Why I Don’t Do Hot Yoga (but it’s OK if You Do)

photo by Kullez on Flickr

I often get asked for an opinion on the different types of yoga, particularly hot yoga, and I usually try to give a succinct answer that’s clear (I don’t like hot yoga) but respectful (you can still do it). That sounds totally non-committal, but there’s a reason for it! TLDR: I choose a practice style that’s right for me personally, and you should pick one that’s right for you. People who’ve only tried hot yoga might feel that there’s no other way to practice or feel that yoga’s either “not for me” or just meant to be brutal. That’s not the case, though. Yoga is for everybody, and you get to choose what type of practice is healthiest for you. So, having tried it myself, here are the reasons I choose not to practice hot yoga, but we can still be friends if you do.

Problem 1: Ego. My biggest problem in a hot room full of people is that I will push myself too far and get hurt. I will not be listening to my body the way I should. I’ll feel more flexible than normal because of the heat, and I will do poses my body can’t normally get into. Even though I teach yoga and practice regularly, I have some really tight muscles because I skate a lot, so something as simple as janu sirsasana can be a significant challenge for me. If I let myself get into a competitive state of mind, I’m more likely to push myself in challenging poses, which can result in injury. The obvious answer to this first problem is ahimsa, the yogic principal of nonviolence and non-harming. For me, entering into an environment where I know I will push myself in an unsafe way is a type of violence or aggression toward myself, so my practice of ahimsa means taking a gentler approach to asana.

Problem 2: Heat doesn’t make your yoga practice better. Sweating profusely isn’t particularly better for you than working up a moderate sweat. Sitting in a hot sauna can feel really nice, and a good sweat can give your skin a healthy glow, but heat by itself doesn’t burn fat or release toxins or anything like that. Heat and sweat produced by the body working and burning calories is productive. Heat and sweat produced by being in a hot room is just your body’s way of desperately trying to cool itself, which is why it’s important to drink tons of water if you do plan on practicing hot yoga. Some people really love the feeling of sweating their brains out. I don’t. Plus, I hate when my hands and feet are so sweaty that I slide all over the mat. This article does a great job of debunking several myths about the benefits of practicing in extreme heat.

Problem 3: Bikram Choudhury and other guru types … I mention Bikram in particular because he’s infamous. He’s the rock star of hot yoga and Bikram classes are taught in a very prescriptive way. I instinctively distrust people like this. They’re very good at what they do and well-known for it, but that doesn’t make them superior beings. I try to take whatever wisdom I can from them and move on. Bikram probably knows an awful lot about anatomy and asana practice, but my body is still my own and I get to decide what to do with it. If a yoga teacher insists that a pose be done in a particular way (or done at all) when it’s clearly putting the student in pain or at risk of injury, that teacher is irresponsible and not to be trusted, in my not-so-humble opinion.

Problem 4: Different abilities. In every yoga class I’ve taught or taken, there have been people of different ability levels. Even if you go to the most beginner level class, you’ll have beginners who are relatively fit and taking their first steps into yoga, and you’ll have beginners who haven’t exercised in years or are recovering from major injury or illness. As a teacher, it’s my job to try to meet all of those people where they are and provide a class that benefits everyone in the room. Around here, many hot yoga classes are vinyasa style, which means you’re moving pretty quickly from one pose to the next, and there’s very little time for discussing alignment, much less for giving specific feedback and adjustments to individuals who may be struggling. In these classes, I’ve often observed fellow students in unsafe poses and had to stop myself from stepping on the teacher’s toes by assisting them myself.

Problem 5: Too much rajas. In yogic philosophy, there’s the concept of the gunas: tamas, rajas, and sattva. Tamas is a sedentary state, rajas is an active state, and sattwa is a light state. (This is an oversimplification, and I suggest you read more about the gunas here if you’re interested.) Most of us live somewhere between tamas and rajas — we may live a sedentary lifestyle, sitting a desk most of the day and watching TV most of the evening, but we’re mentally and emotionally very rajasic meaning that we’re stressed out, anxious, and our thoughts and emotions are out of control. A sattvic state is attained through the various practices of yoga including self-reflection and meditation. To be functional in our world, most of us need a healthy balance of all three gunas. We need enough tamas to be grounded in reality, enough rajas to take action, and enough sattva to have a clear perspective. I’ve noticed in my social circles that the people who are most attracted to hot yoga are also the people who’s lives are already very rajasic. They are busy, often stressed out or anxious, high achievers, and typically very image aware. A fast-paced, heated practice like hot yoga tends to reinforce those same traits. So, hot yoga will feel great to someone who loves to be active, but it won’t necessarily help them to become more balanced or less stressed.

Exception to Problem 5: Some people need that. Especially if you’ve been living a sedentary lifestyle and you suddenly stumble upon a yoga practice that really invigorates you — that’s great. If it gets you moving, inspires you, and starts you on your yoga journey, then I’m all for it. A vigorous practice can help you burn anxious energy, and if you’re working with a good teacher who can bring you back down from that energy high in order to relax and meditate at the end of class, even better. But you don’t have to practice that aggressively or be in a super heated room to get that calming benefit from your yoga.

Problem 6: Sustainability. I enjoy a hot yoga class maybe three times a year, at the absolute most. In the dead of winter, it feels really good to go into a hot studio and sweat like crazy. It feels like I’m jump starting my body after months of staying inside and hiding from the cold. It’s just not a practice I personally can sustain more than a few classes in a row. Some people have the energy for that, but I don’t. I get my workout elsewhere, and I spend plenty of energy on that. When I turn to yoga, it’s to help my mind and body recover from the demands I place on them, not to continue pushing.

Problem 7: The physical challenges of yoga are fun, but they don’t mean anything. This isn’t exactly a problem, but I do think certain styles of yoga over-emphasize the importance of asana practice. There is no inherent merit in being able to do a handstand or reach the bind in extended side angle. There is no yoga god looking down and distributing blessings to people who can put their feet behind their head. It’s fun to work on advanced poses, but it’s not important. My shoulders really don’t like binding in certain poses, so I’ve decided that for me, it’s just not that important to get there. What matters is respecting my body and choosing a practice that leads me toward the ultimate goal of yoga which — believe it or not — isn’t a pose at all.

At the end of the day, your yoga practice is what you make it. You can compete with yourself or the person on the next mat. You can make it a practice of self-reflection or self-abuse. It can be your workout, your source of peace, or both. There’s no wrong yoga as long as you practice with intention and awareness. If you practice mindlessly, it’s not yoga, it’s just poses. Whether you’re in a hot room sweating buckets or lying on the floor doing restoratives, the quality of your practice is determined by your intention, not by the brand you prefer.

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My Yoga Super Heroes

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I used to think my yoga teachers were super heroes. Now that I teach, I’m constantly tempted to compare myself to them, and the comparisons are not always favorable to me.

I want to be like them because their work changed my life. Maybe even saved it. I know I’m not exactly the most with-it grownup on the block, but can you imaging where my life would be without yoga? I can’t.

At sixteen, I didn’t have the patience to just sit and be quiet. I was anxious about everything. My brain never quit chattering. I would regularly tear at my skin until I bled. And I hated everyone and everything. Yoga became the moving meditation that allowed me to find some quiet within myself. I have Janet to thank for that.

At twenty-seven, in a panic about the grey cubicle farm that was my daily life, I turned to yoga again, this time with a different need. I had learned to make peace with my body, but could I make peace with the rest of my life? This is when Elizabeth introduced me to the real power of the breath, which gave me the ability to be present in this moment. Notably, many of life’s worries drop away when you’re living in the present rather than stressing about the past or the future. I learned to work on my problems just like asanas — one moment at a time, letting the breath be my guide.

Now that I’m teaching, I wonder if I can give my students the same things my teachers gave me, and I don’t know the answer. Maybe it’s not my job to give my them precisely the same lessons but rather to introduce them to their own inner teacher. We honor certain great teachers with the title “guru,” but the true guru for each of us is the wisdom that lives within us. Finding that divine spark within yourself feels a lot like how I imagine super powers feel. Now, if only I could figure out how to give people that.

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Yoga Sutras 1.21-1.22: Intention Correlates with Progress

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1.21: TĪVRA SAMVEGĀNĀM ĀSANNAH.
To the keen and intent practitioner, this [samadhi] comes very quickly.

1.22: MRDU MADHYĀDHIMĀTRATVĀT TATO’PI VIŚESAH
The time necessary for success further depends on whether the practice is mild, medium or intense.

 Simple advice plainly stated.

Dedicate yourself to your practice. Dedicate yourself to evolving. Be studious, and choose the most challenging practice you’re able to do. Even if you’re doing very simple poses or the most basic pranayama, practice with intense focus and utmost sincerity.

The degree of dedication you have to your practice directly correlates to the degree of impact the practice will have on your life. If you practice once a week and forget about it the rest of the time, the progress will be slow. You may forget things between sessions or just feel that you’re not getting anywhere. If you incorporate your practice into your daily life in small or large ways, your progress will speed up significantly.

If you know just one or two yoga poses or a simple meditation technique, try practicing every day for 5-10 minutes and make note of if/how it changes your day. Do you feel any differently? Think any differently? Can you apply yogic ideas such as ahimsa or breath awareness into other aspects of your day?

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How to Be a Better Teacher

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Step 1: Practice More

You can’t teach what you don’t know. Practice every day. Pay attention to the effects of your practice on your own body and mind. Deepen your awareness. Get intimately familiar with any pose or technique that you want to teach to your students.

Step 2: Modify

Study the poses with your students’ needs in mind. If they have limited mobility, tightness, hyper-flexibility, injuries or illness, look for ways to make the poses’ effects accessible despite those challenges. Use all the tools and props at your disposal if it helps the student.

Step 3: Learn from Others

Keep going to other yoga classes whenever you can. If you can’t make it to class (i.e. it’s too damn cold outside and you refuse to leave the house) study what other teachers have to say in books, blog posts, magazine articles and online videos. However you do it, just keep learning.

Step 4: Branch Out

Do something besides yoga. Especially if you’re a full-time yoga teacher, it’s easy to get in a rut of doing the same thing over and over again. Go roller skating, take a jog, try an aerobics or spin class. Challenge your body in a different way and then try your practice again. Notice how this changes your practice, and incorporate that knowledge into your class.

Step 5: Listen

When students ask questions or give you feedback, they’re letting you know what they need. They may remember pieces of breath work from previous classes, or they might not understand the alignment of the hips in a certain pose. The feedback they give you can tell you where they’re experiencing challenges, where they’d like to learn more, and how you can give more clear and helpful instructions.

Step 6: Honor the Student

Being a yoga teacher doesn’t mean you’re more advanced than the student. It just means that you have a certain skill set you can share. Honor the students’ unique experience and personal wisdom, and encourage them to honor the same in themselves. The true teacher is the inner guru, and it’s your job to help them find it within themselves.

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All Dolled Up for Charm School

Added to my to-do list: Plan yoga practice for skating.
Added to my to-do list: Plan yoga practice for skating. (No, this isn’t me. One day, though …) 

I didn’t so much fall off the bandwagon. It’s more like the Ghost of Christmas Present kicked me off in a whirlwind of junk food, booze, and family gatherings. So … I didn’t do yoga at all while in Louisiana for Christmas, nor have I skated since coming home. My muscles have been tight, my energy has been low, and I was just starting to feel a bit of regret about it all earlier this week. The good news is, you can always rededicate yourself to your practice. Atha yoganushasanam, right? Now we begin. There’s a reason this is tattooed on my forearm. I need the reminder frequently.

My motivation this week has been to prepare for Charm School, a Saturday-morning clinic for aspiring derby girls put on by the Charm City Rollergirls. This will be my first chance to interact with the Baltimore derby crowd (aside from watching them bout), so I’m completely stoked, but also a little nervous. I fall slightly less often than I used to and can theoretically skate backwards, but I still basically suck. On the bright side, I got most of my gear for Christmas from my amazing husband, which means I’m now equipped to do all the falling necessary to actually get good at derby.

I wish I’d done more skating this week, but it’s cold as the bejeezus outside and frankly, I don’t wanna/you can’t make me. Instead, I’ve been using my yoga practice to help build strength and endurance. Thursday morning, for example, I did several rounds of Sun Salutation (with jump-backs) to warm up, then worked on pigeon pose and eagle (two of my favorite standards). After that, I touched on my project poses: handstand, pinchamayurasana, bakasana, and bhujapidasana. I’m finally able to kick up into handstand and hold it for several seconds without using the wall, and my bakasana (crow pose) has gotten a lot stronger. I can get into pincha from headstand if I use the wall, and I can do the first step of bhujapidasana. My asana goal for 2014 is to master this set of poses, and I feel like I’m already making good progress.

What do these poses have to do with derby, though? While Sun Salutation may not be what you think of when you want to build up your endurance, it really is a challenge once you start building up to the 108. Plus, skating can be intense on the hips and low back, so I like to use various yoga poses to work out the kinks from practice as well as that unique post-travel, cold weather stiffness. Finally, all those inversions and arm balances may not seem related to skating, but they certainly help build core strength, focus, and overall confidence. I feel pretty good about the progress I’m making lately, and while I don’t expect to be the best skater at Charm School, I feel ready to learn a lot and challenge myself.

 

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