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Benefits

Credit: Bikram Yoga Leeds

Benefits of Bikram Yoga

There is a considerable amount of scientific research on the benefits of Bikram yoga. We have collected and summarized most of the research results that have been produced to date.

When Bikram Choudhury was growing up it was a common practice in India to visit a yoga teacher if you had a pain or ailment that just wouldn’t go away. The yoga teacher would prescribe one or more yoga postures and/or breathing exercises, to be practiced daily. Modern medicine was not yet widely available, or affordable, and Bikram witnessed how a great many people were helped by his guru’s ‘prescriptions’. Bikram tells the story of how his and his guru Bishnu Ghosh’s ‘yoga clinic’ became so popular that in the end they just couldn’t cope with the number of people queuing down the street for an appointment. So he had the idea of putting together a series of postures, all of which had proved especially beneficial for achieving and maintaining a good level of physical and mental health. And this is how the series of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises was born.

From the 1970 and onwards, as this practice was made available to an increasing number of people, there have been thousands of stories of how people have been helped by practicing Bikram yoga. Ligament, tendon and bone injuries that had persisted for years, finally healing. Sufferers of irritable bowl syndrome, Crohn’s disease, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, finally finding relief for their symptoms after years of suffering. One could argue that the traditional use of these postures would be enough to show the benefits of a regular yoga practice. But our western minds have been conditioned to place more faith in things that have been scientifically proven, and in recent years a number of studies have been made showing with empirical data just how beneficial the practice of Bikram yoga can be.

Strength, Flexibility and Fitness

Researchers at Colorado State University have undertaken two studies of the benefits of the Bikram yoga series, one in 2008 and one in 2014. The first study had a group of test subjects taking three classes per week for eight weeks, and showed that even this relatively short program produced significant improvements in balance, and also improvements in leg strength and muscle control for the less-steady subjects. [1] The second study, in which the research subjects were all healthy young adults leading a relatively sedentary lifestyle, showed significant gains in spine, hamstring and shoulder flexibility and improved whole-body strength. [2]

Bikram Yoga to Treat Depression, Stress and Anxiety

Anecdotal evidence has showed Bikram yoga to be a highly effective treatment for sufferers of depression. There is now a study underway at Massachusetts General Hospital, where a team of psychiatrists will study the effectiveness of Bikram Yoga as a means to reduce the symptoms of depression in a group of patients who are new to this practice. Maren Nyer, PhD, director of Yoga Research in the MGH Depression Clinical and Research Program at MGH says: “Hot yoga, practiced by a growing number of people, appears to be a promising treatment for depression. It provides intensive exercise and mindfulness, both shown as effective treatments for depression. Regular practice of hot yoga may regulate certain physiological functions that could contribute to the reversal of a depressed state.” [3]

However, the heated environment is a completely understudied domain with regard to its healing effects for depression. “Although there is only minimal empirical evidence, heat has traditionally been used to promote wellness,” says Maurizio Fava, MD, director of the MGH Depression Clinical and Research Program and professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “The heated environment may enhance the antidepressant effects of this form of yoga.” As of April 2015 the study is still ongoing. [4]

A recent study presented at the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s 2015 conference provided empirical data showing Bikram Yoga to be effective for treating anxiety, depression and stress in women. The study examined a number of at-risk women who were suffering from mildly elevated anxiety, moderate depression and high stress. These women had not practiced yoga for the past year, and were randomly assigned to take two Bikram yoga classes per week. The results showed that the women taking the yoga classes presented greater decreases in anxiety, stress and depression than the test subjects who didn’t do any yoga. “Clinicians treating women who are stressed, anxious, and depressed should consider investigating some form of yoga therapy,” said Dr Hopkins DeBoer, lead researcher for the study. “I think yoga pairs nicely alongside psychotherapy for a depressed mood, anxiety and stress in women.” [5]

Bikram Yoga and Osteoporosis

The longest running study of Bikram yoga to date is the 5-year study of Bikram yoga as a counter measure to bone loss and osteoporosis. Over the last decade it has been established that the best way to take preventative action against bone loss, and thus to prevent fragility fractures, is to engage in physical activity. However, the type of high intensity activities that may be the most advantageous for increasing bone density are not always viable options for the elderly and aging, because many of them already have osteoporosis and are incapable of such vigorous movements. Weight bearing exercises have shown to increase the risk for this group to develop joint-related disorders such as osteoarthritis, and most low-impact forms of exercise fail to ameliorate the problem of decreased bone density. [6]

The osteoporosis and bone loss study was undertaken at the Bone Density Clinic at the Los Angeles Orthopedic Hospital, and it included a number of women between the ages of 30 and 59. The researchers measured the bone mineral content of the proximal femur and lumbar spine in their subjects at the outset of the study, and then again, five years later. The results showed that the practice of Bikram yoga may preserve or even increase bone density, if practiced three times per week or more. The conclusions of the study indicate that Bikram yoga may be an effective countermeasure for preventing osteoporosis. [7]

Bikram Yoga and Diabetes

There have been numerous testimonials on the effectiveness of a regular Bikram yoga practice to counteract the symptoms of diabetes. Some diabetics have even reported controlling their blood glucose levels without having to use insulin. A pilot study was undertaken in 2012 at the University of Texas, in Austin, Texas. The results of this study showed that adults at risk of Type 2 diabetes reduced their blood glucose levels as a result of a regular (three times per week) Bikram yoga practice. The test subjects had a mean age of 46 and were classed as ‘obese’. The study results showed that only eight weeks of practice noticeably lowered their blood glucose levels. [8]

Multiple studies have showed improvements in glucose response to traditional exercise (i.e. treadmill walking), but very few have shown the same with yoga. What makes Bikram yoga beneficial for metabolism could be the heat, as other studies have found similar benefits of heat-therapy over time. The authors of the research paper concluded that: “The findings of the current investigation unveil Bikram yoga as a new therapeutic tool in the amelioration of metabolic dysfunction with age and obesity. Bikram yoga may be an ideal alternative to traditional exercises, especially in older or obese adults, due to its low impact nature.” [9]

Bikram Yoga and Insomnia

Another area where anecdotal evidence, testimonials and stories are overwhelming in their numbers, is the positive effect a regular Bikram yoga practice can have on sleep. Again and again we hear students who have suffered for years from insomnia and irregular sleep patterns saying that, even after their very first class, they “slept like a baby”. Many also testify that with a regular practice, they no longer need sleep remedies to help with insomnia, nocturnal awakenings and restless sleep patterns.

Again, this is an area where more research is needed. To date there is only one study on the subject, a pilot study on subjective and objective sleep parameters, undertaken by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital. Since sleeping in a laboratory setting can be disturbing to sleep, and may provoke anxiety, the measurements were taken during home sleep monitoring. The testing period was relatively short (14 days) and the test subjects, who were all otherwise healthy young adults, were told to practice a Bikram class at least two times during the testing period, on days of their own choosing. Their sleep parameters were measured on “yoga days” and on “non-yoga days”. [10]

This was only a pilot study, with a limited number of test subjects (13 people), and the results were inconclusive for insomnia and total sleep time. However, the results showed that Bikram yoga was associated a significantly faster return to sleep after nocturnal awakenings. The conclusion of the study was that more research was needed, and that “Of particular interest is whether habitual performance of yoga would reveal an evolution of changes in sleep architecture, perhaps from acute (restricted to the day of yoga) to chronic (sleep assumes an improved and more stable architecture).” [11]

References:

[1]Brian L. Tracy and Cady E. F. Hart,

Yoga as Steadiness Training: Effects on Motor Variability in Young Adults,published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Vol 22, September 2008

[2]Brian L. Tracy and Cady E. F. Hart,

Bikram Yoga Training and Physical Fitness in Healthy Young Adults, published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Vol 27 No 3, March 2013

[3]Massachusetts General Hospital Psychiatry News,

Massachusetts General Hospital Testing Hot Yoga for Treatment of Depression, www.massgeneral.org, September 6th, 2013

[4]Ibid.

[5]Medscape Medical News: Conference News,

Hot Yoga Cools Anxiety, Relieves Depression, www.medscape.com, April 13th, 2015

[6]Sophia N. Sangiorgio, Arnob K. Mukherjee, Nicole W. Lau, Apurba Mukherjee, Prithwis Mukhopadhyay, Edward Ebramzadeh,

Optimization of Physical Activity as a Countermeasure of Bone Loss: A 5-Year Study of Bikram Yoga Practice in Females, Scientific Research Open Access, Vol. 6 No. 11, May 2014

[7]Ibid.

[8]Stacy D. Hunter, PhD, Mandeep Dhindsa, MBBS, Emily Cunningham, M.Ed.,Takashi Tarumi, PhD, Mohammed Alkatan, MS, Hirofumi Tanaka, PhD,

Improvements in Glucose Tolerance with Bikram Yoga in Older Obese Adults: A Pilot Study, Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 2013

[9]Ibid.

[10] Ravi S.Kudesia, Matt T. Bianchi,

Decreased Nocturnal Awakenings in Young Adults Performing Bikram Yoga: A Low-Constraint Home Sleep Monitoring Study, ISRN Neurology, 2012

[11]Ibid.

For more information on research and yoga, see Bikram Yoga’s main page.