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Hot, Hot, Hot Yoga!

Steve Bracci

The number of people practicing yoga has steadily risen over the past decades. By 2007, more than 13 million adults and 1.5 million children participated in yoga. Its attention to breathing, flexibility, balance and mental focus attract people seeking exercise that benefits the brain, the body and the spirit. Yoga poses challenge personal limits and improve fitness.

Hatha yoga—the physical yoga with which Westerners are familiar—originated in India. It arose from the need to prepare the body to withstand sitting in meditation for long periods. The postures and poses strengthened the spine and relaxed the muscles increasing stamina for complete stillness. Forms of yoga—Baptiste, Bikram, Vinyasas, Anusara, Iyengar and others—practiced in the U.S. have roots in the thousands of poses and postures of Hatha yoga.

Various styles of yoga emphasize select aspects of its practice. Some have restorative goals. Others concentrate on details of the poses. Another subset pushes the body’s physical limits. Over the years, Power Yoga, TriYoga, Jivamukti, White Lotus, Ananda, Integrative Yoga Therapy and a number of others have evolved to fit Western culture. Off-beat yoga styles, such as harmonica yoga, tantrum yoga, laughter yoga, karaoke yoga and anti-gravity yoga, have even attained dedicated groups of followers.

Any style of yoga done in a heated room can and usually is advertised as hot yoga. Room temperatures in these classes hover close to 90 degrees and humidity ranges from 40-60 percent.

Some of the differences in these many variations are nuanced and some of the differences are quite pronounced. Yet they all retain the basic elements of Hatha yoga: using postures, poses, breathing techniques and relaxation strategies to improve balance, flexibility, strength and mental focus. “Yoga means to yoke, to bring together mind, body and spirit,” says Bethany Smith, a certified yoga instructor who teaches hot yoga at Oxygen Fitness Studio. “If you’re coming just to get a workout, that’s great. You’ll eventually find out it’s a whole lot more.”

Scientific research documents the health benefits of yoga. As summarized by the National Institute of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, studies have demonstrated that practicing yoga reduces pain and improves functioning in people with chronic lower back problems, reduces heart rate, decreases blood pressure, helps relieve anxiety and depression, moderates stress, relieves insomnia and improves overall quality of life. These effects are in addition to proven results in regard to flexibility, strength, physical fitness and balance.

Hot yoga has surfaced as the latest trend in the yoga world. Created in California in 1970 by Bikram Choudhury, students of Bikram hot yoga are led through 26 poses. About half of the poses are performed in the standing position and half are performed on the floor. Emphasis is placed on frequency of participation, correct execution of each pose and, after correct execution is achieved, going deeper into each posture. Classes last 90 minutes. The defining difference between Bikram yoga and other yoga forms, other than simplification of the postures, is that the room temperature is elevated to 105 degrees with about 60 percent humidity. The primary arguments for undertaking yoga in these conditions is that the heat loosens the muscles, enabling a person to go deeper into the postures, and that the excessive sweat produced from physical exertion in a heated room results in excretion of toxins from the body.

Bikram-trained instructors like Michael Huber, who owns Hot Yoga Augusta, guide students through slow execution of the 26 postures. The instructor’s job is to help students perform the postures correctly and to encourage students to push themselves. “With the sweating and the heat, it feels like you’ve done something very aerobic,” says Huber, who attributes the resolution of his own chronic back pain to his participation in Bikram hot yoga. He says, “Students find they gain flexibility, balance and a refreshed feeling similar to a ‘runner’s high’ without the impact to joints.”

Since the inception of Bikram hot yoga, other hot yoga offerings have evolved, their primary difference being that they are not practiced under the extreme conditions of Bikram yoga. “Hot yoga is a generic term,” says Smith, who clarifies that not all hot yoga classes are the same. Any style of yoga done in a heated room can and usually is advertised as hot yoga. Room temperatures in these classes hover close to 90 degrees and humidity ranges from 40-60 percent. Though Bikram poses may be used, instructors might guide students through the poses in any one of the derivative forms of Hatha yoga.

Hot yoga isn’t for everyone and it has its critics. Exercising in environmental conditions similar to those that drive people inside on an August afternoon isn’t desirable to or recommended for all people. Hot yoga may not be a good exercise option for children. Girls’ sweat glands on average don’t begin to develop until around age 12 or 13, and boys’ sweat glands on average don’t begin to develop until sometime between ages 13 to 15. Thus children’s body’s may overheat easier than adults’.

Sweat itself does not cool the body. It’s the evaporation of sweat from the skin that keeps the body from overheating. High humidity in the hot yoga room may inhibit this physiological process. Anyone who has difficulty regulating body temperature should speak with his or her healthcare provider before engaging in hot yoga. Women who are pregnant should check with their doctors before participating in hot yoga. Increased maternal body temperature during pregnancy has been linked to abnormalities in the developing fetus.

Critics have also suggested that the high temperatures may increase the potential for injury. Students may risk straining or tearing muscles by going too deep into poses and postures. Huber, however, says, “I haven’t seen anybody pull a muscle in any of the classes I’ve taught. I tell people that if they feel pain, they need to back off.”

The National Institute of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine suggests that people with heart disease, lung disease or a prior history of heatstroke may want to skip hot yoga and consider an alternative exercise outlet.

Claims of detoxifying the body via profuse sweating during a hot yoga session have also come under fire. The preponderance of research demonstrates that while electrolytes are lost through excessive sweat, only trace amounts of toxins are eliminated. Toxins are handled by the liver and kidneys and are excreted in urine and feces. Dehydration, not detoxification, is most likely to occur as a consequence of sweating.

Any style of yoga done in a heated room can and usually is advertised as hot yoga. Room temperatures in these classes hover close to 90 degrees and humidity ranges from 40-60 percent.

Every form of exercise has its risks. A person can sprain an ankle jogging around the block. Thousands of people a year attend hot yoga sessions and suffer no adverse events. The onus is on the consumer to select a yoga practice that best suits his or her needs and expectations. Smith says, “Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of regulation when it comes to yoga. So there’s a lot of responsibility on the student.” Blindly entering into the mêlée of exercise regimens on the market can lead to injury or worse.

Students of hot yoga who stay with it after the initial shock of the heat and the sweating develop a passion for it. Sandy Cassady, a student of Huber’s, says, “If there were classes every day, I would go every day. It’s addicting.” She appreciates what it does for her physically, explaining that she recovered from a slipped disc in her back after only her fourth Bikram hot yoga class. But there’s another element of the discipline that attracts her even more. “You’ve got 90 minutes of conquering physical things as well as trying to really concentrate. It’s calming. It puts a lot of things in perspective.”

She does admit, however, that it isn’t easy. “The first class I went to I sat on the floor for most of it. When it was over, I literally crawled out of the room on my hands and knees.” She warns beginners to be prepared to sweat and to not expect too much of themselves. Though the movements are slow and the postures are simplified, mastering Bikram yoga is difficult.

Preparing ahead of time for a hot yoga class helps. Drink plenty of water beforehand and take water with you. Avoid eating for at least an hour before class. Dress lightly in moisture wicking clothing and take a towel. Accept that it will be hot and humid and that it may take a session or two to adjust.

Once cleared by a physician for participation, inform the instructor of any current or past injuries, recent illnesses or chronic conditions. Well-trained instructors will modify poses to suit the individual. In addition, check the instructor’s certification. Did he or she attend a 200-hour or more course in the type of yoga he or she is offering? Remember, hot yoga is a generic term meaning the yoga is done in a hot room. What you want to know is if an instructor teaching Vinyasa yoga, for example, is certified in that form.

Yoga, hot yoga included, isn’t just a type of exercise. It’s a product that the participant purchases. Behave like a consumer. If you unsealed a new jug of milk and it was sour, you wouldn’t drink it anyway. Likewise, if you’re in a hot yoga class and you feel dizzy, sit down. If you feel overheated, move to a cooler area. If a particular pose hurts, stop doing it. If you feel pushed too hard, speak to the instructor. As Smith says of her students, “I am not in their bodies and this is ultimately their practice, so they are to listen to and honor their bodies.”

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