A Postural Critique of Bikram Yoga – Part 5

This is part five in a series. Go here for parts one, two, three, and four.

Many people, including me, have turned to yoga to help with poor posture. One popular form of yoga is Bikram hot yoga, which purports to offer help for poor posture. Unfortunately, doing Bikram according to the script may not help, and in some cases can actually harm, your back, neck and posture.

Having addressed lumbar flexion and tech neck in parts 1 through 4, I’d like to move on to core strength and shoulders. The Bikram series does little directly for either of these, and both are critical to posture.

For core strength, the Bikram series has “yoga sit ups.” These things take a bad exercise, sit ups, and turn the problems up to 11. Sit ups apply flexion to your lumbar spine, which you don’t want to do. Not content to apply a dynamic (moving) flexion to the lower back, Bikram then has you grab your feet and pull, creating a loaded, dynamic flexion to your lower back. This is something you really don’t want to do. So don’t.

The other issue with Bikram yoga, regarding core strength, is that it comes at it in reverse. Why do I say in reverse? Because you are told, “Move your body in one piece,” or, “Lock your core and…” In principle, there is nothing wrong with these commands, but it assumes you already have the core strength, and the knowledge of how to move in one piece.

In practice, you need the core strength to perform the posture, rather than developing it from the posture. And learning to move your body in one piece takes thousands of repetitions, done correctly, to teach the body the correct movement. You get 2 opportunities per posture per class, so it is better to develop the core strength first, so you can concentrate on the form of the posture during class.

There are plenty of great core exercises that work with your spine, and there are also plenty of great classes for them. Personally, I pair my Bikram practice with a heated yoga flow practice and hot Pilates (I really enjoy exercising in the heat). In fact, I regularly do a Bikram yoga/hot Pilates double; 2 hours of hard work with only 15 minutes break in between. That’s me, but what you do is less important than making sure that you do it, and that you do it right.

As to the shoulders, the Bikram sequence suffers pretty much the exact same problem as with core strength. You need it to perform several of the postures, but you only get two kicks at the can per class. If you suffer rotator cuff issues like me, Bikram yoga is not going to do much for them.

For instance, take half moon posture, in which you’re supposed to have your arms straight up, you’re your biceps by your ears. When I began, my arms were forward at my temples, and after 7 years of Bikram practice (peaking at 5 times per week) they were…forward at my temples. 7 years practice with no improvement in shoulder mobility, and I simply assumed that was it, my shoulder hunch was permanent.

This is simply not true. The rotator cuff is mostly muscle and can gain back a lot more mobility than I thought. In less than a year of dedicated work; stretching in the front, strengthening in the back, combined with mobility exercises, I was able to regain much of the lost mobility. To return to Half Moon Pose, now my biceps are much closer to my ears, but the improvement didn’t happen in the Bikram hot box.

Properly modified to your anatomy, Bikram yoga is an awesome total body workout. I love it, and still do it once or twice a week. The key is to remember that any exercise must serve you, to provide you what you need. So keep going to Bikram, learn to modify it to your anatomy, and use it to learn to Stand Up Right.