Be informed and use caution when engaging in practice of hot yoga

By Dara Richman


“Oh the horror! Yoga is bad for me????” I am already preparing myself for the hate mail …

First let me clarify. Many patients I have treated in sports medicine over the years have oft asked if it would be wise or safe to begin a yoga practice. In general I think both traditional yoga as well as hot yoga provide excellent flexibility, mobility, and strength progressions. However for many people who are recovering from or dealing with an orthopedic injury such as mechanical low back pain, shoulder rotator cuff pain, hip impingement, neck strain, yoga and more pointedly hot yoga, may NOT be great choices for their bodies.

Many fail to realize a central premise behind yoga is really to prep the body for meditation, hence the extreme ranges of flexibility required in poses. Hot yoga in its original incarnation as Bikram yoga is a gratifying practice which uses high temperatures in heated rooms to help facilitate tissue and muscle mobility thereby obtaining a deeper range of motion for the poses in practice. Many movements involve end range motions of the spine, add to that increased tissue extensibility due to the heat, and some people may be inclined or tempted to “push” their bodies past their normal ranges.

Pushing our bodies past their normal resting position in itself is not dangerous – if done over a long period of time with slow prolonged loading. This is basically the premise of stretching. But doing so in a one to two hour class, with no background in stretching, for someone whose normal resting position is probably inherently tight, stiff, and not too limber, may put undue stress on their bodies, and lead to injury. Overstretching muscles can lead to muscle strains in predominantly short type II fiber muscle groups like calves and hamstrings, overstretching can put stress on the vertebrae, the discs in between your spine, the ligaments in and along the knee, and even pelvis and sacro-iliac joint. It can be for some a recipe for disaster.

Another issue I see is patients coming to hot yoga for a rehabilitative experience. An acute injury is not the time to begin a new and challenging practice. Without proper education on where and how to begin, these extremes in motion may do many more harm than good. Add to that the risk of the “group” class teaching. Inherently in a crowded class of any type of workout, it may be hard for the new attendee to get appropriate feedback and cueing on form, and the risk for injury is higher. There may not be any specificity and the instructor may not be able to cater the class to respect the injury that my client is dealing with in a larger fast paced setting.

I have had over the years numerous patients, athletes, weekend warriors, and personal training clients who have come to me complaining of pain after attending a yoga class. What I often tell them; these activities much like other sports and fitness pursuits are not inherently bad, however certain orthopedic issues may be irritated by certain loading, twisting, or weight bearing movements in these practices. Know what you are getting into … much the same as you wouldn’t attempt to rock climb a difficult terrain without knowing how difficult it was, or skiing down a ski run without any idea if it was a green or a double black diamond run!

Yoga – the practice is so varied and so rich. It is important to really understand the wide variety of classes and styles, and discern which is best for your body, mind, spirit. Yoga can be demanding on joints because so much of it is weight bearing and loading through your body.

To keep it simple, if you are dealing with a fresh injury and your body is in the process of recovering, it is probably not the best time to jump into a new health routine of ANY sort.

That being said, I practice yoga fairly regularly and for many years have found it incredibly helpful to open up my hips, chest, mobilize tissue tight from the repetitiveness of my sport of cycling. I see the relevance of the practice, when the body is able to accept the challenge! Most certified Yoga instructors have a wonderful breadth of knowledge mind you. When I do have patients or clients wanting to begin a new practice, I always suggest a private session or several to begin with, and from a certified instructor.



headshot1Dara Richman is a Physical Therapist in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she consults with private clients on how to maximize their fitness potential, recover from injury quickly, and return to sport, plus strength and conditioning, and injury prevention. She has taught human anatomy and kinesiology, as well as fitness, kickboxing, and dance. Working with some of the top orthopedic surgeons in Southern California treating pro cyclists, AVP volleyball players, pro soccer players, NFL athletes and the like has given her an appreciation for all the varied sports injuries.

Dara is a cyclist, yogi, and Crossfitter. Her motto is find something you like that keeps you moving, and move. She didn’t grow up being an athlete; somewhere along the way it just happened. Starting off as an aerobics instructor at UCLA, she found that exercising empowered her as a strong woman. Motivating others to exercise struck a chord personally and professionally. When not treating patients or coaching, she can be found riding her road bike or mountain bike all over the Bay Area.