Recently on a trip out to the Bay area, I was tricked into going into a hot yoga studio. My dear friend and a fellow yogi had told me she was going to one of her favorite challenging vinyasa flow classes. She assured I ‘would sweat and love it’. I had spent the weekend vacationing, which meant I was eating a great deal, and not getting my daily asana practice in. I figured a vigorous vinyasa would be an ideal detox from my fun-filled weekend and I was in need of a class.
‘I grabbed us a spot right in front of the stage,’ my friend told me a few steps before I walked into the studio. I put my bag and shoes in a cubby outside the room and entered the space. The studio was a stuffy and moist 96 degrees. People were already dripping in preparation for their vigorous vinyasa flow session. I had officially been fooled.
I love a challenging practice where heat comes from inside the body allowing us to take our physical practice to the next level. I believe in stoking the internal fires to clear out blockages and challenge ourselves to move into poses we think are unattainable. But the type of internal warmth that takes me to a deeper place, is not a result of turning up the thermostat. Setting the studio temperature to 96 degrees, is externally forcing heat into one’s body. This encourages a superficial type of practice that I can’t seem to get down with, no matter how hard I try. That being said, I try to approach every class with an open mind, gratitude for the opportunity, and a vibrant heart. Regardless of the style of yoga, the seniority of the teacher, the reputation of the studio, I want to be open to it all and take it for what it is. I seek the chance to learn of other philosophies, listen to how other teachers are cuing, and want to know what is being taught in the yoga community at large.
But…. This room was really hot, and I began to get really uncomfortable. My pants were damp and clinging to my legs. My attitude was souring thinking about the next 2 hours and the class hadn’t even started. The studio was filled to capacity with about 70 yogis packed in like sardines. There was beautiful natural light beaming from all the windows, but none were to be cracked, and I felt deprived of fresh air. People were enthused to be there, and I told myself I was also. The teacher gave us an intention to keep in our hearts, and we began our practice. We went through our vinyasas rapidly, as if dancing through them. There was a carefully selected soundtrack that encompassed chants and transitioned into folk-ish melodic tunes. We held our standing poses, taking the optional binds, practiced various inversions, did intensive core work, and ended folding over in pigeon for several minutes. Sweat poured out from all of us. We had worked diligently, we had been conquered, we happily submitted. There was no silence, there was no meditation, there was no talk of the breath, the use of bandas, or any other subtle elements of Yoga.
As I rested in shavasana I tried to convince myself that the things we dislike and make us uncomfortable can actually be extremely good for us. I tried to find the reasons why this would be true for me in this last practice. I couldn’t think of any. Everyone else’s toxins were overwhelming me at this point and I couldn’t take a deep breath. I tried to ignore the feeling that I was covered in other people’s sweat from the studio-rented mat I practiced on. I washed up and ran outside as soon as I could to get some fresh air and find space.
For the next few hours I was irritable, rushing from one thing to the next. I felt charged, hungry, aggressive and generally on edge until I fell asleep that night. My sleep was even off. I was wired.
As someone who lives and works in the urban environment of Chicago, I am already wired. I work 70 hours a week, teach yoga, manage a number of extra-curricular events, have social obligations, familial commitments, among everything else on my plate. I don’t need one more aggressive force in my life that is over-heating, or stimulating for my nervous system at every waking moment. I need something to off-set the chaos of existing in an urban city where nothing is still. Vigorous and rapid is what moving through10 hours of my day feels like. I can maintain a vigorous practice without blasting the heat. I can move through poses slowly and it actually assists in deepening my breath. I can still feel amazingly vibrant and strong after a restorative practice. I can find mental clarity after 20 minutes of sitting in silence. What this class actually had done for me was reaffirm why I love my practice, and why I teach what I do in the way I do.
While I know hot yoga is not for me, I have a hard time writing it off completely. The trend of turning up the temperature in heated yoga studios has brought so many people to the mat, that might not have showed up otherwise. I personally have benefitted from people finding my class, after having been injured or disappointed from their experience at a hot studio. I have fellow yogis and friends alike who started living healthier lifestyles, shed excess weight, and have opened a part of themselves that never had been discovered before. So while I may not fully understand or embrace hot yoga, I may still show up to a class here and there. Perhaps only as a gentle reminder of why I practice the way I do, and continue to commit to that practice on a daily basis.