Should you turn up the heat for your Yoga practice or rely on your own body to warm up?

You’ve probably heard of hot or Bikram Yoga. They are not the same style but both are practiced in temperatures that make you sweat even before you start moving – 30-40°C. Now, with summer temperatures, you may be automatically getting a hot Yoga room at home! In colder months, you can turn up the heat and make your own hot Yoga room. Higher temperatures can offer many benefits to your practice and health but it’s not for everyone. 

Heat, flexibility and mobility

Higher temperature increases your circulation, leading to more blood and oxygen in your muscles, and better joint lubrication right from the start of the practice. You also get these benefits through regular temperature yoga but you have to warm up first so it takes slightly longer to get there. Heated environment results in more pliable muscles that stretch further than when you’re cold, and easier joint movement. That means not just reaching further when you’re trying to touch your toes, it also means a greater range of motion (within your bone structure limits). 

Research shows that regular hot yoga practice improves both active and passive range of motion, strength and balance. In an eight-week study, practicing Bikram Yoga three times a week not only substantially increased lower back, hamstring and shoulder flexibility, it also increased the participants’ deadlift strength by 13%! This improvement is likely due to some physiologic changes hot yoga induces, explained below.

Cardio training

Heat makes your heart beat faster, pumping more blood toward the skin in an effort to cool it down. Increased heart rate means a better cardio workout.

Your heart beating faster also means you’re burning more energy. As one study demonstrated, during one 90-minute Bikram Yoga session, men burned an average of about 460 calories and women burned about 330 – around 50% more than what you burn in a typical Yoga class. 

The increased blood circulation has one more benefit – it brings oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to the skin, increasing its nourishment so you may be positively glowing after hot Yoga!

Hot Yoga and Athletic Performance

Practicing Yoga in a heated environment may trigger some physiologic changes that can help improve your athletic performance. For example, breathing deeply in hot Yoga can help train your lungs to retain more air. When you take deep breaths while your heart is beating fast, your lungs expand more than usual, allowing more oxygen to get into the bloodstream and to your organs. With regular practice, you’ll retain this benefit which offers an advantage in any athletic field.

As a recent study demonstrated, hot Yoga doesn’t just increase your lung capacity, it also increases your heat stress tolerance. That means being hot when training doesn’t hinder your performance as much as it normally would. 

Hot Yoga v warming up

In a hot environment, your muscles automatically stretch further, and you can easily overdo it and push yourself too far. You may not feel it while you’re hot but if you feel muscular pain after your practice, you’ve gone too far. Whilst mild pain is acceptable, more serious pain means you may have caused more than just microtears to your muscles. Your body will repair it but damaging your muscles is counterproductive to your training so be careful.

That’s why ‘normal temperature’ Yoga is safer – as you warm up, your joints lubricate more and increase their range of motion, and your muscles and tendons gradually stretch. It all happens at a pace that makes you aware of the changes and gives you better control over how far it’s safe to go.

Time of day is also an important factor in your flexibility – we’re generally the least flexible in the morning and naturally get more flexible as the day goes on. However, that doesn’t mean you should wait to practice yoga until the afternoon or evening! Practicing in the morning improves your blood circulation, brings more oxygen to your tissues and lubricates the joints, making your body more ready for the day ahead. Any increase in flexibility and range of motion you achieve in the morning is just as valuable – if not more – as later practice.

Be careful

There are several precautions when you do hot Yoga:

  • Dehydration is a major concern – drink water before, during, and after a Hot Yoga class. An isotonic drink may also be a good choice to help restore electrolytes lost through sweating.
  • If you have heart disease, arterial abnormalities, diabetes, or a history of fainting, hot Yoga is probably not safe for you. 
  • During pregnancy, consult your doctor before trying hot Yoga.
  • If you try hot Yoga and start feeling dizzy, lightheaded, or nauseous, stop and cool down. It may be a one-off thing but if you experience it repeatedly, hot Yoga may not be for you.

Listen to your body

Hot Yoga can offer greater flexibility, range of motion, strength, increased lung capacity, improved ability to perform under heat stress, and burns more energy. However, it can also make you more prone to muscle injury and is not for everyone due to the strain it puts on the heart. You are the best judge of what’s right for you. If you’re unsure about turning up the heat, try making your room just a few degrees warmer next time you’re rolling out your mat. That way, you can get a taste of how your body reacts and take it from there. 

If you’re cold, it can make your body stiffer than usual. Start your Yoga practice wearing some extra layers to help your body warm-up. As you progress and build up heat, you can take them off – or keep them on if you want an added challenge!

Alternatively, it’s a good idea to practice Yoga after a workout – that way, you are getting some of the benefits of hot yoga because your body is all warmed up but you’re not overheating. If your schedule allows, try it and see how great it’ll make you feel!