I have been asked by several people recently for my opinion on Bikram Pilates. It’s something I joke about offering as a perk in my summer classes when the air con fails but I gather it is now appearing as a modality (for want of a better word) in its own right.
Summary: Yet to be convinced as a fan / personally view it as dangerous and a gimmick.
At outset, I am only a Cert IV Pilates teacher. I am not a yoga teacher or a Physio so I’d welcome comment from those who are - I’m happy to be corrected and have set this post to auto approve comments without any prior moderation. Flame me at will! :)
I am basing this on a single attendance at a Bikram Yoga class about five years ago and current promotional Facebook pages. I’d be the first to agree that a single visit would not be representative of all Bikram Centres – however, I have heard numerous other people with similar experiences to make me wonder if what I am about to describe is, indeed, the norm. Current Facebook promotional pages also seem to be adhering to and espousing the same sort of nonsense I encountered five years ago – ie the ‘no pain no gain’ type slogans abounding.
My personal view on Pilates is a way of performing moves with length, control, precision and mindfulness. It is about trying to work deeper core muscles and NOT outer, showy ‘six packs’. Pilates, to me, is synonymous with a ‘less is more approach’ that is a polar opposite to ‘going for the burn’ – which risks all sorts of injury and makes about as much sense as doubling prescribed medication to get better twice as quickly.
I find it hard to reconcile my understanding of Pilates with a promo touting ‘rock hard abs’ and ‘no pain no gain’. Personally, rock hard abs are the LAST thing I want. Rock hard abs do not my protect lower back. Rock hard abs do not keep my lower abdominals flat.
Regarding the heat, it seems to me that when you are artificially hot, you are in danger of stretching than body further than it is used to – you may feel OK at the time but later on, you discover you have pulled a muscle. This didn’t happen to me in the bikram yoga class but it has happened to others I know. Maybe it is safe to push gently beyond normal boundaries assisted by heat but in a small class setting and where you have been individually assessed first by an instructor. I don’t see how this is possible in a large group class / one size fits all.
On the aspect of one size fits all, in the Bikram Yoga class I attended, I was staggered that no regressions were given. Unable to bend over fully while keeping my legs straight – I somehow managed to make myself be heard above the ridiculously loud music – to ask which was the more important aspect – ie which could be compromised, back or legs or was there a suitable regressed variant of the move? The answer was barked back at me as if I was a conscript in a pre WW2 platoon – there was no regression, that was the move and it had to be done that way! One other attendee, a middle aged lady to my right, was also having similar problems and the ‘Sergeant Majorette’ actually came round and without warning, pushed the lady’s shoulders down – not overly roughly but forcibly enough that I felt was dangerous. (I am assuming the ‘Instructor’ didn’t know the lady’s case history – she may have done but it didn’t look like it to me).
One other aspect that disturbed me about the Bikram concept was at class start - we were also told (as if children) no water allowed to be drunk for the first 15 minutes!!!! How utterly absurd - let's perform exercise in a dehydrated state. Needless to say, I immediately and pointedly picked up my bottle and almost drained it - looking at the ‘Instructor’ the entire time….
I also wonder how much of a gimmick the heat is. After the class I attended, I found it amusing to see many of the girls hurrying out immediately afterwards - queuing up / fighting to use the scales to see how much weight they had ‘lost’….. (surely to only put it back on a few hours later when rehydrated…. A short term, feel good gimmick?).
I was quite literally about to close this post when a client emailed me a quote from a Bikram Pilates site and it seems to fit in beautifully with the notion of a gimmick. “Sore? OOHHHH BABY! Sore muscles mean you worked hard!”…..
Not disagreeing at all but another perspective would be ‘Sore muscles mean you have over worked, strained yourself and used mostly global muscle groups and not deeper ones.’
A phrase like “Sore? OOHHHH BABY! Sore muscles mean you worked hard!” shows the animal’s true colours – a cardio based ab crunch class that uses gimmicky slogans and is not about precision and substance. Don’t get me worng, classes like this are most likely a LOT of fun but let’s call a spade a spade – I wouldn’t call them Pilates…..
STOP PRESS: 29/8/15 - Updated observations having actually ATTENDED two classes last week
One of my Pilates students, an avid fan of Bikram Yoga very kindly bought me a week pass last week to a Bikram Yoga/Hot Pilates Centre - and kept encouraging me to give it an updated go.
I was relieved that the Yoga 'teaching' style wasn't as 'Military' in its approach. I found the heat did, indeed, assist the stretching - although, even though I was careful, I found I was VERY sore the next day, Maybe I was lured into a false sense of security by the heat. Or maybe I am just way too tight and have only my inflexibility to blame. Hard to say.
I'm trying to find other positives to report, but cannot. It really wasn't for me. In no particular order of significance:
- I couldn't hear the instructor - she spoke somewhat quietly and the acoustics of the room, coupled with the noise of the heating systems, meant I missed about 90% of what was said. Additionally, her verbal cueing was rapid fire - continual. Even **if** I **HAD** been able to actually HEAR her, there was no time for me to process each cue before the next one was fired out - cues like machine gun fire. When teaching, I deliver a sniper's shot and let the damage settle before reloading :)
- The instructor didn't demonstrate the moves and I was constantly looking to others for my visual direction. I gather the more advanced students 'gravitate' to the front of the room so beginners can watch them. Erm, other students are NOT qualified teachers - they may be doing the moves incorrectly........
- There was minimal, frankly, scant correcting, tactile cueing from the instructor - her job seemed more about narrating a script (more on that later).
- Up to this point, I felt I'd have got as much benefit by simply buying a DVD and doing this on my own.
- Maybe there are other reasons from a yoga perspective but as a Pilates Teacher, I take issue with a rollup move being done VERY quickly. The move was performed using arms, momentum and no cue to ensure breath wasn't held - in most cases I could see, it was! Apart from being ineffective at working lower abdominals and potentially dangerous for the lower back, I felt it totally defeated the purpose of gently stretching/relaxing the abdominals only to suddenly contract them in an instant!
- Although I appreciated the amount of recovery in between each move, it nonetheless felt as if the class was rushed. It was on a predetermined schedule. I gather the Bikram class involves 26 moves which have to be done in the same order. Each class is the same. There was no time for the teacher to be able to take questions, segue into other related moves, maybe expand upon one given move - the timetable HAD to be followed. I consequently felt like 'canon fodder' (to continue with the my military metaphors!) - one of many foot solders there to be pushed through the exercises rather than a valued client there to be taught how to do and benefit from the various moves. Discussing this with the teacher afterwards, she explained that the sequence of moves has been designed to work every muscle group in all planes. Can't argue with that but, I'd rather see a teacher trained with a toolkit/repetoire of many moves from which they can choose to achieve the same goal. Far more interesting for all I'd have thought and it'd allow the teacher to better customise the class.
I was particularly impressed with her continual reminding people to take the moves at their own level and that it was fine to take it back a notch - something that seems not to happen in a group based class! Certainly, the pace of the class and its emphasis was, thankfully, different from the 'go for the burn baby until it hurts' type promotional hype I have seen for this modality of exercise.
I am not sure whether the class was scripted / pre determined but didn't enjoy the stopwatch approach to the moves - ie every 40 seconds or so, the teacher's stopwatch beeped and it was time to change moves. This is just a personal preference - I know many like this approach - but I found it detracted from focusing on the things like control, length, breath etc as my subconscious kept thinking 'how many more seconds to go'.
Although I could see the reason for the heat in the yoga, I'm not sure it worked in the Pilates - although I coped, I felt the heat started to get in the way of the moves. As with the Yoga class, there was minimal (actually there was none!) tactile cueing/correction. The moves were kinda fun, many of them based upon Pilates but the fundamental concepts of working with length, control, precision, breathing, elongation were altogether omitted. Pelvic floor engagement was mentioned a couple of times but, without actually explaining what this was.
IMHO, the target market for Hot Pilates is probably more the younger end of the market who don't particularly want to focus on length, control, correction abdominal set up, posture, breath and who are after something more robotic/less mindful. That said, as a former ab crunch junkie myself, teaching mat Pilates in gyms, I would be the first to recognise that some Pilates, no matter how diluted, is better than none. I would concede the point, that if I was faced with a similar target market and had to teach a Hot Pilates class, I'd probably adopt a more diluted approach.