Hot yoga and the myths behind the popular practice

hot yogaOver the past few decades, ‘Hot Yoga’ has become increasingly popular and trendy. Hot Yoga studios have cropped up all over the world and they are as easy to find as a gym or cafe in many cities. Having worked in a few different Hot Yoga studios in Southern California, I have seen students come to Hot Yoga for a multitude of reasons, with many ideas or beliefs about what and why this kind of class is beneficial for them. While there are some disputes over the claims and purported benefits, I will stick to the evidence-supported facts and research around the practice of Hot Yoga and myths surrounding it.
But before we get started, let’s define what we mean by Hot Yoga in this article.

Many people believe there is only one kind of Hot Yoga. This is often specified as Bikram Yoga. Bikram yoga is a type of Hot Yoga, but not all Hot Yoga is called Bikram.

Bikram was created in the 70’s-80’s by Bikram Choudhury in Beverly Hills, California. Bikram created a sequence of 26 yoga poses or ‘asanas’ taught in the same order, for 90 minutes, in a room heated to 40 degrees C, (104F) and usually about 40 percent humidity or more, where water intake is often restricted or regulated.

Bikram-certified teachers are taught by Bikram himself and must pay him to use the Bikram name in their studios. For this reason, some teachers may choose to train with Bikram, or with Bikram-style teachers, but call their classes something different to get around these costs. Some names used are Hot Yang Yoga, Hot Yoga, Core Hot Yoga, etc.

Bikram is not the only style of yoga offered in a hot setting. There are many other options, including Heated Vinyasa Style classes- which are flowing, fast-moving classes practiced in a heated room, usually ranging from 35C-40C with added humidity. It is wise to ask the studio what degree of heat they use if you are heat-sensitive…(but more about this later.)

For the purpose of this article, we will be referring to Hot Yoga as any yoga conducted in a room with artificial heat and humidity to about 35C or above, lasting 60-90 minutes.

So, getting to the common beliefs about Hot Yoga – some have some validity, in fact, but some are purely subjective and perceived. Here we dive a little deeper to help you form your own opinions. This is not to say that Hot Yoga does not feel great for some, and has its benefits, whether perceived or otherwise. However, there are some big claims out there that just do not have any root in truth or fact, and so we explore a bit further here.

Myths of Hot Yoga

Myth #1 – Many people believe that Hot Yoga burns many more calories that a traditional yoga class

While hot yoga feels intense, numerous studies have been conducted that show very minimal difference in calorie expenditure in heated versus regular temperature classes. The difference is almost completely ‘perceived.’
Additionally, the American Council of Exercise has researched Hot Yoga and found that there was “no difference in the increase in core temperature or heart rate between heated and non-heated 60-minute yoga classes”- further supporting the evidence that the benefits of hot yoga are mostly mental.
True, some people have increased heart rate, at first, from the heat. Studies have shown that this levels off after a few weeks, however, and the body becomes acclimated to the heat, and it returns to that of a normal class. This is not to say it is a bad thing- it is simply to acknowledge fact from fiction, and create your personal practice according to your personal goals and values. It is unfortunate that there is a lot of misinformation out there but stick with the classes you like because of how they make you feel- not by the calorie count.

Myth #2 The belief that it is ‘detoxifying’ for the body

The truth is, the body gets rid of harmful toxins through the liver, kidneys and colon, and only about 1 percent of toxins leave through the skin. For this reason, it is not accurate to claim that detoxification is one of the main benefits of Hot Yoga.
Sure, you may feel great after a good sweat, and this is fantastic! Just make sure to rehydrate. Many people who are new to Hot Yoga can lose tremendous amounts of hydration, which can lead to dizziness, passing out, and/or more serious health problems like heat stroke or heat exhaustion. Putting some electrolytes in a drink or having a coconut water will help you recover these lost fluids safely after a hot class. After all, you are losing not only water but also your stores of potassium, salt, ammonia and urea, so refueling after a hot yoga class is a must, especially if you are practicing regularly.

Myth #3 It is easier to get into poses in Hot Yoga

The big misunderstanding here comes from understanding the difference between muscle flexibility and joint flexibility. Ligaments that make up most joints have a limited blood flow most of the time but when you are in a heated room for awhile, your blood flow increases, and you are less able to feel the tension in your ligaments in joints. This means that you don’t get that usual ‘stop, you are going to far’ alert from your body, and so you are at much higher risk to tear or more likely, overstretch a ligament. This is usually permanent and can cause joint instability, which is an unwanted side effect that many people do not even realize is happening until it is too late.
That is not to say that this could only happen in a Hot Yoga class because there is a risk of this injury in any kind of yoga class, however, with the added heat and body’s ability to sense pain lessened by the heat and increased blood flow, this style is particularly ripe for injuries.

Myth #4 – Hot Yoga Heals Illness or Disease

There are claims that Hot Yoga can even heal cancer, disease, and a host of other illnesses. Bikram has compared himself to a doctor when he stated, “so many people are stealing Bikram Yoga. It’s like you’re practicing medicine, but you’re not a doctor.”
I would never limit the power of the human body or mind to heal itself, and whatever that looks like for each person is completely unique, but there is just a lack of evidence and a lot of extreme exaggeration in this area. I caution people to research and discuss with their doctors if they are using yoga for any kind of illness or disease recovery, to ensure they find the most healthy routine for themselves. Yoga is not one-size-fits-all, and we must honor the unique individual, especially if they are on the path of healing and recovery.

Myth #5 – The belief that Hot Yoga is the only type of yoga where you can get a serious workout

If you have ever been to an Ashtanga, a Vinyasa Flow, an Aerial Yoga, or even a Yin Yoga class, you know that there is plenty of heat generated internally from the body and muscles when yoga poses are practiced properly, and that NONE of the traditional styles of yoga rely on or even suggest artificial heat and humidity whatsoever.
Sure, one could argue that this is because they were practiced in India, where it is naturally humid and warm….but it is not the same level of heat and humidity all year round, and many practices are done traditionally in the mornings when it is cooler, and certainly not 104F.
Foundational yogic principals tell us that yoga is a way for us, as humans, to become more in tune with our world and with nature, and this is a far cry from the artificial environment created in a heated class in the middle of winter. We can get all of the benefits of yoga as it was created in ancient times, in our natural climate, where ever that may be (within reason of course!)  without resorting to extreme temperatures, blasting heaters, and sauna machines. Again, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel great for some! I just caution people if they are relying on this artificial heat all of the time, that they may be missing out on the amazing experience of creating this heat from INSIDE where the real ‘tapas’ fire comes from…and it is from this place within ourselves, that true yogic transformation is said to originate.
These myths are few of many and discussed here only as a means of sharing fact-based information. I do recognize that many of the benefits of yoga cannot be quantified by science or research, and there is still so much we do not understand about the ancient healing practice of yoga. If you love the way the practice makes you feel, none of these things matter anyway, and nothing anyone says should stop you if the practice is helping you, and you able to practice in a healthy way that benefits your mind and body. No one else can know what that is exactly for you. Keep sweating and loving every minute of it if that’s what you love!!
We can ,however, shed light on some misinformation and perhaps untruths that have been circulating the yoga pop-culture and blogosphere, and give people the most accurate information possible, so they can make informed decisions for themselves, safely, and with the highest goal always being health and wellbeing for all. So go out there, try as many classes as you can, and you will find your home on the mat – whatever it looks like for you!

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About the Author

BochakornBOCHAKORN BOONSERM (MAAM) began her education in conventional medicine as a nurse, then shifted to embrace natural healing and integrative medicines. Her training and certifications abroad include: Nutrition and Western Herbal Medicines, Acupuncture and Moxibustion.

During her therapeutic sessions, she may also incorporate other aspects of integrative medicines when required, including: acupuncture, cupping therapy, moxibustion, nutritional, supplements and herbal recommendation.

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