All hot and bothered: We try out the Bikram hot yoga 30 day challenge
Bikram yoga has for a long time been a controversial topic in the yoga world. Traditionalists claim the lifestyle of its now multimillionaire founder, Bikram Choudhary, contradicts its non-materialist philosophy, while others belittle its health and detoxifying benefits.
I've been practising Bikram yoga - the hot yoga based on 26 hatha yoga postures and two breathing exercises, performed twice in a room heated to 40°C - on and off since last year. I finally decided I wanted to do the much talked-about 30-day challenge, doing the class daily for 30 days, curious to see what its effects would be.
I love a challenge and, for me, quitting is not an option. Until this one. Bikram yoga is sold on its numerous benefits, from detoxification to improving the digestive and immune systems and even aiding sleep. But, as I was to find, everyone's body is different and, by day four, I was seriously sleep-deprived.
Embarking on something for 30 consecutive days didn't seem so tough at first. Practising every day allowed me to fine-tune postures to a degree I'd not done before. It was amazing how much improvement I could feel within the first 10 days, certain things finally falling into place. However, I was soon tight and sore, something yoga usually combats for me, and by day five, I suddenly realised there was no "rest day" like I would usually incorporate into training.
I found the biggest benefit to be what I took off the mat with me into my daily life. Being instructed to breath in a controlled manner, through the nose and not the mouth, is possibly one of the most useful techniques, whether you are trying to control your breathing for sports or when in a stressful situation. Controlling your breath is more challenging than you'd think, but breathing calmly makes for a calmer mind.
I was still struggling to sleep, even by day 17, and in addition to the summer heat, my body felt like it was constantly on fire.
In the US, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration has developed a chart to provide guidance about exercising in the heat, which claims that caution should be exercised at 80°F to 90°F (26°C to 32°C), with dehydration likely. It urges extreme caution at 91°F to 103°F (32°C to 39°C), saying "heat cramps or heat exhaustion possible". At 104°F (40°C) and above, categorised as dangerous, it says "heat cramps or heat exhaustion likely, heatstroke possible".
There were days when the digital thermometer in the studio read 47°C (116°F), which is well into the danger category. The main risk at such temperatures, when the body is losing so much water, is that you lose nutrients, too. Electrolytes, salt, sugar, the minerals contained in our sweat - they must all be replaced - and water is not enough. Glugging several litres each day before, during and after practice, was not helping my depleted body.
Andrew Picken, the chief executive of Bespoke Nutrition, says: "What a lot of people do not know is that during exercise we lose not only water but also electrolytes which help maintain the body's fluid balance. It's essential to replace these electrolytes to regain proper fluid balance and become rehydrated."
I was also becoming very moody - a mix of the fatigue and the heat. On day 18, I had to quit the 30-day challenge, much to my disappointment. My final lesson was one I will now take forward with me: listen to your body, know your body and know when enough is enough. There is no shame in admitting defeat if it means putting your health first.
Brian Ward, who founded the UAE's first Bikram studio, Club Stretch, acknowledges 30 classes in 30 days is a lot for many people and says the lack of rest may be too much for some. "If your body says it needs a day off, we agree with that. The 30-day challenge is not just about doing 30 classes in 30 days, but we applaud anyone who can even just increase their practice."