By Ed Staskus
After 30 years of flying under the radar, even though the practice is as old as living mindfully, yoga exercise began to steamroll in the early 2000s, and in recent years has skyrocketed in popularity. According to many surveys it was the biggest trend in the fitness industry in the past decade, remaining a firm Top 10, and will continue expanding through the 20-teens, says the American College of Sports Medicine in its year-end issue of the Health and Fitness Journal.
Media Market Research reports that yoga is gaining converts at a faster pace than most other traditional sports, appealing to a new, high-end demographic. The yoga industry is growing so fast it is expected to reach $8.3 billion in sales by 2016, according to Rebecca Moss of the Village Voice.
Hot yoga, a subset of the practice, has grown slowly but surely since its introduction on the west coast in the mid-1970s. Although yoga exercise is designed to warm the body from within, in the modern speed-it-up convenience society it has been re-purposed as expedient to warm the body from without.
It was once thought only mad dogs and Englishmen went out in the midday sun, meaning that natives of colonial India were often puzzled during the age of empire when their British overlords were out at lunchtime at the same time everyone else was indoors getting away from the heat. That is no longer the case. Hot yoga may today be the fastest-growing segment of the business, having spread far and wide beyond its L. A. coastal cool beginnings.
The hot yoga phenomenon began with Bikram Choudhury, winner of the National India Yoga contest at 13-years-old. He suffered a serious knee injury at age 17 and was told by doctors he would never walk again. He was subsequently healed through intense yoga therapy under the aegis of Bishnu Ghosh, the brother of Yogananda, author of the seminal ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’.
After leaving the sub-continent and immigrating to the United States he opened the Bikram Yoga College of India in the basement of a bank building in Beverly Hills.
Bikram Yoga claims that tens of millions practice his style of yoga at nearly a thousand studios on six continents. It is the only form of yoga ever copyrighted, practiced in a room heated to 105 degrees and 40% humidity, reaching a heat index in excess of 120. (The 10-year-old copyright was brought into question by the U. S. Copyright Office, which recently said that sequences of yoga exercise are not the equivalent of a choreographed work.)
The risk factor of a heat index in excess of 115 is considered by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) to be “very high to extreme.” A common reaction to one’s first Bikram class is, “Man, this might be a mistake – I don’t think I’m going to make it.”
Bikram has been known to refer to his hot rooms as “torture chambers.”
Bikram Choudhury has reportedly taught his yoga to George Clooney, Kobe Bryant, and Lady Gaga, among others. He typically wears a black Speedo and special gold jewelry that won’t melt in the heat while teaching. He contends his regimen of 26 poses cures everything from arthritis to heart disease to obesity, and maybe even old age itself. The senior citizen yoga master recently took time out from his busy schedule for a photo opportunity featuring Las Vegas showgirls.
“I live in a pain-free body thanks to Bikram,” said Stacy Shea, a long-time Las Vegas Strip dancer who suffered a work-related crippling herniated disc and was confined to a sick bed before taking up Bikram Yoga.
“And I look 10 years younger!”
Hot yoga has become a staple at most studios in recent years, so much so that seemingly any yoga exercise practiced in a room with a working thermostat has become a hell of a workout. Based on the Ashtanga tradition, although usually not referencing any specific style or school, hot yoga typically involves moving from pose to pose in tandem with breathwork.
Moksha Yoga and Baptiste Power Yoga are among the better-known brands. The eponymous Baron Baptiste holds yoga retreats he describes as “boot camps.” Ana Forrest of Forrest Yoga weaves sweat lodges into what she calls her yoga ceremonies. Some hot yoga studios cite enhanced self-control and determination “due to the challenging environment” as benefits of the practice.
Hot yoga rooms are commonly heated in the 90s, Bikram rooms in the 100s, and advocates point to increased flexibility, toxin flushing, and a great cardiovascular workout as benefits of the practice.
Heat is said to soften muscle tissue, making it able to open and stretch. “A warm body is a flexible body,” says Bikram Yoga. “Then you can reshape the body any way you want.” Warmer room temperatures allow for deeper stretching and more graceful body movement, according to Anne Janku, a fitness and yoga instructor in Columbia, Missouri.
“It helps to heat the body up more so it becomes more fluid, and then when we get into the stretching part of it, it allows us to relax our muscles more,” she said.
But, heating the body up is not exactly what the body needs or wants, and brings with it certain consequences. “When you exercise, your muscles generate heat,” according to the Cleveland Clinic. “To keep from burning up, your body needs to get rid of that heat. The main way the body discards heat is through sweat. Lots of sweating reduces the body’s water level, and this loss of fluid affects normal bodily functions.”
Heat and humidity can add up to risky business, even for those in good shape. The hazards of exercising in hot rooms include heat cramps, the most common consequence, heat syncope, or a quick drop in blood pressure, heat exhaustion, leading to dizziness and weakness, and in extreme cases, heatstroke.
The best way to avoid these dangers is to drink plenty-and-more fluids with electrolytes, balancing out the water and salt lost through sweat. Many Bikram Yoga studios recommend drinking LOTS! of water, up to a gallon the day of class, followed by even more after class.
The intensity of hot yoga burns more calories than any other yoga practice, according to practitioners, some claiming upwards of 1000 calories per hour being burned through. Significant weight loss is often cited as a benefit. “Hot yoga is the most invigorating yoga I have experienced,” says Jillian Zacchia, a dancer and writer based in Montreal “After the 90-minute routine I feel as if I have just experienced an intense fat-burning workout.”
Bikram Yoga offers up testimonials of metabolisms made new and hundreds of pounds shed. Warm muscles are said to burn fat more easily as the heat flushes and detoxifies the body. Fat will turn into muscle is the hot yoga mantra.
However, according to the Health Status calorie counter, hot power yoga burns 594 calories an hour, followed by Bikram Yoga at 477 calories an hour. By contrast, ballroom dancing burns approximately 250 calories an hour, while running a 10K in under an hour burns approximately 1000 calories, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“The benefits are largely perceptual,” said Dr. Cedric Bryant, the chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise. “People think the degree of sweat is the quality of the workout, but that’s not reality. It doesn’t correlate to burning more calories.”
Sweat is not always a precise gauge of how effective a workout is.
Proponents of hot yoga argue that working harder in a heated and humidified room strengthens the body, resulting in greater endurance, internal organ conditioning, and a stronger heart because of the heart being challenged to get oxygen to the stressed cells of the body.
“You know that awesome feeling of accomplishment you get after a great cardio workout? It feels like that,” said yoga instructor and National Academy of Sports Medicine Elite Trainer Michelle Carlson “It’s more centered and grounded. It’s a feeling close to elation.”
Many believe it works every part of the body, including muscles, joints, glands, and even internal organs. “It is scientifically designed to warm, stretch, strengthen, and detoxify the body from the inside out,” said Erin Cook, owner of Bikram Yoga in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. She added that the rewards include better sleep, more energy, and less stress.
But, not everyone agrees that it is the best of all possible workouts.
“You may think it’s purifying and cleansing, but you have to respect the physiology of the body,” said Fabio Comana, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise. “The human body is designed to tolerate temperatures between 97 and 100 degrees,” he said, speaking about the extreme heat associated with hot yoga. “It is not designed to go outside those numbers. Core temperature can go up very quickly. Over 105 degrees you will start to damage protein.”
Some enthusiasts disagree.
“Bikram started hot yoga here in the United States because in Bengal it is typically 114 degrees in the shade,” said Nicole Garbani-Twitchell, owner of Hot Yoga in Helena, Montana. “It is silly and just plain scientifically incorrect to say that practicing in a hot room overheats the external body.”
But, yoga in India was traditionally and still is practiced in the early morning to avoid the heat of the day.
Multiple studies have shown that exercising in a hot room compromises the release and uptake of calcium as well as normal muscle function, and decreases blood and plasma volume. “The body uses more muscle glycogen and fewer ingested carbohydrates during exercise in a hearted environment compared to a cooler environment,” said Shy Sayar, owner of Yoga One in Petaluma, California. Heat stress reduces the oxidation of carbohydrates, according to the Journal of Applied Physiology.
Yoga exercise and heat increase core body temperatures. To cool itself the body circulates more blood through the skin. “This leaves less blood for your muscles” says the Mayo Clinic, which in turn increases the heart rate. “If the humidity is also high, your body faces added stress because sweat doesn’t readily evaporate from your skin. That pushes your body temperature even higher.”
For every degree your body’s internal temperature goes up, your heart beats about 10 beats per minute faster. Many hot yoga proponents believe that exercising in the heat burns more calories because their hearts are beating faster as they exercise. However, it is not the case. “It is oxygen uptake that determines the number of calories burned, not heart rate,” says Craig Crandall, director of the Thermoregulation Laboratory at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.
Many doctors and fitness experts believe a brisk walk or bicycle ride are best for anyone wanting to burn calories. The next best are interval training and strength training. Going from flab-to-fab is about burning more calories than you take in, not sweating more to cool the burn in the hot room.
Bikram Yoga proclaims itself as the detox practice extraordinaire since it induces profuse sweating. It says, “When you sweat, impurities are flushed out of the body through the skin.” Detoxification is often the most touted benefit of the practice, said to “cleanse and purify the system.”
Writing in the Underground Health Reporter, Danica Collins reported, “the intense heat has an extraordinary ability to open the pores and expel body waste and foreign chemicals through heat.” Some believe that the skin is a so-called third kidney with overall waste removal capacity.
“That’s silliness,” says Craig Crandall of the Thermoregulation Laboratory. “I don’t know of any toxins that are released through sweat.“
Sweating is a way for the body to cool itself off, not purge itself of impurities. It is the liver and kidneys that filter toxins from the blood. Sweating too much and becoming dehydrated could stress the kidneys and actually keep them from doing their job.
A persistent problem linked to exercising in hot rooms is potential damage to connective tissue, especially ligaments and tendons, and including muscles. “Heat increases one’s metabolic rate, and by warming you up, it allows you to stretch more, but once you stretch a muscle beyond 20 or 25 percent of its resting length, you begin to damage a muscle,” said Dr. Robert Gotlin, director of orthopedic and sports rehabilitation at the Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan.
Sore or arthritic joints, like the back, hips, and knees, can be aggravated if torqued too much in even easy poses. Seated poses can inflame sciatica. More is not always better when it comes to joints. Those with more mobility are often in the same boat as those with limited mobility, teetering on their own private edge of flexibility, which can lead to inflammation.
“The heat makes people feel as if they can stretch deeper into poses and can give them a false sense of flexibility,” said Diana Zotos, a yoga teacher and physical therapist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan. “This can lead to muscle strains or damage to the joint, including ligaments and cartilage.”
The Golden Rules of yoga, the restraints and observances, apply to environmental issues in the same way as they apply to everything else.
A collateral concern about hot yoga is the amount of energy it consumes to heat up space for the practice. It is a carbon heavy business. A busy hot yoga studio will be heated to upwards of 100 degrees 4 – 8 hours a day. It requires 9800 BTU’s (British Thermal Units) to heat a 1000 square-foot space with 8-foot ceilings to 68 degrees. It requires 15,200 BTU’s to heat the same space to 105 degrees, not counting the energy needed to humidify it if it is a Bikram Yoga class.
In addition, water conservation gets thrown down the drain.
Everyone who takes a hot yoga class showers afterwards, if only for the sake of their friends and family, either at the studio or at home, even if they already showered in the morning. A hot yoga studio can easily service hundreds a day. One hundred people showering for 5 to 10 minutes means 3 – 5000 gallons of water are used. Fortunately for the sake of energy savings, given what they have been through, some elect to take cold showers.
If classic yoga is like driving a Prius, hot yoga is like driving a Hummer, although in the spirit of combating climate change some yogis bicycle to their hot yoga classes.
Whatever the case may be, whether it’s a practice for mad dogs or a practice for everyone from professional athletes to weekend warriors, the guiding principle behind hot yoga may not be anything Patanjali ever said. He defined yoga exercise as a “steady and comfortable posture or position”. It might have much more to do with what the Courts of England oftentimes said in the colonial era to resolve competing claims.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus