By Larry Payne, Georg Feuerstein, Sherri Baptiste, Doug Swenson, Stephan Bodian, LaReine Chabut, Therese Iknoian

One of the beautiful things about yoga is its great variety in ways to practice. Hot Yoga, though definitely on the mat, is an out-of-the-box variation that is many practitioners swear by. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s the variety some folks want to brew every time.

Despite its popular image, Hot Yoga practitioners come in all sizes and ages. If it strikes your fancy, don’t hesitate just because you don’t think you’re magazine cover material.

Getting at the how and why of Hot Yoga

Hot Yoga is literally hot. The thermostat is set to maintain a temperature range of 104 to 109 degrees Fahrenheit, and a set level of humidity is piped in. Feel free to contact the studio where you intend to practice Hot Yoga to find out the temperature used at that location.

Why the heat? Various explanations detail why heat is an essential element in this style of yoga.

  • Standardizing body heat: The heat in the room substitutes for the heat that the body itself would eventually generate though rigorous practice. This internally heated state may be more available to some practitioners than others, especially those who are less fit and more reserved in their practice. Hence, the hot practice environment.

  • Recreating a traditional environment: The heated practice space mimics the heated physical environment of southern India, replicating as much as possible what some consider to be the ideal practice environment.

  • Making the body malleable: In anatomical terms, the heat allows the superficial soft tissue structures to warm up quickly, allowing greater flexibility and a greater range of motion.

Bikram Choudhury, the originator of Hot Yoga as a distinct style, offers this explanation: “Yoga changes the construction of the body from the inside out, from bones to skin and from fingertips to toes. So before you change it, you have to heat it up to soften it, because a warm body is a flexible body. Then you can reshape your body any way you want.”

Theories abound as to why Hot Yoga is beneficial to health. Among them are that the heat is thought to

  • Lubricate the tendons and ligaments, allowing greater range of motion and flexibility and making you less prone to injury

  • Improve muscle tone and strength

  • Exercise the heart as a muscle by increasing blood circulation

  • Speed up metabolic processes of vital organs and glands and help the body eliminate toxins

  • Facilitate fat loss by activating fat stores

  • Boost the immune system

Comparing Bikram and other Hot Yoga classes

Bikram Yoga, developed and trademarked by Bikram Choudhury, is the first and most commonly known variety of Hot Yoga. Its trademarked sequence of 26 postures draws from a much broader range of classical Hatha Yoga postures. In each class, Bikram-trained and certified instructors follow the same script without any variation. It’s a routine you can count on being the same each time, regardless of where you take a class.

If variety is the spice of your life, Bikram Yoga and other Hot Yoga varieties that offer unvarying routines may not be appealing. However, for some, having all outside factors held constant is a way to observe and mark progress over time.

In order to offer Bikram classes, a studio must be franchised and follow the Bikram formula to the last detail, including what teachers say and what kind of carpet is on the floor. The legal issues surrounding Bikram Choudhury’s trademarking of his sequence has raised concerns about the legitimacy of claiming ownership of a piece of India’s cultural heritage. Other studios offering Hot Yoga take the essence of practicing in a heated room and offer what they feel are improvements to the practice and environment.

These classes use a different selection of postures. Other differences you may find include the following:

  • Freedom from the exact Bikram teacher’s script.

  • A different type of flooring. Bikram specifies that a certain kind of carpet be used for slip resistance, which is important when you’re dripping with perspiration. Other Hot Yoga classes deal with the need to create traction in other ways.

  • Different types of air circulation systems.

The postures in Bikram and other Hot Yoga classes that draw on a set sequence are taught in their full expression of the pose. In other words, the emphasis in this style is on getting into and holding relatively advanced postures rather than approaching a posture in a step-wise fashion with modifications and even different forms for practitioners at different levels of skill, flexibility, and strength.

Preparing for a Hot Yoga class

A bit of forethought is helpful when practicing in the superheated environment. Here are some things to put on your to-do list prior to your Hot Yoga practice:

  • Bring a large towel, a washcloth or two, and ample water in addition to your yoga mat.

  • Dress lightly — lighter than you think. In some areas, people even wear swimsuits. You won’t be sorry. (If you’re unsure about what to wear, check with the studio.)

  • Prepare your digestive system by not eating for one to three hours before class and eating only lightly at the meal prior to that period.

  • Keep yourself well hydrated, both before and during class. Don’t arrive at the class in a dehydrated state. When you’re sweating profusely and expelling body toxins, you run the risk of upsetting your electrolyte balance. Dehydration and loss of electrolytes can result in feelings of nausea, dizziness, headache, and muscle cramping.

At Bikram classes, you are allowed to drink water and rest only at specified times. However, you’re in charge of your body, what you choose to do, and when you choose to rest. So pace yourself and take a break when you need to. If you go to a Bikram class, or any yoga class for that matter, and get dizzy, nauseated, or otherwise hurt, take care of yourself, regardless of what the instructor says.