A Postural Critique of Bikram Yoga

This week I got to thinking about Bikram yoga and its relationship to back pain and posture, and that got me writing about my concerns with Bikram yoga. It quickly became clear that the topic is too large for a single post so here is part 1 of a series on Bikram yoga, posture and back pain.

To begin; I love Bikram yoga, have been doing it for 12 years, and have benefited greatly from doing so. I’m a been a big enough fan of Bikram yoga that, at the owners request, I did a video testimonial for my studio’s website. In fact, I think you should totally give Bikram a try, but not until after you’re finished reading this, okay?

Now, having said all that, let’s get serious, because “out of the box” Bikram yoga can be, delicately put, not the greatest idea. You may have read about things like dehydration, overwork, or overstretching in the heat. I’m not talking about that, but about anatomical limitations and how Bikram “by the script” can cause harm.

Specifically, Bikram can very bad for your back, hips and neck. Why? First because there can be anatomical limitations preventing precise following of the Bikram script, which makes assumptions about your anatomy, and these assumptions may simply not be true. For instance, I have very deep hip sockets, which means that some postures are flat impossible. I have bone on bone impingement before I get to the deepest expression of the posture.

Second, we live in a society of slouchers (I should know, I am one). Slouching causes various problems with your back, neck and shoulders. Contrary to the script, Bikram yoga may not only be unable to help these problems, it can actively worsen them. I short, following scripted directions, contrary to your particular anatomical needs and limitations, can have serious negative consequences.

Problem number 1, lumbar flexion.

Your lower back is supposed to curve inward, toward the front of your body. Lumbar flexion is the opposite, with your lower back curving outward. You know, pretty much the way everyone sits nowadays; at your desk, at the dining table, in the car, etc. Too much flexion of the lumbar spine will lead to problems, beginning with lower back pain, moving on to disc and nerve problems, and worse.

There are many reasons that doing certain postures the Bikram way will put an unhealthy flexion on your lumbar spine. Referring back to my hips, when my thigh is bent 90° my hip impinges on the socket, forcing my lumbar spine to bend. Having developed flexion issues from a lifetime of poor posture, adding unnecessary flexion during a yoga posture is a very bad idea for me.

For anyone with lumbar flexion issues, to reduce or eliminate it will require modification or elimination of the following postures.

  • Hands to feet
  • First awkward
  • Standing forehead to knee
  • Balancing stick
  • Separate leg stretching
  • Separate leg with forehead to knee
  • Wind removing
  • Half tortoise
  • Rabbit
  • Sitting separate leg with forehead to knee
  • Final Stretching
  • The “Yoga Sit Ups”

That’s the list for modification. Next time I will go into specific details on how to modify your Bikram practice to get the most out of it, while preserving a healthy spine.

Until then, let’s all keep trying to Stand Up Right.