Yoga has become remarkably popular over the last several years and yoga studios have proliferated across the country. Men, women, athletes, and desk-jockeys alike have all embraced, in one form or another, the practice of yoga. Is this just a worthless fad, or are there actual benefits to the practice?
Here, we examine, in particular, hot yoga. Hot yoga is perhaps most associated with a system called Bikram Yoga—practiced in Bikram Yoga studios—which seem to be almost everywhere. Bikram Yoga was formed from traditional hatha yoga techniques. The classes run for 90 minutes and include 26 postures. Notably, the rooms are heated to 104 degrees Fahrenheit with a humidity of 40%.
Bikram isn’t the only form of hot yoga, but it is the most popular.
Despite hot yoga’s popularity, the scientific research is surprisingly limited. Scientific research is important, of course, but when the studies are limited in number and scope, you have to find other ways to reach your own conclusions.
Sometimes a practice moves well ahead of the science. That is, people use heuristics—trial and error—and finally settle upon a practice that works for them. It is true that they could be doing it because it is cool or popular, or because they believe myths that circulate about its benefits.
But a practice like yoga, which takes effort and dedication (and particularly hot yoga, which isn’t very comfortable when you first try it) has a sufficiently high cost that many people will leave it if it doesn’t offer benefits. So even before scientific studies validate a practice, you can get an unscientific sense of what is working by the individual decisions of people trying to improve themselves. For some tips on how to thrive during your hot yoga experience, click here.
With that introduction, let’s delve into some of the claimed benefits of hot yoga.
Many people turn to yoga in part to improve their flexibility and loosen their muscles. The increased temperature from hot yoga makes it even easier to warm up the muscles, ligaments and joints to begin and continue the various poses. This may allow for a greater range of movement. It doesn’t mean that you will go from an inflexible muscle-bound physique to Gumby, but the heat will certainly help.
Mental Focus and Mind-Body Awareness
One of the greatest benefits of yoga generally is its meditative effects. Indeed, that may partially explain its recent popularity. In today’s world where even moments of boredom are quickly supplanted by smart phones with social media, the internet, and the increasingly common urgent email or text message, the time with your own mind that yoga offers is necessary meditative medicine. As you move from pose-to-pose and deepen the physical difficulty of your practice, you develop a greater mind-body awareness. As many that practice yoga will tell you, this is great for stress reduction.
The hot environment creates an additional physical and, in fact, mental stress that may require additional mental focus and concentration. To the extent that is true, it is possible that hot yoga may have benefits even greater than other yoga practices.
Engaging in physical activity in a hot environment can be dehydrating, so it is important to drink a lot of water and take in sufficient electrolytes. Many advocates of hot yoga stress the benefit of flushing out toxins from your system, thereby making you healthier. The hot and humid room causes you to sweat, which promotes detoxification as you eliminate toxins through your skin.
While I didn’t find conclusive evidence for or against the flushing-toxins claim, the idea of flushing toxins from your system is not new, has been applied across modalities, and probably has some basis in fact.
In the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, researchers examined how yoga practice for ninety-minutes three times per week affected various other types of exercises. You might be surprised to learn that—in addition to the obvious flexibility and fat loss benefits—the researchers found that deadlift strength increased with yoga practice. This is one result that should be studied in more detail.
If you like to deadlift, you might enjoy our article on the health benefits of weightlifting.
People have been practicing yoga for centuries. It clearly has many benefits. And it isn’t a stretch to see that hot yoga may have some additional or unique benefits, even separate from yoga’s traditional benefits. You might give it a try.
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