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Hot Yoga: Is It For You?

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Hot yoga continues to be a very popular style of yoga these days. Most major cities feature yoga classes that are practiced in a hot and humid studio space. Have you ever wondered, though, how this style of yoga became such a trend? In order to answer this question, you may want to consider looking at Bikram Yoga, a system of yoga that was originated by Bikram Choudhry. The Bikram Yoga system, often thought of as the original hot yoga, was developed in the early 1970's and gained popularity in the 1980's. Let's take a brief look at some of its origins and identify how it became so popular. But here's the question we aim to answer: is hot yoga safe and is it good for you?

Oh! That's His First Name!

Bikram Choudhry devised a 26 yoga posture sequence that was performed in a room heated to roughly 106 degrees (Whew! That's hot!) The sequence may be repeated two or three times, but a typical class would run about 90 minutes using these postures and two breathing exercises. His system was strict; it was designed for people to get in better shape and to change their bodies. In its early inceptions in the United States, Hollywood stars were drawn to the practice when Bikram set up shop in the Los Angeles area. And because the rich and famous were diving into the pools of hot yoga, everyone else wanted to dip their toes into the heated pool, too. Those that became devoted yogis of the practice claimed to experience life changing results. And because of these claims, Bikram Yoga landed on the map, and many followed its path. 

Is it Really Yoga?

What Bikram had create was an interpretation of what people knew to be yoga at the time. Up until Bikram's arrival to the states, yoga was seen as a mode of practice devoted to postures, movement, breath, and meditation with the intention of obtaining enlightenment: a union of mind, body, and spirit. Although many were drawn to the Bikram style of yoga, were they gaining the same experience as other traditional yoga practices? Was this really yoga? In the 100-degree room, Bikram emphasized very strict precision in each of his 26 postures; his intention was to help the body to stretch, detoxify, relieve stress, tone, and heal chronic pain such as arthritis, joint aches, knee injuries, back problems, and more. People were inspired by the notion that they could change their physical bodies while practicing hot yoga. In class, students were encouraged to push their bodies beyond their limits. This was the way Bikram taught; his hot yoga classes were about working hard to achieve bodily changes, not so much about the mindful pursuit of enlightenment.

Nowadays, everyone's looking for ways to get in better shape: they're hiring personal trainers, tackling new fad diets, running marathons, and doing yoga. But folks aren't always wanting the chanting-style of yoga. They're wanting something that's going to kick them in the butt: hot yoga. Inspired by the popularity of Bikram Yoga, many yoga studios started offering hot yoga classes while some studios only teach yoga in the heat.

But Why the Heat?

Hot yoga is about bringing intensity to the practice. The original hot yoga classes were created to mimic the climate of India, so studio spaces cranked up the heat and humidity. In a warmer environment, the body’s muscles quickly become more pliable. The practitioner will feel more limber and able to experience a greater range of motion throughout their bodies as they contort themselves into the prescribed yoga postures.

Students are expected to sweat.....a lot.....all over the carpeted floor. (Yoga mats weren't being used in the early days of hot yoga. They didn't come around until the early 1990's.) Yogis were encouraged to let the sweat pour; don't wipe it away with a towel. Hot yoga teachers state that sweating helps the body regulate its temperature. Wiping away the perspiration would disrupt the human body's homeostasis of self-regulation. Sweating is also key to internal cleansing and detoxifying the body of toxins and unwanted chemicals. Your skin may even have a glowing appearance after a hot yoga practice.

But Is the Heat Good For You?

Now let's address that burning question: is hot yoga good for you and is it safe? According to an American survey done in 2016, more than 36 million people in the United States have practiced some style of hot yoga since the 1970's. It is quite apparent that hot yoga is widely popular and continues to be practiced all over the globe. But is it for everyone? 

Studies have shown that attending a hot yoga class is no better for you than attending other yoga classes that are not hot. You can gain strength, flexibility, mobility, agility, and a greater sense of self in non-hot yoga classes, too. (You might even lose a few pounds in other yoga classes.) And even though you're not sweating your pores out in a 100-degree studio, the practitioner still generates an internal heat through movement and mindful breathing that leads to a stimulated central nervous system, endurance building, and mindfulness. What may be missing from a hot yoga class, though, and something that people may want to achieve, is that mindful spiritual connection.

Further, some people are very sensitive to long exposures to high heat; hot yoga may not be your chosen style of practice if that's the case for you. The intense warmth and humidity in the room may stimulate an anxiety response causing dizziness and possibly fainting. If you have a heart condition, hot yoga may not be the style of practice for you either. Working the body to its utmost limits can result in higher heart rates and high blood pressure.

Is it Worth It?

So, what's attracting people to hot yoga classes if there are potential health risks? Those that have a higher tolerance for heat or like to have a physical challenge may be more drawn to hot yoga sessions or Bikram Yoga. Further, these folks may also have a higher heart-rate response when exposed to a heated practice. That means, their bodies, when practicing hot yoga, are not working any harder in a hot class because their hearts can tolerate the stimulation. But maybe you're wanting to give it a try. How should you prepare?

Pass the Water, Please.

Practicing 90-minute hot yoga daily can be harsh on the system; without careful preparation, one runs the risk of dehydration. You're encouraged to be well hydrated before a hot yoga class. That doesn't mean you should chug down a bottled water right before class. This may lead to stomach discomfort and nausea during a class. (Is that a bucket in the corner?) It is suggested that you be well hydrated hours (even days) before your intense workout. Some classes may not allow you to drink water during the 90-minute session. But if they do, only take sips of water rather than big gulps.

What's That Smell?

And since the introduction of yoga mats, you can practice hot yoga on your personal sticky mat, but classic Bikram studios may still be lined with anti-bacterial carpets. (You can only imagine what the studio smells like, right.) For some, the aroma of a hot and humid yoga studio can be a major turn-off. But thank goodness for the yoga mat upon which you can place a towel to catch your sweat so it doesn't all get absorbed into the studio rug. The mat will also help you from slipping, especially if you're practicing in a studio with hardwood floors.

What Should I Wear?

Because you're practicing a high-intensity exercise with 30 other bodies in a very hot room, you may want to dress minimally. No time to be modest. Don't be surprised to encounter female yogis wearing sports bras and very short shorts. Men may be seen wearing speedos. (Did we mention it's over 100 degrees in there?)

My Arms Are Tree Twigs. My Legs are Tree Trunks.

If you decide to practice Bikram Yoga, the 26 poses are done standing or lying down. There aren't any Bikram poses that are performed on your hands, like Downward Facing Dog or other hand/arm balancing postures. For some, this may be a limiting practice. If you're want to gain upper body strength, for example, Bikram Yoga may not be the best way to achieve this goal. Be careful, though, if you attend other hot yoga classes, instructors may guide students into poses that are potentially harmful or dangerous in a very hot studio. 

What Else Should You Know about Hot Yoga

Be clear about what you're wanting from a hot yoga class. Know that this is a very intense style of exercise; it exerts the body in ways you may not be used to. It may be best to consult your doctor before attending a hot yoga session. Hot yoga is not for everyone, but maybe it's exactly what you're looking for. It really comes down to personal choice: if you're thinking about going to a yoga class, but heat really isn't your thing, you can still gain the same benefits (and possibly more) from non-hot yoga classes, too.

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