Hot or Not? Untangling Fact From Fiction in Hot Yoga

When we love something, we sometimes make up fables to expound on the greatness of our love. Warriors become stronger, forests and mountains more mystical, and of course, our favorite kitty is clearly the next Dalai Lama!

That's ok, but there are times when it's not so useful. Yoga is a good example. One great thing about yoga is that it's an experiential science. We all get to jump in and test it for our selves. We are each our own best laboratory.  

This means yoga isn't a great place for fables. If we make silly claims about yoga's benefits, people will test them. When they find out they aren't true, people think yoga is silly! So it's not so helpful to make up silly claims. By contrast, if we hold to the truth about yoga, we're in a great position to help many people jump in and help themselves. Yoga is great! The ability we all have to create healthy, capable, happy lives is tremendous. A great thing with yoga - a great thing with human capacity - is the reality can be much greater than what we initially imagination.

I got to thinking about this following many talks with people about hot yoga. There are a few fables going around here! As with most yoga, I think the fables aren't helpful to people; yoga is much stronger without them. Of course, if you love hot yoga, that's great! Do what you enjoy doing. At the same time, it's useful to unravel some myths, so we can understand what we're doing, and find our own way to what we need.

The mythology around hot yoga expounds on the benefits of being in a heated room. Among many things, it says that being in a hot room increases metabolism, makes blood vessels flexible, improves circulation, eliminates toxins, stimulates T-cell production, and bolsters immunity.

Hospitals clearly should cut back on air conditioning!

Joking aside, these are all great outcomes that people can give themselves through a variety of approaches.  But none of them is linked to a heated room. As with many fables, there is often some path to the truth. Let's unravel these hot yoga fables, and find the real causes of the good health we want.

Fable 1: Your metabolism is boosted by a hot room. To the extent that our metabolism is tied to temperature at all, it's body temp not room temp. Regardless of room temp, your body temp remains constant. In fact, your body is very good at maintaining this constant internal temperature, so all your systems keep working optimally. That's why we sweat and surface vessels dilate when it's hot; our body is working to keep our temp at a nice constant working level.

This metabolism-boosting fable probably wants us to believe that if we need to lose weight, walking into a hot room is the way to go. For people who really need to lose weight, this is unfortunately misguided and just not helpful. Of course, the weight loss we're looking for isn't water weight from sweating and dehydrating!  

Walking into a hot room doesn't raise metabolism. In some ways, external heat encourages our bodies to slow down, actually reducing our own fires as part of the constant-temp balancing act our bodies perform so well. By contrast, our fires burn a little brighter when it's cold (including the shivering response), as our bodies work to keep our temp from dropping.

What does boost metabolism is working our muscles. So if you're doing that in hot yoga, or any yoga at all, great! But if you're walking into a hot room and doing less than you'd do elsewhere - because all that heat puts you in shutdown mode - you'll likely get less of what you're looking for in hot yoga.

Solution 1: If you want to lose weight, get moving! If you like it hot, great. If that slows you down and leads you to work less with your body, lose the hot room and just move.

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Fable 2: Circulation and flexibility are improved by a hot room. These may have some tie to temperature, along with more significant factors in your brain and diet. But on the temp front, the real factor here is warmth you create by working your muscles. So once again we find it's not the hot room; it's what you do with your body to create your own heat and kick-start your own systems.  

Solution 2: Move it! And stay easy while you work. Create your own heat by moving, and see how that works for your muscles.  t's also important to address stress in your life, and in your workouts. If your mind is tense, it signals your body to stay in defense mode. You'll be tense no matter how hot you are and how much stretching you do. Try eating good, real foods (see Michael Pollan), do what relaxes you, and let it go!

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Fable 3: Toxins are eliminated by a hot room. We do have some dirt in our pores, so sweat may work that out. But your sweat glands are not part of your body's primary and very capable detox system: liver and kidneys, along with lungs and colon. Your body works together as one cohesive system, and your skin is of course an important part of that system. But if you're looking to detox, don't think that sweat will do the trick!

Solution 3: Drink plenty of water, breathe deep, eat good foods. Detox programs are very popular these days. Rather than stay on the toxin-detox seesaw, take a lesson from your body as it does all this work to stay optimal all the time! Do what you can to keep your intake a good healthy constant. You'll feel great!

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Fable 4: Immunity and T-cell production are improved by a hot room. Your body raises your internal temperature - which you'll feel in a fever - when it needs to. An infection is spotted, and we go into emergency combat mode. Systems get to work - including your T-cells - that attack, isolate, and eliminate. Our bodies are amazing!

Of course, we wouldn't want our body to have a fever - to be in emergency mode - when there's no emergency. Luckily, our bodies are pretty good at doing what they need to do. Our temperature is constant to maintain optimal normal operating conditions. It goes up as needed to combat infections.  

We've already seen that hot yoga's claim to raise our body temp isn't right. Likewise, its claim to stimulate T-cell production through a hot room is also off base. T-cell production begins in your bone marrow, the cells mature in your thymus, and they are activated as needed in your body's immunologic response.

Walking into a hot room doesn't stimulate your T-cells! If it did, hot yoga would artificially put your body into emergency mode. Luckily, it doesn't do that!  If there is any link between a hot, moist yoga room and immunity, it may be that these conditions are a perfect breeding ground for bacteria. This in turn challenges your immune system! But I don't think that's the intent of this fable.

Solution 4: Exercise, and do things that make you happy. We do know that exercise improves both our mood and our immune response. Happiness in general is good for immunity. So keep it moving, and do what you enjoy. In particular, try putting some variety into your life by trying new things. It seems like there's a good connection between variation in our routines, and the health and happiness we experience in our lives.

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At the end of this exploration, it looks like these hot yoga claims are partly marketing, and partly mistaking correlation with causation. There is a strong correlation between ice cream and drownings. But this isn't because ice cream causes drownings. It's because as the weather gets hot, people swim more (more drownings), and eat more ice cream. In the case of yoga, it isn't the hot room that causes these great things to happen, it's you!

Do what you like, use your body, and take good care of yourself. Best to leave the fables behind, because the reality of yoga - and of your body's capacity to do amazing things - are both great all on their own.

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About the Author

Mike is a guide and resident healer at Strala Yoga in New York. Named “Best Mover” by MindBodyGreen and one of Shape Magazine’s Hottest Trainers, he’s practiced Eastern movement and healing techniques for more than three decades, including tai chi, qigong, and shiatsu.

In his younger years, Mike challenged centuries of reasonable and well-tested martial traditions in hundreds of competitions, by applying unruly imagination to a world where rules were unbreakable. As he got older, he happily become more interested in supporting bodies than disrupting them, and continued on to medical applications of the mind-body connection in university.

Mike studied mind-body medicine at Harvard, and alternative medicine and psychology at Oxford. After running into walls with standard medical practice in the U.S. and England, Mike left his healthcare roots. He worked at a steel mill for a while, joined a web company, and then founded a few more. He now serves on the board of Odyl, which helps people discover books on Facebook.

As Strala's co-founder, Mike has found his way back to health care done right: helping people let go of stress in their bodies and minds, become their own best caregivers, and live happy capable lives. Mike is a mountaineer, runner, cyclist, skier, and snowboarder. Check out Michael's MBG Video Course, The Complete Guide To Yoga.

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