Yoga is one of the hottest fitness trends sweeping the country, and a form of the activity known as "hot yoga" is gaining in popularity. An estimated 16 million Americans practice some style of yoga.
Hot yoga refers to yoga practiced in a heated environment, with the room temperature generally reaching 90 to 105 degrees. The theory behind hot yoga is that it helps the body to sweat out toxins while allowing the practitioner to safely achieve deeper poses. Bikram is a common form of hot yoga.
While the practice can offer health benefits and a sense of well-being, people practicing hot yoga, especially beginners, should take certain precautions, according to Diana Zotos, a certified yoga instructor and physical therapist in the Rehabilitation Department at Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan.
"Yoga of any type is physically challenging, and the heated environment of hot yoga makes the practice especially demanding," Zotos says. "The heat makes people feel as if they can stretch deeper into poses and can give them a false sense of flexibility. This can lead to muscle strains or damage to the joint, including ligaments and cartilage."
Zotos says people over 40 who have never done Bikram yoga may be at greater risk of injury, and she recommends they familiarize themselves with it prior to trying a class. "There are many books and videos that describe this style and can demonstrate the poses and techniques," she says. "Since classes are constructed of the same 26 poses, people can become familiar with them beforehand."
Beginners should keep in mind that poses will require a certain level of leg, core and upper body strength, as well as balance, according to Zotos. People should also have a tolerance for stretching and moderate flexibility in their legs and spine.
"The heat factor also puts more strain on the heart and challenges endurance. That being said, people should be of good cardiovascular health; have healthy hip, knee, spine and shoulder joints; shouldn't have balance or neurological issues; and should have a general tolerance for excessive heat," she advises.
Zotos has these additional tips:
Be well-prepared. Bring a mat and towel, and wear shorts and a tank top. If possible, bring a buddy. It can be more fun and less intimidating if you take your first class with a friend.
Make sure you drink plenty of fluids well before class (but not coffee or soda). Don't eat anything too heavy (more than 200 calories) two to three hours prior to class.
Make sure the studio and teachers have a good reputation. Ask about their experience and credentials. The teacher should be certified in Bikram or another form of yoga.
Try to arrive early. This way you can introduce yourself and speak with the instructor, pick a good spot in the studio to set up your mat and get comfortable with your surroundings and the heat.
Start slowly and learn the basics. Never push yourself to the point of pain while stretching or assuming a position.
Listen to your body. Stop at the first sign of discomfort. If you are extremely fatigued, take a break. Do not try yoga poses beyond your experience or comfort level.
Don't get discouraged if you can't reach a pose. It's not a competition.
Ask questions if you're not sure how to perform a pose.
If you get dizzy, lightheaded, overheated or experience chest pain, STOP immediately. Seek medical assistance if necessary.
Anyone who questions whether hot yoga is safe for them should consult their physician, Zotos says. "If you have sensitivity to heat, if you've ever had heat stroke or tend to get fatigued, dizzy or dehydrated quickly, you should ask your doctor before starting hot yoga. Anyone with osteoarthritis, any rheumatologic arthritis, pain in muscles or a joint, or any kind of previous injury should check with their doctor."
Zotos says it's especially important that anyone who has hypertension, low blood pressure or heart disease check with their cardiologist before trying hot yoga.
For more tips concerning other forms of exercise and wellness advice, visit www.hss.edu/wellness.