What I remember from my first hot yoga class: dashing out of the room to escape the heat and collapsing on the floor gasping for air, as the rest of the class focused on the “half prayer twist” pose. Ten minutes and a liter of water later, I ventured back in and managed to stave off dizziness until being rewarded with the resting pose, savasana.
Yet once I peeled off my drenched clothes in the locker room and started to cool down, I felt surprisingly energized. I was also proud that I had been able to stretch farther — at one point even laying my palms on the floor — than I had done at my regular vinyasa flow class. It didn’t take long before I was hooked on hot yoga.
As the popularity of yoga soars — nearly 10 percent of U.S. adults are now practicing, according to the latest survey by the National Institutes of Health — many studios have added classes that are conducted in rooms heated anywhere from 90 to 105 degrees. (Those run by U.S. guru Bikram Choudhury are on the hottest end of the spectrum.) Devotees claim the heat gives you better stamina, flexibility and metabolism — never mind the chance to sweat out supposed “toxins” and drop a few pounds.
Yet health experts warn that practicing in such extreme temperatures brings added danger, such as heat stroke and over-stretching, to an activity already under scrutiny for causing injuries and modest weight loss. Finally, newbies are asking: Is all that torture really worth it? Aren’t “warrior I” and “standing head-to-knee” poses hard enough without the risk of slipping in a pool of group perspiration?
It Pays to Sweat
Despite a general lack of research comparing styles of yoga, there’s a growing body of evidence that the hot kind might be good for your heart. “If you put people in a sauna or hot room, their cardiovascular system responds the same way as if they were running on a treadmill,” explains Stacy Hunter, PhD, who researched the effects of Bikram yoga while completing her doctorate at the Cardiovascular Aging Research Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin. “Both the heart rate and blood flow increase. So the logic goes that combining yoga exercise and heat will be even more beneficial.” Among her findings to support her case: improved metabolism for older obese adults and less arterial stiffness for young adults.
RELATED: 5 Surprising Health Benefits of Yoga
Besides, hot yoga just feels good. “So far, we have anecdotal information of people describing an euphoric or energetic sensation after class,” says Hunter. “Some people feel they’re ready to seize the day.”
At the very least, the practice won’t hurt you, concludes a small study that was sponsored by the American Council on Exercise. Researchers recorded the core body temperature and heart rates of 20 participants who completed two 60-minute yoga sessions, first in a 70-degree room and then another the next day in a room heated to 92 degrees. Even though the people in the warmer room perceived that they were working harder, the data showed they weren’t. Of course, it’s worth noting these classes were shorter and cooler than the grueling 90-minute Bikram sessions, in 105-degree heat with 40 percent humidity.
It Gets Better
The biggest challenge for beginners is tolerating the initial phase of discomfort from the heat. “You’ll get used to it within a couple weeks of practicing every other day,” explains Mike Fantigrassi, master instructor for the National Academy of Sports Medicine based in Chandler, Arizona. “You just have to be careful and ease yourself into it.” As you become acclimated, you’ll start to sweat sooner and more frequently, which helps your body cool down. “Don’t be alarmed if you’re drenched — it’s actually a good sign,” he says. “The only downside is that you’ll get dehydrated faster if you’re not replacing those fluids during and after exercise.” Over time, your body will get better at holding on to the electrolytes that you sweat out. Also, you’ll increase your production of stress proteins that prevent cellular damage from exercising in heat.
Want to learn to savor the sweat? Here are some expert tips to help you stick with the practice as the temperatures rise.
Tips to Survive a Hot Yoga Class
1. Drink Up
This is a no-brainer for any form of strenuous exercise, but it’s extremely important for hot yoga. That means drinking enough water before you start class, says Kay Kay Clivio, a hot yoga instructor of 14 years, currently teaching at Pure Yoga in Manhattan, New York. She also advises preparing for class by drinking coconut water or beverages with electrolytes or taking trace mineral supplements to replace the salt and potassium you’ll lose. (She swears by Emergen-C.)
Fantigrassi suggests weighing yourself before and after class and drinking one-and-a-half liters for every two pounds of water weight lost during the sweat session. You’ll know you’re dehydrated if you have a headache, feel lightheaded or lethargic. “It will feel like a hangover,” he says.
2. Give Yourself a Break
Although yoga encourages students to push past their comfort zone, you shouldn’t do it in hot yoga. Not only do you risk over-heating, but also you might injure your muscles that feel unusually flexible thanks to the humidity and high temperatures.
“You never know when that feeling of dizziness or shortness of breath is going to suddenly come over you,” says Clivio. Her advice: Don’t run out of the room or dive into child’s pose. Sit down on your mat, take a sip of water, and focus on slowing down your breathing before catching up with the class.
However, if you’re feeling flushed, don’t be embarrassed about stepping out for a few minutes to cool off, adds Fantigrassi. Wipe off with a wet towel or splash water on your face to lower your core temperature.
3. Lose the Layers
This is one activity when you don’t have to worry about appearing immodest by wearing short shorts or going shirtless. “You want to expose as much skin as possible to increase the area for sweat to evaporate, so heat can escape, which helps you stay cooler,” says Fantigrassi.
4. Mind Your Own Body
Clivio says hot yoga tends to attract students with competitive personalities who like the mental and psychological challenge. “[Yoga] feels harder in 105 degrees,” she says. “This is the ultimate opportunity to turn inward, focus on your breathing and get mentally focused and strong, instead of worrying about what everyone else is doing.”
Even if hot yoga feels hard at the beginning, Clivio promises that students who keep practicing will be transformed physically and spiritually over time. “Stay inspired by the small shifts you make during each class to gain the big results.”