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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Now I’m Going to Share at You

Chell

Last month, I began a practice of checking in on the blog and letting you in on my personal life. It still feels funny to talk about myself. I keep a journal, but it’s almost never about me. My mom doesn’t think she’s interesting. My dad thinks he’s the funniest thing since Charlie Chaplin. Me? I’m a little bit of both. I think I’m fabulously funny and often let Twitter know about it. But when it comes to talking about myself, my life, my work, sometimes I find it hard to take up space in a conversation.

When I was a kid, I would often ask my mom questions about her childhood and her parents, and she usually gave vague answers suggesting that nothing interesting happened in her life, ever. I know now that this can’t be true, but I think she really doesn’t like to be the center of attention and honestly doesn’t think she’s very interesting. Is this a trait of a classic southern belle or the result of life-long low self esteem? I’m not sure, but it’s something I inherited from her. Although my mom has always been 100% devoted to her kids, her apparent lack of self-interest made it hard to get to know her as an adult.

Over the past couple years, I noticed that my own tendency to keep to myself makes it difficult to develop friendships and meaningful connections. I’ve always taken pride in being a good listener, but it didn’t occur to me until recently that I should learn to be a good talker as well, so I’ve been learning to walk that line of participating in the conversations around me but still listening. Lately, I notice that getting to know new people and having actual friendships is getting easier. I feel like this is the cherry on top of all the changes I’ve made over the past couple years, signifying the end of what has been a very long cycle.

As a kid, you spend a lot of time thinking about what you want to do or be when you grow up. I for one had no idea how to get from “I wanna be a writer,” to “I am a writer,” nor did I understand the real-life implications of any given career choice.  The way we talk about careers in this country is dysfunctional: We’re taught to focus on finding a great job, but I had a great job and I hated it. Or those of us who want to be professionally creative think we have to write bestsellers to be happy. At some point, I realized the picture of life I’d developed as a child didn’t match the life I was living, and I needed some adjustments on both ends of that equation in order to have a life I really loved.

I had to disassemble large chunks of the life I’d built in order to become the person I am now. I changed things in my marriage and my relationship with my family. I had to change my job, of course. And I had to learn to connect more with people so I could have fulfilling friendships. Now I’ve reached the point where I can finally say I am the person I wanted to be.

The next step, which I’ve already begun, is working on the career I actually want. I struggle a little bit to find balance between writing, teaching, friendships, and my marriage, not to mention all the little household tasks that must get done. But where that struggle used to feel like a constant and torturous battle, now it just feels like a challenge, a thing I both need and want to work on.

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