I used to be a yoga snob.
I practiced traditional, non-heated yoga for 20 years, and then became a yoga teacher. I’ve taught all kinds of yoga classes, from an active all-level flow to relaxing gentle/restorative with yoga nidra (yogic sleep meditation).
All those years, I shunned hot yoga. I thought it wasn’t “real” yoga, which for me entailed lots more than a physical workout. For me, yoga has always been a holistic practice of the mind and soul, as well as of the physical body.
Back then, in my own prejudiced mind, I thought it was sacrilege to turn a beautiful, healing practice into a sweaty, competitive workout.
For awhile, hot yoga had also become synonymous with the now infamous Bikram Choudhry, who built a hot yoga empire in the US based on lies and intimidation and then fled to Mexico following sexual assault charges.
Why would I even consider getting involved in such a practice?
Then I met a young couple in Mesa, Arizona, who opened a hot yoga studio. They were so genuine and loving. They just wanted to share hot yoga with the world because it had changed their lives for the better.
I taught a couple of non-heated yoga classes for them, and because of their gentle natures, I decided to take one of their heated classes as a student.
From the first class I was hooked, and now I’m a hot yoga addict. If I had to choose only one form of movement for the rest of my life, it would be hot yoga.
Not just yoga, HOT yoga.
Here’s what I gain from hot yoga that I don’t get from any other kind of yoga practice or form of exercise, including running, weightlifting and cardio workouts at the gym — all of which I still do and love.
1) Hot Yoga Cleanses You from the Inside Out
Hot yoga will make you feel squeaky clean.
Your skin will glow. Your eyes will shine. Your hair will bounce with extra body.
But to get there, you first have to sweat. A lot. Copious amounts.
This is because sweating is a natural cleanser for the skin. It helps to clean the pores of impurities, which is why your skin will take on a luster after a hot yoga practice.
I saw firsthand the benefits of sweating when I lived in Scandinavia, where taking a sauna is a part of the culture. Finns, in particular, use the sauna as a daily hygiene routine.
As a result, the Nordic people have the clearest, most beautiful complexions I’ve ever seen, without any of the acne that’s so prevalent in the US. Many of them attribute their glowing skin to their daily sweat.
Hot yoga will make you sweat like you never have before. Even the sauna pales in comparison.
You’ll sweat until the moisture is running into your eyes, droplets are hanging from the tip of your nose, and your mat is moist with perspiration.
But the benefits of sweating may be more than skin deep. Sweating can also:
- Clear industrial chemicals from the body
- Remove bacteria that can cause infection
- Preserve and maintain beneficial micro-organisms on the skin
So while it’s not accurate to say you can “sweat out toxins,”(read: don’t expect hot yoga to cure your hangover), hot yoga will cleanse your body in a way that soap can’t.
That ultra-clean feeling you get from hot yoga is real; it’s not just in your mind.
2) Hot Yoga Calms Stress and Anxiety
In my pre-yoga days, I suffered from anxiety and depression. In fact, this was the reason I discovered yoga in the first place. I was looking for long-term, ongoing emotional balance.
A regular, non-heated yoga practice helped me find the peace of mind I’d been seeking. Because of my mental health past, I was always acutely aware of how any form of practice affected my emotions as well as my physical body.
I’ve found hot yoga to be the single most effective way to keep my tendency towards anxiety in check. And I’m not alone.
I know at least ten fellow hot yogis who say they feel more emotionally stable since starting the practice. Some have even stopped going to counseling or taking anti-anxiety medication thanks to hot yoga.
(Please note: I’m not recommending that you do the same; I’m just illustrating the power of the practice.)
I attribute hot yoga’s calming effects to two things:
- Mental Focus: Hot yoga requires much more mental focus than a non-heated practice. The combination of the postures and high heat creates a particular kind of challenge, so you don’t have space in your head for any anxious thoughts or wild emotions.
- Lowered Stress Response: Hot yoga, like all forms of yoga, modulates the stress response system and decreases physiological arousal — in the long term, it reduces the heart rate, lowers blood pressure and eases respiration. All of which has a calming effect on the mind.
I often walk into a hot yoga class with perceived problems on my mind. Then I’ll completely forget them during class and wonder after class why they bothered me so much.
In 60–90 minutes, I get a completely different perspective on my current life situation.
3) Hot Yoga Gives You a Natural High
When I’m finished with a hot yoga practice, I feel high on life.
Not only do my small, personal problems seem irrelevant, but I also feel like I’m ready to take on the world, tackle that new project or have that hard discussion with another person.
This euphoric feeling is similar to a runner’s high, which I’ve experienced when I used to run for exercise.
But for me and many others, hot yoga intensifies the euphoria a hundred fold.
Nobody knows for sure why this is so, but my guess is the combination of intense exercise and intense sweating, both of which have been shown in studies to release the feel-good hormones of dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins.
Some psychologists have suggested that the hot yoga high comes from knowing you’ve challenged yourself and come out on top.
In short, you feel great about yourself and what you’ve accomplished.
4) Hot Yoga Makes You Feel Empowered
A hot yoga practice poses a special mental challenge. It will push you outside your comfort zone.
You know in advance you’re going to be uncomfortable from the heat.
You might have to wake up before sunrise to be in class by 5:30 am. You know the practice will push you to reach higher, twist deeper and bend farther backward than a regular yoga class.
Rarely have I thought, “Oh boy, I can’t wait to walk into that steaming hot room.”
More often than not, I have to talk myself into it. I think things like:
- Remember how great you’ll feel when you finally manage to hold that balancing pose for more than five seconds.
- Think how great it will feel to cool down in savasana pose (the final relaxation) after an hour of sweating in some demanding postures.
- You’ll be happy that you decided to take care of your body and mind rather than cop out and turn off the alarm.
What is comes down to is this:
I’m choosing myself and my own health each time I walk into the hot yoga room. Because the practice is so intense, I sometimes have to dig deep to find the willpower to get there.
But whenever I do, I feel empowered. I’m proving to myself I can make the right choices for me and my body. I know I have the strength and determination to do it.
This mental strength gets transferred to other parts of my life. If I can tackle the hot yoga practice with grace and perseverance, I can do the same when problems arise at work or in my relationships.
5) Hot Yoga Builds Your Stamina
One reason I love hot yoga is that it’s such a well-rounded form of exercise. All the elements of the practice come together to increase your physical and mental stamina.
For one thing, hot yoga gets your heart going even though yoga is not necessarily known as a cardio workout.
Many of the poses involve engaging many different parts of the body simultaneously. You often have to move your body into unusual and even uncomfortable positions, which requires strength as well as flexibility.
On top of this add the heat element. Working out in a heated room will increase your heart rate more than in a non-heated space.
In fact, one study showed that a hot yoga class can give you the same effect as going on a brisk walk for an hour.
Another aspect of stamina is moving from one challenging posture to the next.
In a Bikram practice, you’re holding poses that draw on both your strength and balance. In a hot yoga flow, you’re moving smoothly from one powerful pose to the next without a break. (Unless you decide yourself to take a break.)
Not one part of you is left out of a hot yoga practice. You finish feeling like you’ve worked every single muscle in your body. Not only that — you’ve massaged all the internal organs and maintained intense mental focus.
That takes stamina.
6) Hot Yoga Enhances Your Flexibility
Here’s a myth I want to debunk right away: You don’t need to already be flexible to do yoga.
You just need to be willing to accept yourself where you are. Work slowly and surely with the body you have. Flexibility will come over time.
Everyone knows that all types of yoga increase flexibility. What I love about hot yoga, though, is that the heat helps me move more deeply into a pose.
It’s easier to relax into a forward fold so I can find a little more length without effort. Or I’m able to reach back and touch my heels in camel pose, which is not even accessible to me in an unheated room.
Afterwards, I notice that the added flexibility makes all my other workouts go a little smoother — whether it’s hiking, lifting weights or taking an aerobics class.
Stay Safe While Doing Hot Yoga
Hot yoga is not for the faint of heart. That’s one reason I love it.
It’s also not for people with chronic health conditions. Or at least you need to check with your doctor before trying hot yoga if you’re unsure.
With that said, if you’re in good health, here’s what you can do to stay safe in a hot yoga class:
1) Don’t compete with yourself or others.
This is the number one rule in yoga, whether heated or non-heated.
You’re there to take care of you, in that moment. At your current age (not your younger self). With your present body type and any minor afflictions, like a scraped knee or weak wrist joints.
Accept yourself where you are, and you’ll have a great yoga practice.
If you try to compete with your younger self or the guy or gal next to you, you may end up feeling sick or, worse, injuring yourself.
2) Come to class hydrated.
I don’t mean to chug a gallon of water 10 minutes before class.
Just make sure you’re drinking a sufficient amount of water in the hours leading up to your class. Be aware of your fluid intake, and you’ll be fine.
On the flip side, don’t do hot yoga on a full stomach. Let at least two hours pass between your last food intake and your yoga class.
3) Know when to take a break or even leave the room.
Most of us live in the realm of our thoughts. But to practice hot yoga safely, you must get out of your head and become keenly aware of your body.
Pay close attention to your body’s reactions to the practice and the environment. Then you’ll know if you need to take a break, before you feel ill.
If you love to exercise like I do, it’s probably in your nature to want to push through discomfort.
But in hot yoga, like in all challenging workouts, you need to strike a balance between pulling out that last ounce of effort to hold the pose and pushing too hard when all your endurance is gone.
In short, check your ego at the door and take care of yourself.
For me, hot yoga is like a lesson for life.
It teaches me when to push ahead and when to pull back. How to find balance, equanimity and poise in difficult situations. It shows me how strong I am. How much mental focus I can muster.
Most of all, hot yoga keeps my mind calm and my spirits high.
I could write an entire book describing hot yoga and its benefits, but in the end a yoga practice is experiential. Nobody can tell you how you’ll feel in your own body and mind.
Give hot yoga a try. Just once. Keep an open mind.
Find out for yourself if the practice is for you.