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Yoga originated millenia ago as a source of spiritual development. But these days, we tend to use it more as a form of exercise, with focus centering around the asanas—or postures—involved, more so than the meditative aspects. As an exercise modality, yoga is known for helping sculpt long, lean muscles—but there are a few different forms under the general yoga umbrella. One popular form of fitness-oriented yoga is hot yoga, which involves turning up the temperature (and humidity level) in-studio. This is said to deliver a host of calorie-burning and flexibility-improving benefits, but naturally, we're skeptical. So ahead, we asked two yoga instructors about their thoughts on the practice, where it originated, and if it's right for you.
Meet the Expert
What Is Hot Yoga?
The first form of hot yoga was Bikram Yoga, founded by Bikram Choudhury in the 1970s. Bikram yoga is a series of yoga postures that are practiced in a room with a temperature of 105 degrees fahrenheit and a humidity level of 40 percent. The purpose of practicing yoga in a hot, humid room is to increase heart rates for a more intense workout, and for the heat to allow muscles to loosen.
Many current hot yoga studios used to be called Bikram studios. It was after revelations of sexual abuse, and subsequent litigation, in the past decade that Bikram practitioners and teachers decided to distance themselves from him name. Though many hot yoga studios are Bikram-based, the idea of a heated space for yoga has continued to grow in popularity in recent years and numerous other forms of yoga besides Bikram are also conducted in a heated room.
Best For: Improving Flexibility
It’s thanks to the heated room that hot yoga can provide more calorie burning and flexibility increase than yoga done at standard room temperature. A study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise showed a 90 minute Bikram session to yield “for young, healthy, experienced Bikram practitioners, a single session of Bikram yoga produces moderate metabolic responses (∼3.5mph walking), robust heart rate responses, and a substantially elevated core temperature.” Increasing one’s body temperature also increases their metabolism.
As far as flexibility goes, the term “warm up” before a workout helps explain it: when your muscles get heated, they stretch more easily and are less likely to experience injury.
What To Expect From A Hot Yoga Workout
The operative word for how hot yoga is different from other forms is “hot.” You should definitely expect to sweat. The temperature in the room will be somewhere between 90-108 degrees fahrenheit, and there may be humidity added, too. Rebekah notes that “your internal body temperature will rise, you will get hot and you have complete control over the direction of this experience...pace yourself and pay attention to your body and its needs. If you’re worried about how you’re performing, you’re probably going to forget about the pace of your breath and your movement. If you’re tired, take a break and remember, you are there for yourself and nobody else.”
When you go to a hot yoga class, expect a shorter warm up than in other yoga classes. This is because thanks to the hot room, less time is needed to warm up your muscles. Then, you will be walked through a series of yoga postures. What the postures will be like, and how quickly you will move through them depends on the type of yoga the class is doing. Where Bikram is a set series of 26 specific moves, other types of yoga, such as vinyasa and ashtanga, are now offered hot as well, so what the moves are will be dependent on that. The class will likely last 60 or 90 minutes. Unlike other yoga classes where the teacher does the moves with you, in hot yoga they often give instruction without doing them too.
Benefits Of Hot Yoga
The benefits of hot yoga are not actually any different than the benefits of yoga conducted in a standard temperature room. Though proponents claim that hot yoga has more and/or stronger benefits than other forms, studies have disproved that. Luckily, any type of yoga has a host of health benefits: yoga can reduce stress, help treat depression, decrease lower back pain, and lower your risk of both cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome. Additionally, there’s the spiritual side. Rebekah notes, “this practice has a way of working itself into the fibers of your being, becoming less about what you do on the mat or in a specific space and more about how you show up to opportunity. As constantly evolving humans in a world of change, learning what it is to be authentic and present on the mat merges into our daily rhythm and affords opportunities to be a human Being vs. a human doing.”
Amy tells us of hot yoga’s benefits, “I love sweating and I love yoga, so combining the two is a dream workout. You get to cleanse your body inside and out. You sweat away toxins and heavy metals while also getting all the benefits of a yoga class. I find it also makes you focus on your form instead of speeding through poses because you are so hot and uncomfortable and have to concentrate on what you are doing.” It’s worth mentioning that scientific opinion about whether sweating is detoxifying is mixed: studies have shown both arguments, with some suggesting that you sweat out heavy metals and that they may be in too small of quantity to matter.
Not surprisingly, there are more safety considerations involved for hot yoga than for yoga done is a room that isn’t 100+ degrees. Because your muscles are so flexible from the heat, it’s easier than usual to overstretch and injure yourself. And because you’ll be sweating so much, you’re more likely to become dehydrated than with other forms of yoga. If you’re sensitive to heat, you may also be put at risk for heat stroke.
Hot yoga should not be performed by anyone with cardiovascular issues. It also shouldn’t be practiced if you’re pregnant, as increasing core temperature can endanger a fetus. As always, you should always speak with your doctor before trying a new exercise.
Hot Yoga vs. Pilates
Pilates and yoga have many similar traits: both focus on breath, help to increase flexibility, and are effective strengthening workouts. However, pilates tends to be more core-focused than yoga, and more about exercising smaller and supportive muscles and muscle groups. Pilates is often done on machines, which yoga never is, and pilates mat classes spend more time on the ground (rather than standing) than yoga does for its time spent moving through postures.
What To Wear To A Hot Yoga Class
When dressing for hot yoga, focus on what clothing will keep you most cool. Moisture wicking pieces are ideal, as is workout gear with antimicrobial properties. You’ll want to avoid cotton, because it absorbs moisture; that means that when you sweat, your clothing will grow heavier, which won’t be comfortable. The more lightweight your fabric choices are, the better, so that they don’t cause you to overheat further.
How To Get Started With Hot Yoga
If you’d like to take a hot yoga class, there are a few steps that will help you be as prepared as possible. First, the day of your class you should make sure to drink plenty of water. Since you’ll be sweating a lot, arriving hydrated will ensure you don’t dehydrate quickly. Next, eat a light meal before class, not a heavy one; a stomach full of food won’t feel good during any exercises that use your abs. You’ll want to bring a yoga mat, a bottle of water, and a towel for wiping off your sweat. If you haven’t filled out paperwork online and you’re going to a new studio, arrive early so you have time to do so. Lastly, come prepared to bundle up well after class. Your muscles will be loose, and exposing them immediately to cold may make them contract too quickly.
Hot yoga is an intense form of exercise and can lead to increased flexibility. It offers all of the same benefits of any other type of yoga, but you’ll sweat a whole lot more than you would at yoga done in a room that isn’t heated and humidified. If you want to try this popular exercise, make sure to drink lots of water, wear cool, moisture wicking clothes, and bring warm clothing for afterwards. And, of course, expect to sweat...a lot!
You should avoid hot yoga if you have cardiovascular problems, you’re pregnant, or you have any other pre-existing condition that would make it dangerous. Amy says of it, “Yoga is a practice--which means you won't master it, but will always be striving to improve your skills, whether that's calming your mind, toning your body, increasing flexibility or any of the other amazing benefits Yoga has to offer. There is always room to grow.”