The first time that Kathryn Mowat Murphy, a Broadway dancer recently appearing in Pal Joey, took a Bikram yoga class, she cried halfway through because of the heat. In fact, she had to leave the room because she felt she couldn’t breathe. However, those first experiences were a decade ago, and she has gone four times a week ever since. Murphy, along with many loyal Bikram dancers, swears that it has injury-healing, emotion-strengthening, toxin-flushing, weight-managing, and career-extending effects. “I can’t explain why, but something about the heat helps me heal from the tweaks of dancing,” she says.
While more and more dancers swear (and sweat) by hot yoga, it is an extreme practice that should be accompanied by medical precautions. Before jumping in to the heated “torture chamber”—as hot yoga’s founder, Bikram Choudhury, calls his studios—you need to learn how to practice safely.
Eastern Origins Choudhury was born in Calcutta in 1946. He created his now-popular method in 1973, based on 26 Hatha yoga postures. He began opening yoga studios in the U.S. on the West Coast in the 1970s, and by mid-decade had moved to Los Angeles, where he founded Bikram’s Yoga College of India with his wife, Rajashree. There they train and certify all Bikram yoga teachers. Almost 25 years later, former Broadway dancer Donna Rubin and business partner Jennifer Lobo founded Bikram Yoga NYC, the city’s first official studio and a popular warm-up spot for professional dancers. “The 90-minute class is like a ballet barre because it prepares your body for everything,” explains Rubin. “The postures are in the same order every time, so you know what you are getting no matter where in the world you take class.” (To view postures go to www.bikramyoga.com, click on “Yoga.”)
So what’s the difference between Bikram and other hot yogas? Any Hatha-, Ashtanga-, or Vinyasa-style yoga practiced in a heated room is hot yoga, but it should not be confused with the Bikram franchise. Bikram also can be termed a hot yoga. The room temperature is set around 105 degrees Fahrenheit and 50 to 60 percent humidity. The heat allows for “more stretch than you’ve ever had,” says Rubin, “plus it brings the heart rate up, and the sweating detoxifies.” She always recommends building up slowly by sitting down if needed and adjusting to the heat. “We suggest trying three classes before judging, because many dancers really struggle through the first classes.”
A Heated Debate The heat is of course the most controversial aspect of hot yoga practices. “The biggest downside for dancers,” says New York orthopedic surgeon Dr. Jessica Gallina, “is dehydration from extreme heat and sweat.” Dancers who plan to take a hot yoga class, a ballet class, and rehearse all in one day must take extra care to drink water and fluids with electrolytes, like coconut water or sports drinks. Instructors encourage drinking throughout the class, but suggest not eating less than two hours before. Gallina also describes the risk of hyperthermia, or overheating the body. Certain drugs that contain stimulants, and some medications for depression, nervousness, insomnia, or high blood pressure increase risk for heat-related illness. Symptoms include being nauseous, dizzy, or faint, which can lead to heat stroke. Always check with a doctor if you are unsure whether the heat is safe for you.
As with any physical activity, Rubin says, “You have to know your own limits, listen to the teacher, and listen to any pains in your body.” No yoga encourages a competitive spirit, which can be a cause for overstretching. Although flexibility can help most dance techniques, Dr. Gallina warns that “if the ligaments and tendons become too loose you increase instability in the joints.” Dancers with hyperextended knees and elbows, for example, should be mindful of forcing hypermobility. Instead, they can use Bikram yoga to gain proprioception to increase their sense of limb placement in space. Because each Bikram class has the same slow pace where postures are held between 10 seconds and a minute or two, dancers can work deliberately to their own body’s needs each day.
Eastern and Western medicine often don’t see eye to eye, and hot yoga, including Bikram, continues to spark debates. Dr. Gallina notes the claim of releasing harmful toxins through sweat comes with little scientific support. “What you lose through sweat is just water and sodium,” she says. But if sweating helps you feel cleansed, then sweat smartly. Be sure you have water—and that you are fully hydrated—before you start class. Rubin says she hears from many dancers who tell her that Bikram helped them lose weight, find relaxation, or discover a more balanced approach to life. While yoga may not change your life, it still gives dancers excellent cross-training benefits, from improved flexibility to greater control—whether it is hot or not.
Jen Peters is a dancer with Jennifer Muller/The Works.