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9 Things You Need to Know About Bikram Yoga

Bikram is to yoga what Tae-Bo is to kickboxing. Like Billy Blanks, Bikram Choudhury took a long-existing practice and modified it to create a uniquely-packaged fitness franchise. According to the 66-year-old Indian-born yoga guru, the precise sequence of 26 postures and two breathing exercises must be performed within 90 minutes in a heated (100-degrees-plus) room to allow the body to stretch, detoxify, relieve stress, tone, and heal chronic pain such as arthritis, joint aches, knee injuries, back problems, and more.

If you decide to try a class, don't expect your instructor to demonstrate the moves. In Bikram, they're trained to talk you through the flow as part of a moving meditation (listening to these directions forces practitioners to stop thinking and be in the moment). No matter where you practice in the world, the dialogue between the teacher and the student stays pretty much the same (seriously, they're following a script).

Another constant: the sweaty smell! Every studio has a soft carpet, which is more forgiving to joints than hardwood floors. "These days many studios have an anti-bacterial carpet that gets cleaned regularly,” assures Maria McBride, owner and founder of Bikram Yoga Natick in Massachusetts and Lululemon Athletica ambassador. “So if it stinks when you walk in that's good! It's not dirt, but just sweat, which is what we want,” she says.

Here's what else you need to know before you bring it Bikram-style.

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Handle the Heat

Stepping into a sauna-hot room mid-winter shouldn't be a problem. The hard part is staying there for 90 minutes. “When you start to feel uncomfortable, your gut instinct may be to drink water, wipe sweat, gulp in air, panic, look around, and then run from the room,” says two-time U.K. yoga asana champion Kristin Bergman, who has a doctorate in psychological medicine and teaches at Bikram Yoga Richmond in London. “If you feel dizzy, sit down and focus on trying to override the discomfort by using your breath,” she advises. “Trust that you can recover in less than one minute by simply closing your mouth and breathing through your nose.”

Water Yourself

If you come to Bikram well-hydrated, you won't need to drink much during the session, McBride says. Aim to drink up to two liters (8 to 9 cups) of water throughout the day, but if you can't hit those numbers, don't try to make up for it by chugging right outside the studio. Too much water too quickly might upset your stomach and leave you feeling nauseous in class. Same holds true for during practice, so sip when you need to, but don't overdo it. “Water sloshing around in your stomach doesn't feel so good,” McBride says. “If you find yourself dehydrated at the start of class, take it easy on the posture.” The goal isn't to master every pose but rather to listen to your body and take care of yourself.

Strategize Snack Time

Try not to eat at least two hours prior to class, suggests Michelle “Mochi” Camaya, who teaches at Bikram Park Slope in Brooklyn, NY. “A full stomach may be uncomfortably inhibiting when you're trying to contract and expand your muscles to reach full range in the heat,” she explains. But don't be hungry either. Camaya recommends eating half a banana or a cup of applesauce for a pre-class energy boost. While she can take in these foods up to 10 minutes before class, it's different for everybody, so test out what works best for you. You may also want to avoid foods that can cause flatulence on Bikram days, though letting 'er rip in class is okay: “We have a wind-removing posture so we actually promote the release,” Camaya laughs. After class, rehydrate and replenish the electrolytes lost during practice with coconut water or Nuun-infused water.

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Don't Be Late

This golden rule is most important for newbies. Try to get there at least 30 minutes early to give yourself plenty of time to sign up, get dressed, settle down on your mat, and acclimate to the heat, Camaya says. Take a minute to introduce yourself to the teacher and let her or him know if you have any injuries that you're working through, so that she or he can guide you through the postures without exacerbating any issues, she adds.

Look Hot

Sweating your ass off is inevitable, so choose light clothing that is breathable (read: not cotton) and will make the heat more bearable. “I like to wear shorts that are above the knee so that I can see more of my leg—and contracting muscles—in the mirror,” McBride says. “I also like to wear a sports bra so that I can see my stomach.” Even if you don't have a Bikram body (yet!), don't be afraid to show some skin. There's an unspoken rule of “no judgments” in every studio.

Don’t Push It

There's a clear difference between discomfort and pain, McBride says. While most, if not all, the postures will create a certain level of discomfort, none should induce a sharp pain. If you feel the latter, slowly back off a bit. There's no need to be over-aggressive and force a posture—in fact, less is more in yoga. “If you can’t do something (yet), just try the first one percent. Then maybe in a week you do two percent,” McBride says. “You're still reaping the same health benefits even if you're not doing the full expression of the posture.”

Skip the Towel

Let it rain on your face and body—it's part of the practice! “Your sweat is helping to maintain normal body temperature,” Bergman says. “If you wipe it away, you disrupt homeostasis, the body’s natural, intelligent, and highly adaptive mechanism of self-regulation.” Embrace the downpour!

Keep an Open Mind

A good attitude is key, especially since everyone in the room is feeding off each other's energy. “Come into the space ready to learn and absorb new material,” Camaya says. “And don't take yourself too seriously, folks—it's just yoga!”

Plan Your Return

“I tell first-time students at the end of class that they have to come back soon because the second class is the fun class,” Bergman says. “At least once a day, someone new to this yoga will tell me, 'You know, I didn't believe you, but my second class was great!'”