As practices such as Bikrim Yoga become increasingly common in the U.S., many people wonder about the science behind them. Bikram Yoga, sometimes referred to as “Hot Yoga,” is a school of Hatha Yoga. Bikram Choudhury developed the practice, and then introduced it to the U.S. when he arrived in 1973. It has gained prominence in the media because major media figures including politicians, athletes, and actors have touted the efficacy of the practice, and Bikram Yoga schools have blossomed throughout the U.S. Although scientific studies do show a positive relationship between yoga and health, researchers caution that the studies may not be sufficient evidence.
After Choudhury was in a severe accident in his early 20s, he developed Bikram Yoga with the help of his guru as a method of rehabilitation. The practice incorporates 26 postures, which must be completed in order and performed in a room with a temperature of 105 degrees. The postures are designed to work every part of your body, and the purpose of the temperature is to make your body flexible and cleanse your system. According to Choudhury, many westerners misunderstand yoga because they believe that it’s supposed to be relaxing, when in actuality, it’s about disciplining the body so it can align with the mind, and eventually the spirit. Choudhury has expressed in interviews that Birkram Yoga can both cure and prevent all mental and physical ailments and he believes scientists will someday reach the same conclusions.
Studies have indicated that there’s a link between practicing yoga and reduced stress levels, tension, and anxiety. Additionally, practicing yoga is correlated with increased energy levels, and lower incidences of depression, anger, and exhaustion. Decreases in insomnia and sleep irregularities have also been reported. Both people not diagnosed with mental illness, and individuals diagnosed with severe mental illnesses had similar results. Researchers aren’t sure about the exact cause of these effects, but many believe it’s a combination of controlled breathing and exercise. Science hasn't proven whether the results are because of the exercise, but either way, it makes yoga worth considering as a supplemental therapy if you’re feeling stressed out, depressed or anxious.
Besides producing a more relaxed mental state, yoga has also been linked with reduced pain in people suffering from arthritis, back pain, headaches, and chronic illnesses such as cancer. In one study, scientists used MRI scans to discover a potential relationship between decreased stress levels, and an increased tolerance for pain, which could explain the beneficial effects of yoga on physical symptoms. Studies have also associated yoga with beneficial improvements in people who have asthma, diabetes, and hypertension, but more studies are needed that replicate these results. It’s also interesting to note that while researchers in the U.S. often attribute results to the general practices of breathing and exercising, in a U.N commissioned study, researchers in Tokyo linked physical improvements specifically with Bikram Yoga.
The difficulty with creating scientific studies that demonstrate whether or not yoga is effective is because yoga is tough to quantify. To perform a sufficiently rigorous scientific study, researchers have to perform experiments involving two groups of people, including a group of people who practice yoga, and a control group that doesn’t. For the study to be effective, no one can know which group is actually performing yoga, and which group isn’t. Since these types of studies cannot be realistically performed, there’s no way to definitively conclude whether the results of many studies are because of the power of yoga or the power of perception. Additionally, while most scientific studies focus on the relationship between the practice of any type of yoga and health, Bikram Yoga may pose another risk not present in many research studies. Other yoga practitioners have questioned the safety of exercising in 105-degree temperatures, and some have even stated that they don’t actually consider it a form of yoga.
Though medical studies have indicated a correlation between yoga and increased mental and physical wellbeing, the evidence remains largely inconclusive, in part because of the problem associated with developing rigorous research studies. Yet, the benefits of exercise on improving physical and mental functioning and health have been solidly established, and whether or not you believe all the claims associated with Bikram Yoga, you can still benefit by incorporating the practice into your lifestyle. When starting a new exercise routine like Bikram Yoga, it’s always advisable to first consult with your doctor. Additionally, even if Bikram Yoga provides health benefits for you, it’s also important to seek professional medical or psychological treatment if you have a physical or mental illness.