Tuesday, September 8, 2015

A Brain Scientist on The Cost and Benefits of Hot Yoga

In this short essay I talk about the benefits, the drawbacks and what you can do to maximize your experience doing hot yoga. Much of what is written here applies to all types of hatha yoga. Coming from the perspective of brain science I emphasize that it is very important to stay relaxed and supple during any type of exercise. In many types of yoga, especially Bikram, there is a serious risk of overstraining specific muscle groups during a pose. While you are bending deeply into your body’s tightest muscles it is very important to have calm muscles, a calm face, a calm mind, and calm breathing, otherwise you traumatize the muscles. If you are experiencing stress, your brain associates the use of these important muscles in the spine and shoulders, neck and pelvis, with shallow breathing and this will cause you to breathe shallowly whenever you use them. This also causes these muscles to develop continuous strain, forcing them to tighten up, lose circulation and atrophy. You want to derive isometric strengthening from yoga, not injury from repetitive strain. One of the most important attributes of yoga is the removal of muscular tension and the increase in circulation so let’s talk about how to make sure this is your outcome.

The Benefits: Postural Strength

Hot yoga, specifically Bikram, has done so much for me. It has made me a much stronger person. Consider this, the first few times I tried it I nearly passed out. It was excruciatingly exhausting, I had trouble breathing, I could barely finish the standing series and I started to blackout (syncope) a few times (head spinning, light headed, visual field going black). By the fifth time I took a class none of these were problems any longer. After two months of biweekly classes my endurance in everything was noticeably better. When I was sleepy and tired, I no longer felt weak because my spine could support me. After doing Bikram for 6 months, I went to play basketball and I felt like a freight train running up and down the court. I can sit up straight for long periods, while everyone else is slouching. I became three times the tumbler, wrestler and gymnast I was before. The strength gains come with considerable muscle mass gains. They don’t make you look like a weight lifter, but because they involve postural musculature they help you look more like an athlete. The ease that this creates made me feel as if I was in some kind of supportive, mechanical exosuit. My lower back became so much more hardy and robust, that sometimes it felt like I was sitting in a harness. I got all of these benefits from Bikram despite the fact that I was wincing throughout every class and breathing very shallowly. The drawback to this was that I had several points in my body that became very tense and susceptible to injury.

The Costs: Unnecessary Strain

Hot yoga is performed in a heated room where you can bend more fully into your postures. This allows you to stretch and flex deeply into your underused postural musculature creating strength where you had weakness. But the fundamentals of the Bikram routine cause people to flex some muscles too deeply, for too long. When these strained muscles are in your spine, it can be debilitating. The first 2 years I did Bikram I would ignore the many small muscles that reached fatigue before the end of the posture. This is a common occurrence in exercise, small stabilizing muscles fatigue early and are forced to remain active after they fatigue. This causes a host of injurious cellular changes related to “adaptive muscle shortening.” This will cause muscles to atrophy, joints to degenerate, and ligaments to become painful. You don’t want that.

Please read this entry for more information: Rest Once the First Muscle GroupReaches Fatigue

Let me give you a concrete example. I developed a knot on the back/inside of my left knee from the “standing separate leg stretching pose.”  Every time I assumed the posture I would straighten my right knee completely but leave my left knee bent a little. This bent knee would fatigue very quickly and then continue to strain. The problem was, I didn’t notice it. I was wrapped up in trying to keep up with the class, and I was holding the posture with intensity so the muscles in that left knee learned to hold the strain. I subsequently had to do other types of yoga to realize what had happened and to make an effort to straighten, stretch and strengthen the knee. This example helped me to see that I had similar muscular cramps all over from Bikram. My right hip was cramped by the “half moon pose” (which I held my breath while doing), and my neck was cramped by the “standing deep breathing pose” (which I practiced with restricted range of motion). My lower back developed a severe cramp from the “awkward pose” which forced me to flex too deeply into one isolated portion of lumbar musculature without providing any exercise to the surrounding musculature. Straining too deeply, in very hot conditions, into isolated muscular postures is not the way to become a well-rounded athlete.

What You Can Do To Reduce Unnecessary Strain

Unfortunately, at Bikram the instructors attempt to force you to stay in the postures for the duration of the allotted time, force you to strain deeply into the postures, and force you to hold still while in the posture. You cannot let them do this to you. Instead:

1)      You must stop as soon as you notice that something is straining even if the instructor is “commanding” you to get back into the posture.

2)      You must ease yourself into the postures and recognize when to bend less deeply. For instance, I was stretching way too enthusiastically into the half moon pose.

3)      You must attempt to alter and vary your poses so that they are not static and isolated. To do this you want to lean in different directions, play with the posture, shifting your weight and your flexion, and alter the geometry of the pose to get a more well-rounded exercise.

4)      The rigor of hot yoga makes it is extremely important to relax completely during the recumbant corpse pose. Try to notice pockets of tension while you are lying down and attempt to let them go.

5)      Make sure that you maintain balanced posture to support you. Keep your neck retracted, your shoulders back and down, and your gluteus flexed most of the time. This should be emphasized much more in these classes.

It is a shame that Bikram yoga doesn’t give you time to relax and stretch leisurely in the heat. You can do this after class and I strongly urge you to do so. In fact, before and after class you should do some of the more basic yoga stretches to release accumulated tension, and stretch and flex the muscles that Bikram doesn’t reach.
The Costs: Shallow Breathing

Shallow breathing severely compounds the strain. I will even go as far as to say that if you cannot breathe deeply and diaphragmatically (long interval, high volume breaths) throughout the 90 minutes, you shouldn’t go to hot yoga.

Please read this entry for more information: How to Breathe Diaphragmatically

Anything that you perceive as stressful will cause you to stop breathing diaphragmatically and start breathing defensively (shallow, thoracic breathing). Bikram causes shallow breathing because 1) the heat is stressful and the humidity can be stifling. 2) There seems to be pressure on you to perform and compete with others. 3) The instructors are often authoritarian, hypercritical and rude. They also continually single students out causing the heart rate to speed up and the breathing to become shallow.

A Bikram class starts with the neck exercise known as “standing deep breathing.” The breathing exercise that the instructor describes during this pose is exactly how you should breathe the entire class. The instructor coaches you to breathe deeply and their instructions are clear, textbook guidance for diaphragmatic breathing. This is especially important for the first pose which is a neck extension. Unfortunately, the neck extensions probably go on too long and there is no rest for the neck until the end of the standing series causing neck strain that can persist for the first hour. If it were up to me I would either put the neck extension at the end of the standing series or allow people to rest their head after the first posture. However, the “standing deep breathing” exercise will protect the neck and keep it from holding strain, helping it to grow stronger and healthier. The fact that Bikram starts with diaphragmatic breathing is beautiful, every yoga instructor should start their class that way. Again, because diaphragmatic breathing removes strain from muscles, your first priority in hot yoga should be to maintain this type of breathing throughout the class.

The Costs: Facial Tension

We all hold far too much tension in our face. Because of social concerns the muscles are always flexing and this is exacerbated by stress. Heating the facial muscles up and then engaging in an arduous activity will cause you to strain them even more. Be very aware of how your face is contorted as you do hot yoga, and try to make it as calm as possible even if it makes you feel self-conscious. You also want to try your best not to squint. The heat, the humidity, the sweat in your eyes and the strenuous work will predispose you to squint. The fact that the squinting muscles (orbicularis oculi) are at a very high temperature, will cause the squint to become burned into your face. Look at all of the long-time hot yoga practitioners and teachers, many of them have purple bags under their eyes from the potentiation of the muscular contractions responsible for squinting. If you can’t keep your eyes relaxed and wide during hot yoga, then don’t do it. Remember, this tension in the eye muscles is extremely easy to see. You will see a visible, dark crease under the eye. Tension in other muscles is often hidden from sight, but just like their eyes, many hot yoga practitioners hold inordinate tension throughout their bodies.
Please read this entry for more information: How to Stop Squinting


Bikram was the first type of yoga that I really committed to weekly. I would recommend however that anyone interested in hot yoga start with Hatha and Iyengar yoga in order to develop more strength, flexibility and an appropriate emotional relationship with their body first. Otherwise, like me, you won’t know how to breathe, you won’t have a sense for how deeply you can safely flex into the postures, and you won’t have the overall flexibility and strength to safely adapt to Bikram’s static postures. Once you are doing hot yoga, I recommend that you do other types of yoga as well to complement it. I do. I have slowly learned to keep a calm face, to notice undue tension, and to breathe properly, and so I feel invigorated after class rather than exhausted. Moveover, the knots I developed when I started have since disappeared.

To find out much more about yoga and yogic breathing click here to visit my Program Peace website at www.programpeace.com.

I am a strong believer in the benefits of yoga for bodily and mental health. Here are a few of my favorite books on yoga:


  1. Great blog. Now I understood the benefits of regularly doing Yoga. After read this I'm really eager to learn yoga. Let me the yoga positions for beginners? and Trainers needed for basic yoga? Thanks for taking time to share great information. Keep blogging.

    Riley Martin from Yoga Teacher Training

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