The line drawn between yoga in a heated room vs. yoga at room temperature may be one of the most entrenched in the yoga community. Proponents of yoga in a hot room say it helps open the body to deeper expression of poses, helps detoxify the body, and increases flexibility. Those who are skeptical of yoga in heated rooms look to everything from the Sutras to science to validate their anti-heating stance.
The truth, as with all things that create polarity, is probably a blend of the two poles.
Having practiced Bikram Yoga for over two years at Bikram Yoga Brooklyn Heights and having taken classes at other hot studios, like Power Prana Yoga and the insanely-packed, insanely humid heated classes at Yoga To The People, I have some experience with yoga in heated rooms, and will give you my personal, totally unscientific take on it: sometimes I like practicing in a hot room, but I am not obsessed with it (at all). Sometimes it feels really good (like in winter), and sometimes it is oppressive and feels really, really bad (like in the dog days of summer when humidity is high). My practice does not include yoga in a heated room regularly, so I would consider myself a “room-temperature” yogini.
My experience with hot yoga falls into the following general, totally subjective, framework:
1. Vinyasa flow in a very hot room is not for me. Power Prana Yoga is this class. After these classes, I felt like I’d had a workout and burned a ton of calories, but I didn’t feel my practice was particularly different or even more open. In fact, the sweat made arm balances or anything where a limb could slip off another sweaty limb very frustrating. Not saying that frustration isn’t good to tango with anytime it shows up in practice, but the vibe I got from these classes was that the heat was to increase the intensity of the class, punto.
The students and the studio all seemed very Type A, and I frequently had to rest in child’s pose (which, with my low blood pressure, often wasn’t restful in that much heat). The room was humid and not even very bright, there was little to no air circulation, and I don’t think I received a single adjustment in the several times I attend the studio. I never hurt myself, but I never received any really memorable instruction either.
I encountered the same type of energy at the Yoga To The People hot classes I took: lots of movement, incredibly high humidity, tons of sweat, no adjustments, little in the way of actual instruction.
I am certain that conscious, well-led yoga in heated rooms exists. I’ve heard Earth Yoga is very good at this, or some of the classes at Pure Yoga that are held in a warm room. The Moksha Yoga line of studios is supposed to offer hot yoga with a difference. I’ve never practiced hot yoga at any of these locations, but the vinyasa style classes in hot rooms I have attended left me feeling physically exerted, and often downright dehydrated. I did not feel either of these studios or practices were for me in terms of offering a grounding in the Sutras, in anatomy, or in the energetic applications of yoga.
2. Longer-held poses in a heated room are ok. This is more the Bikram Yoga style, or even Forrest Yoga, which in some studios is conducted in a room heated into the mid-80s. Bikram is held in a hot room (90-110 degrees is the common range, with most studios I’ve practiced in being around 105), so you’re going to sweat.
Somehow the long holds felt better to my body than did the movement of vinyasa flow in the heat. Cardiovascularly, either class will bring your heart rate up, but Bikram did so more gently and gradually. The studio where I attended classes was run by two very competent teachers, one of whom claimed that he saved his knee from aggressive surgery doing Bikram. It takes awareness to build a healing or therapeutic practice whatever style you’re doing, so I think the safety and groundedness to the Bikram as taught at Bikram Yoga Brooklyn Heights was a facet of the studio and its owners. I have heard horror stories about Bikram studios that kick students out of class for taking a water break at an unapproved time, but I have never personally experienced this.
I also have taken Bikram Yoga in New Haven, CT and Miami, FL and in both locations, also felt the pace of the class was designed to keep even a beginner in the “capable” zone, even if Bikram is rarely comfortable. One of the verses of the Sutras defines yoga as a balance between ease and effort. In this regard, the heated rooms of Bikram can offer an ideal environment in which to experience that balance daily, but then, so can any other style of yoga.
3. The Verdict: I am not pro-hot yoga, and I am not anti-hot yoga. I am pro-whatever works for you. But that “whatever works for you” has an implicit caveat. To know what works for you, you need to pay attention, and paying attention is one of the (gazillion) things that yoga teaches us. If doing yoga in a hot room is just a workout to burn tons of calories in, then I’m anti. But if doing yoga in a hot room is done with clear awareness by the yogi and is used to reach greater levels of spiritual insight, then I’m pro. I realize it’s all very subjective.
Elephant Journal posted a very thorough article on the subject that posits the danger in doing yoga in heated rooms comes from a combination of heat and humidity, that it’s high humidity that prevents evaporative sweating that pushes heated practices into the danger zone. The comments are also great, with a lot of different viewpoints, both for and against heating practice rooms.
If I could leave you with one thought, it would be that yoga leads us to a place where all we need for personal growth and transformation is found within. Our own spiritual and emotional fodder provides all the resistance we need for a transformational practice. If you distill that even furthur, you could say that all our emotional and spiritual wounds or blockages are located in our body or energetic field somewhere. “Openness” isn’t a factor of heat, but of our internal readiness to be open. To push beyond the level of openness we are ready for, emotionally, energetically, and physically, is to be out of balance and to create possible injury (physical or otherwise).
This is why the “whatever works” credo comes with the caveat: to know what works, you’ve got to pay attention. And if we’re paying attention, we shouldn’t need any particular temperature to bring that about, or enhance that, or somehow make us pay more attention, if such a thing can even be said. Effort and ease in balance. Find your edge, then play there. Hot or not, tapas arises anytime we brush against our energetic, emotional, and spiritual knots. Practice illuminates our true nature, and thankfully, we don’t need a specific temperature to experience that.