Hot Yoga for Health

  • February 8, 2017
  • by Leigh Schanfein

It was cool to see that much sweat coming out of my body. Not literally “cool”, of course. After all, the room was deliberately hot, humidity pumped in through boxes on the walls, and the large bright windows well sealed. But living where I’ve lived, doing what I’ve done in the buildings that have been, I’ve never sweat so freely. Or wanted to. I thought about how I was doing okay while watching the woman in front of me who, every time she bent her knee, would drop sweat from her kneecap. This was my first hot yoga class, on a rainy morning last month at Bikram Lower East Side, in NYC, and it was a lot calmer, more stabilizing and far less disastrous than I feared it would be.

“Hot yoga is a powerful tool for dancers to deepen their mind/body connection,” says Caitlyn Casson, a freelance dancer who has been teaching hot Vinyasa yoga for five years. Like many yoga-practicing dancers, a friend introduced her to Bikram yoga, and she was hooked. “I was immediately drawn to the rigor and consistency of the Bikram series, I think because it requires a similar discipline as classical ballet training,” Casson adds.

Bikram, which is the form of hot yoga you’re most likely to run into, is a relatively young style of yoga, having been developed by the highly controversial figure Bikram Choudhury and popularized within the past 40 years. Its defining components are a room heated to 104°F (40°C), humidity of 40 percent, and the same 26 postures in every class, which is led by a certified instructor who follows a standard script.

Hot YogaI had heard about this script. In fact, I had heard a decent amount about hot yoga before I ever tried it. A lot of feedback was from my fellow dancers, and a lot was from my colleagues in the dance medicine community, so I heard a big mix of pros and cons when it came to health and wellness. I knew if I only spoke to practitioners and teachers of hot yoga, I’d probably only hear a positive bias. So I asked my colleague at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries, NYU Langone Medical Center, Suzanne Semanson DPT, OCS, what her opinion is as someone whose career is built on making dancers healthier. Semanson is a registered yoga instructor who did her training at the ISHTA school and has practiced a wide range of yoga styles. She often helps her dancer patients figure out which style of yoga might best suit them. Just like Casson, when Semanson first tried Bikram, she loved the rigor, the sweat, the stretch and the outcome. But after more exposure to it, she felt that the faults overpowered the benefits.

“I’d come to realize that the way that it’s taught is not congruent with what I’ve learned about biomechanics, anatomy and how to learn and understand how to use your body in a healthy and safe way,” Semanson says. “One of the reasons is the class is scripted, so there is no ability to tailor it depending on the class demographics or abilities.”

Fortunately, my first experience wasn’t tainted by an instructor with a script. “Don’t take it so seriously. It’s just yoga,” says my very welcoming instructor at Bikram LES, and musical theater performer, Erin Eloise. Unlike what I’d feared, Eloise had made the script her own, so while she did use phrases like “push beyond your flexibility”, she also continually encouraged us to be aware of our limits and honor them as we push toward them. She gave us individualized corrections that sounded designed not to get us to make the pose right but instead to do the pose as correctly as our body could allow.

I could see how being in an incredibly hot room would lead one to overstretch, and it wasn’t really in the way I thought it would be, where a hyperflexible person would simply keep going and overdo it. On this day, sore from the end of a Nutcracker run and resuming rehearsals for a new piece, my muscles were tighter than usual, and a recurring injury had flared up. I assumed existing in this steamy room would loosen things up, but that environment alone wasn’t enough. Instead, it was as if it roasted my outsides but my insides still needed to get warmed up just the same as before any other class. So, if I’d pushed without thinking, assuming the air alone got my muscles and tendons nice and loose, I’d have made a painful mistake.

And Semanson adds, “That’s great for a healthy body that is not otherwise injured, but hypermobile, already super stretchy dancers probably don’t need to choose Bikram as their first choice, and I often steer them away from it particularly if I have an understanding of what their anatomical/biomechnical needs are and they’re not in line with how Bikram is taught.”

And this is likely the key to safe practice in any form of yoga, to not push to your limits because you can and instead focus on the practice. “I believe completely in testing our edges, but we do not want to push so far into a place of injury,” says Casson. “As dancers, we train our body and our mind daily, we know how to press the edge and when to step back. Know that each day you step onto your mat is a little different. Listen to what is happening on the given day. Your body knows where to go.”

I’m pretty smart sometimes, and I listened to my body that day. One of my favorite things I heard in class was that we push to go as far as we can, but we only go as far as we can now, in this moment, and no further, because we have time. We have tomorrow, we have next week, we have next year.

Eloise’s biggest bit of advice? Leave your ego at the door! “You are practicing so that hopefully you can extend your career as a dancer, so don’t walk in the room with the expectation or end goal of being the best in class,” she says. “Be in the room to enjoy, not to compete. You can injure yourself if you push too hard without proper alignment. Just like with dance class, find instructors whom you like and trust, talk to them about any issues you may have, and have faith with corrections that they are giving you.”

This is one way, however, that traditional Bikram can particularly differ from other styles of yoga, since teachers are trained to follow a script. Thank goodness for me, Eloise was sensitive to her students. If the instructor is not catering her script to the needs of the people in her class,I’d recommend trying a new instructor.

“In some styles of yoga, when it’s taught healthfully in a way dancers can benefit from, a lot of it is directed inward…to remove obstacles that are blocking you from making physical, emotional or psychological progress in your life,” Semanson explains. “Listening to an external voice that you are 100 percent supposed to follow without questioning the way it feels in your body is against the original yoga principles and injurious to dancers who are already striving to follow a teacher’s external voice of how to become a better dancer. Not focusing on the aesthetic, completely going within and how you are feeling in your own body, in your own emotions, that’s when a dancer can really benefit.”

“Those who are anxious and jittery, particularly around audition season, can really benefit from this class,” adds Eloise. “The heat is a tool to push you to a point where you can’t think of anything outside; it’s just you, your breath and the room. It is a fantastic vehicle to work ‘from the outside in’ so you can begin to quiet the noise in your head.”

Because hot yoga has both mental and physical demands, there can be both mental and physical benefits and drawbacks. “A lot of the benefits were mental,” says Angie Conte, a freelance dancer who has been practicing hot yoga on and off for over 17 years. “I was in the best shape of my life when I was practicing regularly. But it felt good mentally to know I pushed myself to get there, in a different way than running on a treadmill would make me feel.”

Because of this blend of physicality and concentration, Eloise and her peers find it to be a humbling practice. “It’s all about mindset,” she says. “My mind leaves everything else at the door. I can now enjoy and appreciate other forms of yoga and meditation because I learned how to do it in the hot room. Not by being told how to do it, but simply by practicing. It’s a pretty powerful thing.”

We must all keep in mind one key element to safe practice that is quite specific to hot yoga: hydration. There is very little research examining the benefits and drawbacks of hot yoga, but one thing that is known is that practitioners who do not hydrate and rehydrate sufficiently are at risk for dehydration and even heat stroke. So drink up. When you see rivers pouring off your limbs, you’ll quickly understand why.

Also keep in mind that Bikram is not the only form of hot yoga, and the other sorts are often not at as high temperature or humidity. If you like the heat but not the poses of Bikram, or you want it less intense, there are other types to try. Some examples are hot Vinyasa, various types of Hatha yoga (of which Bikram is one) and Ashtanga. What it all comes down to is what you want to get out of it. Your class should be safe and effective. Don’t settle for anything less! And as Eloise says, “This is something that is 100 percent personal and for you, so have fun and enjoy!”

Article produced by Dance Informa.

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