Whenever my friend M.B. would extol the virtues of hot yoga, I thought she was crazy—how can sweating buckets in a steamy room with strangers be relaxing? But when a new studio, Hot Yoga Plus, opened up near my office in Franklin, Tenn., and offered free classes, she persuaded me that it was worth a try.
Though I’m not a regular yoga practitioner, it wasn't my first time attempting the art. I enjoy taking classes occasionally, usually in the vinyasa or faster-paced “flow,” tradition. “Hot yoga” is a catch-all term for any class conducted in a heated room, but the most popular is a form of hatha yoga (a gentler style) invented by Indian guru Bikram Choudhury. He designed a series of 26 yoga poses and two breathing exercises, which ideally are performed over 90 minutes in a room heated to about 105 degrees. Bikram yoga is copyrighted, and instructors and studios must be certified to advertise their classes as such. But many studios offer “hot yoga” classes, some adhering strictly to the Bikram series and conditions and others interpreting it more loosely.
Hot Yoga Plus is not Bikram-certified, but offers classes featuring the 26 series. I opted to take an abbreviated 75-minute version of “Hot 26.” When I told the instructor it would be my first time in a hot yoga class, she said I should listen to my body, take it slow and sit out any poses I needed to. The one thing she asked was that I try not to leave the room to escape the heat—it can shock your body, and instructors are obligated to follow anyone who leaves to make sure they’re OK. Sitting or even laying quietly on the mat would be preferable, she said.
I’ll be honest: This scared me. Was I going to feel really dizzy or nauseated? With about 15 minutes to go before the class, M.B. suggested we go ahead into the room to get settled, and I was tempted to wait until the last minute! But we took off our shoes and socks, stashed our bags in the locker room, and I let her lead me in. Immediately, the change in temperature hit me, and I wondered again what I’d gotten myself into.
We chose spots in the front row and rolled out our mats. M.B. explained some classroom etiquette: I should try not to position myself where I’d block someone else’s view of the mirror. It’s also proper to sit or lie with your feet facing away from the mirror and the instructor. As in many yoga rooms, it’s standard practice to remain quiet. (A tough task for us, as we’re both quite chatty!)
As we stretched in silence, I began to adjust to the heat. It felt more like a sauna than the kind of oppressive heat when you’re stuck outdoors in 90+-degree weather. The instructor came in and briefly explained the class. She also recommended we not take a water break until after the first few poses, so that we could focus on the warm up. After that we could drink whenever we’d like, but she asked that we try not to drink or towel off in the middle of a pose.
We began with a breathing exercise, which immediately helped me feel focused. The first half of the 26 series is standing poses. They got intense fairly quickly, but my muscles felt limber right away because of the heat. We repeated most of the poses twice, so you had time to really concentrate and make progress even in the space of one class. (In the 90-minute class, all poses are repeated; the 75-minute version eliminates some repetitions.)
I began to really enjoy myself, and even in the most difficult poses I didn’t feel lightheaded. But the sweat—oh, the sweat! I found it trickling down the strangest areas. I had to grab for my towel a handful of times so I wouldn’t slip on the mat. But the slow, deliberate pace of the class made me feel like I was never in any danger of falling or fainting.
The second half of the series began with shavasana, or corpse pose, which ends many yoga classes. We returned to this pose several times throughout the second half of the class, and again I found it very centering. Toward the end, we did ustrasana, or camel pose, a back bend. That’s probably the only time I felt a little woozy, but we moved quickly back into shavasana and I felt better immediately.
After one final breathing exercise, we were done. I felt exhilarated! Sweating so much was cathartic, and my body surprised me with its strength.
I would recommend hot yoga—especially the 26 series or other hatha variations—for people of all skill levels. True yoga beginners may want to start with a class labeled “restorative yoga” for their first hot experience, but I felt the class I took would be doable, if a bit challenging. Most studios are candid about which classes are appropriate for beginners, so it never hurts to ask if you’re unsure. The appeal of the 26 series is that doing the same series of poses every class is an easy way to measure progress. I can’t wait to try it again!
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What to Wear
As little as possible! You may want to trade in your yoga pants for shorts or capris. A slim-fitting tank will facilitate movement better than a baggy t-shirt. You’ll be barefoot for the class.
Bring a yoga mat, a towel and plenty of water.
Dos and Don’ts
- Do remain quiet during class.
- Don’t leave the room unless it’s absolutely necessary.
- Do drink lots of water during and after class.
- Don’t stop during a pose to towel off or drink water if possible.
- Do sit out a pose if you need to.
- Don’t push yourself too hard or compare yourself to others in class.
- Do place your feet facing away from the mirror when lying down.
- Don’t step on someone else’s mat or block their view of themselves in the mirror.