On Your Health

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Hot Yoga: What's So Hot About It?

Yoga is everywhere these days, and its health benefits are touted all over health websites, fitness magazines and even your local news. More than 36 million Americans practice yoga, according to a 2016 survey. One of the most trendy types is something called "hot yoga," which means different things to different people. Although there are no firm numbers on how many people practice it, anecdotal evidence suggests hot yoga has grown substantially since it came to the U.S. in the 1970s.

What is hot yoga?

Technically, hot yoga simply means any vigorous form of yoga performed in a very warm and humidified environment, generally between 85 and 105 degrees Fahrenheit.

There are multiple types of hot yoga, some of which have prescribed sets of poses. Forrest Yoga is a series of 20 poses held for longer durations in an 85 degree room, created by Ana Forrest.

Bikram Yoga, a series of 26 poses and two breathing exercises, performed in a specific order and followed by a two-minute savasana (aka "corpse pose," which is a resting pose) at the end of the sequence, was created by the celebrated and also controversial yogi Bikram Choudhury. Bikram studios are heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, with 40 percent humidity.

Tina Hilbert teaches at Bikram Yoga OKC, located in the Farmers Market District. Hilbert teaches almost every day, and her students come from all walks of life. "I got into yoga to heal myself. I started practicing Ashtanga Yoga in 1998, and started teaching a year later. I enjoyed Ashtanga, but it was hard on my back. I took a Bikram class and fell in love," Hilbert says. She got her certification in Los Angeles, and now shares her love of hot yoga with the citizens of OKC.

Hilbert, in her early 50s, had neck and shoulder problems when she began her Bikram practice. "I had a straight neck, and my shoulder was frozen to the point that I couldn’t even take my arm in a circle. I intuitively knew that Bikram would help me live a good life, but I couldn’t do most of the poses very deeply at first. It was really challenging. So I did what I could."

That attitude of "I will do what I can" is a useful mindset to take to any yoga or fitness class. It’s important to start where you start, and progress from there. Yoga, whether hot or not, is a practice.

Dr. Louise Vo, a family medicine physician at INTEGRIS who has practiced yoga for about seven years, finds yoga to be a worthwhile use of her time for reasons beyond improving her fitness. "I started practicing yoga during medical school. It really helped with relaxing and de-stressing during that time," she says. 

There are many reasons to begin a practice. Yoga helps improve or maintain range of motion, improves muscle tone, aids weight reduction, can improve athletic performance, may aid in reducing depression and can possibly help reduce chronic pain.

Are there additional health benefits when you do yoga in a warm and humid environment?

Fans of hot yoga say its benefits include strengthening the heart, cleansing impurities from the body and regulating metabolism and the immune system. Some believe they are able to stretch more and become more flexible after hot yoga (but be sure not to over-stretch). Scientific studies confirming these effects with hard data are still hard to find.

People also report feeling alert, clear, euphoric and very mentally relaxed after hot yoga. Dr. Vo thinks these benefits are real. "Endorphins are released with exercise. Endorphins are the feel-good and natural pain killer hormones," she explains. Endorphins also enhance the immune system and help modulate appetite.

But can hot yoga be harmful?

Hot yoga is not for everyone. The intensity of the workout and the hot temperatures have the potential to cause heat-related illness. "It definitely can cause harm if you push your body more than it can go," advises Hilbert. "It’s important to know yourself and your limits."

Profuse sweating is to be expected, but as long as you replenish fluids and electrolytes before and after class, she thinks it’s nothing to worry about. "If I see someone dripping with sweat during class, that’s okay. When I see someone who is not sweating at all, than I worry," she says.

Dr. Vo agrees that hot yoga can sometimes cause harm. “It is a more vigorous form of yoga, so it raises your heart rate more than other forms of yoga. It can also cause problems if you are prone to dehydration.”

It's probably best to skip hot yoga if you have:

  • Heart disease
  • An irregular heartbeat
  • High blood pressure
  • Problems with dehydration
  • Heat intolerance
  • A history of a heat-related illness (such as heatstroke)
  • Are pregnant

Hilbert encourages hot yoga students to begin preparing for class in the days beforehand. "Drink plenty of water the day before, and get plenty of sleep. Remember to drink a lot of water immediately before class, and take a water break during it, or stop and rest. And don’t forget to drink water after your workout, too."

Be sure you check with your doctor before trying hot yoga, especially if you have any health concerns. If you try a class, stop right away if you feel dizzy, lightheaded or sick in any way.

The bottom line? Proceed with caution, as you would with any new exercise routine.