- Hot yoga has become increasingly popular.
- Its benefits include flexibility and less warm-up time.
- Although practicing hot yoga is safe for most people, it can cause some people to overstretch, and suffer from dehydration.In extreme cases, it can lead to heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
- To practice hot yoga safely, drink plenty of water, ease yourself into classes, and leave the room if the heat becomes too much.
On a particularly cold day in January, I went to a hot yoga class on the Upper East Side. Outside, it was below freezing, but inside it was approximately 90 degrees, though the candles illuminating the space made it feel even hotter.
Having only been to a handful of yoga classes before, I found hot yoga tougher than regular yoga. Each pose was more challenging in the heat; the sweatier I became (and I sweated a lot), the harder it was to hold my arms and legs in place. It didn’t help that I kept interrupting my “flow” to drink water to cool down.
By the end of class, I lay on the mat feeling somewhere between exhausted and relaxed. And in the days afterward, I could definitely feel the impact. My muscles were aching like hell, as they would after a high-intensity workout.
Curious to find out more about the heated workout, I spoke to a doctor trained as a yoga instructor, as well as founders of hot yoga studios, and learned that while hot yoga has its benefits, for some people it can have some potentially serious drawbacks.
Here’s everything you need to know about hot yoga, and how to practice it safely.
When exercising in the cold, warming up can be “like taking your body out of the freezer,” Tamara Behar, founder of Brooklyn-based hot yoga studio Tangerine Hot Power Yoga, told us. “The body doesn’t move as well when it’s cold as opposed to when it’s warm or a little warmer.”
As such, hot yoga makes your muscles “more limber.” In the heat, your muscles are “easier to manipulate as you move through your practice,” which makes you more flexible.
And since your muscles are already warmed up, less warm-up time is required.
Although improving your flexibility sounds like a good thing, surprisingly, it can make practicing yoga more challenging, according to Behar.
“Yoga is actually really hard for people who are super flexible,” she said, “because they have to pull back as opposed to people that are more stable.”
With increased flexibility, hot yoga can make you prone to overstretching.
“Because the heat loosens the muscles, you could be in danger of over-extending your body,” Sarah Larson Levey, the co-founder of the New York City hot yoga practice, Y7 Studio, told us. In the worst case, she said, “you could pull or strain a muscle.”
But it’s not just our muscles that can be affected, according to Dr. M. Fahad Khan, an assistant professor at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative Care, and Pain Medicine, tendons and ligaments can get hurt too.
In a hot yoga class, “you can get [your muscles] to stretch a little bit more than maybe you would right off the bat in a regular yoga class,” Khan, who is also a trained yoga instructor, told us. That’s because our muscles are very “vascular,” which means they have a good supply of arteries and veins, enabling blood nutrients to get to them easily.
However, our tendons and ligaments are more “avascular,” which means they don’t get as much blood supply as our muscles. While we can stretch our muscles more deeply, our tendons and ligaments “might not be as ready for some of that intense stretch,” the doctor said. “It might not be the muscle that you end up having a problem with in overstretching, but more so the other connective tissue like the tendons and ligaments.”
Working out in a hot room can also throw off our body’s internal temperature, which can cause dehydration, and — in extreme cases — lead to heat exhaustion or heat stroke, Khan said.
When we exercise, he explained, our internal body temperature naturally goes up and our blood vessels open up to allow more blood to travel to the skin so we can sweat, which cools down our internal temperature.
But when we exercise in a hot room, our bodies have a harder time cooling down. “Your body’s normal processes are not going to be enough to overcome this external heat,” Khan said. “Essentially, you’ve kind of hacked this regular homeostasis [the equal balance] that our body tries to keep with the internal temperature.”
While this isn’t a problem for most people, if the heat becomes difficult to bear it can lead to illness like heat exhaustion. “When [the heat] becomes too much then you develop this phenomenon called heat exhaustion,” he said. This can happen when “your body is not temperature regulating anymore and you become dehydrated.”
Since your blood vessels have dilated during exercise, your blood pressure can drop as well, the doctor explained. If that happens, your heart rate will go up as your body tries to pump blood to your organs to overcome the drop in blood pressure.
Symptoms of heat exhaustion include weakness, dizziness, and especially nausea. “If you start feeling those things, you’ve really got to get out of that room,” Khan said. “In really extreme circumstances, you could even develop something like a heat stroke and that could, worst-case scenario, land you in the emergency room.”
Hot yoga won’t detox you, either.
The idea that hot yoga is detoxifying is “a bit of a misnomer,” Khan said, “because the way we detoxify our bodies is mainly through our kidney and our liver.”
Though it might feel like it, you’re not really sweating out toxins in a hot yoga class. Instead, you’re sweating out mostly water, electrolytes, and some urea.
The only way hot yoga can indirectly detox you, Khan said, is by making you want to drink more water, which boosts your overall metabolism and makes you want to urinate more.
Although hot yoga isn’t directly detoxifying, Behar believes it is good for your skin. “Because you’re releasing so much, I think people that do hot yoga have very nice skin,” she said.
How to practice hot yoga safely
Find a studio and instructor you trust.
Khan, who teaches a monthly yoga class at Mang’Oh in New York City, stressed the importance of finding a teacher and studio that offer “a safe space” for sensible hot yoga practice.
Both Y7 Studio and Tangerine Hot Power Yoga use infrared heating technology, with panels installed in the ceiling of each space. At Tangerine Hot Power Yoga, the eco-friendly panels heat the room “like the sun,” Behar said, heating objects rather than the air, and there are fans and an air-conditioning unit if the room gets too hot.
Drink water before, after, and during class.
Hydration is “super important,” Levey said. “It is best to hydrate a lot before and after the practice to prepare and replenish the water you lose.”
In addition to plenty of water, Behar recommends drinking water with electrolytes, since you sweat those out as well.
Don’t come to a class on an empty stomach.
Although you don’t want to go to a hot yoga class after a full meal, you shouldn’t arrive with an empty stomach.
“I’ve had a lot of people come to early classes having only had coffee… and they wonder why they’re having a hard time in class,” Behar said. She recommends at least having a raw coconut water or half a banana beforehand.
Be aware that exercise in any hot room or weather can cause illness.
You don’t necessarily have to be doing hot yoga to become unwell. “You could even be in a regular yoga class on a hot summer day and that could be more dangerous than a hot yoga class if you don’t know your limits,” Khan said.
Don’t try to power through if the heat is unbearable.
“When it gets too hot, get the hell out of the room. Don’t try to power through,” Khan said. “If you’re starting to feel dizzy or weak or nauseous especially, you’ve got to get up and leave.”
Know your body.
If you’re planning to do a hot yoga class and you have any injuries, you’re sensitive to heat, or have any chronic illnesses, these could be affected, Levey said.
Let your instructor know about any health concerns before class, and if you’re unsure about whether you can practice hot yoga, check with your doctor.
If it’s your first time doing hot yoga, try to ease yourself into it, and don’t do too much at once.
“Like any sort of workout regime you should ease your way into it,” Levey said. “Marathon runners don’t start out running 26 miles… they start small and build.”
Although there’s no blanket rule of how much hot yoga you should be doing, Khan said he would personally only do hot yoga once a week. “I’ve seen MMA fighters and some of the UFC fighters take some of these classes and those guys do intense workouts. They go to one class per week and they are wiped.” he said. “These are really intense classes.”