A Scientific Analysis of the Benefits of Bikram Yoga
Yoga is a form of fitness training that a lot of people participate in. And you can’t pinpoint just one group of people who gravitate toward yoga either. You might find a professional fighter downward dogging it next to a soccer mom with surprising regularity. But outside of improved flexibility and muscular endurance, I’ve always wondered about its benefits.
In a study published this month in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, researchers took a look at the changes in a variety of exercises after study participants did yoga training three times per week for eight weeks. Some of the exercises might not be what you’d think to check, like the deadlift and grip strength. They also checked the participant’s cardio, flexibility, heart rate, blood pressure, and body fat. The style was Bikram yoga – you know, the one in the hot room.
After retesting each trait at the end of training, some of the results were surprising. Most surprising for me was the absence of improvement in cardio. Neither maximal aerobic ability nor any of the other cardiovascular measures changed. Grip strength also remained unchanged, but that I could see. Improvements were noted in every other area. Deadlift strength was perhaps the biggest surprise, but they tested an isometric deadlift, which is more yoga’s forte anyway. The participants burned some extra fat, which should be expected. And big shocker on the flexibility front, yoga improved flexibility. (That was sarcasm, in case it didn’t come through effectively.)
Now, I need to mention one important aspect of fitness that takes some of the wind out of these yoga sails. That aspect is called General Physical Preparedness (GPP). One of the components of GPP training is what we often term “beginner gains.” In other words, you could spin in circles in your living room holding a Shake Weight and you’d hit a personal record on your deadlift the next time you went in the gym. (I don’t know why my mind went there, but the point still stands.) These sorts of improvements can’t be discounted when looking at research like this.
With GPP in mind, I’ll reiterate the surprise in that yoga didn’t improve cardio at all. I’d have thought just standing in the hot room for that long might have helped lower heart rate, but maybe all the participants are from Florida and they unwittingly practice Bikram yoga every day just bending to pick up the newspaper.
Ultimately, the advantage of doing Bikram might be a bit overstated by research like this. I don’t think competitive powerlifters will be pulling record numbers by hitting the studio instead of the gym, but note that the participants had a big jump in flexibility. This is probably because something a little beyond GPP is going on in that realm, and it’s something many athletes can benefit from.
1. Brian Tracy, et. al., “Bikram Yoga Training and Physical Fitness in Healthy Young Adults,” Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27(3): 822–830, 2013
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