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I first tried hot yoga back in high school, when blustery winter days found me seeking warm solace in a heated studio. Instead of running outside against ceaseless snow and wind or working out in a steely gray gym, the thought of a slow, warm, and relaxing yoga flow was enough to make me book six months' worth of classes. Since then, I've continued to practice hot yoga, even if that practice is somewhat sporadic due to the responsibilities of work and life and the deterrent of Los Angeles heat. (The only time I refuse to book a hot yoga class is in July and August, which is when I'm convinced the gates of hell open up and consume the city for two full months of above-100-degree temperatures. But I digress.)
Hot yoga, while a personal favorite, has been a somewhat contentious topic in the fitness world. While some people swear it's changed them for the better, others say practicing yoga at room temperature is fine, and heating up the yogi's environment is nothing but a gimmick. So I thought I'd ask the experts to see what they had to say about any and all real and measurable benefits of hot yoga. What they shared surprised me, even if I mistakenly thought of myself as a hot yoga veteran.
I know what you're thinking. Flexibility is an obvious benefit of all yoga, so why include this on list about hot yoga specifically? Well, according to Christine Bullock, a fitness and lifestyle expert, creator of Evolution 20 and Super Shred, and co-creator of Kayo Better Body Care, the heat expedites the stretching process beyond your body's limits at room temperature. "The external heat of the class is thought to have many benefits. First, the external heat allows muscles to expand and contract to greater limits so that higher flexibility can be achieved without the risk of injury." This means that hot yoga is an incredibly useful practice for athletes, trainers, dancers, or really just anyone looking to improve upon and fine-tune their flexibility. Just don't use that as an excuse to over-stretch. Just like all other forms of yoga, it's important to be mindful and gentle when it comes to your body.
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The sweat from a hot yoga class is unlike a sweat from any other workout class. Not to be all gross and graphic about it, but anyone who's taken a particularly fast-paced hot yoga class knows that you reach a point where the sweat literally pours off of the body. While this can feel disconcerting and generally icky to hot yoga novices, it's something that many experienced yogis claim to crave. Why? It could be due to the detoxification process. "The heat and higher energy demand cause you to sweat A LOT," Bullock says. "As you sweat, you reduce water retention and sweat out a long list of toxins, chemicals, and other unwanted compounds that shouldn't be in your body."
Jasmine Rausch, a certified yoga therapist, corporate wellness expert, and founder of Root Yoga Therapy, agrees. "Many devotees swear by the sweat and need the intensity to feel a release," she says. "We sweat as a way for the body to maintain homeostasis. Being in an environment that is hotter than our body temperature increases internal temperatures and skin temperatures, which promotes blood flow to the skin cells. Couple that with challenging poses and breath and you will quickly find yourself drenched in more sweat. Sweating is also a great way to rid the body of excess water and salt. Additionally, small traces of environmental chemicals (like BPA) and other pollutants have been found in sweat, but studies are still inconclusive as to what effect ridding these toxins through sweat has on our health. Experiencing a deep sweat is a great way to open pores and rid dirt, grime, and other stubborn bacteria that clogs pores, leaving your skin with that awesome post-yoga glow."
Everyone knows that when you work out, you're boosting your heart rate and thus your circulation. Increased circulation means more blood cells—and oxygen—coming in contact with the skin. This means that any workout, from running to hiking to yoga and Pilates, can flush your skin and give it a natural glow. According to research, though, when you add heat to your workout, it increases circulation even more than what would result from the same workout taking place at room temperature. This might explain why some people (myself included), swear that a single 60-minute hot yoga class makes their skin luminous and dewy, with no makeup necessary. Seriously, there have been times in the past when I've ignored laziness and fatigue to book a hot yoga class for the sole purpose of boosting my dull skin.
You might think that yoga is too slow or gentle for weight loss, but Bullock says that's not so. "The various poses that you are forced to hold as well as the increased heat make your heart pump and build lean muscle, which translates to some serious weight loss." She uses Bikram Yoga, which is a specific form of hot yoga, as a reference point. " A single 90-minute session of Bikram Yoga can help you burn up to 1000 calories, which is just as good as various other forms of cardiovascular exercise. Furthermore, the various poses involved in Bikram Yoga are said to benefit your digestive system and endocrine system, which boosts your metabolic rate." For proof of this, just look to one editor who wore a heart rate monitor through a single class.
One study found an association between spending prolonged periods of time in a heated environment (in this particular study's case, it was a sauna) and a reduced risk of hypertension, which is otherwise known as high blood pressure. This is important, considering high blood pressure is associated with heart disease. While researchers haven't quite been able to explain the link between heat and healthy blood pressure, it's worth taking into account when it comes to a hot yoga practice.
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Maybe the link between heart health and heat has to do with the restorative power of taking time out for yourself, whether that be in a sauna or in a heated yoga studio. "Yoga is about cultivating mindfulness, which is the practice of paying attention without judgment and with purpose," Rausch says. "Hot yoga heightens the physical environment, which, for most, encourages us to become present and take note of our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. Every time I would step into a hot room, I remember immediately feeling my focus shift to my environment. I mean, it was so warm, there was nothing else I could think about. You notice the discomfort in your body, the thickness of the air, and how quickly the sweat beads form just about everywhere. As the practice went on, I had no choice but to stay present with my breath and body in order to 'beat the heat.'"
I agree. When I'm in the midst of a hot yoga class, I'm not thinking about what's next. I'm thinking instead of stretching a little farther, holding the pose a little longer, and doing it all without slipping in sweat (was that TMI?). As Rausch puts it, hot yoga is "a great way to break free from my to-do list and simply be in the now. Also, the effort being exerted by the body in the intense practice helped me ease uncontrolled energy and angst."
As we know from studying various forms of meditation, mindfulness can help boost mood. "Those with depression may find that practicing in the heat helps to ignite their internal fire, which can cleanse and release stagnant energy and stimulate passion," Rausch says. "Lastly," she adds, "prolonged sweating is a great way to boost endorphins in the brain. These chemicals also act as our body's natural pain relievers, which can be why this practice can leave so many to feel open and relaxed." Feeling calm, open, and stress-free? That's reason enough for us to return to our mats.
In short, hot yoga is a great option for people looking to connect with their mind and body (just like all other forms of yoga). The difference is purely environmental. "Sweat can be so sweet for many people," Rausch says. "Hot yoga can be a great option for those who love intensity and are looking for a way to break a serious sweat. It's also an interesting way to bring a sense of connection and community. When you're in the room and experiencing something so challenging, you all emerge feeling triumphant with a 'we did it' feeling."
Just be sure you're taking the proper precautions to get the most out of the practice and enjoy without injury. Rausch insists on drinking water to balance out the moisture that leaves your body through sweat and breath. "I recommend starting hydration at least two hours before." Also, due to the heat, it's not for everyone. Rausch puts it best when she says, "If you have high or low blood pressure, a pre-existing heart condition, are pregnant, prone to heat stroke, dehydration, or have adverse reactions to hot environments such as breakouts, skin irritations (like me), dizziness or nausea, sticking to a non-heated class is the way to go. Of course, with any pre-existing health condition, consulting your doctor before engaging in intense activity is always highly recommended."
Next up: 7 Hot Yoga Tips for Beginners
This post was published at an earlier date and has been updated.