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If you can’t take the heat…

..get the heck out of the Bikram.
What I learned from one month of practicing 26 postures in 105°F heat.

This photo was taken while doing a little post-Bikram stretching at home. If you’re in Bikram class you will need a towel covering your mat!

After a month immersion into my first Bikram experience, I feel grateful, strong, but also relieved to be able to now practice more freely.

What I liked most about the experience:

  • Calming/clearing my mind: This experience was even more of a mental than a physical challenge for me. The class demanded my constant focus. I did find that this was therapeutic as a sort of meditation. I do wish that it wasn’t frowned upon by the Bikram instructors to close my eyes during some of the postures as I believe this would have helped me slip even deeper into a meditative state.
  • Refreshed feeling after class: The post-Bikram class shower feels amazing. The combination of sweating intensely and engaging in some strengthening and stretching postures left my body feeling more relaxed and less stiff after class. I was also more conscious to drink tons of water throughout the day to prepare for class so I felt more hydrated as a result.
  • Feeling strong through perseverance: The first class, I kept wondering how anyone could get through 90 minutes of this volcanic heat let alone if I could get through it. I quickly learned which spots could best catch the wisps of cool hope in the form of a breeze when the instructors momentarily cracked the windows and not to go to the room’s “hot spots.” While still blazing, I grew triumphant in my perseverance as time went one. Having faced this challenge–which I believe was even more a mental challenge for me than a physical one–has left me feeling stronger.
  • “If you can, you must.” I really liked this mantra that one of the instructors imparted. It could be interpreted in many ways but I choose to interpret it and apply it to my life as a challenge not to waste opportunities.

While I’m glad that I tried Bikram, I will not be joining the Bikram tribe as a permanent resident. I grew to like the heat (mostly) and I loved the mental focus and intense sweat that Bikram gave me. In the end, however, there were really two things that made this class one that I’m not eager to return to: 1) Time: too much of; 2) Personal space: too little of.

On time: The class is 90 minutes–which in my New York City life is a huge commitment as it is–but that isn’t even the true time cost. To get a decent spot, you really need to enter the class at least 10-15 minutes early. And, as I heard the front desk staff inform some clients checking in “arriving less than 7 minutes before class is counted as a late arrival” meaning the spot you signed up for is forfeited and you are put at the end of any waitlist if there is one.  So now, we are realistically minimum 100 minutes in the space.

After class, you are drenched in sweat. Running out the door as-is might work in the summer if you’re just going home to shower but going out drenched when the city is 16°F is not what I consider a reasonable option. While the shower itself only takes a few minutes, there is usually a line to get a shower, after waiting patiently to get to your locker in the crowd, and followed by more polite shuffling around trying to get your clothes and stay out of people’s way, and drying your hair so it doesn’t freeze (sometimes preceded by waiting in line for the hairdryer.) Realistically, on average the after class process took me another 25 minutes. That means each Bikram experience required a 125-minute time commitment in the studio. When added to the 30 minutes or so commute I had to get there and back, going each Bikram class took nearly 3-hours total from my day.

I tried to go as often as I could during my month but was frequently limited by the time commitment. In general, 75 minutes is about my limit for a class time commitment and I prefer 60.  While there are many who will very passionately disagree with me on this, I did not feel like 100% of the class was valuable to me personally; it was not an efficient use of my time. (For those who truly appreciate and are all-in for Bikram, I do believe it is a good use of your time. It’s one of those things were I believe that the amount that you personally believe in it will impact how much physical/mental benefits you receive.)

On personal space: Nearly every class, I either had someone’s feet distractingly close to my face and/or could not comfortably do the airplane-like pose (I forgot what it’s called) because I was too grossed-out to let me sweaty arm touch my neighbors’ sweaty arms even though the instructors always told us to just let this happen. I frequently felt claustrophobic by the amount of people in such close proximity to me.

Other thoughts:

  • Still prefer dim lighting over the severely bright lights in Bikram classes.
  • Some moves felt great, but others really did not feel good to my neck.
  • I heard some thoughtful explanations from a few instructors about why they restrict when the class drinks water but I continue to believe that people should feel free to quietly take a few sips whenever they need it, instead of shaping their water intake around the rigid class structure
  • Didn’t get tired of doing the same class ever time for a month (it is always the same 26 postures in the same order) but I would not want this to be the only 26 postures that I ever did. I’m ready to now bring some Vinyassa flows back into my life.
  • On the same note, I could see how people could take comfort in the routine of going to class and knowing that it would have the same structure. I do see a value in the comfort in order and familiarity. I could feel an appreciation as the month went on for the comfort I could take in knowing what was in store.
  • It was a good practice in body awareness. Having to face yourself in a sports bra and spandex shorts for most women (and shirtless for most men) in front of a mirror under institutional lighting forces self-evaluation.
  • Although it felt physically taxing because of the heat, I actually would consider the class as “light to moderate” exercise. There’s nothing wrong with that but as far as the benefits of exercise are concerned, I would say physically that it has similar benefits to most light or moderate exercises. Proportionally to time spent, it was a relatively low calorie burn for me in a workout. Since high calorie burn wasn’t the goal that I needed Bikram to fill, I didn’t mind; I just see it as a complement to my workout schedule rather than a replacement for other workouts.
  • I don’t think this class is for everyone but I do see how it works well for some.

If you go:

  • Bring 2 liters of water. I always brought two full water bottles and drank both of them during class (when we were allowed to drink). Drink water throughout the day before and after class.
  • Dress to sweat. Your body can cool itself better if you’re not overly covered up. If you feel comfortable, go with a sports bra and capris or shorts for women and just some properly fitting shorts for men. Do check and make sure that you adhere to the studio’s dress code.
  • Bring a towel that covers most or all of your mat (or make sure the studio has towels that you can rent). The mat will become too slippery without it.
  • Listen to your body. Respecting your class is important but don’t ever put your health at risk to be polite. The instructors will encourage you to sit down when you need a break, but I would add that you should also come prepared with the confidence to make the unpopular choice of leaving the room if you truly need to.
  • Come with an open mind and be ready to embrace a challenge.