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August 1, 2013

Hot or Not? Possible Benefits & Precautions of Hot Yoga.

Is hot yoga dangerous or beneficial?

Often times there is controversy over whether Hot Yoga is beneficial or downright dangerous. As a long time yoga practitioner and teacher, I have practiced Hot Yoga with vigorous vinyasa, Hot Yoga with set sequences (such as Bikram or Baptiste) and Hot Yoga with a Slow Flow. They all have their benefits, but there are some precautions that we all must take when practicing Hot Yoga in any form. Here are some of the most popular benefits regarding Hot Yoga and what I found when looking through the latest research.

Benefit One:  It’s a workout!

  • Body works harder to expend more calories
  • Resting metabolic rate increases

This is great news for those yoga practitioners who want yoga as part of their “work out” regimen. You will work harder and expend more calories when exercising in a heated, humid room. Anyone ever go running in the south in the summer? Quite a different experience than in sunny, dry California!

The precaution here is the same for any exercise program performed in the heat and humidity. You want to stay hydrated before, during and after your session. And also, it is smart to gradually acclimate yourself to practicing yoga in the heat.

Dangers associated with exercising in heat and humidity include:

  • Heart has to work harder to send blood to the muscles and skin during exercises
  • Muscles do not extract oxygen as efficiently as they do at lower temperatures
  • Energy production and force of muscular contraction is decreased
  • When core temperature is too high, the circulatory system suffers, limiting the heart’s capacity to deliver oxygenated blood to the muscles and skin in a timely manner

Benefit Two: The muscles and connective tissue are more pliable, leading to greater extensibility for improving flexibility.

As physical therapists we learned that to improve the extensibility of soft tissue, it helps to heat the area first with moist heat. We know as human beings that it is much easier to stretch after a warm up of the muscles than it is when your muscles and soft tissues are cold, it is just common sense. With that in mind, practicing yoga in a hot, humid room makes it easier to get into some of the poses which require more flexibility.

The precaution here is the same as with any deep stretching. Be sure to protect the integrity of the joints and ligaments by knowing your own body and which areas you may be already hypermobile in and where you may need more flexibility. For example, if you already know that you have a tendency for sacro iliac joint instability, perhaps moving into that deep twist past midline in revolved triangle during a hot yoga class is not wise for you.

However, let’s say you have a lot of stiffness in your hip flexors and quadriceps from cycling or running. In that instance, moving into a deep quadriceps and hip flexor stretch as you would when performing an asana such as Low Lunge with a quad stretch might be a wonderful pose to practice with the assistance of the heat.

Benefit Three: Detoxing the body (open pores to let toxins out)

  • Sweat does contain trace amounts of toxins which are eliminated
  • Opening the pores through sweating cleans out the pores of the skin
  • Sweating does not clear body of toxins such as mercury and other metals, this is done by the liver
  • Compression and release of the internal organs such as the liver and kidneys may improve their function to help with detoxification
  • Dehydration impairs the efficiency of the liver and kidneys, be sure to stay hydrated

The jury is still out on how detoxifying exercising and sweating can be. But according to the research I found, it is helpful to “sweat it out,” especially for the skin. And when you are getting deeper into your poses, the compression and release through twists, backbends and forward folds can help to increase circulation during that period in those organs which detoxify our body such as the liver and kidneys.

There are some precautions to practicing hot yoga in addition to hydration and body awareness. If you have heart disease, exercising in a hot, humid room does cause the heart to work much harder. This can create stress on the heart and circulatory system and put you at risk for a cardiac event.

The thing is, heart disease is a silent disease, and in many cases one doesn’t know they are at risk, until a tragic event happens, from which there is no return. So my recommendation is to have a complete physical before embarking on any new exercise program, especially one in which you are adding the stress of heat and humidity into the mix.

But with all that said, what about the psychological benefits of hot yoga? After all, yoga asana practice is not only about the physical body. The exploration of your reaction to practicing in such a challenging environment can be quite transformational. Sometimes, we need to put ourselves into situations which are not quite comfortable (but safe) in order to really learn about our true selves, how we react and observe those patterns.  It is during those practices that we have an awakening or “aha” moment, if you will. We can then hopefully take what we learned about ourselves during our asana practice, and translate it to our everyday lives.

So Hot Yoga, unhot Yoga, Beginner Yoga or Ashtanga with a Rocket! Do what helps you to discover more about yourself and your reactions, how to become an observer and move through any obstacles to your happiness. That’s the practice….

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Asst. Editor: Edith Lazenby/Ed: Sara Crolick

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Chrys Kub