Having started with the local fitness industry before the 2000s, I can only be grateful at the plethora of options today when choosing exercise classes and modalities. There was once a time—hard to believe, but true, and speaking from personal experience—when the only exercise classes you could join in a local exercise club were “Hi-Lo” and “Step.” If you didn’t like either of them, your cardiovascular exercise options would be confined to the machines, namely the treadmill or that other machine fondly called the “stepper.”
Today, clients are spoiled for choice: you can take part in a boot camp class, go Bollywood dancing, try TRX sessions, indulge in a CrossFit personal session (if you have the dough), or unwind with a mind-body class, sometimes all under one roof. What a difference a couple of decades makes!
One particular modality that has maintained a local following is Bikram yoga, a mind-body class that has the distinct characteristic of being done in a heated room. I have joined a handful of these classes, both as an exercise professional and as a student. I’m glad that the American Council on Exercise (ACE) recently did a study on this particular class, and I’d like to share their findings, coupled with my personal experience.
Yoga is an old discipline, but for the purposes of this article, I am sticking to the physical aspects, filtered further more under Bikram. There are other “types” of yoga classes (Iyengar, Kundalini, even Laughter yoga), but it is the heating element of Bikram that has been the subject of discussion among exercise professionals. I’ve heard a local participant say, “It’s like doing yoga inside a sauna!”—and she would actually be correct in that description.
Quoting the ACE sponsored research, “A typical Bikram yoga session is 90 minutes long and consists of 26 poses and two breathing exercises, all performed in a room heated to 105 Fahrenheit degrees with 40 percent humidity.” If it sounds like a tall order for most people, that’s because it is. Most exercise classes are done in a room blasted with cold air, while Bikram is done in a heated room; just standing inside the room makes you sweat. Add physical movement into the mix, and you can see why participants in this class are always drenched in sweat.
The heated part has served as a main attraction for many of the adherents of Bikram, as “having the mental strength and focus to overcome this type of challenge is a big part of the draw.” When I attended the class, I felt I expended more calories, exerted more effort, and felt rather smug about being able to complete a Bikram class on my first try. (Many of the long-time participants had to stop midway, panting from exhaustion and the heat.) Doing this class did require mental fortitude, and if only for that, I would urge anyone to at least give the class a try (if cleared by your physician, of course).
Research has been conducted on the benefits of this class (Hewett, et al., 2001; Tracy and Hart, 2013; Hunter, et al., 2013), and has found the following “pluses”: improved mindfulness, flexibility, strength, muscle tone, and general fitness; lower perceived stress levels, improved cardiorespiratory endurance, and improved balance; modestly decreased body fat percentages; and overall glucose tolerance and insulin resistance in older adults who were at high risk of developing metabolic disease.
Despite these benefits, the fact that the class is done in a hot and humid environment has caused concern among exercise professionals (hence, the impetus for ACE to do specific research on it).
Emily Quandt, M.S., who led this study, says that what raised her concern for participants was the steady increase of the core (body) temperature and heart rate; in fact, one of the participants of the study registered 92 percent of the predicted maximum heart rate! (Most classes get a gold star if they get participants performing at the 65 to 80 percent, so this is way beyond the number recommended.) Another thing that alarmed her was that the increases in core temperature and heart rate were occurring despite “very little movement, and therefore little cardiovascular training.” In effect, this means the changes in body conditions were not a direct result of the physical activity, but because of the surroundings.
Here are a few tips that could get you through your first few Bikram yoga classes:
One: Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate…
Know more about Bikram Yoga and tips on how you can get through your first few classes inside Asian Dragon Magazine’s June-July issue. Grab your copy from all leading bookstores nationwide or purchase the issue from the Asian Dragon Magazine App, free to download on Google Play Store, iTunes, and Amazon.
[Photo courtesy of Eva Katalin Kondoros/Getty Images]