About a year and a half ago, I had a bit of a midlife crisis. After years of staring at a computer screen for 12 hours a day, I was overweight, inflexible, and stressed out. My lower back, which has been a problem for me ever since college, was in low-level pain more or less all the time, with occasional weeklong bouts of sharp agony. My mind was buzzy and distracted. And just as a final insult, I developed a case of plantar fasciitis. I mean, c'mon. I felt old and decrepit. At 40!
So I decided to do something about it. I took a year off work (a sabbatical you can read about in a story I did for Outside magazine) devoted, in part, to getting healthier. That involved eating better, getting outside more, spending more time with my kids, and staring at screens less, all of which were pretty easy and immediately rewarding.
But getting healthier also requires regular exercise, which is a problem, because I really don't like exercising. Running? Hate it with the fire of a thousand suns. Going to the gym? An existential despair generator. CrossFit? Lord save me from fist-bumping fitness enthusiasts.
So what to do? I decided, pretty much at random, to try hot yoga.
Since then, barring occasional breaks for travel, I've done hot yoga two to four times a week. In the interim, I've lost 30 pounds, from an all-time high of 210 to a not-since-high-school low of 180. My lifelong back pain has all but disappeared, as has the plantar fasciitis. While I don't exactly have six-pack abs (my son Huck, squinting at my belly: "Eh, maybe a two-pack"), my muscle tone and definition are vastly improved. And I have a newfound mental focus and emotional equanimity. In short: hot yoga has been great for me.
But why, exactly? What about it has made this veteran exercise hater into a regular exerciser? That's what I want to explore here.
Now, yoga generally, and hot yoga specifically, has come in for a lot of skepticism lately — see here and here for good examples — so let me be very clear: hot yoga is not for everyone. Everyone has different needs, different bodies, and different proclivities, and will benefit from different things.
And like any form of exercise, hot yoga comes with risks as well as rewards. The standard form of hot yoga — Bikram yoga, which is what I do — involves spending 90 minutes in a room heated to 105 degrees, at 40 percent humidity. Consumer Reports calls dehydration and heat stroke "hidden dangers" of Bikram yoga, but if the connection between sustained, intense heat and dehydration is "hidden" from you, you should probably be taking remedial physiology courses before doing any exercise at all.
There's strikingly little scientific research on the long-term effects of yoga, and even less on Bikram yoga specifically. Even this "longitudinal" study only tracked its effects over eight weeks — whereas for me, the biggest benefits kicked in after about a year. So evidence of its benefits is, by necessity, mostly anecdotal.
To make matters worse, the yoga world is chock full of "woo," as the blog Science-Based Medicine puts it, and hot yoga is not immune. If anyone pitches it to you as a way to lose weight or rid your body of toxins or, I don't know, align your chakras, you should ignore them. It's a form of moderate exercise, good for balance and general health — no more, no less.
All that said, despite the lack of definitive longitudinal studies, I've found that much of what attracts me to hot yoga aligns with the general thinking of fitness researchers. To wit:
1) It's a (relatively) complete workout
Despite the prevalence of bogus weight loss fads and specialized workouts, physical fitness, like eating well, is actually pretty simple. The best summary I've seen of the balance of evidence on the topic is this post from Zeynep Tufekci. She explains that to get and stay fit — not necessarily to lose weight or get ROCK-HARD ABS, but just to stay healthy — you need to do two things:
One, you need to get your heart rate up, and keep it up for a while, at least two or three times a week. You can do that by running, swimming, briskly walking, playing basketball, doing jumping jacks, whatever. Doesn't really matter. As long as your heart rate is elevated and you're breathing hard for at least 10 or 15 minutes, you're doing it right.
And two, you need to strain your muscles, signaling to your body to build new muscle tissue. (Your muscles will tend to atrophy as you age, so you need to counteract that.) This goes for all the major muscle groups. You can do it by lifting weights, by doing pullups and pushups and squats, by "planking," whatever. As long as all your big muscle groups get a little burn two or three times a week, you're doing it right.
The advantage of hot yoga is, while it may not be a perfect substitute for a carefully constructed regimen of alternating cardio and weight-lifting, it is, for my purposes, close enough, in a one-stop-shopping package.
You might not think that static poses are cardiovascular, but believe me, they will get your heart rate up. This is especially true in intense heat and humidity, which prevent the body from cooling itself, causing peripheral blood vessels to dilate and the heart to pump harder. (This is why it's so important to stay hydrated during and after a hot yoga workout.) The poses are like little minute-long sprints, interspersed with periods of rest — a form of "interval training," which is all the rage these days.
And through the 26 poses, you systematically work all the major muscle groups, from top to bottom. Most important for me, it works the crap out of your core muscles — abdominals, obliques, lower back, hamstrings, etc. This is great for better stability and balance, and also for reducing (some kinds of) back pain. (Warning: do not overstretch to the point of pain. It does no good and can do much harm.)
So while I'd never say hot yoga is the only exercise you need, I will say that if you're a generally lazy person who hates exercise and can only bring yourself to indulge in one kind, hot yoga is a fairly comprehensive choice.
2) It requires very little self-starting or motivation
Perhaps the most important feature of any exercise regimen is that you stick with it. No form of exercise will help if you get sick of it and quit after a few weeks or months. Tons of people jump into something super-intense like CrossFit and then quickly burn out. As Alex Hutchinson, author of the book Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights?, told my colleague Julia Belluz, "The best exercise for people is one they are going to adopt and do on a regular basis. If that means getting out for a walk with the dog every night and you can commit to that and stick to it, then do it."
That's particularly troublesome for me, since, as mentioned previously, I'm generally a sedentary, lazy person. If I go to a gym, I spend the whole time wanting to leave, and generally will, well before getting a full workout. Similarly with running: I just want to stop, and generally will. Or more likely I'll never work up the gumption to start in the first place. I've never found any kind of regular exercise that I had the discipline to stick with.
Until hot yoga, anyway. The beauty of hot yoga is that you only need enough motivation to haul yourself through the door. After that, the teacher takes over, instructing you on exactly what to do and how to do it, keeping up a continuous stream of dialogue. You can stop thinking. You don't have to decide what to do next, or whether to do it. You just follow instructions, until it's over.
3) It's the same every time
I once read an interview with Art Garfunkel — which I have never been able to find again, despite many efforts — in which he said something that stuck with me ever since. It was about the core difference between him and Paul Simon, one of the main reasons Simon & Garfunkel broke up.
Simon, he said, loved variety and improvisation. Every time they played live, he wanted to do things a little differently. Garfunkel was the opposite. He liked doing it the exact same way every time, because it allowed him to home in and perfect it, to focus on nailing those tiny, subtle variations and nuances — stuff listeners might not even notice, but for him were everything.
I am, generally in life and specifically with regard to exercise, a Garfunkel, a creature of set habits and repeated patterns. I like to do the same things again and again, perfecting them as I go.
Bikram yoga is for Garfunkels. There are lots of varieties of hot yoga these days, many of which change from class to class, but when it comes to Bikram, every class is exactly the same — the same 26 postures, in the same order, for the same length of time. It allows me to measure my progress precisely. And I'm always progressing, getting better, even from the very first class I attended. You might not be able to tell by watching from the outside, but with every run through the poses, I get into at least one of them a little deeper, or find that new point of balance, or figure out how to relax a tight group of muscles that was holding me back. There is constant, noticeable improvement — only noticeable because every class is directly comparable to every previous class.
Note: this is one area where my proclivities clash with the best fitness science. As Vox's own Julia Belluz notes, fitness experts recommend varying workouts, since doing one thing over and over again will tend to produce diminishing returns. But then we're back to sticking with it, and if repetition helps you stick with it, it's definitely better than doing nothing.
4) There's no quasi-spiritual hoo-ha
No offense to people who are into incense, sitar music, and inspirational quotes about loving oneself, but ... I'm not. In fact, I'm allergic. It was one of my main fears about going to a yoga class at all, since, as previously noted, the yoga world is chock full of woo.
Happily, Bikram yoga is almost entirely free of that stuff. The class is silent until it begins, and when it begins, it's all about instructions on postures. The occasional teacher will try to squeeze in a fortune-cookie bromide here and there, but there just isn't enough time. Thank goodness.
5) It is meditative
Yoga has a number of salutary mental and psychological effects. It is, in effect, a form of meditation, of repeatedly returning your attention to your breath. When your mind wanders, the rigors of perfecting a pose bring it back to your body, to the present. That ability to take conscious control of your focus is the essence of meditation.
There's a growing body of science supporting the positive benefits of meditation (though see this welcome note of caution from Timothy Caulfield). And there's also, y'know, hundreds of years of meditation practice to consult. Meditation tends to increase focus and retention, reduce stress, and improve emotional stability. It's definitely had those salutary effects on my life. Since starting yoga, I'm better able to resist the popcorn-brain effects of the internet, to center myself, and just generally to maintain calm. In fact, sometimes I can just sit, quietly, and do nothing for minutes at a time — which doesn't sound like much, but for me once seemed about as possible as flying to the moon.
Meditation is, by almost universal acclaim, good for you.
But even if you don't meditate, hot yoga — or any yoga, really — is a great way to start getting some of the same benefits.
6) The heat is addictive
The heat is both the trendiest and the most controversial part of hot yoga. The heat and humidity effectively prevent your body from cooling itself; if you're not careful, you can suffer dehydration or heat stroke.
If you do try hot yoga and you feel yourself getting light-headed, please, just stop. Lie down (which I've done plenty). Or leave the room for a few minutes (which I've never yet had to do, but have seen others do). Don't feel the slightest compunction about it. And if you have an instructor who makes you feel bad about it, or tells you to "push through it," or that "pain means it's working," find another instructor. This is the source of many negative experiences in hot yoga — daft, poorly trained instructors who don't know how to take care of their students.
All that said, I find the heat addictive. Really. The first few times I went, it was overwhelming. But over time, I've become hooked on the sensation of sweating it all out. You are not really "sweating out toxins," as many instructors are in the unfortunate habit of saying. Getting rid of toxins is a job for your liver and kidneys. You're mostly sweating out water, along with potassium and some other minerals, which is why rehydration and remineralization (with electrolytes — Gatorade, coconut water, or just a banana) is so important.
Still, it's like going through a giant wringer. You walk out feeling new, like you were just born, like an empty vessel ready to start all over. These days, if I go more than a day or two without hot yoga, I start feeling heavy, burdened, as though I'm hauling around too much psychic baggage.
This particular benefit is almost entirely psychosomatic, but then, if it's your psyche you're concerned with, what's wrong with psychosomatic benefits?
Is hot yoga for you?
Plenty of folks already get lots of exercise. Plenty of folks need variety and novelty in their lives. Plenty of folks just don't like heat, period. Hot yoga is not for those people.
But if you're like me — generally averse to exercise, not great at self-motivation, and a Garfunkel — give it a try. Not just once! Try at least twice. You may find yourself addicted, as well.