Everything You Should Know About Bikram Yoga Before You Try It

Bikram yoga is hot yoga, but hotter — maximize all the sweaty benefits with these expert tips.

photo of a woman's shoulders, arms, and facial profile shot from the back, while she's doing a Bikram yoga class

Bikram yoga is a cult-favorite style of hatha yoga that counts many celebrities as fans — but it's one of those workouts that you may want to research before heading off to a class. For one thing, don't expect your instructor to demonstrate the moves. In Bikram, teachers are trained to talk you through the flow as part of a moving meditation, believing that 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. (See also: A Beginner's Guide to the Different Types of Yoga)

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 Hometown Sweat 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.

If the name of the practice sounds familiar, it may be because the creator, Bikram Choudhury, has been the subject of many alarming lawsuits and allegations — most notably for sexual assault. (There's a whole Netflix documentary about it, if you're interested.) But this style of super-hot yoga is still commonly referred to as Bikram yoga, which is why this article refers to it as such. However, if you'd rather disconnect this well-loved practice with the creator — makes sense! — yogis also refer to it as 26+2, based on the 26 postures and two breathwork patterns that make up every class, as well as simply Original Hot Yoga or hot yoga.

What makes this practice so well-loved, and should you try it for yourself? Read on for everything you need to know before you try Bikram yoga.

Bikram Yoga's Potential Health Benefits

There's a point to practicing in a hot room besides building discipline. The precise sequence of 26 postures and two breathing exercises must be performed within 90 minutes in a heated room (set to 100°F-plus to be considered real-deal Bikram yoga) 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 Choudhury.

According to one study review, the potential health benefits of Bikram 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 Bikram yoga is no more beneficial, at least when it comes to boosting adults' heart health. And while Choudhury's claimed benefits are not proven, there is proof that the practice improves aspects of physical fitness including single-leg balance and range of motion, per the study review.

How Hot Are Bikram Yoga Classes, Exactly?

Expect a hot, hot room if you're trying Bikram yoga — a temperature of 105°F with 40 percent humidity to be exact. Stepping into a sauna-steam room combo shouldn't be a problem, especially if it's midwinter. The hard part is staying there for 90 minutes...and doing strengthening yoga poses the whole time.

It's completely understandable to want to push through the practice, but you probably shouldn't. Here's what to do instead: "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, a Bikram yoga teacher. "If you feel dizzy, sit down and focus on trying to override the discomfort by using your breath. Trust that you can recover in less than one minute by simply closing your mouth and breathing through your nose," she advises.

What to Keep In Mind If You're a Bikram Yoga Beginner

Show up early — this golden rule is most important for newbies. Try to get to the studio 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, an E-RYT 500-certified yoga teacher. Take a minute to introduce yourself to the teacher and let them know if you have any injuries that you're working through so that they can guide you through the postures without exacerbating any issues, she adds.

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," says McBride. "I also like to wear a sports bra so that I can see my stomach," she adds. (Some people have even been known to rock swimsuits in the Bikram studio.) Don't be afraid to show some skin — there's an unspoken body-posi rule of "no judgments" in every studio. (Also: The Best Yoga Pants That You'll Even Want to Wear Out of the Studio)

If you're taking a traditional 90-minute class, you can expect to do most of the poses and breathing exercises for two sets, starting with standing poses and then lying down about halfway through for floor poses. If you'd rather dip your toes in before committing to the full time, many studios offer 60- and 75-minute Bikram yoga classes as well, where you only do one set of most of the exercises. Also? The walls of most Bikram yoga studios are covered in floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and it is encouraged (and actually very helpful!) to watch yourself while performing the movements. For one thing, you have something to look at to help you balance, and you're also able to watch your form to make sure you're doing the poses correctly. (Plus, if you're lost on what you should be doing, it's easy to peek at a classmate!)

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," she adds. Embrace the downpour! (These are the best yoga mats for hot yoga.)

How Much Water to 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 (eight to nine 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. If you find yourself dehydrated at the start of class, take it easy on the posture," suggests McBride. The goal isn't to master every pose but rather to listen to your body and take care of yourself.

What to Eat Before Bikram Yoga

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. Maybe eat half a banana or a cup of applesauce for a pre-class energy boost, recommends Camaya. 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 an electrolyte drink.

Potential Risks of Hot Yoga

A study from the American Council on Exercise Science (ACE) pointed out that working out in such extreme temperatures might not be safe. The study found that participants' internal temperatures neared 104°F, 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, says McBride. 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 1 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," she notes. (Here's more on whether hot yoga is actually safe.)

When You Can Expect to See Benefits From Bikram Yoga

Give hot yoga at least two tries before judging it, suggests Bergman. "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. 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!'" she adds.

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," says Camaya. "And don't take yourself too seriously, folks — it's just yoga!" she adds.

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