Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What's with the heat?

Yesterday was a wonderful, almost record-breaking, hot April day.   The sun was out and smiling, as the wind gently made its ways through the streets.  People were outside laughing, running, driving with the windows down and even grilling.  The smell of burgers and dogs nearly made me turn around as I walked to yoga.  Oddly though, it did feel strange to feel the warmth on my skin when just last week I was bundled up.  It was cool and overcast when I went into work, then nice and toasty when I left.  It reminds me of my initial feeling when I walked into my first heated yoga class.

At first the heat hits you like a brick wall; your breath fills your chest with heavy fear. We get uncomfortable that it feels so hot, we begin freaking out and breathing noisily through our mouth, letting our chest fill with anxiety.   We begin sweating profusely and curse all the people around us who are seemingly calm and collected.  But perhaps most of what makes the heat so exhausting is dealing with our own perceptions of comfort.  That’s all it is; fear of the unfamiliar.   I will write a post about the importance of breathing, but today it’s all about the heat.

If it’s such an emotional and physical challenge, then why do we practice in the heat?

Practicing yoga in the heat is nothing new, as they have been practicing in the brutal summers of India for centuries.  What is (relatively) new is the commercialized, year-round, temperature-controlled, American Hot Yoga.  At the studio where I practice, we have two rooms, both kept heated 24hrs/day, 7 days a week.  Depending on humidity, the room can be kept anywhere from 105° to 95° degrees (for example 40% humidity in a room set at 95°F feels like 99°F).   Now when it is that temperature outside, most of us wouldn’t venture out to do anything, let alone intense physical exercise.  As I said before, we must question our own perceptions of comfort in order to open our eyes to the many benefits of practicing in such crazy heat. 
We are all familiar with warming-up the body before physical exercise and we know it’s important.  But I would venture to guess that you don’t actually know why it’s important.  Let’s start with the base level.  Our capillaries respond to heat by dilating, which brings more oxygen to the muscles.  This process helps in the removal of waste from the muscles, such as lactic acid and carbon dioxide.  Blood then moves more easily through warm muscles, making it easier for oxygen to release from the hemoglobin. Heat also speeds up the breakdown of glucose and fatty acids in the body.  On a muscular level, heat makes our muscles relax, improving elasticity, and making us less susceptible to injury.  With little warm-up needed, we are able to go into postures more deeply and easily, and have a greater range of motion.  We are more flexible in our joints, muscles, and ligaments.  Warm muscles also burn fat more efficiently than cold muscles.  As the EY teacher manual explains, “Fat is released during stress.  The stress of intense exercise causes a deluge of fatty acids in the blood stream.  If you exercise with cold muscles they can’t use the fatty acids, and they end up in places where they aren’t wanted, such as the lining of arteries.” 
So what about all those people sweating like crazy? If I get a complaint or hesitation from anyone, 9 times out of 10 it’s regarding their distaste for sweat.  Is it gross? Yes, but without a doubt its very beneficial.  The more people in the room, the higher the humidity, and the more you sweat.  Humidity itself facilitates healthy lung function, especially in protecting against colds, respiratory problems, and the flu.  Sweating is also fantastic for your skin.  I’ve had people tell me, “I feel like I just had a facial!” as they leave class.  Essentially, you did!  The heat and our sweat opens up our pores and helps release all sorts of toxins.  Be careful practicing after a night of adult beverages! And do NOT practice after handling hot peppers, like jalapeños—a lesson learned the hard way!  Either way, our sweating will leave our hair and skin glowing, refreshed, and moisturized.
Despite my first experience practicing in the heat being weird and a bit nerve-racking, now I absolutely love it.  I look forward to the heat and usually embrace the sweating, as I know I will leave class relaxed.  So don’t knock the heat until you try it!


  1. great post! Even though I've been to hot yoga/bikram a number of times, that anxiety always creeps back when you first walk in but when you leave it is a great sense of accomplishment and relaxation!

  2. Couldn't agree more Stacy! Just the other day I was reminded that even when I think I am comfortable in the heat, each class is different and therefore my reaction to the temperature can change as well. By the end I was nearly swimming, but my body hasn't felt this good in weeks!