The very first time I had the opportunity to experience hot yoga, or Bikram yoga, I absolutely hated it. I believe the phrase I used to describe it to friends was "a hell where they make you do yoga." The postures didn't feel right to me. They felt strange to my body, a body that was accustomed to the free flowing nature of the vinyasa practice. The breathing was odd and silly. My back hurt. My mouth was dry. I was forced to stare at myself in a mirror while wearing nothing but shorts and a sports bra. The teacher seemed like a drill Sargent, not a yoga instructor. He did not allow us to wipe the sweat from our faces or take a sip of water until a specified moment in class. We could not fidget or fix our clothes. And on top of all of this there was the heat...the unbearable heat... the heat ranging from 105 to 110 degrees was by far the hardest part. Lightheadedness, dizziness, and oh yes, even feeling like you are about to vomit are the inevitable vices when practicing in the heat. (I have to admit that my first hot class was atypical in that it was part of my yoga teacher training, and we spent close to 2 and 1/2 hours in the heat instead of the regular 90 minutes. Most people may not have the same nightmarish experience.)
After class I was truly surprised at how challenging the traditional hot practice was. Being a fitness trainer and yoga instructor I pride myself in being tough, strong, and adaptable, but here I was feeling weak and defeated. This class did not seem like yoga to me. At least not the yoga I knew and loved. In my power vinyasa classes I indeed felt challenged, but the fact that I was able to move and breathe at my own pace made it easier. Also, in vinyasa I was in a judgment free zone, free from mirrors where I could pick apart my physique and bring awareness to my flaws. Plus, in my vinyasa practice the heat naturally rises, as it would in any room full of moving, breathing bodies. You still sweat with vinyasa, but you don't leave the room feeling like you need to chug a gallon of water.
I wanted to know more. Why would people want to practice yoga in this way? What were the benefits of subjecting your body to the extreme heat? What were the dangers? And more importantly, was it worth my going back?
I started doing my own research. Here is what I found out:
In terms of benefits there are actually a few things that hot yoga can offer that other forms of yoga can't (Please note--Any yoga practice can offer these benefits, but hot yoga can do quickly and to a greater degree.) Here is a list:
Detoxification - The excessive sweating cleanses the body by releasing toxins that build up over time.
Calorie burn-The average calorie burn for an hour of hot yoga is approximately 630, compared to the average of 445 calories per hour in a vinyasa class.
Increased flexibility-The heat makes muscles more pliable. I will use the silly puddy example-- if you put silly puddy in the fridge it will get hard and break when bent. Warm silly puddy will stretch easily. Muscles and connective tissue like the heat and will respond accordingly.
Weight loss-Hot yoga promotes faster weight loss. This is not only because of the number of calories burned, but also because of the amount of water weight you lose due to sweat. (Keep in mind-- it is just water weight though...It can be put back on just as easily as it came off.)
Great stuff, right?
Here are some of the dangers I have found as well:
Overstretching of muscles and ligaments-Because the tissues become more pliable in the heat there is a danger of pushing the body passed it's biological limit without realizing it. Major damage can be done to the joints if you are not careful and attentive to what your body is telling you. That is why Bikram's practice is often not recommended for beginners.
Dehydration-Because of all of the water loss during a hot yoga class it is very important to hydrate before and after you practice. Dehydration can lead to dizziness, headaches, nausea, increased heart rate, and increased respiration.
These are some pretty serious dangers, but with mindfulness one can navigate around them.
So... although my first experience did not go well, I did make it back to hot yoga. In fact, I have made an effort to integrate the hot practice into my weekly routine. I could never leave my beloved vinyasa behind, but I find the hot to be a nice addition to my regimen. I find the challenge exciting, and I look at it as a mental challenge even more so than a physical challenge. Self discipline is an important part of any yoga practice, and Bikram's style definitely promotes self discipline. I hate that I can't wipe the sweat from my face! But maybe that is exactly what I need... Joseph Campbell said: "Where you stumble, there lies your treasure."
Give it a try and decide for yourself. Use caution doing so, and you may discover something new and interesting.