Sweat: It’s time to change the “Hot Yoga” narrative
Sweat. Grit. Soul.
Tadasana.Yoga began its life in Park City in 2005 as a Bikram studio. In case you aren’t familiar with him, Bikram Choudhury was a yogi to the Hollywood rich and famous in the 1980’s. He espoused a yoga practice of 26 poses conducted in a room heated to 104-degrees. Not surprisingly, this practice quickly became known as “Hot Yoga.”
In part due to the decline in Bikram’s reputation over allegations of sexual abuse, and also to a reaction to the restrictive nature of his original practice (same poses, same dialogue, same heat), the popularity of this style of yoga began to decline in the early 2000’s both globally, and here in Park City. (Studios around the country have since found ways to modify his strict practice to great appeal.) When I purchased Tadasana.Yoga in 2013, we had already expanded our practice beyond Bikram and within two years, I removed it from our offering altogether.
Today, we struggle with a narrative problem in the yoga world. Thanks to its success, the Bikram style became pervasive enough that the moniker of “Hot Yoga” is still quite synonymous with a) the style of the practice and b) the extreme temperature of the room. Most people I meet who learn that we heat our studios will say, “Oh, you do Hot Yoga!” I am then compelled to explain that we heat the room, but not to the same temperatures, and that we primarily do a flowing practice that changes with each class. (Note that this post is not seeking to criticize that practice, rather to create a distinction between it and other heated practices.)
Tadasana.Yoga offers an athletic, physical practice in a heated room. Elemental to the narrative problem is the need to answer the question, “why”. Why heat the room at all? What are the benefits?
I myself have to admit to toeing the yoga party line on this one in the past, describing the heat as ‘detoxifying’ and ‘flushing out impurities’ from the body. This article on Yoga International addresses the science around heat and the author targets this detoxification idea. He points out that there is no evidence that sweat removes impurities from the body. That job is already done by the kidneys, liver and intestines. The author also speaks about the dangers of people following ascetic-type practices (such as sweat lodges) where participants are exposed to extreme heat, as well as the potential for heat exhaustion when students in yoga classes are not permitted to hydrate, rest, or leave the room.
The author then goes on to identify two acknowledged benefits and three other potential benefits to practicing in heat:
- The heat increases your circulation and has a relaxing effect on your muscles.
- The heat increases the flow of lymph fluid in the body, assisting the immune system and helping the body to repair itself. (Hot yoga is not recommended for anyone who has had lymph nodes surgically removed.)
- Sweat contains a natural antibiotic called Dermcidin. Currently, Dermcidin is being studied as a treatment for powerful superbugs like tuberculosis and MRSA. It’s most effective when sweat does not evaporate quickly and is allowed to pool on the surface of the skin.
- Acclimatizing to heat has been proven to increase both endurance and the capacity to build muscle when exercising in the heat (hyperthermic conditioning). Early evidence is suggesting hyperthermic conditioning improves production of human growth hormone and heat shock proteins—both of which lead to enhanced muscle growth and healing.
- Finally, it is also believed that this acclimatization to heat is what produces what is known as the “runner’s high.” For heated yoga practitioners, you could easily call this the “yogi’s high.”
All of which leads me back to our narrative problem. There is a big difference between traditional Bikram “Hot Yoga”, and a room that is heated to help increase circulation, warm muscles, and start your body sweating. Temperature numbers are very tricky to pin down as they are subject to both the individual and the physical environment. What feels warm to one may not feel warm to another; 90-degrees F in a dry climate will feel significantly cooler than 90-degrees in a humid environment, and so forth. Personally, I like to enter a room that is warm but not hot, and as I begin to sweat, I appreciate the temperature being maintained or even turned up to ensure that I don’t begin to feel cold from my body’s natural evaporative cooling system.
To help solve our narrative problem and teach new and prospective students what to expect, I would officially like to ask the yoga community to reserve the term “Hot Yoga” for any Bikram or Bikram-like practices. And I would like to request that we open up the term “heated…” to describe the much safer and much more enjoyable practice of yoga in a warm room that we do today.
At Tadasana.Yoga we do heated Power Vinyasa, not Hot Yoga. Unless you know warm rooms really aren’t for you, I always encourage new students to give it at least three classes before they judge the yoga or the heat. Once you experienced that “yogi’s high”, it’s pretty hard to go back!