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November 24, 2016

Hot Yoga: Not as Scary as it Sounds.

I’m in my fifth year of practicing hot yoga, and every time I tell people about it, they often have the same response:

“Oh no way. I could never do that. I can’t handle the heat.”

I get it. Spending an hour and a half in a hundred-degree room sounds intimidating. It sounds like it requires a lot of endurance—and it could even be dangerous, right?

Surprisingly, it’s not nearly as agonizing as all that. In fact, it can be downright blissful, and for people without underlying health conditions, it shouldn’t be dangerous.

Since most people’s main concern is safety, let’s get that out of the way first.

Those who have never tried hot yoga should definitely check with their doctor for approval first. In my case, my OB/GYN told me to go before I even asked. My family doctor recommends the practice to his patients, too, and I have several M.D. friends who agree that yoga is one of the safest, healthiest ways to stay fit, physically and mentally. But as always, before starting anything new, make sure your doctor thinks it’s a good fit for you and your body’s needs.

After receiving reassurance from a medical professional, you should have nothing to fear. Knowing what to expect from a hot yoga class should put any remaining apprehensions to rest.

Most studios heat their rooms between 95 and 100 degrees, though humidity could make it feel a little warmer.

Bikram studios are 105 degrees. I always try to set up my mat in the coolest part of the room near a door or a window and away from any space heaters because I prefer moderate heat.

Go to class well-hydrated.

That means drinking lots of water long before class starts, not just during. I have made the mistake of practicing without adequate water intake on many occasions, and I notice a huge difference in how my body reacts to the heat. It’s not pleasant—and even dangerous—to be dehydrated, so learn from my bad example.

I also make sure to eat two hours before class.

The general rule I’ve always heard is “make sure you don’t eat anything for at least two hours before practicing yoga,” but if I go to class on an empty stomach I am absolutely miserable, have no energy, and can barely function, so I make sure that I eat a good meal with lots of protein exactly two hours before class. Fasting and hot yoga are not the smartest combination. As I’ve gotten more used to hot yoga, I’ve found that I actually do much better if I eat a handful of nuts, some fruit and a cup of green tea about one hour before class, but every yogi has to experiment with what works best for them.

During class I’ve learned to pace myself.

My level of endurance is always different, and yoga has taught me to listen to my body’s signals and know when I need to slow down and when I need to take a rest. In fact, that’s my favorite thing about yoga: it isn’t boot camp. Yogis are encouraged to modify, to be gentle on themselves when needed, and to take breaks. I used to be self-conscious about going into child’s pose in the middle of class, but I stopped caring, because my practice is for me. It is a time for me to be alone and focus on myself and my own needs, without distraction.

It’s not about ego, showing off how much I can do and how far I push my limits (which is not healthy) and it’s definitely not about competition with anyone else in the room. So the moral of the story is this: if you feel hot, tired, or lightheaded it’s perfectly okay to take as long a break as needed.

Some yoga teachers really frown on students leaving the room during class, but…

I realize that this is a huge breach of yoga etiquette; however, discreetly leaving the room without creating a disturbance is a much smarter choice than suffering a heat stroke and passing out (which would be way more disruptive). Allow yourself the option of leaving the room. Also know that I am the biggest wuss there is, yet in five years of practicing I have only left class twice. Once was my first class (for which I was woefully unprepared) and the other time I had something in my eye.

If I can do it, trust me, you probably can too.

Before yoga, my main form of exercise was flipping the pages of a book. I never ran or played sports, and I hated everything about working out in a gym. It hurt! I never felt calm and relaxed, and I wore out too quickly. Other exercise classes made me feel bad about myself because the trainers berated students as a bizarre form of motivation. I could never keep up. I felt made fun of if I needed to rest, but nothing like that has ever happened in yoga, despite the heat. Hot yoga is my safe place where I feel embraced by the warm air and the warm people.

To me, the warmth of a hot yoga studio is comforting.

Given my level of general wussiness, I’m still surprised at how much I actually love—even crave—the heat. Proponents of hot yoga say that it helps the body sweat out toxins and that we are more flexible when our body temperature is raised. I have no scientific proof of either. All I have is anecdotal evidence and personal experience, and I can say that I am much more flexible when I’m hot, though I have to move much more slowly. I don’t know about the toxins, but I can say definitively that my overall sense of well-being is greatly improved after an hour and a half of hot yoga.

I like being warm.

As someone who suffers from joint pain and muscle weakness from an autoimmune disease, I find that the heat offers me significant pain relief and comfort. It helps me relax and let go physically, mentally and spiritually.

Hot yoga may sound intimidating, but with proper medical advice, and common sense preparation, it feels good. Like I said, if I can do it, you probably can too!

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Author: Victoria Fedden

Image: @elephantjournal on Instagram

Editor: Toby Israel

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