The Case against Hot Yoga for Athletes

I’m often asked my opinion on the benefits of hot yoga for athletes. Recently, I was approached by a national magazine to write a story on the topic, and I had to decline because I have serious reservations about mixing hot yoga and serious athletic training. (I’ll confess, it was gratifying to take a stand and feel like a real journalist!) As I won’t be writing that piece, I’ll lay out my case against hot yoga for athletes here. This is not a condemnation of hot yoga as a whole. For some people, it’s revelatory and life-changing—great! Here, I am considering its applicability for a specific group: serious athletes in aerobic sports.

The heat itself. Most athletes exist in a state of fatigue and semidehydration already. Adding heat to the mix only exacerbates the problem, impeding recovery. Depending on the studio and the style, “hot yoga” can mean a room of anywhere from 85 to 105 degrees.

The heat comes from the outside in. In yoga, we work to cultivate tapas, or internal heat and discipline. It’s hard to be in touch with that internal heat when heat is already being imposed from the outside.

The heat imposes the illusion of flexibility. Proponents of hot yoga say that the heat loosens them up so they can stretch further. Indeed. And is that what we want? Not necessarily. We need stiffness to be efficient runners (and all athletes run), and we need integrity through a reasonable range of motion for our sport. Hyperflexibility is not the goal. In the heat, it’s easy to push too far and overstretch—obviously, that’s detrimental to your training.

The heat limits the range of poses one can practice. In extreme temperatures, you can’t spend much time with your head lower than your heart, which means you won’t get to enjoy inversion poses in hot yoga. Often, even downward-facing dog is a no-go. My studio co-owner, a lifelong Ashtangi, went to a hot class a few months ago and commented, “If it weren’t for the heat, the sequence would have been far too easy.” Now, yoga for athletes doesn’t need to be hard—in fact, “easy” is often best—but it’s a shame to miss out on the variety of asanas that have tangible benefits simply because they can’t be practiced in the presence of external heat.

Practicing yoga in the heat is probably not going to acclimate you to compete in hot conditions. It sounds like a good idea to use hot yoga to adapt to hot conditions, but the physical demands of a yoga asana practice are different from the cardiovascular demands of endurance sports or team sports. Unless you are acclimating to do gymnastics in the heat, I don’t think there will be much cross-over. (Here’s a New York Times piece on acclimating.)

The sequence is often the same. Depending on the style of hot yoga, you’ll find the same poses (usually 26 of them) practiced in the same order every time. This can be gratifying, as you’ll measure your progress, but it will soon become redundant. Once you’re adapted to those poses, you’ll need to shake up your training and get a new stimulus to create further adaptations. It’s a rule of athletic training, and it applies to asana practice, too. If you could have only one running workout to do for the rest of your life—say, 12 x 400 on the track—you’d improve at it, plateau, cease adapting, and get tired of running entirely.

The languaging can be extreme. Again, this is style-dependent, but some hot yoga franchises (and yes, they are franchises, as you can read in this fantastic Yoga Journal article) use a set script with phrases along the lines of “lock out your knees” and “push beyond your flexibility.” Ouch.

The mirrors. Mirrors draw you out of your internal experience and, even for those with the best intentions, into an external orientation. (Rebecca Pacheco has a nice piece on mirrors here.) This can open the doorway to competition, with yourself or others.

Hot yoga is just feeding the competitive fire. Athletes who work to push themselves in training are only going to have this fire stoked in a hot yoga class. Instead, we need more insightful, quiet practices. Restorative yoga—which is about as far from hot yoga as you can get—suits the bill nicely. (Here’s a routine to do at home; for maximum benefits, pause the player and stay in each pose for ten minutes.) Look to bring balance to your system, finding the right mix of effort and ease for your body, mind, and spirit. Don’t play up only the effort.

It’s bad for the environment. Consider the fuel costs of heating rooms. (Thanks to the lovely and wise yogini Ingrid Yang for this germane point, which applies to all hot yoga, not just for athletes.)

There is a time and place for hot yoga for athletes. It’s called the off-season. For many, it’s right now, just as your season is over, the weather is getting cold, and a hot studio is appealing. Try it for yourself and see what you think. And let me know how it goes: I welcome discussion on the issue, especially if you are a fan of hot yoga for athletes.

6 Responses to “The Case against Hot Yoga for Athletes”

  1. Beth says:

    Very useful. It's funny, I came to yoga first (well, after taking dance classes as a kid, despite having entirely the wrong build–I love that my build doesn't matter for yoga!), and doubt I ever would have started running if I hadn't gotten into vinyasa and ashtanga. Lovely blog.

  2. Anonymous says:

    i am not a bikram practioner, but an ashtanga and vinyasa krama practioner. personally, i love a set sequence so i do not have to think what comes next so i can focus on the breathing system and also so i don't avoid what is hard for me. if i were to make up my own sequence each time, my strengths would keep geting stronger and my weaknesses weaker.
    i also enjoy a warm room to practice in. my husband and i warm the room to about 8o degrees and when we walk in we know and feel it is practice time. i can't stand being cold, especially when i'm practicing.
    whether a sequence is hard or easy depends on the breath and of course the mind. nobody knows how someone else's practice is going…only the practitioner knows.

  3. Diane E. Boyd says:

    Thanks for this, Sage. Right on!

  4. Alison Hinks says:

    Hey Sage!
    So interesting! Not being a runner, I am curious how stiffness helps efficiency in running. Thanks! xo Ali

  5. Sage says:

    Good question, Ali, and deserving of its own blog post. Short answer: you need to transfer energy to the ground and into forward motion. If you're too flexible, you're floppy, and you aren't using energy to move forward as well. Hope to cover it in greater detail soon.

  6. Benefits of Hot Yoga says:

    Improves vigor and vitality – Another one of the greatest Bikram yoga benefits is how it can slow down the signs of aging. Not only does Bikram yoga make your skin look clearer and younger, it can also improve your body’s vigor and vim. It increases the drive in your performance and bumps up the energy without feeling hurt in your joints and muscles.