Whether it’s in the office, at the gym, or in line at the grocery store, we’ve all had someone extol us with the virtues of hot yoga. They’re never felt more flexible, alive, and healthy, they tell us. They lost three pounds in a week. They’ve never had a better workout in their entire life. And the hook? That we can achieve the same results if we follow in suit, following an instructor through a series of 26 yoga postures in a heated room. And make no mistake- this room is not simply warm. It’s 105 degrees hot. So can, and should, you handle the heat? Is it all worth it?
Let’s discuss some of the myths and benefits of Bikram so that you may ascertain whether or not a heated practice deserves a spot in your exercise lineup. The most common Bikram myth surrounds the magical abilities of a challenging, high-temperature practice to burn more calories while providing a deeper stretch than a traditional yoga class.
Calories: The furnace isn’t burning as hot as you may think.
In terms of caloric expenditure, hot yoga does not burn any more calories than a traditional yoga session- about 200 per hour. Many people are surprised that an exercise that feels so challenging burns so few calories relative to other activities. For example, an hour of running at 6 mph would burn 600 calories-three times as many calories as a Bikram class. This is simply because running is vigorous cardiovascular exercise. Even a power yoga class fails to reach the cardiovascular intensity of running, biking, swimming, or other aerobic activity. Therefor, although the practice of Bikram yoga is indeed very challenging, it’s simply impossible to burn as many calories performing it.
A deeper stretch, at a high cost.
The increased temperature of a hot yoga class does allow you to achieve a deeper stretch than a traditional class. The intense heat makes your muscles and joints more supple and pliant, allowing you to stretch further than you would during an unheated session. While this increased flexibility may seems like an advantage of hot yoga, it can actually prove to be a disadvantage for many participants, who inadvertently stretch too far, tearing or injuring a muscle, ligament, or tendon. However, this can be avoided by consciously not moving further than your typical range of motion.
So what can hot yoga do for you? Who should try it?
If this has all sounded like gloom and doom up until this point, relax: yoga does provide some benefits. Like traditional yoga, Bikram can increase flexibility and range of motion and improve stability and balance.
While the intense heat (temp!) of a hot yoga class will make you sweat copiously, the heat is safe for most healthy individuals. Our bodys’ natural sweat mechanism serves to cool the body and keep it from overheating. An unsafe body temperature begins around 104 degrees fahrenheit, wherein heat injury and heat stroke may occur. An ACE study found that, in a 60-minute hot yoga class taking place in a room heated to a temperature of 92 degrees fahrenheit, study participants core temperatures rose very little relative to that of a previous 72 degree yoga class. The participant’s increased sweat rate allowed their bodies to maintain a safe temperature even in a very warm environment. However, for some individuals, hot yoga can indeed be unsafe, and should be avoided.
If you’re new to exercise or returning after a hiatus, you may want to avoid the hot yoga trend- while it can be tempting to leap into the newest “it” exercise, hot yoga in particular may prove dangerous for newcomers, especially those who are overweight, under-conditioned, or have a medical condition that disallows heat acclimatization and reduces natural sweat response. If you are pregnant, or have a heart condition, heart disease, high blood pressure, hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, or other clinical condition, you should avoid hot yoga, and should advise a doctor to determine activities that are appropriate to include in your exercise regimen.
For healthy individuals considering hot yoga, one question still remains: Can I handle the heat? If you’re unsure, be sure to choose a spot near the door, bring an iced water bottle, and consider purchasing a “cool-dana”, a bandana that is pre-chilled in the freezer and retains its chill in high temperatures, lowering your body temperature and helping you gradually acclimate to high temperatures. Always listen to your body- if you feel that you need a break, don’t let your ego talk you into staying and pushing through discomfort. While heat stroke and injury are uncommon in hot yoga classes, everyone reacts differently to heat and exercise, and you are the only one who can accurately gauge your body and its needs. Namaste, and don’t forget to pack a sweat towel.