Is hot yoga good for you? Explore the science behind sweat

Hot yoga also known as Bikram yoga (more on that later) has gained significant popularity in recent years as a fairly ferocious form of exercise. It combines yoga poses and breathing exercises and is practiced in a heated studio with ambient temperatures close to 40°C.

This style of yoga is designed to replicate the environmental conditions of India and is typically practiced for around 90 minutes, leaving students (and teachers) dripping in a sweat by the end of the class.

The practice of hot yoga challenges the mind and places an extra physiological strain on the body. It makes you sweat a lot and gets your heart rate up, which can feel pretty intense. In fact, hot yoga can lead to dehydration and dizziness, especially if it’s your first time and you don’t start class hydrated.

Designed to develop strength, flexibility and balance, hot yoga is believed to offer major physical and mental health benefits, including improved fitness levels and reduced stress levels.

But it can also be uncomfortable to think of sweat dripping into your eyes as you headstand and go hard: with fast, dynamic sequences repeated numerous times. Then there are also those tricky balances and multiple lunges, all done at high temperatures, meaning the classes can feel quite grueling at times.

So are all these hot, sweaty postures actually good for you? Let’s look at the science.

The origins of hot yoga

Before we get into the evidence, a little history. Originally known as Bikram yoga, after its creator Bikram Choudhury, the traditional style of hot yoga was developed in the early 1970s. It is a series of 26 fixed postures, performed over 90 minutes during extreme heat stress.

In recent years many yoga studios have chosen to rebrand these classes as hot yoga, having changed from the original 26 fixed postures to be more fluid and individual and to include music (which Bikram’s classes do not).

Another reason why many yoga studios have chosen to move away from the Bikram style of yoga is that more women have come forward with sexual harassment and assault allegations against Choudhury. This led to lawsuits and was the focus of a 2019 Netflix documentary: Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator.

Even before the Bikram scandal, not everyone in the yoga community supported the idea of ​​hot yoga. That’s because traditional yoga practice involves a series of postures known as sun salutations, which are performed in the early morning (when it’s cooler), not during the midday heat.

What science says

While comprehensive scientific reviews are still lacking, some studies have pointed to potential health benefits from hot yoga. Modified Bikram yoga performed regularly has been associated with increased aerobic capacity and improved cardiovascular function.

Hot yoga has shown promise in terms of heart health, lowering bad cholesterol levels and improving glucose tolerance. Glucose intolerance can indicate an increased risk of metabolic conditions, such as diabetes.

It has also been linked to increased strength, flexibility and improved mental health, including better stress management and better quality sleep.

Women in hot sweating yoga studio.
Sweat for that mind-body connection.
Southtownboy Studio/Shutterstock

Yoga is classified as a light-intensity exercise by the American College of Sports Medicine, but studies show that hot yoga sessions can lead to elevated heart rates, an increase in core temperature of 38°C-40°C, and substantial weight loss. of sweat up to 1.5 liters per session, making it more intense exercise.

When it comes to hot yoga classes, research has also found that beginners and experienced practitioners show similarities in heart rate, but can differ in sweat rate and core temperature changes. The more experienced you are, the more you sweat and the hotter you may get. This is likely because more experienced hot yogis will be better adapted to the heat and therefore able to push harder.

It is often claimed that practicing yoga in a heated environment can help with detoxification and the release of toxins from the body due to excessive sweating. But this is garbage, that’s what our kidneys are for. The reality is that those who practice hot yoga are likely to lose more sodium (or salt) and therefore are more likely to become dehydrated due to greater sweat loss than yoga in cooler conditions.

That said, hot yoga can be beneficial for those looking to adjust to heat stress. For example, athletes preparing for elite sports like hockey when performed safely.

And the risks?

Because hot yoga can be physically demanding, it may not be suitable for everyone, especially those with certain medical conditions or sensitivities to heat. Additionally, some of the research looking into the benefits of hot yoga hasn’t been replicated, which essentially means that more investigation is needed to fully understand the true value of hot yoga in terms of fitness.

So while it sounds like there are some potential benefits, it’s important to be aware of the potential risks associated with hot yoga as well. The heated environment, for example, can increase the risk of dehydration, heat exhaustion and potentially heat stroke, especially if proper hydration practices are not followed.

People with certain medical conditions, such as heart disease or high blood pressure, or those who are pregnant may need to exercise caution or consult their physician before participating in hot yoga. And it’s crucial that students listen to their bodies, take breaks when needed, and stay hydrated throughout the practice.

With hot and humid conditions, as well as excessive sweating, hygiene and cleanliness are also important to you and your mat. So don’t forget the towel and clean the mat afterwards too.

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