It’s almost impressive the way that Bikram Choudhury was able to take something as serene and unassailably healthy as yoga and turn it into something so overwhelmingly intense that some physicians have called for a boycott. Sometimes referred to as simply “hot yoga,” Bikram is actually a very specific sort of hot yoga, consisting of a regimented sequence of postures performed in a precise environment. Here’s the rub: In the early 1970s, Bikram Choudhury, 25 years old at the time, was sponsored by the American Medical Association to fly to the U.S. and teach his own yoga system, which was achieving widespread notoriety in his home country of India.
It wasn’t necessarily that the 26 asanas, or postures, were terribly outlandish. It was that Bikram insisted his classes be performed at 105 degrees Fahrenheit and 40 percent humidity, which Bikram claims is intended to mimic the climate of Calcutta, “increase circulation to all organs in the body and increase lung efficiency.” His students claim the heat allows the body to be more supple, “increas(ing) joint lubrication as well as flexibility in muscles.”
The trouble with intense exercise is that intensity doesn’t suit every body. The heat and humidity can result in dehydration, heat stroke, nausea, dizziness, and fainting. These problems are exacerbated for those with high blood pressure, heart problems, or complex medical prescriptions. Of course, the same goes for any exercise.
But there’s another question that often arises: Does hot yoga disrupt sleep?
The subject can be at best confusing. Yoga does have a good reputation for increasing “sleep efficiency,” as well as for improving the symptoms of anxiety and depression, which include insomnia. But one of the selling points of Bikram yoga, namely that it revitalizes and energizes the mind and body, might be another drawback: hot yoga can be so energizing that it can actually interfere with sleep. It’s not uncommon to hear complaints from novice yogis that the heart-pumping heat awakens the body like little else, providing a great boost to a morning… but over-exciting it in the evening.
It doesn’t help that Bikram himself only sleeps two hours per day and questions the need to sleep at all.
But ultimately, advice for hot yoga practitioners who do have difficulty sleeping is probably the same advice that holds for other rigorous activity: work out in the morning or afternoon. Instead of nighttime hot yoga, try nighttime meditation to lull the mind into a relaxed state without working up the body. Or if you really feel a need to stretch out the tightness of a long day, take a look at nidra yoga, a form of yoga that emphasizes breathing and relaxation over sweaty, challenging poses.
Of course, if you sleep like a baby after exercising at night, then don’t change a thing. Even though exercise releases the stimulating hormone epinephrine, not everyone will suffer insomnia because of it. Exercise, in the end, is a lifelong experiment of working out what works out for your workouts. Experiment fearlessly, work with your quirks, and do whatever it takes to get a good night’s rest.