Hailey Middlebrook: The sweaty truth about hot yoga

Tuesday, February 16, 2016 - 5:23pm

So. Much. Sweat. More sweat than I’d sweated at Disney World, late afternoon in mid-July, waiting in an hour-long line for the teacup ride. More sweat than I’d sweated in my first college cross country meet, a 2 p.m. race in 95-degree heat, after which my teammate had to be driven to the hospital for heat exhaustion.

If you’ve ever practiced hot yoga, like the Hot Vinyasa class at Center For Yoga, you know exactly about the sweat I’m talking about.

At first, you welcome the heat — the 100-degree yoga studio is dimly lit, a deliciously warm haven for your frozen body. You stretch happily on your mat, feeling your toes thaw out. You bend into Child’s Pose, sinking into the floor like a puddle, letting stressful thoughts slip away.

30 minutes later, you’re the one slipping away, because a yoga mat is no match for the obscene amount of sweat pouring out of you. In the classroom, things aren’t so zen anymore — “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons is pumping through the walls, the guy next to you has his backside in your face doing Star Pose, and you’re kicking yourself for not bringing a towel to class. As you hold a never-ending plank position, adjusting your sweaty hands, you can’t remember why you liked the heat in the first place, or why you thought yoga was meditative.

You might even wonder, is hot yoga worth the hype?  

Though hot yoga was introduced to the U.S. relatively recently, popularized by Bikram Choudhury (founder of “Bikram Yoga”) in San Francisco in 1972, its roots stretch much farther in history. For centuries, yoga has been performed in heat out of necessity. India, the birthplace of yoga, is notoriously hot — temperatures average around 100 degrees in the summer —  and with infrequent air conditioning, heated yoga is a given. So when Choudhury and other yoga masters moved to cooler climates, they noticed they were shivering while holding their poses. They soon brought space heaters to studios, believing that a heated room allows muscles to loosen, blood capillaries to dilate and toxins to be released.

Today, you can practice yoga in an 100-plus degree room almost anywhere in the U.S. — even if you live in an arctic climate like Ann Arbor. But as much as hot yoga enthusiasts promote the benefits of heat, there’s reason to be wary of the practice. In a recent study sent out by the American Council on Exercise, researchers were shocked to find that yoga participants’ heart rates and core body temperatures had skyrocketed after a 90-minute Bikram Yoga class, with one man reporting a temperature of 104 degrees and a heart rate in the 92 percentile of maximum heart rate.

“The dramatic increases in heart rate and core temperature are alarming when you consider that there is very little movement, and therefore little cardiovascular training, going on during class,” said Emily Quandt, the leader of the study, in a press release.

Physicians agree that body temperatures above 100 degrees can be classified as a fever, while a temperature exceeding 104 degrees, or hyperthermia, is considered life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention. The cure for hyperthermia is intuitive: get to a cooler place. But in an hour-long or 90-minute continuous class, with the room temperature set at 105 degrees, there is really no reprieve from heat. And though our bodies fight to keep cool — hence the buckets of sweat — our natural tendency is to wipe the sweat from our face and hands, which dangerously traps in even more heat to our bodies.

“I tell my students to never wipe their faces,” said Bryan Bennett, a lead instructor at the Center For Yoga, who met me for coffee at Elixir Vitae. He explained that the heat opens up our pores, allowing not only cooling sweat but impurities to be released. When we close these pores by wiping our faces, we absorb both the heat and unhealthy toxins, which can cause blackheads and skin irritation.

Bennett cites the heat of hot yoga for more than just glowing skin. During his 200 hours of training, he was taught the core reason for heated yoga: like metal, the human body can bend into any form if enough heat is applied. The heat of the room, coupled by the heat built up in our bodies during an hour-long class, allows us to stretch further and breathe deeper — both keys to a better yoga practice. Still, Bennett believes that heat isn’t necessary for yoga; besides loosening the body, heat mainly functions as a distraction.

“In yoga, you’re taught to resist all reactions,” Bennett said. “The highest form of yoga, meditation, is complete stillness of the body and mind. When you’re in a hot room, there’s a new obstacle to hurdle — you have to accept the sweat, let it fall, then find your breath again.”

What about the risks of hot yoga? “There have definitely been people who are ill-prepared,” Bennett said. “If you’re hungover and dehydrated, or have a heart condition, hot yoga is not for you. Pregnant women shouldn’t practice either, unless their bodies are accustomed to the heat.”

Bennett said with proper hydration, patience, and practice, hot yoga has the power to improve muscle strength, flexibility, physical immunity, mood and mindfulness, which are all essential to busy college students. After all, he explained, yoga poses were established as a way to loosen the stiff joints and weary minds of monks who had been meditating all day — not too different from a long night of homework in the Stacks.

As I listened, I remembered my own hot yoga experience: the heat, the sweat, the wishing it would be over already. I certainly didn’t feel meditative during the class, but for the entire hour, I was focused on one thing: finishing. For the first time in days, no thoughts of school, to-do lists, or dinner plans had crossed my mind. Maybe zen comes in sweaty packages after all.