You don’t normally have to warn people about yoga. But in this case, I feel I must.
There’s a trendy kind of yoga that’s getting a lot of attention and that a lot of people are trying. It’s called “hot yoga,” a name that sounds almost soothing, like a relaxing sauna or a warm bath. And if you’ve ever tried a regular beginner’s yoga class, you may assume that hot yoga is similarly gentle.
But don’t be deceived. Hot yoga is definitely not for beginners—it’s a much more intense form of yoga. That’s exactly what some people love about it—but the flip side is, hot yoga is so intense that it can quickly lead to dehydration…fainting…cramping…heatstroke…and muscle injury.
Like I said, it’s intense. But there are good things about hot yoga, too, so I called Diana Zotos, a certified yoga instructor and physical therapist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, to talk it over. I wanted to find out how you could practice hot yoga safely—and who should avoid practicing it altogether.
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TURNING UP THE HEAT
Zotos told me that she initially became concerned about hot yoga when clients came to her complaining about shoulder or knee pain after attending hot yoga classes. So, what was going on?
Hot yoga is performed in a room that’s heated to between 90º and 105ºF. The practice actually originated back in the 1970s with Bikram yoga, one very specific type of hot yoga that consists of 26 poses performed at 105ºF in 40% humidity for 60 to 90 minutes. However, today the definition of “hot yoga” has expanded so broadly that it has come to include virtually any type of yoga practiced in a hot room where the instructor simply cranks up the thermostat.
The theory behind hot yoga is that performing poses in a heated environment enhances your ability to stretch (which makes you more limber) and increases circulation and sweating (which makes it more of a cardiovascular workout and encourages your body to release toxins).
The potential problem with hot yoga isn’t the poses themselves—which often are the same ones that you would perform in any other yoga class—it’s that the heat adds a new dimension, in that it puts more strain on your cardiovascular system.
This is probably not an issue if you’re young and fit—but as you grow older and/or if you have a chronic health problem (such as diabetes, heart disease, high or low blood pressure, arthritis or other joint problems, balance issues or a history of heat-related problems), you need to be more careful because you’re more vulnerable to the following health problems. As the heat causes you to sweat, you become dehydrated faster than you normally would, which can lead to heat exhaustion and heatstroke. Other possible effects are cramping, dizziness, fainting, fatigue, headaches, dry skin, constipation and more. And because heat makes you feel like you can stretch more deeply into poses, it gives you a false sense of flexibility, which can lead to muscle strains or joint damage. That’s what led Zotos’s clients to injure themselves before they spoke with her.
And, Zotos told me, when people sign up for hot yoga classes, they aren’t necessarily told about the intensity of the workout or the health risks.
HOW TO KEEP YOUR COOL
If you have one of the chronic medical conditions mentioned above or another condition that might affect your response or endurance during exercise, Zotos said, be sure to check with your doctor before trying hot yoga, because it may simply be too dangerous for you. And even if you’re healthy, if you’re a yoga novice over age 40, it’s a good idea to consult your doctor first because our muscles become weaker and less flexible as we age—your doctor might advise you to start with a regular beginner’s yoga class and gradually work your way up to hot yoga.
You can also ask a hot yoga instructor to let you sit in on a class before trying one—most will allow this.
If you do decide to try hot yoga, keep these safety rules in mind…
- Hydrate. You’re going to sweat plenty, so drink plenty of water before class and avoid dehydrating beverages such as coffee or alcohol in the hours before class. Also bring a bottle of water to the class and continue sipping throughout the session.
- Listen to your body. If you can’t keep up with the class, it’s OK. Don’t force your body into poses that are too advanced, and don’t hold poses beyond the point of comfort, or you’ll risk straining your muscles. Ask your teacher about modified (easier) moves.
- When in doubt, STOP. Excessive sweating can set the stage for dangerous heat-related conditions such as cramps, heat exhaustion or even heatstroke. If you feel faint, dizzy, nauseous or overheated, stop immediately and leave the heated room so you can sit down and drink water in a cooler environment. If necessary, ask your yoga instructor to call for medical attention.