Hot yoga, also known as Bikram yoga, involves an intense hatha-style practice inside a humid room (around 40% humidity) heated to an extreme 105 degrees (F). This is a great way to defrost to the core, but it's not for everyone. In fact, the hot yoga fad is rather taboo. Members of the yoga community seem to subscribe to either the ‘Bikram-lovers' camp or the ‘anti-hot yoga' camp, and opinions rarely lie somewhere in the middle. The former declares the intense heat and humidity increases immunity, purges the body of toxins allowing for a much deeper muscular stretch, and burns much more calories per minute than running or vinyasa. The latter believes many of the purported health claims are profoundly false, and the intense warmth tricks the body into over-stretching the muscles, resulting in pain and even injury.
To Bikram or Not to Bikram... That is the Question.
Bikram, like all forms of yoga, is an experimental science, meaning that its pros and cons can and have been tested and measured. Being such a hot topic (no pun intended), research foundations have put these claims to the test. Knowledge of the actual facts will assist you in deciding whether or not hot yoga is or is suitable for you.
MYTH: Hot yoga is safe for everyone.
In general, hot yoga is safe, but for some more than others. The sick, elderly, and pregnant should avoid hot yoga. Excessive core temperatures can cause hyperthermia: overheating of the body. This can be especially dangerous to pregnant women in their first trimester, sometimes resulting in malformation of the fetus's brain and body via neural tube defects. All pregnant women should play it safe and opt for a prenatal class instead. A hot yoga workout can be safe for elderly persons in good shape, but if you are a senior who is new to yoga, it is a good idea to work your way up to this more extreme form. If you are ill, hot yoga can exacerbate your illness, sometimes causing or prompting nausea. If there is any doubt about whether or not you should try hot yoga, get in touch with your doctor and listen to recommendations. It is also important to follow the number one rule of thumb in any yoga class: listen to your body. Bikram teachers have been known to push their students, encouraging them to work through any pain. This type of encouragement is potentially dangerous. If you feel pain, modify the pose or succomb to child's pose to rest. Bikram is expensive enough without the added cost of a visit to a doctor.
FACT: Hot yoga dehydrates the body.
Yes, you will definitely be sweating more in a Bikram studio than most other forms of exercise. With any sweaty workout, you will want to hydrate before and after class to avoid dehydration. Dehydration can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, and blackouts! Increase your water consumption by 2-3 extra glasses on days that you Bikram.
MYTH: Hot yoga boosts immune system function as well as metabolism.
This myth springs from the fact that our immune system raises core temperatures when trying to combat a cold or illness. Your metabolism is also regulated by your core temperature. Internal body temperature surprisingly is relatively unaffected by external body temperature. Your body is very good at keeping your internal temperature level despite external factors. Therefore immunity and metabolism are unaffected.
FACT: Hot yoga allows for easier, deeper stretches.
The heat and humidity in a hot studio will loosen the muscles of the body significantly, allowing you to stretch very deep. You might find that in a hot yoga studio, you can reach and grab ahold of the feet much easier than in a hatha studio. However, this is not necessarily a health benefit. The warm body will be comfortable doing stretches that otherwise would be unnatural, and an injury from overdoing it can arise. The day after a Bikram class, those who are used to practicing more traditional forms of yoga will often find themselves sore in ways they never dreamed imaginable!
Hot yoga, like all yoga, will eventually increase overall flexibility. However, it does not increase flexibility any more than regular yoga — the heat simply tricks your body into thinking that it does.
Hot yoga burns more calories.
Hot yoga practitioners often tout that a 90-minute Bikram session burns 1,000 calories. Many of those who partake in the "30 Day Bikram Challenge" — doing one class a day for 30 days — have lost weight noticeably and elatedly taken to the internet to report their findings. Here are the facts: hot yoga burns more calories than regular hatha yoga, but not necessarily more than vinyasa flow. The initial weight loss of those participating in a 30 day challenge comes as a result of lost water weight, which as we know does not equal decreased body fat. Hot yogis feel like they are burning more calories and losing more weight because it seems much harder than regular yoga. This phenomenon is known as perceived exhaustion — 105 degrees is hot, but a 105 degree room at 40% humidity actually feels like 123 degrees. In a heated room, we sweat much more, we work and concentrate a lot harder, but if burning calories is your goal, I would recommend going for a 90-minute run.
Hot yoga enables the release of toxins.
The liver, kidneys, lungs, and colon make up the body's primary detoxification system, not the sweat glands. Hot yoga has absolutely no effect on the function on this primary detox system. The truth in this half truth comes from the ability of sweat to remove dirt from the pores of the skin — hot yoga will cause this to happen.
Many of you reading this who are in the aforementioned pro-Bikram camps may feel that this article is biased or "anti", so let me clarify that personally, I love Bikram and attend classes whenever I can get a good deal. I attend classes because it is mentally and physically challenging, plus I love the flood of endorphins I receive when leaving the studio. The goal of this article is to debunk myths and report facts, as there are so many of each surrounding this somewhat mystical form of exercise.
If you like and invest in something, you are more likely to begin to subscribe misbeliefs and half truths. In Bikram and other forms of hot yoga, these fables most often come from misconceptions of a heated room on overall health. For more information on hot yoga truths and myths, I would highly recommend reviewing this study on hot yoga by the ACE — American Council on Exercise.