Gimmicky at best and dangerous and injury prone at its worst, I hate hot yoga. I’ve tried it many, many times. I’ve read a lot about it and talked with a lot of people about it (pro and con). The more I investigate it, the more I learn about yoga, and the more I learn about the body, the more convinced I am that hot yoga is a bad idea.
You have a stick of butter in the refrigerator. You take it out and leave it at room temperature so that it warms. It becomes far more pliable and easier to manipulate (ie. Spread in this case), but it also becomes less stable and more vulnerable to damage. Then you return it to the refrigerator and it returns to the original state. Warming the butter did not change it. The butter did not become more flexible.
The body is the same. People say they are more flexible when they do hot yoga. I call bullshit on this one. They are in a temporary state (like the stick of butter) where they are warmer. Like the butter, their connective tissue is easier to manipulate and stretch, but like the butter, they are also at their most vulnerable. I hear people say that they are shocked how much further they can go in stretches in a hot room… right up until they tear their hamstring or blow out vertebrae.
We have safe ranges of motion for tissue to operate in and then we have questionable ranges in which injury is likely to occur. When cold, the body is more aware of the safe range of motion. When extremely warm, it is much easier to get closer to the range of motion in which injury is likely to occur. It’s a false sense of flexibility.
As muscles engage and work, a byproduct of their effort is heat. You can generate a lot of it actually. I’ve never understood why people heat their tissue with heaters to stretch when they have muscles that could do the same and heat up from the inside out instead of from the outside in. A set of connective tissues heated via your own effort is far more aware of its safe range of function from another that was heated externally. People rarely overstretch muscles if they stretch with a degree of muscle engagement.
This brings me to my other observation of people whose main fitness vehicle is hot yoga. They are surprisingly weak. Because they rely on generators and fossil fuel to get warm, they focus on stretching and not doing a very physically intense workout. When you are in a 100+ degree room, you aren’t going to be doing crazy hard things. You’d slip off your arms if you tried to do arm balances. Attempting a hand stand in a puddle of sweat likely isn’t going to happen. A friend of mine who had been a Bikram instructor before falling out of love with the practice did a novelty class doing the Bikram series at room temperature. I did it with her and was shocked that there is nothing to that practice out all when you remove the heat. It was borderline silly.
Growing up in a hot desert climate, I learned pretty quickly to do athletic things in the early morning or late evening because it isn’t safe to do anything intense physically in hundred plus degree heat. The Australian Open is normally an outdoor tennis tournament, but they will actually close the roof and turn on air conditioning if the temperature reaches those regularly seen in hot yoga studios.
Having done athletics my whole life, I have been to and practiced my craft in many different facilities. Weight rooms, rock climbing gyms, group fitness facilities, sports complexes, dance studios, gymnastics gyms, and many, many other places… all of them are either chilly to room temperature. If any were hot, it was because they couldn’t afford air conditioning. When people are legitimately exercising, they get hot, really hot, without needing a heater.
Going to the source of this nonsense takes you back to Bikram. If you asked Shiva Rea about her style, she’d probably go on about fusing yoga with dance and movement. If you asked Ana Forrest, she’d most likely talk about core strength, inversions, arm balances, and long pose holds with slow movement.
If you asked Bikram about his style, he’d point to his watch and highlight that it is a Rolex, his suit is Armani, and his car is a Bentley. His lawsuit and profit driven style aren’t yogic in any way. The repetitive 26 poses, Death Valley heat, locked doors, and filthy sweat soaked carpet give yoga a bad name. You have to look at the intention of a practice. His is to create a product and collect your money.
I have heard from people how much they like the heat. I’m not sure why they can’t generate their own. I understand that there are a variety of body types and a lot of people are naturally cold. One of my personal goals is looking at the naturally cold students in my classes starting out wearing layers and seeing how fast I can get them hot enough to peel them off.
My experienced students get annoyed if the temperature in the studio starts to hit or creep above 70 degrees. They are athletes and people with any appreciable amount of muscle and strength don’t want to be held back by over-heating. If you do hot yoga, be careful, respect your limits, and make sure you cross train doing something at a normal temperature range.