Looking to turn up the heat on your yoga routine? Bikram yoga, also known as hot yoga, uses rooms heated to 104 degrees or higher to push your muscles to their maximum. The heat helps activate your muscles, providing a sweaty and utterly exhausting workout. In temperatures this high, it's natural to assume your heart rate will be higher, but for most yoga students, Bikram yoga poses no threat to your health.
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Health and Hot Yoga
Bikram yoga can be a very strenuous workout, but it shouldn't push your heart rate too close to its maximum. Given the popularity of this variation on the classic yoga class, the American Council of Exercise conducted a study to see exactly how Bikram yoga affected its participants. The study, conducted in 2013, had 20 students between the ages of 19 and 44 take a traditional yoga class and a Bikram yoga class while wearing heart rate monitors. After each class, body temperature was measured and heart rates were compared. Surprisingly, the two classes were quite similar, with almost no variation in heart rate or core body temperature between the two classes. All participants' heart rates averaged about 56% and 57% of heart rate maximum between the two classes, respectively.
The Effects of Heat
The heat used in a Bikram yoga class is intended to promote a greater range of motion in yoga stretches and poses. “...I think some people like the challenge of exercising in a hotter environment because it allows them to work up a good sweat and feels like they are getting a better workout.” said John P. Porcari, Ph.D., head of the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, in response to the ACE study. Critics of the practice have cited the use of extreme temperatures as a possible cause of heat-related effects like heatstroke, dehydration, and a dangerous increase in core temperature. These effects were not seen as part of the ACE study.
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The lack of difference between the two studies may be related to human physiology. Participants in the Bikram yoga class used in the ACE study were much, much sweatier than in the more traditional yoga class. "By the end, everyone was dripping sweat. They were absolutely soaked," said Porcari. Humans can produce up to 12 liters of sweat a day, much more than most mammals. Our bodies are naturally accustomed to dumping excess heat in hot conditions. As we sweat, evaporative cooling helps regulate our core temperature, preventing overheating. In a Bikram yoga class, this serves to prevent an unusually high heart rate, despite the additional stress the hot temperatures pour on.
Not all yogis are created equal. Your personal physiology, fitness level, medical history, and personal preferences may cause variation from the results seen in the ACE study. Dehydration and heatstroke are nothing to trifle with, so look for beginner Bikram yoga classes to ease into the activity and see how your body responds. Always remember to hydrate before, during, and after any workout, especially in hot temperatures. And, finally, don't hesitate to ask your doctor if you're ready for a hot yoga class before you turn up the heat.
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