One of the hot trends in the yoga world is a style that turns up the heat and gets yogis sweating through the moves. Hot yoga, also known as Bikram yoga, is a technique in which practitioners move through a sequence of yoga postures over a precise period of time, all in a room heated to 105 degrees.
Hot yoga enthusiasts swear by the deep stretching, strengthening and detoxification that they get out of the practice. And two new studies show it might also help ease feelings of anxiety and reduce a tendency toward emotional eating.
According to Pao Cala, a yoga instructor from Shiifthappens.com, hot yoga differs from other styles of yoga in the way that it is performed. In every hot yoga session, practitioners follow a series of 26 postures. The sequence, breath work and heat allow hot yogis to warm and stretch their muscles, ligaments and tendons while increasing their range of motion, building strength and getting their sweat on.
"The 26 postures are always the same and in a specific order to allow the body to strengthen and open in a natural way," said Cala.
Some of the other benefits that Cala and other hot yoga proponents say they get from the practice include increased endurance and energy, improved posture and relief from depression.
A hot mess? Not so, says science
A new study from researchers at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Alliant International University in San Francisco seems to verify the claim that hot yoga helps to reduce negative feelings such as depression, stress and anxiety.
For the study, which was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, researchers recruited 52 women with a history of depression and unhealthy eating habits and asked roughly half of them to attend hot yoga classes twice a week for eight weeks. The remaining participants didn't do any yoga.
At the end of the study period, researchers found the women who practiced hot yoga had decreased their average stress levels and instances of emotional eating by almost three times as much as that by the women who did not do yoga.
A similar study, conducted by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, found that 29 participants with mild to moderate symptoms of depression showed significant improvements in their condition after taking hot yoga classes each week for eight weeks.
Cala acknowledged that these studies confirmed her own experience with hot yoga, which she credits with helping her finally recover from a history of eating disorders that has plagued her since childhood.
"Because of the intense heat I have to focus more on my breath which relieves anxiety and negative thoughts," said Cala. She also noted that the intensity of hot yoga helps to strengthen her mind-body connection and change her inner dialogue "from blame to compassion, hate to love, powerless to empowered."
Want to give hot yoga a try? Check with your doctor first if you've never tried a practice like this before. Exercising in the heat is not beneficial for everyone, especially those with heart conditions or with low or high blood pressure.