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Everything You Should Know About Bikram Yoga

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Photo: Matt Cardy / Stringer / Getty Images

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. (FYI, you may have caught wind of some sexual allegations swirling around about Choudhury, so there's that. But this style of super-hot yoga is still commonly referred to as Bikram. If you're keen on disconnecting this well-loved practice with the controversy—we get it!—people are also referring to it now as 26-2, based on the 26 postures and two breathwork patterns, as well as simply traditional hot yoga). If you decide to try a Bikram yoga 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 cues 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 antibacterial carpet that gets cleaned regularly,” assures Maria McBride, owner and founder of Bikram Yoga Natick in Massachusetts. "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. (Skip the stink and try this Y7-inspired hot yoga flow at home.)

Here's everything else you need to know before you try Bikram yoga.

What does hot yoga do for the body?

There's a point to practicing in a hot room besides building discipline. According to Choudhury, the precise sequence of 26 postures and two breathing exercises must be performed within 90 minutes in a heated room (set to 100-degrees-plus if it's going to be truly Bikram) 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. According to one study review, the potential health benefits of hot yoga include improved glucose tolerance (a better ability to process sugar), blood lipid profile (a measure of cholesterol and fats in blood), and bone density. That said, research is limited when it comes to whether heated yoga has benefits over non-heated yoga. One small study suggested that heated yoga is no more beneficial, at least when it comes to boosting adults' heart health. And if your main goal in working out is weight loss, hot yoga probably shouldn't be your first choice. One study found that it burns around the same number of calories as brisk walking, according to Time.

How hot are hot yoga classes?

Expect a HOT room if you're trying Bikram yoga—a temperature of 105 degrees with 40 percent humidity to be exact. Stepping into a sauna-hot room shouldn't be a problem, at least if it's midwinter. 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."

What should Bikram yoga beginners keep in mind?

Show up early—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, says Michelle "Mochi" Camaya, who teaches at Bikram Park Slope in Brooklyn, NY. 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. (Related: Yoga for Beginners: A Guide to the Different Types of Yoga)

Sweating your ass off is inevitable, so choose light clothing that is breathable (read: not cotton) and that 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." Don't be afraid to show some skinthere's an unspoken body-pos rule of "no judgments" in every studio. (Related: The Best Yoga Pants That Aren't Lululemon)

How much water should you drink?

Wondering how much water you should drink before hot yoga— is it as much as you'd chug during an intense cycling class, for example? If you come to Bikram well-hydrated, you won't need to drink much during the session, says McBride. 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 nauseated in class. Same holds true during practice, so sip when you need to, but don't overdo it. "Water sloshing around in your stomach doesn't feel so good," says McBride. "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.

What should you eat beforehand?

Try not to eat at least two hours prior to class, suggests Camaya. "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. After class, rehydrate and replenish the electrolytes lost during practice with coconut water or Nuun-infused water.

Is hot yoga bad for you?

A study from the American Council on Exercise Science pointed out that working out in such extreme temperatures might not be safe. The study found that participants' internal temperatures neared 104 degrees, the lowest temperature at which heat-related illness and heat stroke tend to occur, according to ACE. If you decide to practice, avoid pushing anything too far to cut down on risks. And as with any style of exercise, there's a clear difference between discomfort and pain. While most, if not all, the postures will create a certain level of discomfort, none should induce a sharp pain, McBride says. If you feel the latter, slowly back off a bit. There's no need to be overaggressive 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 2 percent," says McBride. "You're still reaping the same health benefits of hot yoga even if you're not doing the full expression of the posture." (Here's more on whether hot yoga is actually safe.)

Do you actually need a hot yoga towel?

It helps to bring a towel made specifically for hot yoga to place on top of your mat to keep your sweat from dripping onto the mat. But instead of relying on an extra for your face and body, let it rain—it's part of the practice! "Your sweat is helping to maintain normal body temperature," says Bergman. "If you wipe it away, you disrupt homeostasis, the body's natural, intelligent, and highly adaptive mechanism of self-regulation." Embrace the downpour! (These are the best yoga mats for hot yoga.)

When can you expect to see the benefits of heated yoga?

Bergman suggests giving hot yoga at least two tries before judging it. "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," she 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!'" (Related: The Not-So-Zen Thoughts You Definitely Have During a Hot Yoga Class)

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!"

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