As the temperature dives, should athletes be diving into ‘hot yoga’ classes?
Hot yoga is the biggest ‘trend’ in the ‘yoga industry’ these days. In many places crowds flock to these classes which are sweaty affairs, often full of the sleekest, most bendy, toned, half-naked bodies.
People love the ‘challenge’ of the ‘workout’ hot yoga offers; they love the feeling of a good sweat, and find they can ‘go really deep’ stretching into yoga poses because their bodies are so (unnaturally) warm. Because it can be so intense, I’ve even heard Bikram yoga referred to as ‘the yoga of athletes’ (whatever that means).
Given that we are now in the grip of a Waikato winter, and I’ve been heading out in minus two degrees this week, I can see the appeal in spending 60 or 90 minutes in a room heated to 40 degrees! However, there is much controversy around hot yoga, including whether or not it is advisable or safe for athletes (and non-athletes for that matter) to practice, so I think it’s a wise idea to consider some of the hype from an athlete’s perspective.
What is ‘Hot Yoga’?
As the name suggests, hot yoga classes offer a yoga ‘workout’ in a heated room. You will find two main types of ‘hot yoga’ class. One style is Bikram yoga, which is a 90-minute class consisting of the same 26 yoga poses followed in the same order no matter if you attend a local class or travel to any Bikram studio in the world. Bikram rooms are heated to around 40 degrees, which is a fairly intense temperature for any workout. ‘Hot yoga’ that is not Bikram may be called simply called ‘hot yoga’ or similar. Classes will vary in length (often just 60 minutes) and will offer different combinations of poses as decided by the teacher. The room may be heated to a lesser degree than the 40 degrees of Bikram; often this is a more moderate intensity of class.
For the record, I am not stating here that all hot yoga is bad or dangerous. It can be beneficial, enjoyable, a great challenge and make you feel fantastic. What I am suggesting though is it may not be suitable for everybody, and there are some risks associated with it. It is important to be guided by a well-educated, anatomically aware teacher who holds the students’ safety and best interests above all else.
When I consider the purpose of yoga for athletes I am primarily looking at how yoga can complement an athlete’s training and provide benefits for them.
There are many compelling reasons why athletes should consider incorporating yoga into their programme. These mainly centre around keeping athletes in ‘balance’ – i.e. maintaining a safe and functional range of motion for the athlete’s particular sport, as well as stability where it is needed. Yoga helps with body awareness, balance, injury prevention, mental focus and more.
What yoga is not about is simply aiming for increased flexibility for flexibility’s sake. And it’s not about gymnastics, contortionism or competition. It’s about a balance of movement and containment, and helping keep athletes healthy, mobile and safe in their sport for as long as possible.
With this in mind, I believe it’s important that athletes take a considered approach to hot yoga. The first thing I would ask them is “Why hot yoga? What specifically is it about hot yoga that will help complement your training?” If you have a clear and compelling answer for this then that may be enough to go ahead. If you are unsure, here are some points to think about.
Hot yoga can make you feel unnaturally flexible. In a heated yoga room your blood flow will increase, making you feel more flexible than you really are. It will feel easier for you to stretch ‘deeper than you thought possible’ (some teachers even encourage you to do so). When this happens you run the risk of stretching past your safe level and getting injured. As an athlete yoga’s role is to maintain a safe and functional range of motion to support your sport. Going too far could leave you side-lined.
Mental discipline is required to keep yourself safe. Most athletes have a competitive mindset, and this can be a danger in any yoga class, but more so in hot yoga where you are likely to encounter some very flexible bodies, perhaps all around you. It’s easy for the competitive part of you to start telling you to ‘try a little harder’, to see if you can be ‘better’ than someone else in the room. This is exactly the opposite of what yoga aims to teach us. Rather, the aim is to become more tuned in to and aware of your body, working at a safe level that is right for you in the context of being an athlete.
Beware of heat exhaustion. In the more extreme styles of hot yoga (Bikram in particular) heat stroke can be a real danger. Because the room is so hot, your body will not be able to effectively counter the heat and cool you down. Heat exhaustion may lead to dizziness, fainting and nausea, even heat stroke. If you are suffering in hot yoga, leave the room.
Don’t do it because you want to ‘detox’. Some claim that hot yoga is a great way for your body to ‘detox’. You will sweat more in hot yoga, but this is not the same as detoxing. That’s mainly the role of your liver and kidneys. When you sweat in hot yoga you are dehydrating yourself, so be sure to rehydrate sufficiently afterwards.
Yoga doesn’t need to be hot to be effective. There is an argument for doing yoga in a much more moderate environment than 40 degrees. A room that is just ‘comfortably’ warm doesn’t bring with it the added risks of going too far more easily or overheating.
If you are looking for yoga that will ‘work’ your body with some strengthening and even cardiovascular benefits, you can do this by really tuning in to your effort in each pose and how you transition from one pose to the next. Learning to move from the core of your body, and using the breath effectively, combined with a well sequenced, flowing style of yoga, can have you sweating in just a few minutes.
As with anything, there is no one answer, training programme, or yoga practice, that suits everybody. Be guided by honestly following something that serves your training goals, interests and keeps you safe.