It was Tough Mudder that brought me back to yoga. Last October, I was trying to get back in shape to run the popular obstacle race, but after almost a year without exercising consistently, I didn't know where to start. Turns out it's hard to tell your body that you're going to cut out Hot Cheetos and try to regain definition in your abs. I decided to start small by taking a yoga class.
I had tried yoga before, but it had been a while. After doing some research, I decided to enroll in Bikram, a type of Hatha yoga that involves doing 26 different poses in a room heated to 105 degrees. Maybe, I thought, it could help me get my training started. At the very least, it sounded entertaining.
Former Indian yoga champion Bikram Choudhury developed his brand in the early 1970s after moving to California and founding his own studio. His special practice of yoga quickly became famous, as celebrities such as Madonna and Kobe Bryant took it up. By 2006, he had 1,650 studios around the world.
Increased popularity should attract increased scrutiny, but in many cases the yoga industry, and Bikram in particular, has escaped such vigilance. Instructors in classrooms around the world continue to portray yoga as a practice of whole body-mind healing without strong skepticism on the part of consumers. “If you know that a pursuit is as popular as Bikram yoga is and they give no disclaimer, would you assume it was dangerous?" asks Tali van Sunder, a writer for BeingHealthy.TV who has reported on the potential dangers of Bikram. "People just follow everyone else, especially if they want to believe what you are selling.”
This became apparent to me on my first day of yoga. As I moved into locust pose, which involves lying on your stomach with your arms underneath you, I could feel pain in my elbow as my body blocked the flow of blood in my forearm and hand. As if anticipating my question, my teacher said: “If you feel pain, it’s good. If you feel numbness in your arms, it’s your body saying ‘thank you.’” Red flags went up in my mind. It didn’t make any sense.
I felt dizzy during class, and could count my heartbeats in my throat. I had never felt so thirsty, but my teacher said that dizziness after a pose was a good thing and I should ignore it. Every time my teacher told me to "work through the pain," I wondered: How much pain is too much?
According to Keith Baar, a biology professor at the University of California-Davis and an amateur yogi, my teacher's statements about numbness being my body’s way of thanking me were an example of "yoga physiology," the myriad of physiologically incorrect proverbs spit out by yoga instructors in their classes. This is a nice way of saying that it's crap.
Even some of the more mild physiological claims made by Bikram yoga can be disproved by basic knowledge of human body systems. My teacher kept telling my class that all the sweating we were doing was helping our bodies flush out toxins. Baar said this idea was “unfounded.” Your liver and kidneys do most of the detoxification in your body, and the toxins they clean out are excreted when you use the restroom, not when you sweat.
For her part, van Sunder took issue with my teacher telling me to ignore my dizziness. She said that I should have left the room, if possible; at the very least, I should have sat down and had a drink.
The heart of the issue is this: There is little awareness when it comes to the risks inherent in practicing yoga. When it comes to scientific research on the benefits of Bikram yoga, there is almost no data available. Its website lists a pair of studies that purport to support their claims. One is from The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research and the other from a journal called Chinese Medicine. Neither specifically mentions Bikram yoga. (A public relations representative for Bikram did not respond to requests for comment.)
When it comes to information, we're almost completely reliant on our teachers. Unfortunately, not all of them teach yoga in a safe way, and many lack strong practical knowledge of kinesiology. Instructor and Yoga Journal contributor Roger Cole has advocated for more awareness of how yoga can hurt the body as well as heal it.
“Teachers often insist you push yourself further," he says. "Mostly they are trying to show you that you can stretch further, but a lot of people don’t know what’s safe or not. A lot of people will stop at a certain point, but some won’t.”
The most dangerous part of yoga, then, is not the risk of the practice itself, but the dangers of the mind. What we suffer from is a large ego. When I show up to class I am always pushing myself further based on the people I see around me. If I can’t bird-of-paradise-with-a-bind better than you, I’m not satisfied.
Baar feels that can be the biggest problem. “People are competitive by nature, and in yoga classes people become competitive even though that’s not what it’s about,” he says. Combined with a lack of bodily awareness, this can lead a novice yogi to discomfort and even injury. Van Sunder says she doesn’t think Bikram was too dangerous for everyone, but that based on her research, the benefits were no greater, and the hazards significantly worse, than in normal, unheated yoga.
It seems strange that Bikram can get away with barely any questions asked. Of course, I’m not the first person to feel this way. New York Times writer William Broad, author of The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards, also investigated the potential dangers that can be caused by yoga. In an interview, he discussed how yoga’s marketing has done a fabulous job of skirting mention of its risks.
“The yoga industrial complex has an economic incentive to look the other way," he says. "Ask [cigarette maker] Philip Morris: Do cigarettes cause cancer? 'Absolutely not. Cigarettes are wonderful for you.' Ask the [yoga] complex: Does yoga cause injuries? 'Yoga is safe and wonderful.' If they know, they ignore it."
Broad's article was criticized by many in the yoga community, who felt that their students were savvier than Broad gave them credit for. Broad, on the other had, said he had regularly seen students pop ribs out of place. Another writer on yoga culture, Benjamin Lorr, said that hallucinations and blackouts were common, and he had even seen someone suffer a mild stroke.
What both sides seem to agree on is that the safety of yoga practice relies on the awareness of the practitioner. The increased popularity of yoga has brought in thousands of students who are not in good enough condition to be taking on the challenging practices. As a teacher, Roger Cole sees some of them come into his class. While yoga can be great for the average athlete, many of the less-experienced people now taking it up don't know their own bodies well enough to be able to tell when to call it quits.
“The average person still doesn’t know the risks. If you get a friend’s referral, you will go blindly," Cole says. "People give up power to their teacher. You should always question what’s right for you."