Bikram questions answered

KF at Planned Obsolescence, who is currently taking yogalates (Yoga plus pilates) classes, is thinking about trying Bikram. She wrote recently:
There’s a Bikram yoga studio just a few blocks from my condo, and I’m seriously considering going there to check it out when I get home. But I’m got certain kinds of anxieties about Bikram, anxieties that I could stand to have dispelled before I go forward with this. Mostly these concerns have to do with the heat: while the studio I’m now attending is heated, class temperatures generally fall somewhere between 80 and 90 degrees, I think, and I can definitely tell the difference between hotter days and less hot days, and between hotter areas of the room and less hot spots. Generally speaking, hotter = more mashed-potatolike feeling at end of class. So this is why I’m concerned: the Bikram place near me says that its studio is heated to 100 degrees, and that’s a hefty number more degrees. Will there be nausea? Danger of passing out? Brain-deadness?

These are good questions, the questions most people have before trying hot yoga. How hot is it really, and will I die? Most Bikram studios are heated to 105 degrees, and humidified to about 40% humidity. The precision with which these conditions are reached depends in large part on the climate of your area (esp with the humidity-- classes in Florida are going to be much more humid than those in Arizona).

Yes, it is hot. You are going to sweat. A lot. Possibly more than you thought you could. It's actually good for you to sweat -- it helps detoxify the body and it is essential to your body's cooling system. Sweat will be running down your face, down your neck, off your fingertips, etc. You don't want to wipe away the sweat during class, not only because it's distracting, but also because leaving it on your skin helps your body regulate its internal temperature.

Every Bikram practitioner has experienced moments during a class when s/he feels pretty awful. As your body is adjusting to the heat and detoxifying, you might occasionally feel a little nausea or dizziness. When that happens, you stand still, kneel down (if the class is doing standing poses) or lie down in savasana. When you feel better, you rejoin the class. During your first class, your main goal is to stay in the heated room. Even if you were just lying down for most of the class and focusing on your breath, you would be gaining health benefits. All certified Bikram instructors repeat these instructions to their students at the beginning of class, and no one is ever asked to do a pose if they feel bad. If you feel bad, you lie still until it passes.

The good news is that even the worst sensations pass fairly quickly. And many students don't feel that way at first -- it might be much further on in your practice, and then you suddenly have a struggling class. Every day is different. This yoga teaches you to be very aware of your body, of how much you slept, what you ate, etc.

There are also some things you can do to make your first few Bikram classes easier:
  1. Really, really hydrate yourself for the whole day before class (this is one reason I don't recommend doing a super-early class at first, since most of us don't drink water while we sleep). I aim to drink at least 2 liters of water during the day, 3 or more if the weather is hot, before going to class in the evening.
  2. Add an electrolyte supplement to some of that water an hour or so before class: a packet of Emergen-C, or ElectroMix (both made by Alacer) is especially helpful, and doesn't have all the sugar of Gatorade. But Gatorade is available at every minimart and drugstore. So if that's what you've got, drink some.
  3. Plan your eating. The conventional advice is not to eat for 2 hours before class. I think that's true if you have normal blood sugar, a sensitive stomach, and if "eating" means heavy food (a full meal, or meat & fat). For myself -- a vegan with low blood sugar issues -- it's actually important for me to eat a little snack fairly close to class time. Class is 90 minutes long and if my blood sugar is too low heading into it, I'll feel sick. So I eat a banana and some soy milk, or part of a Clif bar, something like that, 30-60 minutes before class. But I wouldn't eat anything that requires significant digestion (broccoli, even brown rice) since you want your stomach to be ready to move. You know already how sensitive your stomach tends to be, and how your blood sugar is. Don't be afraid to tinker a little bit with the conventional recommendations if it works for you. Most people can handle a little fruit before class, and it can help a lot with the lightheadedness in the heat. Bananas and oranges are especially useful for the potassium.
  4. You'll want to have a liter of water with you in class -- most studios sell water there, but I recommend if you can, to prepare your bottle ahead of time. Freeze a bottle that's half full and then add water to that. You want about half ice, half water -- this will keep your water chilled during the class.
  5. Don't gulp water -- sip it very judiciously during the water breaks (which occur at set intervals in class). Gulping (esp if it's iced) will make your stomach cramp. The water in class is really for your mind more than your body -- it takes 20-30 minutes for water to be absorbed into your body, so the water you drink during class isn't enough to compensate for what you're sweating out. That's why you have to drink a lot beforehand.
  6. If you're suffering from the heat, splash some of your water on your neck or on the back of your head during the water break. It's way more refreshing than drinking it!
I love this yoga, and I have experienced first-hand the health benefits that result from regular practice. This system of yoga was designed to heal injuries, improve your alignment, improve the health of your internal organs, and balance the nervous system. It is challenging, no doubt about it. But the effort you put into the yoga is more than repaid in the benefits.

More Bikram questions, anyone?