Bikram Yoga, or hot yoga is something I have been doing on and off for quite a long time. Actually I started before my chronic back pain began. Before I get into a discussion of whether or not Bikram Yoga has had a curative effect on my back pain, I will spend a couple of sentences describing this particular type of Yoga for the benefit of those who may not have come across it before.
Bikram Yoga was developed by a fellow called Bikram Choudhury in Los Angeles in the 1970s but it is only in the last ten years or so that it has exploded in popularity. He was a weight lifter who had some kind of accident that crushed his knees (I am not sure if he dropped his bar bell on them or if it was some other misfortune that befell him).
Told he would never walk again, Bikram decided to turn to Yoga to fix his problems. He had been practicing Yoga since a young age so he returned to his old mentor to devise a series of yoga postures to fix his knee. The result was the 26-posture series that is taught in the same way in every 90 minute Bikram Yoga class all over the world.
Bikram Yoga is performed in a room heated to 105 degrees F (42 degrees C) and it is the heat that really separates this yoga from others. It is maintained that the heat warms up the fascia in the body allowing one to get deeper into the postures and thereby reap bigger benefits.
I first tried Bikram Yoga about nine years ago and immediately became addicted to it. Although the ninety minute classes are extremely tough (this can not be over stated) the feeling you have in the days after a class are truly amazing. You do indeed feel full of energy, more alert and stronger.
Bikram asserts that his Yoga series is a holy grail for health and that by practicing his series you will live a longer, more healthy life. He appears to be quite a bombastic character who maintains a tight grip on his yoga franchises around the world, reportedly suing those studio owners who deviate from his teaching or open competitive “hot yoga” studios. Despite all this somewhat anti-yogi behaviour, I have seen many examples of people transforming their bodies over the course of regular practice. The purpose of this article though is to answer whether or not Bikram Yoga cured my chronic back pain.
When I first spoke to my yoga teacher about my bad back, she explained that I should be focussing on the back bends in the class and being more cautious in the forward bends to begin with. Apparently it is all the forward bending we do that causes the most damage to our backs. This combined with a flabby tummy (or a week core as it is tactfully referred to by yoga teachers) is a sure-fire recipe for back pain.
So during the next few months I did as instructed and worked really hard on the back bend postures in the class. This was, at first quite scary because as you are bending backwards you keep expecting to hear a terrible cracking noise and find yourself lying in a heap with a slipped disc. The reality is that this doesn’t happen, indeed I have never seen anyone injured in a Bikram Yoga class (I have seen a few people run out to be sick but the usual problem is that they have not drunk enough water prior to class – you sweat a huge amount over the ninety minutes so pre-hydration is critical). The following are the postures that I focussed on for several months and are excellent for the back.
1) Half Moon Pose. In this posture you stretch up with you arms locked behind your ears and slowly bend to the right, hold it for a minute and then reverse. As part of this posture you also lean backwards with your arms in that same locked position. This creates a very deep (and initially very scary) back bend.
2) Standing Bow. In this posture you hold a foot behind you and kick backwards, at the same time reaching forward with the opposite hand and bringing the body down into a horizontal position. This creates a deep back stretch in the spine.
3) Triangle Pose. This posture is billed as the “master posture of the standing series” (half the class are standing postures and half are lying down postures).
4) Cobra Pose. This posture is performed lying on your stomach with your hands palm-down in line with the tops of your shoulders. The goal is to arch your upper body off the floor using only your lower back strength (not your arms).
5) Locust Pose. This posture is performed lying on your front with your arms palm down underneath your body. You first raise your right leg behind you, then your left leg and then finally both (!) legs together. At first you may only be able to lift your feet an inch off the floor, but as your back gets stronger, you will be able to lift them higher. I can get my legs almost vertical these days but patience is key with this posture.
6) Full Locust Pose. In this posture you are again lying on your front but this time your arms are out to the side (like aeroplane wings). The goal is to lift your arms and your legs at the same time giving a big stretch to your middle back.
7) Floor Bow. In this posture, again lying on your front you grip your ankles and kick upwards so you look a bit like a rain drop from the side. Again this is a very deep back bend.
8) Camel Pose. This is the deepest back bend you will do in the class. You stand on your knees and grip your heels while bending deeply backwards. You can feel very strange after releasing from this one – it tends to stir up some emotions!
These are the 8 postures out of the 26 in the series that I paid most attention to. The other postures are a mixture of forward bends, balancing poses and breathing exercises. The forward bends should not be ignored as they complement the back bends but if you have back problems you should take care with them and always suck in your abs as tightly as possible during each set. Your instructor will be able to tell you how to adjust things as required to protect your back.
So did Bikram Yoga cure my chronic lower back pain. The short answer is not yet. However it has greatly improved things. I think the key to success with this yoga is regular practice. I tend to go in 3 month bursts then take a break.
One problem for me is that it is a ninety minute class so you need about two and a half hours in total depending on how far away you live from the studio. This can be difficult to fit into a busy schedule. I do know that after I have been going regularly for a few weeks, my back feels much better; looser and pain free. However when I stop going, the pain does tend to creep back. I do know plenty of people at my local studio who have reported dramatic changes to their back health after regular practice but I think this yoga is something you just need to incorporate into your daily routine to get the maximum benefits.
Another good thing about Bikram Yoga is how widely it is available and how consistent it is. Because Bikram enforces the exact same teaching dialogue in every studio, wherever you are in the world you can be sure you will get the same class. I have taken Bikram classes in the US, the UK, The Netherlands, Norway and New Zealand and all the classes were exactly the same.
So in summary, I do recommend Bikram Yoga as something that can certainly help with your back pain. Just focus on the back bends and tell your instructor about you condition. Most studios offer a 10 class unlimited introductory offer and I would suggest that if you give this yoga a try, to go every day for the ten days. You will see a big difference in your general well being. As to whether this yoga can cure back pain, for me, the jury is still out.
I have suffered chronic lower back pain on and off for around seven years. After being told by my doctor to go home and take pain killers I decided to look into as many different treatment options that I could. From chiropractic treatment, to yoga to running(!) and various other avenues in between, I have arrived at a place where I am pain-free most of the time. My purpose is to document my journey in the hope that it may be of benefit to others.