The feeling when you step out of a hot yoga studio after a class can be gross, but also kind of magical. Your brain is basically mush, your pores feel like they've been blasted clean, your leggings are drenched, and your muscles are limber and relaxed. All types of yoga can have this effect on you, but there's something about hot yoga that just feels so damn good. That said, research suggests that hot yoga isn't necessarily better for you than unheated types of yoga.
Studies have shown that people have a significantly higher heart-rate response during heated practice, but your body isn't really working any harder in hot yoga, says Stacy D. Hunter, PhD, assistant professor in the department of health and human performance at Texas State University, who has studied the health benefits of hot yoga. This year, Dr. Hunter published a study that found that unheated yoga is just as good for your heart as hot yoga. So, if science says that hot yoga is not that amazing for your health, then why does it feel so good? Well, it's tough to say exactly, but we can try to guess what contributes to that post-hot yoga euphoria.
Simply spending time in a hot room can be enough to boost people's mood. Infrared sauna users claim that they feel happier after a session, perhaps due to a release of feel-good hormones like dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins (although there haven't been any formal studies to confirm this, one popular infrared sauna claims this is the case). Plus, doctors often suggest that patients use a sauna as a form of stress relief, along with yoga, meditation, or massage. "The exposure of the body to heat does something physiologically that produces some sort of beneficial effect," Dr. Hunter says.
I think there is something that happens — if nothing else, psychologically — for some people when they go into a room, and they leave feeling like they have just done something that was very difficult.
Stacy D. Hunter, PhD
Of course, taking a hot yoga class involves much more movement than just sitting in a sauna. Lots of people prefer hot yoga because they say the heat allows them to experience a deeper stretch from yoga postures than in a regular-temperature room, Dr. Hunter says. Perhaps people also feel like they're getting more out of their practice, or are able to reap more of the benefits of yoga, when the room is hot.
Beyond these physiological differences, some of the benefits might be in people's heads. "I think there is something that happens — if nothing else, psychologically — for some people when they go into a room, and they leave feeling like they have just done something that was very difficult," Dr. Hunter says. After a hot yoga class, when you're dripping in sweat and your heart is pounding, you may have a greater sense of accomplishment than if you were to do an unheated class, she says. "You're feeling like you have worked harder for no reason besides the temperature," she says.
At the end of the day, if getting hot and sweaty in a hot yoga class is your idea of a good time, then more power to you. Because often the "best workout" for you isn't the ones that provides the most extreme physical benefits, or the one that causes you to build the most muscles, it's the one that gives you a sense of accomplishment, and most importantly, makes you feel good.