A regular hot yoga practice may be an effective way to manage your back pain. Hot yoga has been growing in popularity in North America since it was first introduced by Bikram Choudhury in the late 20th century. Bikram sought to recreate the heat he was used to practicing in when he lived in India. Not long after introducing his heated, signature 26 posture yoga sequence, he discovered that hotter is better and increased the temperature of his classes.
How Hot is Hot YOGA?
Every hot yoga studio is different so temperatures will vary depending on the school, type of heating equipment used and even the specific needs of a particular class. Generally, temperatures range from 95°F to 105°F or 35°C to 40°C. The humidity of the room will be roughly around 50%. Not quite at the level of a sauna but enough to help you sweat a lot. The most consistent temperatures can be found in studios with infrared heating panels that ‘radiate’ heat. The alternative to infrared panel heating is forced-air heating which can be inconsistent and concentrate heat in certain areas of a practice room.
Heat and Back Pain
Similar to putting a heat pack on your back to allows the muscles relax, the heat from a hot yoga class helps with muscle release as well. While not as hot as a heat pack, the temperatures in hot yoga are high enough that you will notice a difference in your ability to move. The heat makes movement more comfortable and muscle tension less restricting. The heat also has the added benefit of helping your other muscles to relax and stretch out. As nothing in your body exists in isolation, having overall less stiffness in your body will have a positive effect on your back. Hot yoga is especially beneficial for people who are naturally inflexible. The heat allows the body to warm up faster so safe, deep stretches can happen sooner.
Breathing and Back Pain
There are a lot of physical benefits that you will experience as a result of practicing yoga in the heat. There are also a lot of mental benefits, especially when it comes to breathing in a hot yoga practice. Most notably, is stress relief. Slow, deep breathing—as opposed to quick, shallow breathing—illicites a measurable ‘relaxation response’ in the body. The result is decreased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. The heat and humidity found in hot yoga classes helps to open up your airways and lungs. This, in turn, allows you to breathe more deeply and, thus, feel calmer. So if your back pain is related to stress, or being aggravated by it, a regular hot yoga practice will aid in alleviating that pain factor.
What to Expect
The biggest challenge when starting hot yoga is usually adjusting to the heat. Some people take to it right away while other people need a few—or more—classes to acclimatize. If you are sensitive to really hot classes but still want to experience the benefits of hot yoga, try classes that are less hot. Even a bit of warmth will be of benefit to your back. To make it a bit easier to adjust to the heat, make sure to do the following:
Hydrate Hydrate Hydrate
Make sure you are properly hydrated before, during and after class. Try to drink at least two big glasses of water an hour before you practice. During class, take regular water breaks. The teacher may direct you to take a sip of water but don’t hesitate to reach for your bottle throughout your practice. After class, sip on more fluids. Ideally, get some electrolytes back in your system with a bit of lemon water and a pinch of sea salt.
Avoid Eating Anything Heavy
Try not to eat a heavy meal three hours before you practice. Practicing on a full stomach will make breathing deeply and stretch uncomfortable. A light snack—such as a piece of fruit—before you practice is okay.
Focus on Your Breathing
If you are someone needs a few classes to adjust to the heat, take things slowly and focus on your breathing. You can always take resting postures if you are struggling to breathe deeply. Once breathing in the heat feels more natural, you will find the postures much more accessible. So take as much time as you need to get comfortable.
Like any holistic approach to dealing with back pain, you probably won’t see results overnight. However, a consistent hot yoga practice will no doubt bring your back relief over time. So stick with it, breathe deeply, stretch safely and enjoy getting sweaty in support of your back.
Hall, Colin. “Hot and Bothered: The Hype, History, and Science of Hot Yoga.” Yoga International. February 04, 2016. Accessed December 14, 2016. https://yogainternational.com/article/view/hot-and-bothered-the-hype-history-and-science-of-hot-yoga.http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/relaxation-techniques-breath-control-helps-quell-errant-stress-response
“Relaxation Techniques: Breath Control Helps Quell Errant Stress Response – Harvard Health.” Harvard Health Publications. March 18, 2016. Accessed December 14, 2016. http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/relaxation-techniques-breath-control-helps-quell-errant-stress-response.