In Sweat We Trust: Hot Bikram Yoga Surges Across U.S. Bikram Devotees (And Their Green Commitments) Are Growing

bikram yogaBikram Choudhury hates the color green. Seriously: The offending hue is barred from anything related to the hot yoga empire that bears his name, from students’ apparel to the décor of the 500 Bikram-affiliated studios worldwide. I witnessed this personal quirk firsthand at a retreat with Choudhury in 2002, during which he ordered one attendee to remove a green bandana and sent another in search of a towel that was any color but. As we moved through the 26-posture, 90-minute class, an unseen furnace heated the massive room to well above 100 degrees. All 150 students had disposable bottles of spring water next to their mats. I considered the petrochemicals the mats were likely made of, and the volume of laundry just this one class would produce and uneasily realized that my yoga practice was anti-green in more ways than its founder’s color preference.

Why Hot Yoga?

From the saunas of Finland to the bathhouses of Japan, the cleansing and detoxifying properties of sweating are undisputed. Bikram Choudhury hails from Calcutta, India, and replicated its tropical climate when he moved to the U.S. in “Bikram’s torture chamber,” as he refers to the heated studio, to enhance the detoxifying properties of Hatha yoga.

“The heat plays such an important role,” says Cheryl Grivell, owner of Bikram Yoga Northwest in Calgary, Alberta. The high temperature facilitates flexibility and increases cardio benefits.

Feeling Is Believing

Ask a Bikram practitioner about the benefits of this yoga, and you’ll hear testimonies delivered with tent-revival enthusiasm. Danny Sine took his first class in 1991 at one of the country’s oldest Bikram studios, established in 1985 in Key West, Florida. He became a certified Bikram teacher in 2008, and purchased Bikram Yoga Key West this past spring. “My sleep cycle is deep and refreshing. My bouts with depression and anxiety are fewer and much less severe. I had two shoulder injuries, which have seemed to disappear. Also a minor hernia seems to have vanished as well,” Sine says.

I’ve had my own hot yoga “Hallelujah!” moments. I happened into Bikram in 1999 in search of a counterbalance to the wear-and-tear of training for my first (and only) marathon. Bikram was a revelation: a cardiovascular workout that required stamina and concentration, leaving me soaked and with a sense of well-being—a runner’s high without the high impact of running. A few years into my practice I partially severed the posterior cruciate ligament in my right knee (while on a roller rink, not a yoga mat), which an orthopedist declared irreparable except by surgery, due to the lack of blood flow through the knee joint. I’d heard that Bikram oxygenates the blood and increases rates of circulation to all parts of the body. I had to modify several of the poses to accommodate my injury, and it took a year, but I didn’t have surgery and remain so completely free of pain and symptoms five years later that I had to check an old medical record to identify which knee I’d hurt.

It was also love at first class for Edi May Macri, owner of Bikram Yoga Shelton in Shelton, Connecticut. “I became an instant Bikram addict,” Macri says. She recounts that Bikram helped her lose weight and “made my mind stronger. It was actually a very emotional and spiritual process for me, and still is.”

A common refrain from teachers is the satisfaction they get from watching students heal through the yoga. Sine has witnessed “everything from relief from chronic pain in the skeletal system to reducing or getting off medications for diabetes and blood pressure.” (Of course, if a person is considering reducing or eliminating medications it should be done under the supervision of a doctor.)

Eco Asanas

The 105-degree temperature and 40% humidity level required for a Bikram class aren’t naturally sustained in most climates, of course. Heat sources range from space heaters to electric furnaces to radiant systems that warm the room from the floor up or the ceiling down. Macri keeps energy consumption low at Bikram Yoga Shelton by focusing on heat retention. The walls and ceiling are spray-foam insulated and there are no windows in the yoga room. “Our room is basically a giant Thermos,” she says. The air handler is turned off between sessions to conserve energy and is on a timer for the first class of the day.

“The heat system in the Key West studio is very basic—we use between four and six space heaters,” says Sine. Depending on the time of year and number of students in the room, he’s able to unplug the heaters halfway through class and rely on Key West’s own heat and humidity. Sine is also investigating the use of window solar air heaters.

Happily, there have been significant shifts toward conservation in the Bikram community in recent years, from replacing inefficient heaters and light sources to installing eco-friendly flooring. While cold beverage sales can raise a studio’s revenue, and a cooler full of bottled water and electrolyte drinks is still de rigueur in many hot yoga studios, some owners are forgoing this financial perk. “I supply filtered water throughout the studio. So as long as the student has a water bottle there is no need to put more plastic out to the world,” says Grivell, who also opted for LEED-certified flooring in her Calgary, Alberta, studio, along with dual-flush toilets and low-flow showerheads. Tea tree oil is used to disinfect the studio’s rental mats. Macri also uses green cleaners and purchased a high-efficiency washer to launder rental towels on-site rather than employ a towel service

Students’ habits seem to be shifting for the better, as well. I bring a reusable water bottle to class as do most of my classmates. Whatever it’s made of, I’ve had the same (blue) yoga mat for 12 years, and will eventually replace it, if necessary, with one made from plant-based or recycled content. And though I’m hopelessly devoted to a yoga style that consumes more energy than some, I like to think it fuels my personal energy to decrease my impact elsewhere.