Hot Yoga: Risks and Benefits

“Hot yoga” is a term that can be used to describe just about any style of yoga practice performed in a warm or humid room. When a class is called “hot yoga” you could be holding poses for a minute or moving quickly from pose to pose, but two things are nearly always constant: heat and sweat.

“Hot yoga, in the simplest terms, is yoga performed in a heated room,” says Samantha Scupp, the founder and a teacher at Heatwise, a New York City hot yoga studio, who is certified by Yoga Alliance, the world’s largest nonprofit yoga association that certifies teachers and schools.

Hot yoga classes vary in length but typically last 60 to 120 minutes. Participants can sweat out up to three or four pounds of water in just one class, most of which will be replaced once the person is fully hydrated, according to a 2017 study. (1)

Hot yoga classes often include postures and breathing techniques from other traditional yoga, but the practice of intentionally heating the room higher than normal just for yoga is a somewhat newer concept.

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Bikram yoga, founded in the 1970s by Bikram Choudhury, is generally recognized as the first style of hot yoga. Bikram yoga classes all include a very specific sequence of 26 yoga poses and two breathing exercises performed in the same order, within 90 minutes, in a room heated to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. (2) While Bikram classes are recognized as following a specific format, because the technique is based on traditional yoga poses, a California court ruled in 2015 that Choudhury could not copyright the sequence. (3)

Choudhury’s franchise, Bikram Yoga, has been controversial because of his desire to own this technique and because several sexual assault and sexual harassment lawsuits were filed against him in the past decade. Choudhury himself fled the United States after a warrant for his arrest was issued in 2017 because of his refusal to pay damages. (4) A 2019 Netflix documentary titled Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator details much of the controversy surrounding the hot yoga leader.

Bikram is probably the most well-known style of hot yoga, but there are several other styles.

“Hot flow” or “power flow” is a vinyasa style of yoga, says Scupp. “It’s different every time, the movements flow together, and music is often used,” she says.

In vinyasa yoga, participants are encouraged to coordinate breath with movement as they “flow” from one pose to the next; and the order of the poses (and potentially even which poses are performed) may change from class to class, Scupp says.

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How Hot Is a Hot Yoga Class?

There can be a significant amount of variation in how hot the room is, says Scupp. Most studios used forced air heat, such as with a typical HVAC system. Some studios use a humidifier to make the room really humid. Other studios, including Heatwise, use infrared heat, which comes from electric heat panels that are placed on the ceiling or around the room.

Scupp says infrared heating can feel very different from rooms that are heated in the standard way. She describes it as feeling like you’re “standing under the sun.”

Some hot yoga studios may feel more like “warm” yoga, with temperatures hovering in the 80s, while Bikram classes are taught in studios heated to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. (2,5)

Scupp’s studio, Heatwise, keeps the temperature between 90 and 95 degrees. The humidity and the heat outside can also have an effect on how hot it gets in the room, says Scupp. “The heat can also vary depending on how full the class is; if you’re in a packed room, you’re feeling the heat a little bit from the other people around you. If you’re in a more spacious room, you might have a little bit more space to cool off,” she says.

Is Hot Yoga Safe? Should Anyone Avoid It?

A study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) found that practicing yoga in this hotter, 100-degree-plus environment can have a major impact on your body temperature. After practicing a 90-minute Bikram-style class in a hot studio, 8 out of 20 participants had body temperatures hovering between 103 and 104 degrees. (6) (The National Athletic Trainers’ Association has issued a position statement noting that exertional heatstroke is defined by a core body temperature that reaches 104 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, which is associated with signs of organ system failure due to hyperthermia.) (7)

Although there are certain health conditions that would make hot yoga risky for some people, it’s generally safe for someone in good health, says Edward Laskowski, MD, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist and the codirector of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine center in Rochester, Minnesota. “If people have certain heart conditions, previous heat injury, heat intolerance or problems with dehydration, they should probably avoid hot yoga,” says Dr. Laskowski.

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The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists advises against hot yoga during pregnancy because of the risk of overheating. (8)

If you’re young, healthy, and fit without any current health problems, however, it’s probably not going to be a problem, Laskowski says.

But it’s always a good idea to check in with your doctor before doing an activity that could stress your body like hot yoga, he says.

What Are the Benefits of Practicing Hot Yoga?

For people who like to sweat, hot yoga can help you achieve a feeling of calmness and relaxation without an intense workout, says Scupp. “You can get the same level of sweat as you would running 10 miles, but you don’t have to work as hard to get it,” she says.

Hot Yoga Can Be Great for Stress Relief (if You Like to Sweat)

Hot yoga, like other types of yoga, can be great for stress relief or stress management, says Scupp. “It’s a moving meditation.”

RELATED: How Meditation Can Improve Your Mental Health

If you don’t love to sweat, you’re probably not missing out by choosing a regular-temperature yoga class over a hot one, Laskowski adds. Although some people love a good sweat, there’s no evidence that sweating itself provides health benefits, he explains. “Sweating is primarily a means of temperature control,” he says.

Hot Yoga Might Allow You to Stretch More Deeply

The hot room can help increase flexibility, says Scupp — which can feel great for people who do other types of intense workouts in which their muscles get really tight. “We get a lot of men in here who say, ‘I don’t do yoga, I’m not flexible.’ But then they go into the hot room and their muscles really loosen up. They’re able to achieve all kinds of stretches that they’ve never been able to do before,” she says.

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But that extra flexibility means you need to be careful not to overstretch your muscles and injure yourself. (9) It’s important to stay within your limits and pay attention to your body to avoid injury, says Laskowski. “In a class environment it can be tempting to try to keep up with everyone around you,” he says. But that’s not necessarily a good thing in a heated yoga class where stretching too far can lead to muscle tearing and damage.

Is Hot Yoga More of a Workout Than Traditional Yoga?

“I would certainly consider hot yoga a form of exercise,” says Scupp.

As with any physical activity, the more you move in yoga, the more calories you burn. Although many people associate sweating with calorie burning and weight loss, that’s not the case. Sweating is your body’s method of cooling itself and not a measure of how much weight you’ll keep off. (10) In other words, just because you sweat more in a hot yoga class than in a normal-temperature yoga class, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re working harder or burning more calories.

Hot yoga is definitely a form of movement and exercise — and it can be very helpful for people trying to improve their fitness or lose weight, Scupp says. But she says it typically delivers more benefits in terms of relaxation, stress relief, and muscle recovery rather than calorie burning. “It’s a great supplement to an existing exercise regimen,” she says. A lot of runners or people who do things like CrossFit or martial arts enjoy hot yoga, she says. “It can be a way to keep their muscles loose and flexible.”

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What Should I Know Before Trying It for the First Time?

In terms of trying it for the first time, Scupp recommends having some basic knowledge of yoga — even if it’s just watching YouTube videos or trying an unheated class — before you try hot yoga. “A lot of people coming into hot yoga are not doing yoga for the first time,” she says.

Many studios, including Heatwise, offer classes for beginners to help students get a handle on the basics before they dive into a full class. If you feel more comfortable learning in a one-on-one situation, ask about private instruction (which is usually an option at most studios), Scupp adds.

Here are a few more tips.

  • What to Wear Clothes that are good for lots of sweat, such as moisture-wicking material or spandex, work well for hot yoga, says Scupp. “A lot of men go shirtless and a lot of women just wear sports bras and leggings or shorts,” she says.
  • What to Eat and Drink Avoid eating a big meal in the few hours before class, and avoid snacking in the hour before class, Scupp suggests. Try to plan your eating and snacking so that you’ve fueled your body appropriately, so you don’t come in starving, or with a full stomach either, she says. “Drink plenty of fluids in the hours leading up to class, and make sure you bring a water bottle and drink during and after class as well,” says Scupp.
  • What to Bring Call the studio ahead of time or check out their website to see what’s included with the class fee and what you need to bring, Scupp suggests. “Many studios provide mats, but because of the amount of sweating, some people prefer to bring their own,” says Scupp. It’s a good idea to bring a towel and a water bottle, she says.

Having a good hot yoga experience often depends a lot on your attitude, Scupp says. Come in with an open mind and communicate with your instructor, she suggests. “It doesn’t have to be perfect or competitive; try to do what feels good. Ideally, hot yoga should benefit your body and mind.”

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