Why We Call Bikram/"Hot Yoga" a Dangerous Fad
Created by an abusive narcissist and sexual predator, Bikram yoga can harm your body, particularly if practiced regularly over time
You can’t really practice yoga in most parts of the world without bumping into yoga studios where they heat the room to at least 105 degrees F, and sometimes as high as 114 and while also turning up the humidity, a practice that Consumer Reports refers to as a “dangerous fad.” Some of these studios call themselves “Bikram” studios. However, after a Netflix documentary titled Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator came out, many or most of them took “Bikram” out of the name and started simply calling themselves “Hot Yoga.” But, there should be no doubt that all hot yoga can be traced directly back to Bikram himself.
The first documented hot yoga class goes back to the 1970s in Japan, where Bikram Choudhury was visiting. While using the saunas there he had the idea of doing yoga in heated spaces, in order to “simulate the heat of India,” the birth place of yoga. As much as that might seem like a novel idea, there are some serious problems with it: Most importantly, India is a mountainous nation, so not all of India is hot and humid. In the places where it is hot and humid, the yogic tradition has been to practice “before the jungle wakes up.” (i.e. before it gets hot.)
Falsehoods about heat and humidity being tied to the birth of yoga were not the only misinformation spread by Bikram as he promoted his hot yoga practice. He also made bogus claims about the heavy sweating that results from it “detoxifying” the body. In fact, no toxins from your body are released in sweat. Sweat is composed of 99% water and some electrolytes, like sodium, calcium, potassium and magnesium. These electrolytes are actually important for your body, and releasing too many of them can be very damaging. (link, link, link and link)
Even worse: the organs that are harmed by heat stress and dehydration (common in hot yoga) include the liver and kidneys, are the organs that actually detoxify our bodies. In other words, this kind of physical exertion in heated spaces that creates massive amounts of sweat does not detoxify your body but rather makes it harder for your body to “cleanse” itself.
The falsehoods and quackery pushed by Bikram in order to sell his classes isn’t even the worst part. He also built around him a following of people who are attracted to the idea of pushing their bodies to the extreme and who get hooked on the “high” they can get from doing that. When you mix that with the abusive and narcissistic persona of their "guru” you end up with what many call a cult like culture around Bikram/”hot yoga.” That culture is evident in various online forums, like Reddit’s r/yoga subreddit. There, we encounter a relatively steady stream of people who try Bikram/”hot yoga” and who complain about being very dizzy or light headed, or nauseous or of vomiting or even fainting, all signs of dehydration and heat stress, the primary issues associated with this kind of exercise, which can be very serious and dangerous.
The response to people experiencing these problems when doing this style of “yoga” (why we refer to it in quotation marks is explained a bit later) is nearly universal and even more dangerous. They tell them to 1) hydrate more and 2) to “push through it.” We almost never see a proponent of Bikram recommend backing off, taking it easy or listening to their bodies. Some of the more enlightened Bikram followers will occasionally say something like, “well, Bikram isn’t for everyone.”
What you will not hear from a Bikram advocate is a thoughtful message from yogic teaching, that is really all about learning to listen to our bodies by building the body/mind connection. That is because they are too busy telling people to suppress the feelings they are having and to “push through them,” which is 100% counter to yogic teaching. That is one of the reasons we put “yoga” in quotation marks when we talk about Bikram or hot “yoga.” The only thing this kind of exercise has in common with actual yoga are the poses done. But, all kinds of things use yoga poses that are not actually yoga. Physical therapists use yoga poses for strength building and stretching. But, they don’t claim to be teaching yoga. Pilates uses yoga poses, but does not pretend to be yoga. “Hot yoga” uses yoga poses, but does not actually teach yoga. Much of what it teaches is, in fact, untrue and the opposite of yogic training. None of that should be particularly surprising to anyone who examines the life of the man who created it. He is an abusive narcissist and sexual predator who put some of his own worst tendencies into the practice he created and then lied about nearly all of it.
The problems with dehydration and heat stress associated with this kind of exercise are made worse by the fact that the damage done to the body can be cumulative. Each time you expose your body to heat stress, more damage is potentially done. And, while some organs, like your liver, may be able to heal and recover over time, your kidneys cannot. So, the damage done can be long-lasting or even permanent, even if your immediate symptoms disappear within hours or days.
To be clear, however, there can be some great physical benefits to doing hot yoga. A recent study saying so is widely touted by advocates of it as proof that it is good for you. What they fail to recognize is that the physical benefits of hot “yoga” are the same as those of actual yoga, which does not pose the risks associated with Bikram, nor does it come with the toxic culture filled with misinformation that pushes people to do more than they should.
For all of those reasons, we agree with Consumer Reports that Hot “Yoga” is a dangerous fad, and should be avoided, particularly as a long-term practice.