Bikram yoga -- the original form of "hot yoga" -- is practiced in rooms heated to a tropical 105 degrees Fahrenheit and at least 40 percent humidity. This alone is a good reason to make sure you're medically sound before plunging into simulated equatorial torpor. If you experience chest pains after doing Bikram yoga, the good news is that there a number of possible causes that aren't life-threatening. If you are having chest pains and are in any risk categories for heart disease (smoking, high blood pressure, overweight) it's important that you tell your doctor about your symptoms.
What a Heart Attack Feels Like
Heart attacks cause pain in the chest, and while only your doctor can tell for sure if you’re having a cardiac episode, heart attacks do have their particularities. Most bring pain or discomfort located in the center or left side of the chest. The sensation can feel like squeezing, pressure, fullness or pain – as well as heartburn or indigestion – and it may range in intensity to mild or severe.
The discomfort or pain may last more than several minutes, or it may go away and return. You may also feel pain or discomfort in one or both arms, as well as the back, neck, shoulders, jaw or the stomach above the navel. In some cases, the only symptom may be shortness of breath. Needless to say, if you think you're having a heart attack, get somebody to call 911.
Because of the intense heat and continual movement in Bikram Yoga, it's important to guard against dehydration. Chest pains in isolation are usually not a symptom of dehydration, but a racing heart, muscle cramps, dizziness and shortness of breath are -- which in combination could indeed trigger pains in the chest area.
You can lose almost a half gallon of water in a Bikram class, and if you're already a bit dehydrated from previous activity you could run into trouble. Many Bikram instructors recommend drinking as much as a gallon of water on days you do Bikram, most of it before and after to avoid nausea and cramping.
Muscular Causes of Chest Pain
Muscle spasms in the chest region can also cause chest pain. Bikram, like other forms of yoga, may cause you to strain muscles that have gone unused for too long, or cause twinges in the intercostal chest wall muscles that connect the ribs. Chest opening poses, such as Locust, Bow or Fixed Firm in particular, may cause these muscles to spasm.
Another common culprit that can cause severe chest pain and make breathing difficult is the pectoralis minor muscle, the small pec muscle that resides underneath the much larger pectoralis major. Tweak that little fellow and you may find yourself howling like a coyote.
While romping through 26 asanas in extreme heat and humidity is an invigorating and purifying experience for many, others may find it pushes their hot buttons -- literally and figuratively. Chest pain is a common symptom of panic attacks -- it occurs in up to 70 percent of them -- and panic attacks in turn are an overactive fight or flight response to, among other things, strange and hostile environments. If you find that going to Bikram induces panicky feelings, let alone chest pains, explore other forms of yoga that are practiced with the heat set to much more moderate temperatures.