Hot yoga is 85 minutes of sweating, panting, trembling, and nearly falling over.
It’s also full of moments of strength, balance, power, and grace.
To hold a hot yoga class, you take a normal yoga studio and stuff it with auxiliary heaters, these squat, noisy boxes stapled to the wall above eye level that push the temperature of the room past 102 degrees Fahrenheit.
You line the room with maniacs, six rows deep, seven mats to a row, six inches or less between them, these yogis so dedicated, maybe addicted to this practice, repeating the same 26 or so yoga postures again and again, once a week, twice a week, or more, and when they perspire, drips, drops, rivulets, full swamps of sweat fill the room with humidity until the relative temperature reaches 115, 120, ideally 130 degrees. The heaters only turn off if it rises above 138.
I taught novices to ride motorcycles one brutal summer in Las Vegas, the sociopathic sun screaming at us from above, the searing air 115; the temperature on the surface of that black tarmac was 138 degrees as well.
But hey, that was a dry heat.
If you attend a hot yoga class, there’s a chance you’ll hear how you are working every muscle, joint, tendon, and ligament in the body; how the poses pump blood and its cargo of oxygen in healing circles through all the organs and support the endocrine system; you may find yourself surrounded by people who have given up alcohol and late-night partying in order to make 9 a.m. Saturday yoga.
The Internet is full of articles chronicling people who cured their cancer or survived their chemotherapy by attending hot yoga classes twice a day. They followed a yoga guru across the country until they were well.
There are also articles that talk about why hot yoga may be bad for you, or that claim there is no health benefit to doing yoga in a heated room. Oh, there are studies. Study this, study that, empirical evidence vs. anecdote.
I am happy to be a hot yoga anecdote. This practice cured my plantar fasciitis, my tendonitis, and rid me of the pain from a terrible bone spur that showed up one day on an x-ray somebody took of me at urgent care.
But I’m not a hot-yoga-monogamist. I do normal yoga as well – I need the fresh challenge of new movements in new sequences, the flowing, meditative choreography, the mating of breath and asana in Vinyasa yoga.
I have no attachment to hot yoga having more value than normal yoga.
And what is “normal” yoga anyway? What the studies don’t tell you is that if you do enough yoga, any kind of yoga, you’ll never be normal again.
Change Your Focus, Change Your Perspective
Ashtanga is an ass-kicking branch of yoga. It’s a pedicure killer, I shit you not; the first class I took I rolled over my toes so many times just in the warm up portion of the class I left all of my nail polish in glittery chunks on my borrowed studio mat.
I’ve started attending Ashtanga Lite, a slightly-more-sedate and tiny-bit-shorter class, as homework for Yoga Teacher Training.
In the pre-class chatter last Friday I heard one woman confess that she could never do hot yoga.
“I’m not that tough,” she said, “I just couldn’t take it.” Two minutes later, when the class began, she spun through six sets of sun salutations without rest. I know, because I watched her in clammy amazement while I was panting for breath in the middle of the first Surya Namaskara B.
And here we get into what yoga is really about – it’s not about putting on a pair of tight pants and twisting your body until it contorts into circus-wild Indian poses; it’s not about physical fitness (although it is about health and wellbeing). It’s about exploring, experimenting, noticing, and growing – what are your assumptions, how are they true or untrue, and where did they come from?
It’s about trusting the practice – how rolling out your mat class after class and making the shapes as best you can will move you through gradual but guaranteed, patient transformation.
It’s about focus – finding and maintaining a Drishti, or gazing point, to help you balance on one leg while attempting something radically athletic with the flying leg.
In hot yoga, I choose to focus on how my muscles warm, open, stretch, strengthen, and perform in an optimum environment. I acknowledge that the heat creates a womb that makes this possible – it’s not difficult, dangerous, or suffocating.
I focus on the value of finding cardiovascular exercise without the joint-grinding, soulless repetition of a treadmill.
I focus on how I am never sore or injured after a hot yoga class. The heat is therapy, not an enemy.
I focus on how repeating the same poses class after class lets me measure my progress, or creates a safe, reliable place for me to return if I regress.
Instead of being utterly disgusted in a room full of sweaty strangers, I welcome the physical mess. When my meaty neighbor’s long leg brings his clenched toes two inches from my nose, I watch the patterns of his sweat droplets as they form on my mat like some kind of hot yoga Rorschach.
I’m pretty sure the pattern that forms is an abstract image of me, healthy and evolving, my steady breath and strong standing leg moving my physical form into the ultimate expression of my spirit.
Some of the images in this blog post are of me in asanas from hot yoga – please remember that I am not a yoga instructor and not all of these poses are perfect. You can see more in my Asanas and Me Facebook album.
A few of the images in this blog post come from Flick Creative Commons. Ever-expanding gratitude to the folks who publish their work for sharing. Namaste, photo-artists.