Reality Straight Up!

Thoughts & Observations of a Free Range Astrophysicist

Bikram yoga is about balance

Fahrenheit 105

From astrophysicist to health guru!

It’s a strange world. I’ve been published in a lot of places, but I never thought that I’d show up in the California Healthy Living Magazine talking about yoga!


I’ve been practicing Bikram yoga for a while now. For those of you who don’t know about Bikram, it is an hour and a half of hatha (i.e., physically strenuous) yoga practiced in a hot, humid room.

Why, you might ask, would anyone do such a thing? In my case, it was our youngest daughter that got my wife and I into it. I actually took the very first class that Tricia ever taught, which was fun, in a certain meaning of the term. But it was a few years before I went back.

Link to Bikram yoga article

Here is my take on heat in a Bikram yoga studio, published in California Healthy Living Magazine.

Since taking up Bikram, I admit that I’ve been an on-again, off-again yogi. A big part of my love/hate relationship with Bikram is that when I show up I never know whether it is going to be a really good experience or a really bad experience. The answer to that question depends on me to a certain extent. But to a larger extend it depends on just where the instructor decides to set the thermostat!

There was one day when the room was hot. I don’t mean it was hot. I mean it was HOT!  As I lie there suffering in a lake of my own sweat, a strange thing happened. The physicist in me crawled up out of the heat-driven delirium that was my brain at the moment, took a look around the room, and decided it was a teachable moment.

“Look,” said that phantom vestige of my ever-more tenuous rational mind. “Do you see that woman over there?”

“That one?,” I responded. I nodded toward a woman with unblemished hair and make-up who was cruising through the poses like she was out on a morning stroll in the park. She was about the same size as her water bottle.

“Yes, that’s the one,” my physicist self patiently replied. (Should it have seemed strange that inside my head I was both professor and confused student who had finally broken down and come to office hours?)

“Today we are going to set aside the problems in the back of the book and see if we can’t apply what we know to the real world. She has an advantage that has to do with things like mass, force, torque, work, conductive heat transport, the heat of vaporization of water and differences in how volume and surface area scale. I’ll bet that if you put on your thinking cap you can figure it out!”

“OK,” my befuddled self responded to my befuddled self. I picked up a marker, metaphorically speaking, stepped up to the also metaphorical white board, and started scrawling equations. To be honest I don’t think that I did much yoga from that point on that day. But by the time final savasana rolled around and somebody opened a door, letting in a gush of life-giving cool, I pretty much had the answer.

One thing led to another. After giving a number of impromptu colloquia on my recent calculations, often to hostile audiences, I decided that it was time to publish. So I wrote up a piece for my blog.

Then I saw a request from California Healthy Living Magazine looking for articles about yoga and thought, “why not?”

Take a look at the article here.

Fahrenheit 105 ^ From astrophysicist to health guru!  © Dr. Jeff Hester
Content may not be copied to other sites. All Rights Reserved.

Comments (4)

  • Michelle

    |

    Found your mathematical logic very interesting.. The energy comparison makes it much easier to visualize exactly what is going on with both subjects. One thing that anyone taking Bikram yoga may be aware of is the effect on blood pressure. One of my 20 something fit and trim friends went to a yoga class with another friend. No one suspected she had blood pressure problems until she almost had a stroke due to the heat. As far as I’m concerned, anything over 90 Is playing a dangerous game with your health.

  • Jeff Hester

    Jeff Hester

    |

    Hi Michelle. I understand completely. Vicki (my wife) had several bad experiences that turned out to be exactly what you describe. She addressed the issue and is back in the yoga room, but there were a couple of scary moments.

    There is a component of Bikram that I didn’t discuss in the article, acclimatization. Over time the body makes physiological changes in response to environment. For example, people who spend time at very high altitudes have higher red blood cell counts. That is why serious mountain climbers stage climbs, spending time at progressively greater heights. Their bodies are changing in ways that let them function better at altitude. That is also why participants in endurance sports will often train at a higher altitude than where they compete.

    The body also acclimatizes to temperature, up to a point. When you get to the point that you just can’t regulate body temperature any more, you are toast. But prior to that your body adapts to heat in a lot of ways. First and foremost, you get a hair trigger sweat response. When I am practicing regularly, all I have to do is look at something hot and my body says OK, turn on the faucet! Kidney and liver function change. Some of the ways the body adapts are similar to what happens with acclimatization to altitude. I mentioned blood count, for example. Gas transfer in the blood is less efficient at higher temperatures, and so if you do a lot of exercising in the heat your blood count becomes elevated, allowing you to perform better at high temperature in the future.

    I notice that in Phoenix, by the way. If I am spending a lot of time outside during the summer, where it is probably hotter than it is in the studio, it definitely has an impact on my practice. Ask me to practice at 90 F in the summer here and I’d look at you funny! 90F is a COOL day! LOL Not so much for the last year or so, but I used to do a fair bit of hiking in the desert during the summer. Five miles at 108 F (but low humidity so your sweat evaporates) was an afternoon stroll. We noticed a long time ago that while we can sit outside in the evening in 100 F and be perfectly comfortable, guests are often less sanguine. Some of that is mental, but a lot of it is physiological.

    The best guides for heat acclimatization are probably those used by the military preparing troops for deployment in hot environments. One thing that Bikram instructors get right when they talk to new students is telling them to come back in the next day, and the day after that, so that their bodies can adapt. What they get wrong is that early exposures should be of shorter duration, but still some degree of intensity. Just lying there in the heat doesn’t do much for you. Probably the right thing to tell a student would be, “Commit to coming in for two weeks in a row, practice at a reasonable level of exertion, but feel free to leave when you need to.” That approach would be anathema to most instructors, I think, but it would be much more respectful of the process a student’s body is going through. Students would stay for longer and longer, and eventually be completing practices without having to go through the “hell” phase. If studio owners really understood what was going on, they’d want that, too, since more students would come back!

    Properly managing hydration is another huge issue with Bikram yoga. They say “drink lots of water,” but I’ve seldom heard anyone in the room (other than my own daughter, I might add) talk about things like the dangers of hyponatremia, for example. I had to do a lot of experimenting before I found the right balance of water, salt and carbs that I need to have a good practice. For me, a liter bottle with a couple of slices of lemon, about half a teaspoon of sea salt and a squirt of honey does it. If I walk into the room with nothing but water, I’m going to have problems.

    Anyway… If I could make one change to the way they train Bikram instructors, it would be to devote at least an hour a day during their 9 week “boot camp” to really learning about the science (rather than the Bikram mythology) of sports medicine, heat acclimatization and the like. Less “chakras” and “energy flow” and more physiology would serve the community very well, indeed.

    With all of that said, I’m glad that we found Bikram. It’s often a love/hate relationship, but it has made life better.

  • Michelle Brockmeier

    |

    Jeff,
    You make some very valid points. Tim is from Colorado and can climb all over those mountains like it is nothing. Me, being raised at sea level, feel like I am gasping for air especially above the tree line. It takes several day for me to acclimate every time we go. I also realize I have to dramatically increase my fluid intake due to the dry air. As for the desert, I visited Tuscon several times in winter when it was in the high 90s. It was very pleasant with no humidity. Again though, I had to dramatically increase my fluid intake. I feel like I am in vapor lock when I go to Arizona or Colorado.
    As for Bikram yoga, I am not quite willing to try the hot box approach yet. I have taken yoga before and enjoyed it very much . Every morn, I do a light yoga routine before going to work. It helps start my day off in a good way. Even this summer, after swimming laps, I did about 15 minutes of yoga before exiting the pool. It was a great way to end the workout. With school starting next week, I will be in yoga class two times a week. I love the flexibility and energy it gives me. I have tried to recruit some of my younger colleagues to join me, but they are unwilling, saying yoga is too hard.
    I admire you and Vicki for your dedication to such a demanding routine. I can tell you are very proud of your daughter and her role as a Bikram instructor. As you said, you would have to do it every day for a couple of weeks before you are finally adjusted to the heat. But couldn’t they do it at 85″ or 90″? Why 100″+? Even here in Oklahoma, I can handle the heat easily to about 95″, then I am done.

  • Jeff Hester

    Jeff Hester

    |

    Stick your tongue out at those younger colleagues and then lead by example!
    Bikram is clearly not for everyone. If the heat is pushed to far, it’s not for me, either. LOL But I don’t think that Bikram was off base when he said that 100F is a good temperature. Practicing in a room that is below body temperature really is a different experience, and a lot of those physiological changes that come with acclimatizing to heat have some good practical benefits even when you aren’t in the yoga room.

Comments are closed

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Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
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