There’s something undeniably satisfying about leaving a fitness class dripping in sweat. When it comes to yoga, though, new research suggests there’s little reason to crank up the heat.
Bikram yoga has attracted a loyal following due to its steamy classes, which involve 26 specific postures and breathing exercises, typically performed in a room heated to about 105 degrees. Proponents swear by the style’s ability to work up a sweat and promote flexibility, and past research has shown that it’s good for your vascular health — but a small study published Thursday in Experimental Physiology suggests it’s the physical practice of Bikram, not the sweltering heat, that’s good for you.
“It’s definitely showing benefits to the 26-posture sequence,” says study author Stacy Hunter, an assistant professor in the department of health and human performance at Texas State University. “It just doesn’t seem like the heat is necessary in terms of improving heart health.”
Hunter, who is also the research director for Pure Action, a nonprofit that provides grant funding for yoga research and financed this study, says that conclusion doesn’t mean traditional Bikram isn’t healthy. Both hot and room-temperature yoga were found in the study to boost vascular health and possibly delay the progression of risk factors for heart disease and stroke. But the heat may not be responsible for those benefits.
In the study, 52 healthy but previously sedentary adults were assigned to a group: 19 people went to three hot Bikram yoga classes per week, while 14 took the exact same classes in a 73-degree room. A control group of 19 people didn’t do any yoga at all. After 12 weeks, the researchers assessed everyone’s vascular health by looking at changes in endothelial function, or the ability of blood vessels to dilate in response to increased blood flow. Both yoga groups saw changes that indicated a lower risk of heart disease, while the control group did not.
Hunter notes that the hot yoga group did see a small but statistically significant reduction in body fat percentage, compared to the room-temperature group — a surprising finding, given that past studies have shown that Bikram isn’t a particularly effective workout for weight loss. (Other research has even suggested that the high heat and humidity may raise the body’s internal temperature and heart rate to unsafe levels.)
All in all, the results should be encouraging to would-be yogis who may be intimidated by Bikram’s typically scorching temperatures, Hunter says.
“This is good news for people who might want to do it but can’t tolerate the heat or maybe want to do it at home, or for people who don’t even live near a yoga studio,” Hunter says.