The sweat-dripping classes have skyrocketed in popularity over the past few years. But are they safe?

By Emily Abbate
Photo: Shutterstock

The sweat drips down your back. Not knowing this was even possible, you look down and see beads of perspiration forming on your thighs. You feel slightly dizzy, but push through, taking a huge swig of water before heading into tree pose. Sounds like a typical hot yoga class, yes? Women everywhere swear by the warm practice, where rooms are heated to between 80 and 105 degrees. And while you've surely heard a girlfriend say how much she loves the toasty Vinyasa because she feels like she "sweats out all the bad" at her go-to studio, the question remains: Is it really safe? Is there such a thing as yoga that's too hot?

"There have been few studies that truly examine the benefits of hot yoga practice specifically," says Maren Nyer, Ph.D., director of yoga studies within the Depression Clinical and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. "The heat by itself, however, may have healing potential-especially in major depressive disorder."

Of the research that does exist, experts have found pros and cons. One study published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy reported that people who practiced hot yoga two to three times a week experienced benefits like greater fitness, stamina, increased flexibility, and improvements in mood. But more than half of the participants experienced lightheadedness, dehydration, nausea, or dizziness during class.

Another study commissioned by the American Council on Exercise tested 20 people ages 28 to 67. It found that a large number of the participants reached a high core temperature of greater than 103 degrees during a Bikram yoga class. That's surely something to take into consideration, since many activity-related heat illnesses such as exertional heat stroke (EHS) can occur when the core temperature is at 104 degrees. (FYI, here's how to protect yourself from heat stroke and heat exhaustion when exercising outside, as well.) If you're struggling with the heat and feel like it's too much immediately upon entering the room, but you really want to stick it out, tackle your practice with a different mindset. Rather than pushing through each flow, move slowly enough that you have control over your breath.

"Overall, the heat makes the body more pliable and the mind more present," says Bethany Lyons, founder of Lyons Den Power Yoga in New York City. "It also increases circulation and forces us to get comfortable in staying with the uncomfortable. For me, it makes it easier for me to deal with everything off the mat."

Share Lyons point of view? You're certainly not alone. If you're ready to grab your mat and water bottle to tackle downward dog, make sure you take these tips for safer hot yoga practice into account:

1. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! "Hydration is key to making sure that a class is not overwhelming for your system, which could result in dizziness and nausea," says Dr. Nyer. "You want to make sure your system can sweat, which is the way the body regulates heat." (Here's how much you should be drinking before an intense workout class such as hot yoga or indoor cycling.)

2. Reach for the electrolytes. "When you sweat like we do in hot power yoga, you lose electrolytes," says Lyons. "You need the sodium and potassium for proper muscle contraction, so snagging yourself some electrolyte powder to mix with your water bottle will give you a necessary extra boost."

3. Take extra caution in the summer. A lot of hot yoga studios set their rooms to a max of 105 degrees. But summer temperatures and humidity can make that number creep up a bit more. If your go-to studio feels too hot, say something to the staff. If they're aware of the issue, they can intermittently run fans or crack a window to ensure everyone's safety.

4. ALWAYS listen to your body. "If it doesn't feel right, do not proceed," cautions Lyons. "You're there to better your body and your mind, not harm it."

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