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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love humans

Where_is_the_love by Tatoli ba Kultura -- CC-BY-SA

I want to tell you to love yourself, but I also want to tell you to love other people. And I don’t mean like putting others first in all things because that becomes painful very quickly.
But practice seeing the good in other people. And beyond that, see that they are vulnerable. See that their anger comes from fear, and love them. See that their bad behavior comes from ignorance, and teach them.

Don’t make yourself their victim. Be prepared to walk away. And yes, you’re allowed to walk away from people you love. It doesn’t mean you love them any less. It just means you can’t save them. But if you can stand to give some compassion without killing yourself, do it. Look another human being in the eyes and accept them for who they are. Don’t try to be better than them; everyone else is already doing that. Realize that they are as good and worthy as you are and that the most important gifts you’ve been given — food, shelter, education — were largely granted to you based on no merit of your own. Realize that if you deserve that kind of goodness in your life (and you do), then they deserve goodness, too. Now treat them that way.

However, if you can’t believe that you deserve goodness in your life, you’re going to find it very difficult to extend that generosity to others. When you catch yourself judging others, ask what it says about you that you are so irritated by someone else’s imperfections. Are you bothered being around people who don’t meet your specific standards for beauty, intelligence, morality, or social status? If they aren’t hurting you, there’s a good chance your feelings about them stem from your own anxiety and insecurity. But if you start to say, “Ok, it’s fine for that person to be the way they are, even if it’s not what I would want for myself. They still deserve to be happy,” that starts to change the way you view yourself. Eventually, you’ll realize that because you’re a human just like the other guy, you probably deserve to be happy, too.

In other words: Loving other people teaches you to love yourself, and loving yourself makes it easier to love other people.

I have this crazy fantasy in which everyone in the world learns to do yoga or meditate or practice seva. Everyone in the world decides, “I’m not perfect, but I really want to live in a more peaceful world, so I’m going to try really hard to love other people and to accept them and myself as we are.” And things get a lot better. It starts out small. Grocery stores are less stressful. Traffic jams still happen, but people honk less. Gradually, gridlock eases thanks to increased carpooling. There are environmental and financial benefits all around. People stop buying products whose advertising tells them they’re not good enough, and as a result, we spend more money on things that actually make us happy. There is a major economic shift toward positive industries — scientific research, environmental repair, health and wellness — and organizations such as nonprofits to alleviate homelessness experience a surge in funding as people realize it really sucks to let some people live in poverty while others have all the fun.

And in this fantasy, we’re still not perfect. We still fuck up. But when we do, we say we’re sorry, and we do our best to make it better, because that’s what you do when you love somebody.

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My Path of Seva: How may I help you?

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There is a yogic practice called seva, which just means service. It’s the simplest thing in the world, but it can be life-changing. All you do is serve others. Make it your job to help people wherever you can, however you can. Think about how you can help your coworkers. How can you be a beneficial presence in your loved one’s lives? How can you be the most use in the world? In my opinion, the ideal seva practice is one in which you are able to give much yet feel fulfilled and joyful about giving.

I was doing my yoga teacher training while working as a project manager, and that’s when I started to seriously apply seva to my life. I did not particularly love my work (although my coworkers were all wonderful people), but I needed to keep that job. I wasn’t the best PM ever, but viewing my job through the lens of seva made me pretty decent at it. I felt the most satisfied when I could help my team complete a project quickly and do the job well, but I still wasn’t helping enough. I was not making the world a better place by being there. Nothing happened at that company that couldn’t happen without me. My service was not essential, and I knew I could accomplish more elsewhere.

Since becoming a yoga teacher, I’ve spent most of my time looking for the ways I could do the most good for other people. In my relationships, in my yoga classes, and in derby, I look for the ways that I can be of the most service. The other night, I was getting ahead of myself thinking about which roller derby team I would like to be on. They all have different strengths and weaknesses, and they’re all made up of incredible athletes. The truth is, I would love to be on any of those teams, and if there’s a team that could use someone like me, I want to be on it. To me, that’s part of seva: send me where I’m needed, and I’ll find joy in the work.

The strangest part about seva is that while it opens up all kinds of opportunities for me, I never feel like I’m giving nearly as much as I’m receiving. If I do volunteer work, I feel humbled by the chance to serve other people. I learn more from my yoga students than I could ever teach them. And though I strive to hold up my end of the deal with my husband, I owe him more gratitude than I have words for. In other words, the more I focus on giving, the more I seem to receive.

That’s not to say I don’t look out for myself. It’s become more and more important in the past year for me to take care of my own health and monitor my own stress levels because serving all the time is exhausting. I require time for myself. I have to take long baths, lounge in the sun, eat good food, do my yoga practice and meditate — all those things that help me be happy and function in the world. And through the lens of seva, even those things become more joyful because I know that when I am well and happy, I can help spread wellness and happiness. Seva is becoming a positive cycle in my life.

It’s said that you can reach enlightenment through total dedication to any form of yoga, including seva. Let me be clear: I don’t know what enlightenment is and I’m not all that interested in reaching it. I’m more interested in learning to be a happy human being here and now, not some kind of radiant embodied deity (which is how I imagine enlightened folks). But I can testify that the pursuit of seva has changed my life. When I worked as a PM, I felt like my life had been hijacked. Now, the more I serve others, the more confirmation I get that I am on my right path. I think being on my right path and finding peace in the here and now is far more valuable than the endless pursuit of gloriously useless enlightenment.

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Announcing a New Chakra Class Series and a Special Sunday Class

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This Sunday from 10 a.m. to 11:30, I’ll be leading a chakra-balancing yoga practice to introduce you to the concept of the chakras and invite you to explore them more deeply through my upcoming chakra class series.

The on  Monday (4/14/14), I’ll be leading a 7-week yoga series focused on the chakras from 9:30 to 10:45 a.m. at Shakti Studio in Arnold, MD. Each class will focus on a different chakra, we’ll talk about the symbolism around it, how it relates to the body, how it affects our lives, and how we can use asana practice and meditation to improve our overall health (mental, physical, and emotional).

If you’ve ever tried yoga, you’re likely at least faintly aware of the concept of chakras, but most people really don’t know much about them. The chakras are part of an elegant system through which yogis approach health on every level rather than separating the mind, body and emotions from one another. We often think of ourselves as just brains walking around inside a body, and we even create an adversarial relationship between the mind and body with our constant dieting and endless self-criticism. The truth is that without the mind there’s no use for the body, and without the body, the mind doesn’t have a home. So yoga uses asana, meditation, and concepts such as the chakras to help us create a state of integration and wholeness. In that state, we can experience the richness of life in a profound and life-changing way.

Our goal with this series will be to explore each of the chakras in turn to see what it can teach us about ourselves and our lives. My hope is that by the end you will have gained a new set of tools to practice self-awareness and cultivate the kind of wisdom and joy you want. Drop-ins are welcome in this series, however you will get the greatest benefit by participating in the full series of classes. Advance registration is recommended — just go to Shakti Studio’s online registration system and sign up for the Monday morning 9:30 class. All levels are welcome!

How to find us: Shakti Studio is at 530 East College Parkway, Suite E, Annapolis, MD. Do not use GPS to find the studio as you will get incorrect directions.

Coming from Rt. 2/Baltimore: Take Ritchie Highway into Arnold, then take a left onto Parkway. Stay on College Pkwy. until you see the second turn for Bellrive Rd. Make a left turn onto Bellrive. You will be able to see the studio from the street. It’s on the lower level of the College Parkway Professional Center.

Coming from Rt. 50/Annapolis: Take the exit for Bay Dale Rd. and veer right. Follow Bay Dale until you see College Pkwy. Take a right onto College Pkwy., then a left onto the second turn for Bellrive.

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How Derby is Teaching Me to Let Go of Fear

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This is the year I let go of fear. This is the year I push myself. That’s what I determined at the start of 2014. There is no path laid out ahead of me: no promotion to work for, no boss to please, no raise to negotiate. It’s up to me to determine where I go this year and beyond. Total freedom is very similar to total lack of direction, and the main difference between the two is having the ovaries to take action. And that means I cannot be frozen by fear.

Trying out for derby was a pretty big challenge and a good way to practice facing my fears, but it was only the beginning. Getting into the league is one thing, but sticking with it, practicing even when you’re tired and sore, reaching out to new people, and challenging yourself physically and mentally with every practice … well, it’s hard work. It’s especially hard if you’re naturally an introvert who’d rather stay home and think deep thoughts than sweat or meet new people.

Sometimes I wonder why I’m doing this, and the answer seems to be: Because I want to see if I can. The challenge is satisfying in a way I’ve never experienced before. What I get from derby that I haven’t had in the past is a particular sense of accomplishment. Unlike my professional accomplishments, what I achieve in derby directly benefits me first and foremost (later I hope it will also benefit my team). Unlike writing or artistic accomplishments, there’s no questioning whether other people will like or appreciate it — I’m not doing it for an audience. And whereas my yoga practice is very personal and private to me, derby is something I can share with a vibrant community of people who want to help and cheer each other on. It turns out, derby fills a hole in my life I didn’t know was there.

As for the fear? Yeah, it’s still there, but I’m working on it. During practice this weekend, Mr. Pistol (one of the coaches) kept talking about committing to your movements. If you don’t commit, you’ll always do it half way, and you’ll never really get there. And what stops me from committing? Fear, of course. So I started telling myself to let go of fear and commit to doing the falls, stops and various techniques we worked on. I did not instantaneously became awesome at them, but it felt good to make a sincere effort, focus on my work, and see improvement.

I’ve also noticed that what I learn from derby often relates back to my other love: yoga. Just the other day, I complained about being afraid that I’m not a good enough yoga teacher. Yep, there’s that fear again. I have to let go of the fear of failure and commit to teaching with my true voice. If I try to please everyone, I will end up pleasing either no one or everyone but myself. Neither option is acceptable to me. If I teach the yoga I love, there’s a chance that the folks at the gym will decide I’m not their right teacher, but there’s also a chance of real success.

And what does real success mean to me? It’s pretty simple: Doing what I love in a sustainable way that adds to the overall good in the world. I’m pretty sure that’s not asking too much, and all I have to do is get the fear out of the way.

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