Bikram yoga is often referred to interchangably with the term "hot yoga," but they aren't exactly the same thing. Bikram refers to the style of yoga popularized by yoga master Bikram Choudhury, which includes a specific sequence of 26 poses — the Bikram name is trademarked and copyrighted — and there have been several lawsuits over use of the name and sequencing.
Hot yoga, however, can encompass any type of yoga (usually it's a Vinyasa flow style) and what it has in common with Bikram is simply that it's practiced in a room that's heated to 95-100 degrees Fahrenheight. People who practice hot yoga styles tend to swear by it, because it's a very cleansing experience and whatever water weight you might be carrying is nixed. Other people (like myself) find the hot conditions too uncomfortable and that the heat actually interferes with their focus or enjoyment of practicing yoga. You really have to try it out to see if it's right for you.
Whether you practice Bikram or another type of hot yoga (like Moksha or Baptiste Power Yoga), the below information is applicable.
Basics: A relatively to extremely vigorous class is taught in a heated room specifically to encourage sweating, which many alternative health practitioners believe detoxes the body. Detox or not, you will likely be dripping wet and "glowing" by the time you conclude your class.
Benefits: The above-mentioned detox is probably the most widely touted positive aspect of hot yogas, but greater ability to stretch is also a bonus. The warmer temps mean muscles get heated more rapidly, so you can go into yoga poses and stretches more deeply than you might be able to otherwise. Or, as the Bikram "Why Hot Yoga" page explains: "Yoga changes the construction of the body from the inside out, from bones to skin and from fingertips to toes. So before you change it, you have to heat it up to soften it, because a warm body is a flexible body. Then you can reshape the body any way you want."
Who can do it: Unlike other forms of yoga, which almost anyone can do, Bikram and hot yoga is not recommeded for pregnant women, as it can raise the core body temperature. If you are a beginning yogi, your teacher will advise you to be careful not to overstretch. Those with heart and circulatory conditions should check in with their doctors before beginning any new exercise routine, but especially yoga in a heated room.
Drawbacks: Due to the heat, it can be easy to over-stretch muscles in any hot yoga class, so be careful not to overdo it. The heat might be moderately or extremely uncomfortable, depending on yout tolerance and preference. You can get easily dehydrated during class, especially if you are a heavy sweater, so drinking plenty of water before and after is imperative.
What to wear and bring: You'll definitely want to wear minimal, lightweight clothing to a Bikram or hot yoga class. It's normal for women to wear just sports bras and bike shorts, for example. Performance fabrics that will wick away (some) of your sweat can be a bonus, and if you have long hair, tying it back is a must. Be sure to not only drink plenty of water beforehand, but to keep a full bottle with you during class. You will want to have your own yoga mat, and many hot yoga practitioners like to use a sweat-absorbing yoga mat towel (like this one from Manduka or this one from Gaiam) on top of their mats. Lastly, a thick hand-towel to wipe sweat up (and away) is a must-have.
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