HOT or not? Is Hot Yoga the better way?
When people enquire about our yoga classes I'm often asked if we offer Hot Yoga or Bikram Yoga. No, we don't. Although these styles have become more and more popular in the past years we have decided to stick to the "normal" way - for good reasons.
Supporters of the Bikram/Hot Yoga movement bring forward that practising yoga in a hot environment has many advantages, such as:
increased DETOXIFICATION of the body due to massive sweating
improved FLEXIBILITY and MOBILITY as muscles and tendons soften in the heat
WEIGHT LOSS due to the increased heart rate which helps burning calories
improved IMMUNE SYSTEM since raising the core temperature stimulates the body to produce white blood cells which are important for the immune response
All those facts sound very good and certainly resonate with many people. However, are those effects unique to Bikram/Hot Yoga? No, they are not. Yoga which is practised at normal room temperature actually has the same effects:
DETOXIFICATION not only happens through sweating. In yoga, there are several techiques to help your body eliminate waste substances and toxins. Proper breathing is one of the easiest ways. Through deep, conscious breathing you get rid of stale air in the lungs and ensure a proper intake of oxygen which is necessary for a number of processes within the body - the renewal of the skin cells, improved brain activity, immune response and our metabolism. Exercises that work on the tummy, such as powerful deep breathing (e.g. Breath of Fire or Kapalabhati), prone positions or twists all stimulate the activity of the digestive system resulting in elimination. Similarily, many yoga postures and movements massage our internal organs (liver, stomach, kidneys, intestines). By this, the stale, toxified blood is squeezed out of the organs like water from a sponge. When the pressure is released, the organ expands again and makes room for a good amount of fresh blood which is rich in oxygen. If you are still after some sweat, you can choose an energetic yoga style such as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, where you not only warm up by the moves but also create internal heat through a specialized breathing technique. In contrast, exercising in a hot environment resulting in excessive sweating often causes dehydration and overheating as most people do not drink enough water before the activity.
FLEXIBILITY and MOBILITY naturally come with regular practice. Important is to build up gradually. Yes, muscles become more loose in a warm environment, but if your joints and tissues are not used to strong bends and twists you may still harm yourself. For example, think of your spine. Your spine is a very complex set of joints which is stabilized by different muscle groups. Many people suffer from hypertension in the back, which is usually a result of postural imbalances. Of course, the aim is to loosen the muscles to make the spine more flexible and improve posture. However, if the muscles become too loose without you being able to balance this by activating other muscle groups - e. g. as a yoga beginner - , you will bend or twist more than your joints and tendons can bear. In case of the spine it is likely that you damage your discs which can result in severe back injuries.
WEIGHT LOSS also comes with regular practice. In general you loose weight when your calorie intake is lower than what you burn throughout the day. Increasing the heart rate to burn more calories is one option that can be achieved by practising a powerful yoga style. People who are already overweight should increase the intensity gradually as many of them also have issues with high blood pressure or joint problems. Additional heat would mean additional stress on the body which can lead to an increased risk of heart stroke - not to mention the possibility of a joint injury. But even moderate, slow paced yoga has a positive effect on your individual weight management. Many postures naturally activate the metabolism and make the bodily systems work more efficiently. Thus, your cravings for sweets and greasy food will fade. As the practice of yoga promotes awareness in general, regular students become more aware of what and how much they eat. In the long run this results in a healthier diet with less weight problems. Also, you learn to accept your natural body. Some people are of a stronger built than others, and some are skinny by nature. That's diversity!
The IMMUNE SYSTEM is stimulated not only by external heat. Raising the core temperature - which naturally happens while exercising, not only in a hot environment - creates a fever-like reaction in the body. However, if you dehydrate and overheat, this can result in health issues such as dizziness, nausea or even heart stroke. Yoga on the other hand knows more techniques than just creating internal heat through moving and breathwork. Stimulating the glandular system, especially the thymus gland in the chest, can help improve your immune response as the glands are responsible for the production of antibodies. Chest openers like cobra, bow pose, the warriors or camel pose are simple but effective exercises, as well as self-massage of the chest area. Other styles refer to the nadi or meridian system and offer sets to stimulate the respective energy channel in the body. Apart from that, all yoga traditions encourage students to follow a holistic lifestyle, which can include a healthier diet or cold showers in the morning which further improve the immune system.
Finally, some thoughts about the argument that Hot/Bikram yoga imitates the hot Indian climate to give you the experience of yoga as it used to be.
Yes, it is a fact that yoga has its roots in India and Pakistan. But you must not forget that the people who lived and still live there are used to the hot temperatures and the humidity as they are exposed to the climate day by day from their day of birth. For people who were born into moderate or even cool climates temperatures of 40+°C mean physical stress. We need to adapt to a significant change of the environment over a longer period of time, and many of us will never feel comfortable in a climate that is not our original one. Personally, I grew up in an area of Germany where the average temperature throughout the year was less than 10°C. Therefore I can deal very well with cold temperatures and feel most comfortable at a temperature around 25°C. Up to 32-35° the heat is still tolerable (if dry), but everything above is a torture. Furthermore, you need to keep in mind that in India the people used to practise outdoors or in well ventilated halls so that the breeze could help cooling the body. But when you have a look at modern western studios, many keep windows and doors shut during the class to maintain the heat while a crowd of students around you is perspirating massively, sweating out whatever they have taken in before. To me, that's not very appealing and distracs from the original purpose of yoga.
These days, many of us suffer from being stressed by our demanding day-to-day lives. Now, why should I expose myself to additional stress if the aim of yoga is de-stressing so that I can re-connect to my true self?
However, you need to choose yourself. These are my thoughts, but yours may be different. If you would like to discuss this topic further and share your thoughts please feel free to contact me. I'm looking forward to hear from you!
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Carmen Weghaus has been a yoga teacher for 10 years in Europe ans Australia. She is the founder of Inner Smile Yoga & Health in Altona, Vic, Australia, where she offers different yoga styles, including Ashtanga Vinyasa, Yin and Kundalini Yoga as well as Pre- and Postnatal classes, all with a focus on holistic health. For more details go to inner-smileyoga.com or contact her on email@example.com.