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November 28, 2013

My Thoughts on Hot Yoga: the Pros & Cons. ~ Chris Pritchard

Hot yoga has definitely become a craze.

It’s exploded over the last handful of years as yoga has experienced a shift here in the West towards being a more physical exercise. I have no problem with people doing yoga for just the physical aspect, but I must say I do cringe a little when I hear someone say they do hot yoga in a manner that is obviously “Look at me, I’m cool.”

As an exercise regiment, yoga is great. It stretches while also strengthening and as long as it is done with a teacher who is knowledgeable on how the body moves, can be done with minimal risk of injury.

My main issue with hot yoga is that while the teachers of it move the practice towards something that contains little to no inner work, they continue to claim it provides the same benefits as the more traditional yoga practices do that works the mind and emotions as well as the body.

In terms of the number of years I’ve been practicing yoga, I’m a comparative pup. I lean personal practice towards the more meditative aspects of yoga and while I’ve enjoyed some fairly rigorous semi-heated yoga classes (mid 80s or low 90s due to it being summer in a place without AC), the hot yoga craze is something that doesn’t sit well with me. Some may call me a yoga snob and that’s fine. I myself will refrain from any name calling and will do my best to stick to rational thought with the understanding that this is my POV.

I’ve been to a Bikram class as well as a number of other heated classes and I’m sure there could be a  yoga class or style that retains an inner focus while pushing the temperature of the room and the posture practice. My personal experience though is the greater the intensity of physical practice, the less inner work there is (meditation, breath, exploration of thoughts and responses to practice).

I went to a number of classes at a particular studio because they offered a really cheap first-time pass and there was barely a savasana; we just moved from pose to pose.

At least at that studio they gave modifications, whereas Bikram just says to push through, uses words like “hurt” in their script, and passes off the fact that we don’t have time to do anything other than keep going, or pass out, as their meditation.

I have a friend who swears by Bikram and I think it’s great they have a practice they enjoy, but any time I see them after a Bikram class they don’t look like they’re getting in shape. Instead, they look like they’re trying hard to catch up with the massive dehydration caused by the very practice that’s supposed to be beneficial towards their health.

In my experience, the mental positive effects felt from hot yoga was no different than that received from any other form of physical exercise and is not the same as an inward practice. While hot yoga can certainly improve mental health, I would argue it does so at no deeper level than any form of regular physical exercise.

Here are some of the benefits generally propounded by hot yoga:

Greater cell turnover or generation

It makes sense that greater blood flow and oxygenation of tissues promotes this, but again, how is it different than any other form of exercise? It’s not. So to clarify, it is not a unique benefit of either yoga or hot yoga, but rather a benefit of exercising in general.

Greater flexibility, improved balance and posture

This is a benefit of yoga in general (also martial arts like Tai Chi), but being in a heated room fools us into thinking our body is warmed up and can cause us to push ourselves farther than may be right for our body, possibly leading to injury.

Boosted hormones, or endorphins, that promote happiness

This happens with any physical exercise practiced regularly and is not unique to either yoga or hot yoga. The difference with a yoga class that’s more rounded is that a teacher may guide us with questions or thoughts that cause us to examine our pre-existing ideas about ourselves, promoting a healthier mental attitude separate of any physical exercise we are doing.

Sweating detoxifies our body

This is probably the biggest thing I hear from hot yoga enthusiasts and it was the one thing I thought might be a unique benefit of the practice. It’s one of those ideas that makes sense on the surface until one thinks it through and does some research. I accepted this idea outright, but then one day decided to actually research whether or not sweating really does detoxify the body.

I came to learn that detoxification happens in the kidneys and liver in our bodies, but that sweating is a way our body regulates temperature. Think about it: if sweating was one of the ways our body detoxes we would regularly break out in a sweat whenever our body needed to release waste.

Now it may be the case that working our bodies and getting our blood flowing helps promote the flushing out and detoxification of our body, but that happens because of what we’re doing independent of a heated room. The massive sweating that happens with hot yoga may actually be detrimental to this process as it causes water needed for detoxification to be sweated out in an attempt to cool our overheated body.

Yoga is from India and it’s hot there

Do I even need to address this? I feel like I should since I’ve heard this regularly. This is just a defensive reaction. Yes, India is a warmer climate. As a teacher I talked to once said, “When it’s hot, we do yoga; when it’s cold, we do yoga.” A certain temperature is not needed to practice yoga and since we’re used to room temperature, maybe it would be best to do yoga in that setting.

Now if one actually enjoys hot yoga, then great!

I am by no means trying to cut down hot yoga, or say it’s a practice without benefits. I just believe there should be clarity and honesty in what it does instead of acting like it’s the cure-all of practices. I know my personal practice that I love doesn’t make for a great exercise class. It helps my flexibility in body and mind, but it doesn’t improve my cardio, or help me lose weight, whereas a more rigorous  yoga class, or exercise routine in general, would.

Concurrently, hot yoga is not the same as a more classic yoga practice. It is a practice that concentrates on yoga as a physical exercise. It may require heightened concentration to keep up with the teacher’s lesson that promotes a better state of mind, or an improvement of focus. I don’t think that’s very different from any other gym taught exercise class, personally. It is not the same as a more meditative practice that also touches on the mind itself.

I struggle trying to figure out where I fit in in the greater yoga scene as a teacher.

I know what my practice and teaching is like and use language that clearly defines what my intention and teaching is about. The problem is that same language is used by yoga teachers all across the spectrum.

I think too many teachers want to be everything to everyone, so they all regurgitate the same language indiscriminately because inside we all are coming from the same desire to share a gift that has benefited us. I do wish other teachers would bring more clarity into how they present and promote their classes.

I know I’m not a teacher for people who can do advanced poses. I’m a teacher who values a foundation to practice that is inner and meditative. A practice that’s grounding and sometimes flowing (I try to mix in some Tai Chi at times) and I try to be honest about the fact that if one wants to sweat buckets or put their legs behind their head, my classes are not for them.

Shanti.

References:

  1. http://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/men/sweating-odor/does-sweating-cleanse-your-system.htm
  2. http://health.usnews.com/health-news/managing-your-healthcare/articles/2010/02/12/sweat-lodges-steam-rooms-arent-for-detox
  3. http://goaskalice.columbia.edu/does-sweating-release-toxins
  4. http://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/exercise-depression
  5. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/11/081118071144.htm

 

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Chris Pritchard

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