10 Nov My Thoughts on Hot Yoga
I’m certain to touch on some nerves here. Everyone has such strong opinions anymore, and I certainly am not immune to being headstrong. Mostly I try to hold my tongue and usually just stay away from entering the fray. But over the last year and a half as I’ve trained to be a teacher and devoted myself to practicing yoga I’ve experienced a broad spectrum of styles and emphasis in action, while everyone seems to say the same thing in describing their yoga (all the various brands that keep popping up is a whole other topic).
In terms of the number of years I’ve been practicing yoga I’m a comparative pup and I lean in my personal practice towards the meditative aspects of yoga. While I’ve enjoyed some fairly rigorous semi-heated yoga classes (mid 80s or low 90s due to it being summer in a place without AC), the hot yoga craze is something that doesn’t sit well with me. Some may call me a yoga snob, that’s fine. I’ll refrain from calling names and try to stick to rational thought and a recognition that this is my opinion.
Hot yoga is definitely a craze. It’s exploded over the last handful of years as yoga has shifted even more towards simply a physical exercise than it already was in the West. I have no problem with people doing yoga for just the physical exercise. As an exercise regiment it’s very good. It stretches while strengthening, and as long as it’s done with a teacher who has a solid grasp of how the body moves, can be done with minimal risk of injury. My main issue with hot yoga is that while the teachers of it move the practice towards something that contains little to no inner work, they continue to claim it provides the same benefits as a more traditional yoga practice that works the body, mind and emotions.
I’ve been to a Bikram class and a handful heated classes, but have not gone to a studio calling itself “hot yoga”, so the possibility exists that I’ve missed a class or style that retains an inner focus while pushing the temperature of the room and the posture practice. My personal experience though is that the greater the intensity of physical practice the less inner work (meditation, breath, exploration of thoughts and responses to practice). I went to a number of classes at a particular studio because they offered a really cheap first time pass, and there was barely a savasana. Mostly we just moved from pose to pose. At least at that studio they gave modifications. Bikram just tells you to push through, uses words like “hurt” in their script/routine, and passes off the fact that you don’t have time to do anything other than keep going or pass out as their “meditation”. I have a friend who swears by Bikram and I say good for them, but any time I see them after a Bikram class they don’t look like they’re getting in shape. They look like they are trying hard to catch up on the massive dehydration caused in their body by the practice.
I’ve talked to Bikram devotees who regularly claim it’s meditative and promotes inner calm. But here’s the thing, regular exercise (all the things you can do at the gym that have no meditation or inner aspect to them) also has an effect on mood and chemical production in the body that promote positive mental health. So hot yoga can certainly improve mental health, but I would argue it does so at no deeper level than any form of regular physical exercise.
With that I’d like to go down some of the claims that hot yoga makes. I’m grabbing some points from a particular hot yoga studio chain that will remain unidentified.
1. Greater cell turnover or generation.
Really? It makes sense that greater blood flow and oxygenation of tissues promotes this, but again how is it different than any other form of exercise? It’s not. So not a unique benefit of yoga or hot yoga, just a benefit of exercising in general.
2. Greater flexibility, improved balance and posture.
This is a benefit of yoga in general, but I’d also like to say that being in a heated room fools you into thinking your body is warmed up and can cause you to push yourself farther than may be right for your body, possibly to injury.
3. Boosted hormones, or endorphins, that promote happiness.
This happens with any physical exercise practiced regularly and is not unique to yoga or hot yoga. The difference with a yoga class that’s more rounded is that a teacher may guide you with questions or thoughts that cause you to look at your existing ideas about yourself, promoting a healthier mental attitude separate of any physical exercise you are doing.
4. Sweating detoxifies you.
Oh lord, this is probably the biggest thing I hear from hot yoga people. It was the one thing I thought might be a unique benefit of the practice. It’s one of those ideas that makes sense on the surface until you really think it through and do some research. I accepted this idea, then one day decided to research whether sweating really does detoxify the body. Go ask someone with initials after their name who knows about the functioning of the human body. Detoxification happens in the kidneys and liver in our bodies. Sweating is a way our body regulates temperature. Think about it. If sweating was one of the ways our body detoxes we would regularly break out in a sweat because our body needed to release waste.
Now it may be the case that working our bodies and getting our blood flowing helps promote the flushing out and detoxification of our body. But that happens because of what we’re doing independent of a heated room. And the massive sweating may actually be detrimental to this process as it causes water needed for detoxification to be sweat out in an attempt to cool our overheated body.
5. Yoga is from India and it’s hot there.
Do I even need to address this? I feel like I should since I’ve heard this regularly. This is just a defensive reaction. Yes India is a warmer climate. As a teacher I talked to once said “When it’s hot we do yoga, when it’s cold we do yoga.” You don’t need a certain temperature to practice yoga, and since we’re used to room temperature maybe it would be best to do yoga in that setting.
Another kind of reactive response I’ve heard from Bikram devotees is that yoga is competitive because they have yoga competitions in India. Let’s get this straight, they have asana competitions, not yoga competitions. And if you study yogic philosophy it will be clear how competitions are not yogic. I would love to see a meditation competition. That would make me laugh for days to see someone arguing that one person is obviously in samadhi and another is not when all we see on the outside is two people sitting there.
Now if you enjoy hot yoga, then good for you. I’m not trying to cut down hot yoga or say it’s a practice without benefit. I just believe there should be clarity and honesty in what it does instead of acting like it’s a cure all snake oil of practices. I know my personal practice that I love doesn’t make for a great exercise class. It helps my flexibility in body and mind, but it doesn’t improve my cardio or help me lose weight where a more rigorous hot yoga class, or exercise routine in general, would. Concurrently, hot yoga is not the same as a more classical yoga practice, it is a practice that concentrates on yoga as a physical exercise. It may require heightened concentration to keep up with the teacher’s lesson that promotes a better state of mind or an improvement of focus. I don’t think that’s very different from any other gym taught exercise class personally. It is not the same as a more meditative practice that also touches on the mind itself, instead of getting out in front of it.
My true intention for writing all this out is not to say something is better or worse. Personally I struggle trying to figure out where I fit in in the greater yoga scene as a teacher. I know what my practice and teaching is like and use language that clearly defines what my intention and teaching is about. The problem is that same language is used by yoga teachers all over the spectrum. I think too many teachers want to be everything to everyone so they all regurgitate the same language indiscriminately. I know I’m not a teacher for people who can do advanced poses. I’m a teacher who values a foundation to practice that is inner and meditative. A practice that’s grounding and sometimes flowing (I try to mix in some Tai Chi at times), and I try to be honest about the fact that if you want to sweat buckets or put your legs behind your head, my classes are not for you. I do wish other teachers would bring more clarity into how they present and promote their classes.