A lot of students have asked me about why studios offer yoga practiced in intense heat, and I feel that I can offer some clarity on this subject. Yoga practiced in a heated room was the invention of Bikram Choudhury who popularized it in California in the 1960’s. Hollywood’s stars such as Shirley MacLaine started to become devoted students of Bikram Choudhury.
Back in the 60’s and 70’s Bikram Yoga also became known as hot yoga, and it was originally practiced in 85 degree Fahrenheit heat (30 degrees Celsius). In those days many fitness advocates believed that heat would contribute to caloric expenditure, and back then it was quite popular to spend time in the sauna for weight loss. Eventually science overturned this false notion as the weight loss from spending time in a sauna turned out to be temporary water loss, and as soon as a period of re-hydration occurred the weight would return. The 85 degree heat did not generally pose a health threat but did cause profuse sweating that gave Bikram Yoga practitioners the impression they were doing an intense workout.
As time passed Bikram Yoga students became accustomed to the 85 degree heat, so students requested more heat for more of a workout effect. Although the ‘workout’ was actually simulated by the heat not facilitated by the heat, practitioners of hot yoga bought into the notion, ‘the more heat there is in the yoga studio, the more workout intensity produced.’ The temperatures of studios began to rise to 90 degrees, then 95 degrees, increased to 100 degrees, and finally to 105 degrees Fahrenheit (over 40 degrees Celsius).
You can make an argument that if there is more heat added to yoga practice the body must go through what we call in fitness acclimatization training. Acclimatization training is routinely performed by endurance athletes when working out in particular geographical areas of the world with high altitudes. High altitude training has been proved to be helpful for increasing cardiovascular efficiency. Hot yoga will create an environment that in essence is an artificial heat wave, forcing the students to utilize heat management mechanisms but does little for cardiovascular health.
This may sound like it could be effective, and for some people who acclimatize easily to hot weather hot yoga may be perfectly safe. For others who have vulnerabilities to extreme heat; dizziness, nausea, and even heat related illness can be the end result of hot yoga classes. Consider that once you have experienced heat related illness you are more susceptible to a reoccurrence of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. These are medical emergencies outlined in your first aid manual and require immediate care.
During the 90’s and into the new millennium it became popular to suggest that the extreme heat of hot yoga would sweat out body toxins, and weight would magically be melted off while detoxifying. This is junk science as toxins cannot be eliminated through the skin and weight loss in extreme heat is the result of water loss and the body’s cooling mechanism going into overdrive in an attempt to cool body core temperature.
As body core temperature rises blood is shunted from the organs to the skin in an attempt to cool the blood as it returns through circulation back to the organs. Sweat is produced in order to evaporate the moisture on the surface of the skin, and this is where the cooling of the blood takes place. If the environment is too hot then it is not possible to cool the blood and the body can overheat. This is especially dangerous in humid conditions such as when there are a lot of students in a yoga studio sweating and thereby increasing humidity.
Another issue that should be considered if practicing yoga in extreme heat is ligament laxity. Ligament laxity is a bi-product of too much stretching commonly associated with injuries incurred in Cirque de Soleil performers, acrobatic dancing, contortionism and certain styles of yoga that stress achieving excessive ranges of motion for yoga competitions (of which I am in complete disagreement with). In extreme heat connective tissues become overly softened and it is much easier to stretch ligaments beyond safe limits. The ligament’s role is to maintain a consistent distance between bones and not allow so much movement that skeletal joints lose their integrity. Students can end up with unstable knees, shoulders and even unstable spinal columns from practicing yoga in extreme heat.
I offer power yoga workouts here at Breathe Into Motion Yoga Studios that are super sweat-inducing. These classes are practiced in temperatures somewhere between 75 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit (24 and 26.5 degrees Celsius). Sweat is easily evaporated at this temperature and the body core can be cooled with blood circulation. The risk of heat related illness is very low and the chance of ligament laxity is greatly reduced.
Perhaps most importantly is the fact that a much higher intensity of yoga can be practiced in the more reasonable temperature of 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. If studios are too hot there is no possibility of challenging the muscles to work at maximum intensity. Imagine attempting to workout at your gym if it were heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. It doesn’t make sense at the gym and it doesn’t make sense in yoga class either.
When you consider that there is now a new hot yoga tend in North America where classes are taught in even higher temperatures of up to 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 degrees Celsius), it would appear common sense and hot yoga don’t mix. Ironically, In India often the ashrams are closed on hot days for health reasons, so trying to justify that yoga should be done in extreme heat since it’s hot in India doesn’t ring true. Many of the great yoga gurus reside in the Himalayan Mountains where the climate is more temperate. Turns out 115 degree Fahrenheit yoga is an American phenomenon.
My feeling is if you can practice yoga in room temperature and incite a sweat-induceing workout you will receive the many of the same type of fitness benefits you would at the gym. The BIM Power Yoga workouts do just that; they kick butt! We have a saying here at the studio, “you don’t need to heat the room up to do yoga; just work hard and you’ll earn the heat!”