Thursday, August 14, 2014

How to Make Delicious, Nutrient-Dense Smoothies

Having a smoothie for breakfast can be one of the healthiest habits you develop, if it consists of the right ingredients.  Most mornings my breakfast consists of about 2 pint glasses worth of blended vegetables, fruit, seeds, herbs, grass-fed whey protein and various superfoods.  It only takes 3 to 5 minutes to make, assuming all of the ingredients are handy.  Though it is a liquid, it fills me up for 4 or 5 hours until lunch.  Most importantly, I know that I will always have at least one meal every day that is loaded with lots of superfoods known to support sustained energy levels, a strong immune system, vibrant looking, clear skin and general vitality.  Plus, many of these ingredients have potent anti-inflammatory effects and are known to decrease your chances of getting cancer and other major illnesses.

This article offers guidelines and specific foods I recommend using, not a specific recipe.  Make sure your kitchen is well stocked with the necessary fresh ingredients once a week, and then have fun combining them each morning.  Simply add 1 or 2 ingredients from each of the seven categories below to a high-powered blender.  You will learn quickly how much of each ingredient to add to create a well-balanced smoothie that tastes great.

1) Vegetables

1. Celery
2. Fennel Root
3. Cucumber
4. Baby Greens Mix (arugula, chard, spinach, kale)
5. Spinach

These are my favorite vegetables to add, but get creative and use whichever vegetables you enjoy.  I usually choose both a watery vegetable like celery or cucumber, along with a leafy green vegetable like spinach or the baby greens mix.  Two large celery sticks or a 1/2 cucumber along with a large handful of greens is an example of what I typically use. I usually don't add root vegetables, but you can!

2) Fruit (frozen or fresh)

1. Wild Blueberries
2. Strawberries
3. Raspberries
4. Blackberries
5. Boysenberries
6. Acai Berries
7. Marion Berries
8. Cherries
9. Pineapple
10. Pomegranate

As you can see, I love berries. And the fruit component of my smoothies often consists solely of them. Berries, in many ways, are the most nutritious fruit because they are loaded with a variety of anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and blood sugar regulating nutrients, without a lot of extra fructose.

I prefer frozen berries, for 3 reasons:

1) They are affordable!  Fresh berries are very expensive, so if I am eating them every day cost is a major deterrent.
2) Berries are usually frozen very close to the time they are picked, which preserves many of the healthy constituents until the time you eat them.  Often, by the time you eat berries from the store, they have been picked a week or more in the past, losing vital nutrients with each passing day.
3) They help create a moderately cold, more drinkable smoothie without having to add ice.

Keep in mind; organic berries are a must, as conventional berries are high on the list of most pesticide-laden fruits.

3) Seeds & Nuts

1. Pumpkin Seeds
2. Black Sesame Seeds
3. Sunflower Seeds
4. Chia Seeds
5. Flax Seeds
6. Macadamia Nuts
7. Brazil Nuts

I usually add a medium handful of 1 variety each morning.  My refrigerator is stocked with all, so I will rotate through them each week.  Seeds have a broad spectrum of nutrients that are linked to vibrant health.  They are especially loaded with minerals that are easily absorbed, plus healthy fats, protein and fiber.

4) Herbs & Spices

1. Turmeric Rhizome
2. Ginger Rhizome
3. Fresh Basil
4. Fresh Cilantro
5. Fresh Parsley
6. Fresh Mint
7. Clove, Cinnamon, Fennel, Cardamom and/or Ginger (powdered)

Turmeric and ginger are so healthy that I include a thumb worth of each in my smoothie every morning.  I almost always include a handful of fresh basil or cilantro since they are such potent anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer plants.  In the winter, I add a teaspoon of combined powdered spices to support digestive fire.  All of the above ingredients add a very unique and, in my opinion, pleasant taste to the smoothie.

5) Protein

1. PaleoMeal by Designs for Health

PaleoMeal is a grass-fed whey protein powder that also includes many other metabolism boosting, blood sugar regulating nutrients, like L-Glutamine, Creatine, Zinc, Magnesium and Chromium.

It is the best protein powder on the market that I have seen, so I use it every morning. If you do not tolerate dairy, Designs for Health has non-dairy options.  I do not recommend any protein powder containing soy protein isolates or whey from cows that are not grass-fed.

6) Fat

1. 1 to 2 tsp. Coconut Oil
2. 1/2 Avocado
3. Yogurt (full-fat, non-sweetened)


A large body of research now tells us how important fats and oils are in helping our body absorb and utilize the nutrients in fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices.  Adding a good amount of olive oil to salads, sautéing spices in ghee, adding butter to steamed broccoli, turmeric powder in whole milk, and adding fat to your smoothies can greatly increase the percentage of nutrients absorbed.  Plus, each of the above 3 foods has many additional health benefits.

7) Superfoods & Adaptogenic Herbs

1. Matcha (powdered green tea)
2. Maca Root Powder
3. Goji Berries
4. Spirulina, Chlorella and/or Blue-Green Algae Powder
5. Ashwagandha Powder
6. Royal Jelly or Bee Pollen
7. Cocoa Powder (unsweetened)

There is enough research showing benefit for each of the above to warrant the cost.  Add a decent amount of 1 or 2 each morning.  Again, vary the ingredients each day so that you are getting some of each, each week.

The sweetness factor!

Most people will not want to drink a smoothie that is not at least mildly and pleasantly sweet.  If you have plenty of protein, fat and fiber in the smoothie, then sweetening your smoothie moderately is perfectly healthy.

One or two of the following ingredients, added to taste, will do the trick:

1. Tart Cherry Concentrate (it's actually very sweet)
2. Fresh Pineapple (if any juice has separated out, that will be especially sweet)
3. Pomegranate Juice
4. Cherry Juice
5. Fresh, In-Season, Juicy Stone-Fruit (especially nectarines and peaches)

Combine, Blend and Drink!

As mentioned, all you need to do is choose 1 or 2 ingredients from the seven categories above.  Add them to a high-powered blender, pour and drink.  I use a Vitamix blender, but you can probably get by with a less expensive model.  Again, think of this as a full meal.  For me, that means I will want to drink 2 or more pint glasses each morning.  Some experimentation is in order, and the only way for you to find the perfect smoothies with the right flavor and consistency for you, is to do it a few mornings in a row.  I bet, your first smoothie will be delicious, and they will just get better over time.

Here's an example of my breakfast this morning:

1/2 Cucumber
1 stalk Celery
1 large handful Baby Greens (chard, spinach, arugula)
1 small handful frozen, organic Boysenberries
1 small handful frozen, organic Strawberries
1 handful Pumpkin Seeds
1 thumb Ginger Rhizome
1 thumb Turmeric Rhizome
1 handful fresh Cilantro
1 scoop PaleoMeal
1 rounded tsp. Coconut Oil
1 Tbsp. Maca Root Powder
1 small handful Goji Berries

Plus: a long squeeze of Tart Cherry Juice Concentrate for sweetness, and enough Coconut Water to result in the desired consistency.

This yielded 2.5 pints of smoothie, which was the perfect amount to last me 5 hours until lunch.

Final Thoughts

1. I go shopping each Sunday to make sure I have enough of all of the above ingredients to allow for varied smoothies throughout the week.  Keeping your kitchen well stocked is essential.  Once the ingredients are there, it only takes a few minutes to blend them.

2. If your fruit, vegetables or added sweetening agents didn't include enough liquid, as is usually the case, you will need to add enough water, coconut water, chilled green tea or juice to find the right consistency.

3. All smoothies are not healthy!  Compare the smoothie I've described to a typical smoothie consisting of banana, apple juice, ice and a soy-based protein powder and the difference should be apparent.  The ingredients I've mentioned above are the best anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory and general health promoting foods on the planet.  Your smoothie should have no fillers. A breakfast consisting of nothing but those foods is the best thing you can do for your health.  In addition to exercising regularly, sleeping enough and having fun, of course! 

4. And finally, breakfast is the easiest meal to make into a routine.  Anything that becomes a routine part of life is easy to maintain for the long-term with very little effort on your part.  Buy the ingredients this coming Sunday, do it three mornings in a row, and you'll be hooked!!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Green Juice Recipe

Warm, summer days are the perfect time of year to enjoy fresh juice.  And juice that you make yourself or with loved ones is by far the best.  Nothing compares to farm fresh produce, straight from juicer to mouth.  Once you've taken a look at my juicing guidelines, give this recipe a try.  It's by far my favorite.

Sean's Summer Green Juice Recipe

1 large  Cucumber
1 medium  Fennel bulb (with greens)
1 bunch  Celery sticks
1 bunch  Spinach
1 bunch  Parsley (Italian)
1 medium  Lime (with peel)
1 medium  Apple (with peel & core)
1 thumb  Ginger root (more or less to taste)

Directions:  You can either juice or blend this recipe.  If you want to preserve all of the fiber and make it more of a meal, you can blend it.  Make sure you have a relatively powerful blender.  If you want a light, refreshing beverage a juicer is required.

I love this recipe!  It tastes amazing, and the emphasis on green vegetables makes it super healthy.  The exclusion of cruciferous vegetables makes it easy to digest.  The spinach and parsley both provide a broad range of nutrients and other health promoting ingredients.  The fennel, lime and ginger aid digestion and give the recipe a robust, unique flavor.  The apple gives a touch of sweetness, without adding too much sugar.

The great thing about juicing is that the possibilities are endless.  Why not visit a farmer's market this weekend?  Get creative!  

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Keep Juicing Healthy

Juicing can be a tasty, enjoyable and nutritious part of a healthy lifestyle.  However, some guidelines are important to make sure you are juicing in a way that is truly healthy for you.  As most of you know, juicing only fruit can result in a large spike in blood sugar levels.  And some have constitutions or digestive systems that make juicing less enjoyable and less healthy, especially at certain times of the year.  Following these simple guidelines will allow most people to enjoy fresh juice in the healthiest way possible. 

1. Don't over do it.  The traditional medicine systems of China and India teach us that strong digestive fire is essential to good health.  Digestive fire in Ayurveda is known as agni, and in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) it involves abundant Spleen and Stomach Qi.  Too many cold or raw foods can challenge and even harm our digestive fire.  If your digestive fire is strong, juicing in the warmer months usually isn't a problem and can be very healthy.  But, if you are prone to digestive problems like indigestion, gas or bloating, then juicing may not be appropriate for you.  Individuals with cold, weak constitutions may have to enjoy fresh juice in moderation.  Those with the weakest or coldest constitutions may benefit more from soups, stews and broths, even in the warmer months.

2. Limit the amount of fruit, carrots and beets.  Juicing fruit and sugary vegetables like carrot and beet should be done in moderation.  Recent research shows the harmful effects fructose, the sugar found in fruit and some vegetables, has when it isn't buffered by the fiber found in the whole food.  Drinking 8 ounces of apple juice, for example, is in most ways as unhealthy as drinking 8 ounces of soda.  Yes, fruit juice has some vitamins and other healthy phytochemicals.  Unfortunately, the beneficial effects of those constituents are offset by both a surge in blood glucose levels, as well as a fructose overload on the liver that has other negative effects.  [1] [2] Our bodies need both the fiber found in the whole food, as well as the slower consumption time involved in eating the whole food, to mitigate those negative effects.  For optimal health, fruit, carrots and beets should be added to your juice for a little flavor and sweetness, not as the main ingredient.  Enjoy lots of fresh fruit, but eat all of it, not just the juice.

3. Enjoy fresh juice in the spring and summer.  Save juicing for the warm months of spring and summer.  Your system needs warm, grounding meals in the cold, winter months to keep your digestive fire strong.  Some with very strong digestive fire are the exception, but even in that case, care should be taken. 

4. You may need to go easy with cruciferous vegetables.  There are some vegetables that require more digestive fire than others, and this is especially true of cruciferous vegetables.  The cruciferous vegetables include kale, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and brussel sprouts.  Of course, plenty of research tells us how amazingly healthy the cruciferous vegetables are.  But, any food prepared in a way that wrecks digestive fire and causes bloating or gas is not good for you.  Simply sautéing cruciferous vegetables will allow you to get the benefit of those vegetables in a way your body can handle.  If your digestive fire is strong and you don't get gas or bloating from juicing cruciferous vegetables, then by all means, enjoy!

5. Add ginger.  Adding a touch of ginger, turmeric or garlic (gasp!) to your juice can help support your digestive fire, plus give a zing of flavor.  Don't overdo it.  A little too much ginger or turmeric can be very spicy, and too much garlic may make you smellier to others than you may want.

6. Keep it fresh.  Bottled, canned, cooked, or reconstituted juices lack most of the enzymes and other micronutrients that make fresh juicing so healthy.  Buy fresh, local produce; juice it within a few days; then drink it the same day for maximum nutrition and flavor.  There are a lot of great juicers on the market at a variety of price points.  I recommend doing your research and finding one for less than 100 dollars if you're just getting started.  If you find that you're juicing regularly, you may want to upgrade at some point.

Raw versus cooked.  Some have a misconception that raw foods are easy to digest.  For the most part, the opposite is true, especially if the cooked food is eaten soon after cooking.  Cooking foods breaks cellulose and other constituents down into more easily digestible forms.  Cooking also transforms some toxins into nutrients; this is especially true of many legumes.  And lycopene, another well-known nutrient, is created through the cooking process.  Yes, many nutrients and enzymes are lost during the cooking process, so including some raw foods in your diet is a great idea.  Generally speaking, the stronger your digestive fire, the more raw foods you'll be able to tolerate.  Fermented foods like kvass, sauerkraut and other pickled vegetables, are a great way to consume raw foods in a more digestible form, as the fermentation process partially digests the food for us, creating healthy probiotics and other important nutrients in the process.

Take home message:  Fresh juice is healthy for those who have digestive fire strong enough to digest it, especially in the warmer months of the year.  If you get gassy or bloated after juicing it means you are not getting the benefits of the juice, and they are causing harm instead.  Nothing is healthy for everyone.  Your body needs to be able to digest, metabolize and absorb nutrients, and if your system is unable to do that, then even supposedly healthy foods are not healthy for you.  If you are having problems digesting fruits and vegetables in one form, like juice or raw salads, then support your digestive fire, and try steaming or sautéing them instead.

[1] "Fructose Consumption is Associated with Cardiometabolic Risk Markers and Visceral Adiposity in Adolescents".  J. Nutr., 2012.
[2] "Fructose Induced Lipogenesis: From Sugar to Fat to Insulin Resistance".  Trends Endocrinol. Metab., 2011.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Book Review: Nutrition and Physical Degeneration

Nutrition and Physical Degeneration: A Comparison of Primitive and Modern Diets and Their Effects by Weston A. Price
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Published in 1939, this is one of the most important books on nutrition ever written.  Dr. Price presents in this work documentation of the detrimental effects on health, bone structure and fertility that are seen when modern foods (sugar, white rice, white flour, canned foods, jams, lean muscle meat, vegetable oils), replace traditional foods (liberal use of sea foods, organ meats, eggs of many species of animal and fish, full-fat dairy from cow, goat and camel raised on fast growing grasses on mineral-rich soil, freshly cracked and ground whole grain breads).

This book is at its best when he documents his travels in the late 1920s through mid 1930s.  He traveled to isolated parts of Switzerland, northern Scottish islands, northern Canada and Alaska, the Melanesian and Polynesian islands, the Peruvian Andes and Amazon regions, throughout Central and East Africa, New Guinea and Australia.  In each location he meticulously documented dental cavities and dental arch and skull deformities, plus immunity to tuberculosis and other infectious diseases.  He compared groups of the same "racial stock" that had no contact with modern foods, and were still eating their traditional diet to groups where "traditional" foods had been replaced by "modern" foods.  And it is not pretty.  More important than the data he collected are the photos that he took.  It's enlightening to see photos of so many vibrant, strong, well-developed people.  People that ate exclusively traditional diets.  People that never used a toothbrush, yet had no history of tooth decay.  It is equally heart-breaking when you see photos of what happens when "traditional" foods are replaced with modern foods.   A photo can tell a thousand words, and simply scanning the photos in this book alone is well worth the purchase price.

The last third of this book rambles along, and it is written in the 30s, so there is some language that is not politically correct now.  I wish he would have spent more time rigorously documenting the exact diets of the groups he came in contact with.  It also would have been great to have more data on life expectancy, as well as tumor and heart disease data on the groups he studied.  For those reasons, I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Still, this book is so immensely important and influential to many, because we live in an age where there are virtually no people left on the planet that are eating completely traditional diets.  The "white man's" food has replaced traditional foods for almost everyone.  For that reason, most of the photos that we now see of so called current "primitive" groups, show people negatively impacted by modern foods.  Dr. Price provides hundreds of photos of what these people looked like 80 years ago, before unhealthy foods were introduced.  The photos of these beautiful, vibrant people will blow you away, and make you reconsider what "normal" and "healthy" really is.  Sadly, it's hard to find examples of comparable levels of good health in those around us now.

Book Review: The China Study

The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted And the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, And Long-term HealthThe China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted And the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, And Long-term Health by T. Colin Campbell
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I rate very few books 1 star.  This book deserves it because his thinking is flawed, his conclusions wrong, and most importantly, as a scientist he should know better!  He is well-aware of the difference between correlation and causation.  He even educates his readers on the differences, then turns around and makes faulty conclusions based on purely correlative data.  Crazy!  Furthermore, many of the studies he cites to try to prove causation didn't differentiate between saturated and trans fats.  And we know clearly now that trans fats have many of the negative health effects he blames on saturated fats from animal-based foods.  I won't provide links here, but if you are interested in reading very well thought out critiques of this book you don't have to go far.

Book Review: Diet for a New America

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In my early 20's this book inspired me to shift my diet to a purely vegan diet.  I followed the diet religiously for 5 years, which I regret.  The book also inspired me to eat a whole foods, mostly organic and local diet, which I am thankful for.  His arguments for the health benefits of a vegan diet are deeply flawed.  He does, however, bring to light many of the moral and environmental issues our culture faces through its reliance on factory-farmed animal products.  I believe his moral convictions clouded his judgment on the health effects of animal foods, especially when those foods are raised and eaten as they have been traditionally, throughout our evolution as a species.

There is no evidence of any traditional society subsisting on a purely vegan diet for more than one generation, and that makes his recommendations potentially dangerous.  Starting a vegan diet after reproducing, or later in life, is probably not dangerous.  However, starting earlier in life, or before reproducing, can be potentially unhealthy for the individual and for any offspring.  The potential negative effects increase dramatically if those children are then fed a vegan diet.  Not only do we not have a cultural precedent demonstrating the long-term effects of a vegan diet, but there is no scientific study that has examined the health effects of a vegan diet on multiple generations.

Cholesterol, saturated fats in moderation, fat-soluble vitamins essential for growth and reproduction, and other nutrients not found in, or poorly-absorbed from plant foods, are essential to health.  These nutrients are found in easily-absorbed and metabolized forms in animal foods, and are especially important during the child-bearing years, breast-feeding months, and throughout the growth cycle from baby to child to teenager.

Thankfully, factory-farmed sources are not the only choice now, and most communities have access to local, sustainable farms that carry pasture-raised, grass-fed, organic choices.  Unfortunately, blinded by the moral atrocities that have taken place, Robbins cherry-picked the data and came to far-reaching, incorrect conclusions that are misleading at best and deceiving at worst.    

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Bikram Yoga - A Critique and Guide

Those of you that know me through my acupuncture practice may not know that I taught yoga throughout the Bay Area for 13 years.  I no longer teach public classes, but I continue to practice some form of yoga most days.  It is a practice I started 20 years ago, and it has been one of the joys of my life.  Though Iyengar and Ashtanga yoga have been my greatest influences, a number of other yoga traditions have been very important in my development, especially Warrior yoga, Kali Ray Tri yoga and what some consider to be the black sheep of yoga traditions, Bikram yoga.

A Bikram yoga class includes the practice of 26 poses.  Most of the poses are done twice, and most are held between 30 and 60 seconds.  The sequence and length of the poses are exactly the same every class and the room is heated to between 100 and 105 degrees.

Bikram Yoga Sequence

Every yoga style has pros and cons.  For every style mentioned the pros far outweigh the cons.  Unfortunately, Bikram yoga is the exception, as there is a lot in Bikram yoga to be critical about.  It can be unhealthy for some, and even unsafe for others.  There is, however, also a lot to like about Bikram yoga.  I personally benefited greatly when I practiced Bikram yoga 4 to 5 times a week for a 6-month period many years ago.  When I first started my yoga practice, I spent three diligent years practicing Iyengar and Kali Ray Tri yoga, yet my muscles were still tight, tendinous bands that seemed resistant to stretching.  Surprisingly, I was still unable to touch my toes without effort and Downward Facing Dog pose was still very uncomfortable for me due to hamstring and shoulder tightness.  The repetition of the same poses and the heat in Bikram yoga helped me over those hurdles, and was a useful stepping-stone in my practice.  Now I occasionally take a Bikram class when I want a cardiovascular workout combined with the additional benefits of yoga asana.

What follows is what I consider to be a fair critique of Bikram yoga.  I also offer some guidelines for determining if Bikram yoga is right for you, and some tips for practicing safely if you choose.

Cons of Bikram Yoga: 

1.  Most Bikram yoga teachers are not well trained in anatomy, pathology, or injury prevention.  Nor are they well trained in yoga, body awareness or teaching techniques outside of the limited instruction they learn in the 9-week Bikram yoga teacher training.  They know how to instruct a group in the practice of the 26 Bikram poses, but they have very little education in how to work individually with students, or how to modify poses for those who have injuries. 

2. Bikram yoga teachers are trained to encourage students to sublimate the sensations of their body to the idea of how the pose should be done in Bikram yoga.  Instead of the practice of yoga being one of exploration and body awareness, it becomes a practice of learning how to turn off one's own faculties of discrimination.   Bikram yoga teachers often tell their students that it is okay to feel pain, without differentiating "good" pain from "bad" or dangerous pain.  Students are not encouraged, or in some cases even allowed, to alter poses in a way that feels right to their bodies.  This is understandable in some cases, but too often a student with an injury or structural issue is not permitted to make slight modifications that allow the pose to feel safer or more effective.

3. Bikram yoga can be depleting for some.  Though the heat can have beneficial metabolic effects for many, that is not the case for everyone.  In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), even "healthy" people have constitutional patterns of disharmony that may make Bikram yoga a less healthy, or even harmful practice.  For example, someone who has moderate to severe Qi or Yin deficiency would not do well with the heat of a Bikram yoga class.  And the loss of copious amounts of fluid through sweating that occurs would be especially damaging.  Bikram strongly advises new students to do the practice every day, but a Qi or Yin deficient person could develop serious health problems if they were to follow that advice.

4.  The heat can encourage those who are flexible but lacking strength to overstretch.  In addition to overstretching muscles, there is risk of exacerbating or creating hypermobile joints, which will increase the wear and degeneration of those joints.

5.  Near the beginning of class, from a standing position, there is a deep backbend followed directly by a deep forward bend.  This is potentially dangerous for many; particularly those with current or past disc herniations, spondylolisthesis or hypermobile lower backs.  Students are encouraged to ignore any pain they feel in those two poses, which of course, can be dangerous.

6.  Bikram yoga teachers instruct students to lock joints, especially the knee.  "Lock your knee! Lock your knee!" is yelled during most Bikram yoga classes.  Unfortunately, this can be dangerous for many people with knee joints lax enough to hyperextend.  If the knee joint is hypermobile, locking the knee will place it in a hyperextended and dangerous position, as shown in the picture below, on top.  Whether your knee joint is capable of hyperextending or not, "locking" the knee often involves disengaging the quadriceps.  Instead of training yourself to lift out of the knee joint, all of the weight bears down and back into the knee joint.  The picture on the bottom shows a woman not locking her knee.  Her leg is straight, her quadriceps are engaged, and she is lifting up out of the knee joint.  An ever so slightly bent knee with quads engaged would be preferred to the Bikram approach seen on the top.

No, thank you! 
Yes, please.
7.  Bikram yoga is potentially dehydrating, unless you are very persistent in hydrating before, during and after each class.  Often, water with electrolytes is necessary due to the large amount of fluids lost in a typical Bikram class.  Bikram yoga is essentially a 90-minute yoga practice in a sauna.

8.  There is no focus on personal or home practice in Bikram yoga.  I think it is fair to say it is even discouraged.  There is no possibility of evolving a cohesive, holistic yoga practice within this system. 

9.  I hate to say it, but... due to the large amount of sweat students lose and the carpeted floors, many Bikram yoga studios can be kind of stinky!

Pros of Bikram Yoga

1.  The repetition of the same poses twice each class in a heated environment offers a great opportunity to increase flexibility for those who are especially inflexible or muscle-bound.

2.  The heat offers a beneficial cardiovascular and metabolically useful workout that is unique in the yoga world.  Bikram yoga will significantly raise your heart rate for the majority of the 90 minutes class.  This can have healthy effects on many body systems that are less, or less directly, affected through other yoga asana systems.

3.  If weight-loss is your goal, Bikram yoga is probably more effective than other forms of yoga that are not in a heated room.  And though there are some cons to sweating a lot, sweating may provide unique detoxification benefits.  Also, the Bikram sequence alternates poses that compress parts of the body with frequent repetition of Savasana, which opens and relaxes the body.  This alternation of compression and release feels great and may offer additional benefit.  I wasn't able to find any research supporting these presumed benefits, but there are lots of things that are healthy for us that haven’t been studied yet.  Hopefully we'll see more research in the future.

4.  The sequence includes a 3-part "Awkward Pose" which can be especially beneficial for the knees.  The trio of poses, repeated twice, offers a creative and challenging way to strengthen all of the muscles surrounding the knee joint.  The 3rd part emphasizes the vastus medialis, or inner quadraceps.  A weak vastus medialis is often overpowered by a stronger vastus lateralis and I.T. band, which can cause patellar tracking problems.

5.  Bikram yoga avoids poses that put pressure on the neck, shoulders and wrists.  Though hyperextension of the knee is a concern, over-rotation of the knee, for the most part, is not.  Most other yoga asana traditions include inversions like Headstand and Shoulderstand, which if done incorrectly, or by a person with certain pathologies or structural issues, can be harmful to the cervical spine.  Poses like Chaturanga Downward, Facing Dog and full Backbend can challenge the wrists and shoulders; and poses with potential to over-rotate the knee, like Lotus variations and Pigeon pose are also a normal part of many other yoga asana systems.  This is not a disadvantage or a critique of those poses or styles of yoga.  All of the poses mentioned, when done correctly and with proper instruction, are extremely health promoting.  But, for those that have neck, shoulder or wrist injuries that are exacerbated by their asana practice, Bikram yoga may be a good alternative.  Finding a good teacher in other traditions to show you how to modify the poses causing discomfort may be another option.

Is Bikram Yoga Right for You?

Bikram yoga is safest and most beneficial for:

1.  Those who are especially muscle bound or inflexible.

2.  Those who already have extensive yoga or body-awareness training, as they will have the knowledge necessary to know when not to listen to the instructor. 
3.  Those who, from a TCM perspective, are abundant in Qi, Blood, Yin and Yang, and are without excess or deficiency Heat.  And, from an Ayurvedic perspective, those who have dominant Kapha dosha, and an absence of Pitta imbalance.
Approach Bikram yoga with caution if:

1.  You are hyperflexible or have a history of lumbar disc herniation or unstable spondylolisthesis. 

2.  You have a hard time staying hydrated, even with regular water consumption. 

3.  You have chronic fatigue that is consistently made worse with exertion. 

4.  You have low blood sugar, low blood pressure, get dizzy, faint easily or get regular headaches.  In these cases, you may benefit from Bikram yoga, but make sure you stay very well hydrated before, during and after each class.  It's normal for there to be some light-headedness during a Bikram class, but if any of those symptoms increase after class, Bikram yoga is probably not a good option for you.

Pregnancy and Post-Partum Recommendations:

I do not recommend Bikram yoga during pregnancy.  There are many other styles of yoga that are more beneficial for pregnant women.  Pregnant women need abundant Qi and Blood, and exercise and yoga practices that are not depleting in any way.  Also, as the level of the hormone relaxin increases during pregnancy, there may be increased risk of stretching ligaments.   

I also do not recommend Bikram yoga after giving birth.  Please wait at least a month before starting any vigorous exercise program.  In the post-partum period it is especially important that rest, a healthy diet, and herbal therapy be utilized to replenish the Qi and Blood lost during delivery. 

If you take a Bikram yoga class be sure to:

1. Listen to your body.  If there is sharp pain in a joint, it is bad, no matter what the instructor says.  One should never outsource their ability to determine what is right or wrong for their own bodies.  Trust yourself and your sensations and back out of a pose or skip it altogether if that is what feels right to you. 

2.  Go into class hydrated, drink water during class at the appropriate times, and drink more water than you think you should in the hour or two after class.  To help your body absorb the water, add electrolytes in the form of a touch of sea salt, lemon juice and/or honey, or an Emergen-C packet.  Coconut water is another good choice.