Many new students have heard horror stories about yoga classes so hot that people were dropping like flies and being carried out of the room. Most of these are embellished or frankly fabricated. Like any tall tale, there’s always a kernel of truth: usually survival stories from teacher training where they try to burn you down metaphorically so you can rise like a phoenix from the ashes. You won’t find that in a general public yoga class.
I sat down this morning and tried to count how many times I’ve seen people pass out in yoga. I couldn’t even fill up one hand. I’ve heard stories of more than that, but in 17 years of practicing and teaching Bikram Yoga, I’ve only seen three people “go down” in a class.
Pre-existing health conditions make some people likely to pass out. I had a student in class one time who was born with an unusually narrow carotid artery. After half moon, she leaned back against the wall and slowly slumped to the floor. As she came-to in class, she smiled and said, “I pass out all of the time.”
Be sure to tell your teacher if you have any health concerns that might make you more likely to pass out. They’ll show you where to take it slowly and keep an extra eye on you during class. This includes, but is not limited to: heart conditions, arterial abnormalities, dwarfism, history of syncope, diabetes, dehydration, anorexia nervosa, and the use of some medications.
There actually is a stereotype for passing out in hot yoga. Our prime candidate is usually a very thin, tall woman, around the age of 19, who hasn’t had much (or anything) to eat. She comes up from a deep backward bend or forward fold, goes grey and collapses. This tends to happen due to low blood sugar or low blood pressure. The same can happen occasionally to people who consume very little water as they won’t have enough available water in their kidneys or blood volume to produce sweat without a dramatic drop in blood pressure.
You can prevent this from occurring by fueling your body with healthy, but easy-to-digest, foods before class and drinking plenty of water throughout the day. Your body is a precision machine that can’t function with out gas and oil.
One of the primary places people pass out is in the lobby just outside the hot room doors. Here’s why:
In class, the air temperature is hotter than your body. All of your blood vessels dilate and blood rushes to the skin to cool your body and maintain a stable body temperature. That’s your body’s prime goal: maintain homeostasis. Your eccrine sweat glands kick in to high gear and start producing a lovely, cooling sweat.
If you feel hot or uncomfortable in class, your first instinct is to rush out of the room and take a quick break. This action is confusing to the body. Suddenly, the air is 30 degrees cooler, and significantly cooler than your body temperature. To add insult to injury, your body is now covered with moisture that is evaporating rapidly and dropping your internal temperature. Homeostasis alert! The status quo is not being maintained!
The body will quickly constrict the blood vessels and shut down the action of your eccrine glands to make you stop sweating and prevent your internal temperature from dropping below optimal. This quick vasoconstriction slows circulation all over the body, even up to the brain. If it happens rapidly enough, the student can temporarily lose vision or event pass out.
If you feel dizzy and think you might pass out, the best idea is to sit down right where you are standing. Take a few deep breaths and even a sip of water. If you don’t feel better in a matter of minutes, flag down your teacher and they’ll walk you out to sit on the bench and cool off.
Even if you don’t pass out when you leave the room for a “break”, you do shut down the cooling process of sweating. When you return to the room, it feels even hotter and your body has to start all over from scratch acclimating you to the new environment.
One reason new students leave the room is fear that there’s not enough air in the room. That’s a by-product of nervousness and the fight-flight-freeze response to the new environment/activity. Our air quality is carefully maintained by an energy-recovery ventilator activated by carbon dioxide sensors in the room to bring in plenty of fresh air. If you start feeling like you can’t breathe, take the same precautions as you would if you were going to pass out. Sit down and breath slowly through your nose until you feel better.
Bikram Yoga classes are heated to 105 degrees and 40% humidity. These conditions allow for complete vasodilation and allow students to stretch their muscles with a reduced risk of injury. The heat has additional benefits like improved mood, reduction in body fat percentage, and decreasing the day-to-day detoxification load on the liver.
The temperature is not intended for a dramatic increase in internal temperature. On average, body temp increases about one degree in most practitioners. The heat is a tool to facilitate the healing process, not a weapon with which to beat your body into submission.
We live in New England. It’s only Bikram Yoga temps outside for about two weeks in August. Around the world, people live in the very same heat index as a hot yoga class year-round, but we’re not used to it. We know the human body can live in these temperatures, we just have to give it time to get used to it. It takes the average new yogi 10-14 days of regular practice to get acclimated to the hot room.
Your sweat comes from fluids in your blood stream. If you haven’t sweat much since August, your body won’t be ready to dump a quart of water out of your pores the first time. It will take a few classes of going slowly and sipping water as you need it for your body to figure out you’re going to do this regularly. Your kidneys have to learn to hold water and dump it back into your bloodstream, rather than into your bladder, so your blood volume stays stable. You have to learn when and how much to drink and eat to fuel your practice. You may notice you crave more salts as you add this sweaty practice in to your life.
The great news is that in a couple of weeks, you won’t be worried about the heat any more. You’ll be too busy working out how to balance on one foot.