In the 1970s, Bikram Choudhury introduced the first form of hot yoga, and it has been going strong ever since.
Since that time, there have been many studies exploring the benefits and potential risks of Bikram’s hot yoga—and as we will see, the results are mixed.
Clearly, the popularity of hot yoga is not consistent with the science. But before we dig into the modern science, let’s look and see if there is any ancient wisdom aligned with hot yoga.
According to my research, there are no yoga traditions or yoga lineage that intentionally practiced hot yoga or that intentionally heated yoga rooms. In fact, in India, traditional Hatha yoga schools frown on hot yoga.
For thousands of years, yoga was practiced at sunrise and sunset—when it was cooler, so not to overheat—and as a way to connect and sync with the natural circadian rhythms.
According to a publication by Yoga International, when Bikram first arrived to the United States, he only heated his classes to 82 degrees Fahrenheit. He noticed that the increased temperature made people sweat more and exert themselves more in class, so he steadily increased the heat.
Today, Bikram yoga typically takes place in a room heated to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. This has become the standard in most hot yoga classes.
Lacking Ancient Wisdom.
Bikram hot yoga as we know it today was not founded in India; rather, it was discovered in Japan. In the 1970s, while Bikram was teaching yoga in Japan, saunas were in vogue, so they started experimenting with heated yoga rooms.
According to Ayurveda, body temperature should be carefully monitored during detox treatments. During an Ayurvedic detox, called panchakarma, there are many heat treatments used, but there is always an effort made to keep the heart and head cool. During swedana, a sweat-steam therapy, cooled balls of clay were fastened to the head and over the heart to ensure the head and central nervous system were kept cool. There was careful effort to always keep the head outside of the steam cabinet.
I administered panchakarma for 26 years, and the golden rule was to never let the head get overheated. We would apply cold compresses to the forehead and heart during our steam treatments. This kept the body in a relaxed (parasympathetic) state where healing and detox are facilitated.
A hot head would trigger an overheated emergency (sympathetic, fight-or-flight) response and a shutdown of any of the predicted benefits. The body can only rejuvenate and detox when the nervous system is in a calm state. When overheated, the body will endure the heat stress—but in order to repair, burn fat, lose weight and detox, the body must be in parasympathetic dominance. This does not happen in hot yoga.
Treating Hot Yoga Teachers.
In the middle of the 1980s, I remember starting to see a handful of burnt-out hot yoga or Bikram yoga teachers come into my clinic. Since then, I have had a steady stream of them find their way into my office. Most have concerns ranging from chronic fatigue, brain fog, and inability to handle stress, anxiety, depression, and chronic joints issues, to after-class symptoms of exhaustion, dizziness, fatigue, disturbed menses, headaches, and nausea.
Many hot yoga teachers teach a couple of classes (or more) per day—for sometimes years on end. This makes the risk of “overdoing it” much greater for the teachers. That said, I am seeing more and more hot yoga class participants complaining of the same types of concerns.
One of the circadian risks noted by both modern science and Ayurveda is the negative impact of engaging in excessive exercise or stress during menses.
According to Ayurveda, apana or downward-moving vata is supporting the flow of menses, introspection, and a “pulling back of the bow,” so women can function and lead from a deep inner sense of calm. Excessive activity from mental or emotional stress, exercise, or work during the cycle (or throughout one’s life for that matter) has been linked to menstrual disturbances, including dysmenorrhea and amenorrhea. Excessive exercise—and this would include hot yoga—would draw apana up to support the work stress, and ultimately leave the apana depleted over time. (Learn more about Ayurveda, excessive stress, and menopause concerns here.)
The vast majority of hot yoga students are selective and intelligent about how much hot yoga they do, and I do see great potential value in hot yoga. We will look at the science next—but first, some Ayurvedic logic.
It is not uncommon for yoga teachers to have more pitta in their body types. One year, at the Yoga Journal Conference in Estes Park, I was teaching a class on Ayurveda to about 100 yoga teachers. I “body typed” all of them, and surprisingly, there were only two kapha body types out of the 100 yoga teachers in the room. The rest were either vata-pitta or pitta-vata.
According to Ayurveda, if you are a pitta-something and are practicing hot yoga on a regular basis, there is a risk of accumulating excess heat or pitta, which can literally “burn you out.”
Add a couple of cups of morning Joe, spicy food, a 20-ounce kombucha (fermented foods are heating), and some red wine at night—all of which are very heating—a hot yoga teacher or excessively practicing student can easily overheat and burn out.
Then, think about the season you are in. A hot pitta body type doing hot yoga in the hottest season of summer in a hot climate and perhaps in the hottest part of the day, say during your lunch break, the risk of over-accumulating pitta rises significantly.
If you are a pitta type doing hot yoga in the morning hours in the winter, then the risks are much lower. Vata and kapha types do not carry the risks of accumulating pitta or heat as much as pitta types would.
The Pros and Cons.
From the fitness side, hot yoga seems to deliver. In one study of 82 hot yoga students, they measured the benefits and adverse effects of hot yoga. They found that hot yoga:
• increased flexibility (63 percent)
• improved mood (58 percent)
• increased fitness (43 percent)
• improved stamina (42 percent)
However, just over half of the participants reported some sort of adverse event during a hot yoga session. The most commonly reported adverse events included:
• dizziness (60 percent)
• feeling light-headed (61 percent)
• nausea (35 percent)
• dehydration (34 percent), amongst others
I am not suggesting that we all ban hot yoga. I am suggesting that we realize that this style of yoga is new in the world of yoga—and therefore, will likely evolve.
My guess is that it will become more moderate over time. I write this article to help many hot yoga students and teachers evaluate their pitta-aggravating activities, and bring some Ayurvedic ancient wisdom and balance back to their yoga practice.
As far as a fitness routine goes, yoga and a balanced amount of hot yoga can be very effective. While yoga has many benefits, effectively burning fat and losing weight is not one of them. Yes, you can sweat off the pounds during a hot yoga class, but whether this is fat being burned or water weight being dumped is debatable.
Other studies found that younger Bikram yogis had improved arterial elasticity, but the older practitioners did not see improved arterial stiffness. This is noteworthy, as arterial elasticity is more important as we age. In the same study, the opposite was true with blood sugar. The older practitioners saw improved insulin resistance, which was not seen in the younger yogis.
The science shows, in one study, that Bikram yoga helped support mood and anxiety, but there are other reports that suggest the benefits do not last. One study measured the ability of Bikram yoga to deliver more parasympathetic tone, rejuvenation, and relaxation, but these findings were not found.
Across the board in regards to Bikram yoga, I found inconsistent findings. Some studies show benefits, while others do not. In my articles published on my blog, whenever I find topics that are replete with conflicting scientific results, I always look to ancient wisdom. Is there a history of the practice? Is it time-tested? Has it been passed down from generation to generation as a result of its success?
With Bikram yoga, we do have conflicting science, with some studies showing positive changes and others not finding those benefits. Since there is a lack of ancient wisdom here with no history of a tradition or lineage, I look at Bikram as a powerful yoga-based fitness program. The key is to listen to your body. Learn how much is right for you, and how much may be too much for you. It is all about finding balance.
Author: Dr. John Douillard
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Copy editor: Nicole Cameron