Bikram yoga is hot in every sense of the word. More than 500 studios and a million practitioners worldwide are a movement fueled by the promise of extraordinary health benefits from following a yoga routine in the equivalent of a steam bath. (See Reference 7) Bikram is the best-known hot yoga, and its founder claims the sweaty regimen will cure everything from chronic diseases to flabby midsections. The 90-minute sessions may burn away old samskaras; and they will definitely burn off calories.
Thanks to the heated studio and vigorous, constant moving, the calories lost practicing Bikram yoga challenges such energy-burning activities as aerobics, cross-country skiing and racquetball. (See Reference 6) Everyday Health estimates that an hour of Bikram yoga for a 150-pound person will burn 408 calories. (See Reference 1) Health Status calculates as much as 477 calories for one hour and 716 calories for a full 90-minute class. (See Reference 2) Bikram's classes are held in rooms heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, with controlled humidity. Founder Bikram Choudhury has called his studios torture chambers, but asserts that the high temperatures keep muscles so warm and flexible that students can do difficult poses safely in a challenging 90-minute routine. (See Reference 3)
Sequence and Strengthening
The nonstop sequence of 26 standard yoga poses, typically performed twice per class, challenges your cardiovascular system while strengthening your muscles. (See Reference 3) The aerobic benefit is a class active enough to raise your heart rate and burn fat calories. The Mayo Clinic recommends getting 75 to 150 minutes each week of aerobic activity to maintain fitness and reach weight loss goals. A 90-minute Bikram class will satisfy that requirement, with poses that use body weight to strengthen muscles, which leads to higher metabolism as muscles burn energy even in a resting state. Awkward pose, Eagle, Standing Head-to-Knee, Standing Bow, Balancing Stick, Triangle pose, Tree pose, Toe Stand and Full Locust are some of the Bikram poses that use your own weight for resistance as you hold them while practicing breathing asanas.
Muscle's Magic Hormone
The emphasis on body weight-bearing poses in Bikram sequences may extend the calorie cost even more dramatically than Bikram claims. Harvard researchers recently discovered the hormone irisin is produced when muscles are exercised. (See Reference 4) Irisin travels through the bloodstream, altering fat cells. White fat cells store fat. Brown fat cells do not; they do burn it. Irisin decreases the number of white fat-storing cells and increases brown fat-burning cells. So, the exercise in an intense Bikram session works muscles which produce irisin and tones the muscles that keep them burning calories long after class. (See Reference 5) A win-win for your weight-loss plan.
Some weight loss you may experience from Bikram yoga results from sweating. The heated studios and constant humidity, plus the temperature boost from a room full of sweaty bodies, work your body's cooling mechanism to the max. So, failure to stay hydrated can put you at risk for heat exhaustion and might aggravate existing medical conditions. (See Reference 8) Acclimate to the heat gently as you first begin the practice, even if you don't complete the entire routine. Be alert to signs of heat distress like dizziness and headache. And check with your health care provider before committing to a Bikram practice to be sure the high-temperature, high-energy workout is safe for you.
Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .