Some Like It Hot, But Why? The Benefits of Hot Yoga
By: Mary Von Ahnen, Co-Owner Horizon Hot Yoga in Frisco
Hot yoga is currently all the rage in our culture and has been a practice for thousands of people for centuries in the hot climates of India. I myself have been a devotee of the Bikram-style heat (105 degrees) since 2007. I know I’ve realized tremendous benefits in my own life, but to write this article, I read a lot across publications from Mayo Clinic articles to sports mags to see what others said about this special breed of yoga.
First, let’s define what hot yoga means. Generally, terminology defines that over 100 degrees is “hot yoga”, whereas “yoga in a heated room” is low to mid-90s. There are as many variations of the temperature as there are kinds of heated yoga. This article is specifically about the benefits of hot yoga, although if you are practicing yoga in any heat, you will certainly achieve these benefits as well.
It’s all about the stretch.
Probably the most obvious benefit of hot yoga is that a warm stretch is an easier and safer stretch. Heat makes muscles more pliable and allows an increase in range of motion and an ability to go deeper into each posture. You are less prone to injury in a hot yoga class than in a typical cool environment. Deeper postures and less chance of injury also contribute to more confidence in the yoga room.
Get rid of the bad stuff.
With the skin being the body’s largest organ and the engine for sweating, you really ditch the toxins and impurities through your pores in a hot yoga class. You’ll notice that you feel better as you purify your body on a regular basis. You also slough off dead skin cells. My hot yoga buddies have some of the most naturally beautiful skin I’ve ever seen, and many comment that they have been able to cut down on the rigor of their skin care routines because hot yoga does so much for their skin naturally. Finally, hot yoga has been proven to enhance vasodilation (increased oxygen to the muscles). This helps in the detoxification of waste such as carbon dioxide and lactic acid.
Enjoy more Zen.
The deep, focused inhalations performed while practicing hot yoga warm the body from the inside out. This allows the organs and nervous system to soften, which helps in eliminating stress and anxiety. It’s also a relaxing experience in general. I love this quote I found when reviewing a SELF article during my research: “Hot yoga is stress relief disguised as a workout,” says Samantha Scupp, yoga instructor and founder of Heatwise yoga studio in Brooklyn. “An hour of deep sweat, moving…in ways that feel good and release tension in your body, stretching everything out, and maximizing blood circulation—all of it puts you in a kind of trance. It’s better than any drug.” Also, Bikram Choudhury believed, when he developed the famous Bikram Yoga series, that intense heat helps create a feeling of euphoria. There is fact behind this. Bikram worked with the Mayo Clinic to put his series together, and apparently, science shows that a hot yoga workout increases the production of endorphins in the body, a key chemical in creating the feeling of euphoria. (Personal comment from the writer of this article: I am definitely much happier with hot yoga in my life, but saying I feel euphoric in a 105 degree Bikram class may be a stretch for me.)
Be present, on and off the mat.
When I started my yoga practice, I saw it as a way to get my exercise in. Over the years, what I’ve come to value just as much are the benefits around meditation and the ability to be present in the yoga room. Being able to click into meditation in class helps me to be mindful and present off the mat as well. One of the benefits of the heat is that it forces you to stay focused on your breathing, which is the central foundation of meditation and the mind/body connection. The heat also delivers one special quality: in a sweltering room, it is very hard to think about your grocery list, the presentation you are giving at work next week, or any of the other distractions of daily life.
Amp up your cardio.
Heat makes your heart pump faster because it must push more blood toward the skin in an effort to keep you feeling cool. And more heart-pumping means a better cardio workout than you’d get doing the same yoga sequence in a cooler setting. You greatly reduce your risk of stroke and heart attack with a faithful hot yoga practice.
Take a breath.
You develop better lung capacity in a hot room. Even though it can feel harder to breath, you are actually training your lungs to retain more air. When you breathe deeply, your lungs expand more than usual, allowing for more oxygen to enter the bloodstream and reach other organs. This deeper breathing also helps your body sustain itself through a hot class, ensuring plenty of oxygen reaches your muscles and heart. Learning proper breathing on your mat will serve you outside of the room too, in sports, or just walking up the stairs. And one final benefit, according to Tia Marie, Reike master and yoga teacher at Horizon Hot Yoga, “Strong lung capacity is invaluable for optimal physiological functioning, which contributes to stress management and emotional balance.”
Increase your heart rate, and you burn more calories, which is why hot yoga is known for being an excellent weight loss tool. (Hot yoga made the Women’s Health list of top calorie-burning exercises!) It also speeds up the breakdown of glucose and fatty acids which can assist in cellulite break down. Also, because of the intense core work that is done in any yoga class, you will find your body reshaping around the belly area, reducing the much-maligned “belly fat” that is most dangerous to your health.
The challenge is satisfying…and can help you with life’s obstacles.
Some people also just like that hot yoga is a tough workout. As a Type A personality, I have to say I fall into that category. A hot yoga class is a physical and mental challenge. Doing difficult postures in high heat requires you to have mental toughness, as well as willingness to build physical stamina. It’s satisfying to push through the discomfort and come out on the other side. (Important note! This stamina comes over time in a practice, and it’s important for you to honor your body and not go past what is safe and reasonable.) People also report that their hot yoga practice makes them feel more prepared to overcome the ups and downs of daily life with less frustration. When you can deal with the challenge in the room, you summon the same stamina outside the room.
Live long and prosper.
The numerous described benefits of hot yoga lead collectively to much better overall health. Hot yoga practitioners have reported continuing to practice into their nineties, and even beyond. Reduction of stress and higher functioning of the nervous system, better overall cardiovascular health, regular elimination of toxins, and other broad systemic improvements have a significant impact on your body’s ability to carry you through life with fewer breakdowns and diseases. (I myself entered the hot yoga room with high blood pressure, and without medication, I have experienced normal readings for years.) And, the improvement experienced in the muscular-skeletal system has a tremendous impact on the debilitating diseases and problems of aging, such as osteoporosis, serious (even fatal) falls, and the long-term impacts on joints of certain auto-immune diseases.
Hot yoga really works, but there are a few things to observe so that your practice is safe and delivers all the benefits described. Here are a few things to do to prepare yourself for a hot yoga class:
- Hydrate well at least 24 hours in advance of class. Although you can and should drink water near to class time, and during class if you need it, your body needs hydration well in advance of the yoga to be fully prepared for the amount of sweating you will do in class. If you have a regular hot yoga practice, you should be drinking 3 to 4 liters of water or a fluid with electrolytes every day.
- It’s best not to eat for 2 to 3 hours before class. On a full stomach, the heat can sometimes make people feel a bit queasy, and there are some floor postures done lying on the stomach that aren’t comfortable if you’ve eaten recently.
- Wear clothes you are comfortable sweating in. Breathable fabric is great. And if you have worn long leggings and/or shirts with sleeves in a cool yoga room, you may want to consider shorts and a tank top or a sports bra in a hot yoga class. Fewer clothes usually equals greater comfort.
- Honor your body. Start slowly and sit out postures as needed until you acclimate fully to the heat and increase your stamina.
The bottom line: Hot yoga is a fun, safe, and effective way of deriving a lot of positives for your mind and body. Grab a mat, a sweat towel, and a bottle of water, and enjoy the benefits! Horizon Hot Yoga in Frisco offers 40 classes a week, almost all heated. We offer Hot 26 (classic Bikram class) 14 times weekly.
About the Author:
Mary Von Ahnen has been in corporate leadership positions for more than 25 years. She just retired as the CIO at Fossil. She has also held leadership roles on many non-profit Boards. Mary and her husband Mike own Horizon Hot Yoga in Frisco, which offers Ashtanga, Rocket Yoga, Vinyasa, Hot 26, and other types of yoga. www.horizonhotyoga.com