concern. It feeds such structures as the pons (which plays a role in respiration), the cerebellum (which coordinates the muscles), the occipital lobe of the outer brain (which turns eye impulses into images) and the thalamus (which relays sensory messages to the outer brain).
The New York Times article even addresses Bikram directly: The Times reported that health professionals found that the penetrating heat of Bikram yoga, for example, could raise the risk of overstretching, muscle damage and torn cartilage. One specialist noted that ligaments — the tough bands of fiber that connect bones or cartilage at a joint — failed to regain their shape once stretched out, raising the risk of strains, sprains and dislocations. Hm, seems like Dr. Dad was onto something.
What none of this addresses, from the pros to the cons, is the emotional state yoga brings on. No one is denying that any yoga can help reduce blood pressure by reducing stress, improve mental health in the chronically depressed, and even improve sex drive (and probably in some ways sex in general – who hasn’t watched Cirque de Soleil and marveled at what they must be able to do in the bedroom?). But more so, while yoga has never made me more flexible (probably because I’ve never spent much time practicing) it has made me happy. Taking time to clear my mind and to encourage all the thoughts racing through my head to float away makes me feel good.
So there must be a happy medium.
My two cents? Like everything, moderation is key. Not in quantity but in quality. Make sure you’re not over-stretching or taking class from an instructor encouraging you to giraffe yourself out. Be aware that just because you might be getting pressure to bend more, flex more, or flatten more, do what you can (and if you’re in a class that is applying such pressure, I strongly recommend rethinking your instructor). Listen to your body (I know, that sounds cheesy, but you really can do it), seek out an instructor who has anatomical and a science-ish background (or at least someone who is educated about the way the body moves and works) and don’t offer more stress onto your body. I believe there is a lot to be said for the positive attributes of yoga and I’ve watched several friends have their lives changed for the better because of yoga.
Nothing is one size fits all when it comes to health and fitness. Not my thoughts on how to get to running, and not even Dr. Dad’s suggestions on everything under the sun. Everything is simply advice: you can take it or leave it, and it really is up to you to make decisions that are the best for yourself. I think one of the most interesting points of this debate are that students will blame teachers, and I bet teachers will blame students, for the injuries accrued by those who practice yoga. If you take responsibility for yourself, you’re in a far better place to assess any given situation and you’re less likely to get hurt. It’s okay to think critically about your body and exercise routines. Promise.