Yoga was originally developed in ancient India as a physical, mental and spiritual discipline to instil spiritual insight and tranquility.
However, the yoga most of us practice at the gym or at our local yoga studio is an adapted version, not focused on the spiritual aspects, and more concerned with stretching and breathing exercises that help the body and mind relax.
Then there is "hot yoga" which is done in a room heated up to around 40 degrees Celsius. The temperature is supposed to mimic the conditions in India where yoga was first developed.
Doing yoga in the heat is claimed to have a range of benefits: it's said to have the same effect as "warming up" before exercise and help muscles, joints and ligaments to stretch further with a lower risk of injury; it increases blood circulation to tissues and organs, enhancing the immune system functions; it makes classes more challenging; and raises the heart rate, stimulates detoxifying perspiration and makes for a great cardiovascular workout.
Any type of yoga can be practiced in a heated room, but the kind most often practiced this way is Bikram Yoga. It was developed by Bikram Choudhury and is basically a sequence of 26 traditional yoga postures that follow and build on each other.
Bikram Yoga classes run exactly 90 minutes, and it is said that at the end of the class the body has been exercised fully, both inside and out, and the mind is focused, calmed and cleared.
Many professional athletes are reported to practice Bikram Yoga to improve their health and sports performance, and even Lady Gaga is rumored to have practiced it in a Manhattan studio.
There has been much debate as to whether or not it is safe to do strenuous exercise in temperatures over 37.8 degrees Celsius. It is common for Bikram practitioners to experience dizziness and nausea, especially in the earlier stages of their practice.
It is advisable they drink a lot of water during and after the practice to avoid dehydration that may be caused by excessive perspiration.
Doctors have also raised concerns about doing stretches in extreme heat. They argue that the heat allows a person to stretch more, but once you stretch a muscle beyond 25% of its resting length, you begin to damage the muscle.
Postures that require extreme bending of the knees, like squats and sitting backward on folded legs are more likely to cause tears in knee cartilage. And some Bikram Yoga poses, such as the "toe stand pose," a single-legged squat, require exactly that.
To see if "hot yoga" is as wonderful as some say - or as dangerous as others warn - I put it to the test. I found a local studio through a quick search on the internet, and early one morning before work I found myself in lovely, large, but also hot, yoga studio in downtown Cape Town.
I am no guru, but I have been practicing yoga on and off for a couple of years, so I wasn't a complete novice going in.
The heat made the postures more demanding and soon my heart was racing and my body was starting to glisten with perspiration. I rolled up sleeves and then shed clothing until only the absolute necessities were covered.
About 45 minutes into the class I was soaked in sweat – it must have looked like I just climbed out of the shower. Up until then I was still trying to wipe off the worst of the perspiration, but looking around I realised most of the other people in the class were also drenched, so I stopped worrying about it and just focused on the class.
The heat did make my muscles suppler, making it easier to get into certain poses, and also stretching deeper into them.
I did have a couple of dizzy spells where I had to sit down and relax for a few seconds before continuing with the class.
Soaking wet with perspiration and red-faced from the heat and exertion, I headed for the shower after an hour-long class to try and make myself presentable for work. And that is where I fell in love with hot yoga: the cool water on my hot skin made it feel alive and awake.
It's not an easy sensation to articulate, but the experience made me feel completely refreshed, rejuvenated and well… clean.
I know what you're thinking: of course you'll feel clean from a shower after sweating profusely for an hour – but I felt cleansed, as if all that sweating helped rid my body off stress, toxins and other bad stuff.
Today I am hooked and do hot yoga as often as I can. I won't lie and tell you it's all fantastic - it's hard work, it's uncomfortable and it gets flipping hot in there. But for me, the pain is definitely worth the gain.
Best go see for yourself if you like it or not.
Watch this video to what goes on in a hot yoga class:
Yoga Zone – http://www.yogazone.co.za/
Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoga