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Hot yoga catching fire in Western Pa.

| Wednesday, March 12, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Jennifer Adams (center) and Heidi Wiegand participate in a Smokin' Hot Yoga Class at Stick With It Fitness in Allison Park Tuesday, March, 11, 2014.

Seth Gernot said he tried just about every type of yoga available in Pittsburgh over a period of more than 10 years, searching for one that fit him well. Then, about three years ago, he discovered Bikram Yoga, a popular form of hot yoga.

He quickly became hooked.

“The heat really makes you focus on what you're doing,” said Gernot, 35, of Edgewood, a student at Bikram Yoga Squirrel Hill. “In other classes, you can kind of just tune out, go with the flow and just get through the class. This class really makes you focus, and that's what I like about it. It's not only the physical aspect, but the mental aspect.”

Bikram Yoga, a trademarked series of 26 specific poses and two breathing exercises done in a 90-minute class, is part of a growing trend of hot yoga in Western Pennsylvania. Over the past few years, a number of studios offering either Bikram or a “vinyasa flow” alternative yoga have cropped up in Pittsburgh and its suburbs.

In hot yoga, rooms are heated to more than 90 degrees. Bikram Yoga turns up the heat even more, exceeding 100 degrees. Studios often alter the humidity in their rooms as well, in an effort to replicate the heat and humidity of India.

“You sweat in places you didn't even know you could sweat,” said Kelly Meeder, owner of Smokin' Hot Yoga, which operates in locations in Allison Park and Sarver. “Your ears sweat, your shins sweat. You just sweat.”

Smokin' Hot Yoga teaches the vinyasa flow type of yoga, which adds a calisthenic element that Meeder said makes it a “full-body workout.”

The health benefits of the different types of hot yoga are unclear.

A number of students reported feeling less pain and inflammation in their joints, including Gernot, who has had knee problems from years of running and bike riding; Jim Waite, 50, of Squirrel Hill, who suffers from lower-back pain; and Jasmine Hearn, 25, of Bloomfield, a professional dancer who said hot yoga helps her with inflammation in her knees and other joints.

“The major plus for me is you're doing strength, endurance, toning and detoxification all at the same time,” said Wendy Williams, 49, of Wilmerding, another Bikram Yoga Squirrel Hill student. “It's pretty intense, but at the same time, you feel the rewards right away. I just noticed a lot of changes with my body as far as my flexibility and my tolerance for different things.”

Williams, who has a titanium plate in her neck and herniated disc in her back, said she isn't bothered as much by pain in those areas as she used to be.

While hot yoga can help with joint pain and inflammation, so can other types of yoga, said Dr. Betsy Blazek-O'Neill, staff physician with Allegheny General Hospital's integrative medicine program. The higher temperatures associated with hot yoga do help with muscle flexibility, Blazek-O'Neill said, but many of its purported other benefits aren't scientifically proven.

“They can show that yoga has benefits for certain conditions or certain things people deal with,” Blazek-O'Neill said. “But if you look at the things Bikram will say hot yoga does for people, like reorganizing fat cells and stuff like that, no one's ever studied that to my knowledge.”

Blazek-O'Neill said the focus on sweating doesn't mesh with traditional yoga's principles of meditation.

The extra sweat doesn't mean hot yoga is a better workout, either. A 2013 study funded by the American Council on Exercise compared student heart rates and body temperatures during yoga classes held at room temperature (around 70 degrees) and in a hot yoga format (an average of around 93 degrees). Heart rates increased slightly in the hot yoga format, yet not significantly.

The Council study didn't measure students in a Bikram setting, where temperatures would have been even higher.

Zeb Homison, director at Bikram Yoga Pittsburgh in Lawrenceville, said he believes many of the benefits of yoga exist though they aren't scientifically proven. Yoga in general can help improve a person's focus and sleeping patterns, in addition to relieving pain. He said he believes the heat from Bikram helps bring more oxygen into the body.

Blazek-O'Neill said she wouldn't recommend hot yoga for first-timers because of its more strenuous nature. She advises people not to push themselves too much.

“I think you should learn regular yoga first,” Blazek-O'Neill said. “Then if you think you want to look into hot yoga, that's something you can do later.”

Doug Gulasy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-388-5830, via email at dgulasy@tribweb.com or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.

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