HIIT and Hot Yoga: What does this exciting mixture mean?

What is HIIT?

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT for short) requires that you work extremely hard for short periods, usually with simple movements. You take regular breaks to re-group your resources, and prepare for the next movements.

A yogafurie hot class where the students are performing a pose with their arms outstretched

Interestingly, in Yoga classes we often work really quite hard in our postures. This can be true for more gentle practices as well as dynamic classes: depending on our inherent flexibility, even quite simple twists and balances can be very demanding. We’ve all experienced this. The transitions between postures can provide a welcome break from the
efforts required. There are some superficial similarities.

Having said that, the style and pace of movement in a HIIT class is quite unique. Often, people are moving as fast as they can, becoming quite breathless in the process. The focus is typically on repeating movements as many times as possible. You can repeat movements for a fixed time period, or until the body part involved is exhausted and gives up. This has led to some criticism of the technique, because of the risk of triggering rhabdomyolysis. It is usually only seen in military training settings: basically, muscles naturally break down and repair themselves in use. Breakdown releases myoglobin into the bloodstream – that’s the protein that stores oxygen in your muscles. Too much myoglobin in your blood (if the breakdown is too intense or sustained) can cause kidney damage.

A model brain hemisphere and kidney

Many now feel that HIIT training has moved too far away from the research that led to its development. In the original HIIT programs (then called Tabata workouts), there was a strict pattern of repetition and rest, and a strict limit on the overall amount of time spent training. So, if there are genuine risks, and if the modern presentation has drifted from the proven original method, why do people get involved? Mostly for one reason: it works.

Benefits of HIIT

Typically, practitioners burn 25-30% more calories than resistance training, cycling or running. There is evidence that your body turns to its fat stores to find these calories. The same article also describes how this uprating of your metabolism continues after the workout has ended.

There are proven benefits for your cardiovascular health. With care, even people with heart problems can practice and greatly strengthen their hearts.

Regular HIIT practice will help your body regulate blood sugar levels. A study has shown that this is particularly true for people who are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. For people who are overweight, HIIT is a more efficient way to tackle the problem than less intense exercise styles.

A hot yoga posture which is typically challenging to hold for a long time called chair or intense pose

Yoga, Hot Yoga and HIIT – A comparison

We’ve already established that well-practiced HIIT training can increase muscle mass and remove body fat, it will boost the peak delivery of the cardiac system and probably lower resting heart rate, and it accelerates metabolism in the long term: the practitioner will burn more calories at rest than other people.

Contrast this with Yoga and Hot Yoga. Well-practiced Yoga will even out muscle tone and improve the range of movement muscles are capable of. With the right breath training, one’s aerobic system becomes calm and expansive: fewer breaths deliver more movement. The regular practitioner’s metabolism will switch, at the right times, between sympathetic arousal (exertion) and parasympathetic (rest and digest). In short, people become resilient: that is, well able to recover their equilibrium as their bodies and minds are taxed by life.

There is no inherent incompatibility between these two descriptions. In fact, a fusion of Yoga and HIIT seems inevitable. Everybody needs the relaxed and responsive system that physical Yoga delivers. And everybody needs – in varying degrees – the right amount of strength and endurance. In fact, some argue that physical Yoga must include some strength and fitness work: too much stretching actually degrades muscles, causing weakness and instability. Balancing parasympathetic and sympathetic is the key to good health – overstimulating the parasympathetic (relaxing excessively) degrades resilience, limiting response options and ultimately leading to poor health.

Hot yoga class led by teacher Sinead

And heat helps..

Heat genuinely – demonstrably – helps your body cope. Take the case of Alberto Salazar, a marathon runner at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Knowing it would be hot, he prepared by training in heat. And at the end of the race, his body systems weren’t depleted in the same way as others who took part. His system had coped far better than most, as measured by medics at the event. You can read more about this online.

A new direction!

This article has established that both Yoga and HIIT provide tremendous benefits to practitioners, and that they can be quite complementary. Yoga delivers the resilience that we all need, and HIIT can build clear capability. Heat is a bonus of course for resilience, making Hot Yoga the ideal partner for HIIT. However, HIIT has its critics, for good reason. It’s
possible that problems arise because HIIT training has strayed away from some of the fundamentals established in research-backed Tabata training.

In summary, the door is open to extend the existing and successful practice of Hot Yoga, to embrace some elements of Tabata.

Yogafurie students doing warrior 2 in 42 degree heat

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