Expert Answers: Stretching, Sauna Etiquette, and Hot Yoga

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“Your Qs: On Stretching, Sauna Etiquette, and Hot Yoga”

Q1: What type of stretching is best, and when should I do it?

It seems everyone has a different opinion about the importance of stretching. Should I make this a regular part of my regimen? What’s the best way to get started? And when should I do it?

A. You’re right: There are loads of opinions out there about how, when, and even whether to stretch. Here’s an approach many experts recommend, based on the latest research: Perform “dynamic mobility” drills for five to 15 minutes directly prior to working out. Other forms of stretching are fine at other times, but unnecessary for general fitness.

Dynamic mobility drills (also called “active stretching”) include any movement that involves repeatedly moving a limb or joint in and out of its full, comfortable range of motion, usually with a two- or three-count hold at the end range. Gym-class classics like high knee pulls, arm circles, and deep lunges are great examples. (For more of our favorites, read “The Perfect Warm-Up.”)

When performing dynamic stretches, work at a controlled pace for eight to 12 reps (on each side, if it’s a one-sided drill), attempting to increase your range and speed slightly as you go. You’ll lubricate your joints and prime your nervous system for the more vigorous movements to come.

So what about “static stretching” — the classic reach-and-hold flexibility drills that were once a mainstay of group exercise classes? “Multiple studies have suggested they reduce both power and performance in the short term,” says Mike T. Nelson, MS, CSCS. So, if you enjoy static stretching, go for it — but make sure to do it after your workout so it doesn’t slow you down on the court or in the weight room.

Q2: What should I wear in the sauna?

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What’s the proper etiquette at the gym sauna? I’ve noticed some people go in naked, some wear a towel, and others, a swimsuit. 

A. “Unisex saunas almost always require swimwear,” says Kathy Nelsen, director of spas at Kabuki Springs & Spa in San Francisco. In single-sex saunas and steam rooms, the rules are usually a little less clear-cut. “Each facility has its own culture.” At some spas, she says, nudity is the norm; at others, people tend to cover up more.

“The No. 1 rule is always to feel comfortable and be sure others feel the same,” says Nelsen. Very simply, you might want to check — subtly — to see what others are doing and simply follow suit.

One common practice, says Nelsen, is to enter the sauna wrapped in a towel, and then remove it to sit or lie on (don’t sit or lie directly on the wood or tile in a sauna — you’ll burn your skin). Once you’ve had a good sweat, stand up and wrap yourself again before exiting.

On the subject of sauna etiquette: One thing not to take with you inside is a cell phone. You may or may not damage your phone, but you’ll almost certainly annoy your fellow sauna-sitters, and it’s usually against the rules of the club. “Take a moment away from socializing in all forms, breathe, and have a serene moment to yourself,” advises Nelsen.

Q3: Is hot yoga for me?

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I’m a fan of heated yoga. After my last few classes, though, I’ve had a bad headache. Can I prevent this reaction? What else should I be mindful of before, during, and after class?

A. You’re not alone in your devotion to getting seriously sweaty in yoga class. Right now there are more than 300 heated, or Bikram, yoga studios in the United States, with new ones popping up all the time.

Ninety-minute Bikram classes consist of a sequence of 26 traditional yoga asanas (postures), performed in a studio heated to about 105 degrees F. In the heat, students often find they are able to sink deeper into the asanas than they can in more traditional yoga classes.

Mild headaches, dizziness, and nausea are fairly common in beginning Bikram students, usually because of mild dehydration. The simple solution? “Drink plenty of water before and after class,” advises Mary Frances Gurton, who teaches at the Bikram’s Yoga College of India in Los Angeles. A liquid with electrolytes, such as coconut water, may be particularly helpful after class when you’re trying to hydrate quickly. Sip conservatively during class, however: “Bending and twisting with lots of liquid sloshing in your belly can be very uncomfortable,” says Gurton.

Like any exercise, yoga (in all its forms) carries risks of injury, most often to the knees, lower back, and shoulders. The key to avoiding them, advises Gurton, is to work within your limits and not to get competitive with other students. In hot yoga, be especially mindful of getting swept away by the competitive spirit: If you start to feel lightheaded, take a break, and leave the room if necessary — don’t tough it out just to prove you can.

If you’re concerned about general yoga-related injuries, however, Bikram may be one of your safest options. While the heat adds an extra challenge, “the poses are basic in Bikram yoga,” says Gurton. “There are no inversions or intense balancing poses that overstrain the upper body. It’s user-friendly. It’s the Honda Civic of yoga classes.

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