by Nidhi Arora ~ connect with her here
As Bhagwad Gita says, “There are as many yogas as there are people.” And as i say, “There are as many yogas as there are countries.” Being an Indian, I can be biased towards practices that are taught in different parts of the world in the name of yoga. I came across the term Hot Yoga in 2013 when I moved to the United States from India. I was searching online for fitness classes, especially yoga, in order to keep myself active and socially engaged in this foreign land. Surprisingly, hot yoga topped the list of classes being offered at studios near my house. I immediately wondered, “Do they call it hot yoga here because people look hot and pretty when they practice yoga?”
Curiosity knows no bounds in my case, which by the way, isn’t always a boon. However, I signed up for a hot yoga class in the summer of 2014 to finally end the mystery of what “hot” was all about. Feel free to blame me because I didn’t research enough about the class beforehand, especially because the term “yoga” was associated with the class. My instincts seamlessly sync up with anything that includes the word yoga. A few minutes before the class, I reached the studio, signed up, greeted people (as usual for me – you’d know the moment you meet me) as I was filled with sheer joy; that was the first time I saw so many non-Indians attending a yoga class. Scenes were drastically different from typical yoga studios in India, though. Students were dressed in a variety of clothing with superior design and accessories. Sports bras and a plethora of different leggings. The thing that caught my eye the most was ice-cold water bottles that everyone carried to the hot yoga class.
Nervous as well as curious, I entered the class, or should I say, a Sauna. Most of you must be thinking, “Wow, what else could you ask for?” Actually, a lot. It was hot and humid and I could already smell the stale air from the previous class that was conducted in the same room. I kept my calm and took a seated position on my mat. While sipping chilled water, the teacher, who also taught a hot yoga class right before ours, welcomed us by sharing nerve-wracking details (at least for me) like how the room was set to 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40.5 C) and 40 percent humidity.
My thoughts began to race. My head and heart already started to judge the Western yoga. I felt a bit agitated and anxious. Why? Because, for a woman who had heard all her life that Hatha yoga was supposed to be practiced in an ideal environment and on an empty stomach, there I was practicing a Surya Namaskar (Sun salutation) in a hot and humid box with no fresh air. I managed to follow instructions and pulled it through for 50 minutes, cooled down, and left a few minutes before it ended.
I left the class, but the concept never left me. I always wondered why people practice this form of yoga. I took another class in 2016 at another studio and felt no different. My status after the class was: intrigued, dissatisfied, worried, confused. Intrigued, because yoga, as the world knows, is an ancient Indian philosophy, and there is no mention of hot yoga in India whatsoever. Worried, because there are no clear instructions on how much hot yoga could or should be practiced. Confused, because teachers as well as students apparently drink ice-cold water while practicing hot yoga when the fundamental basis of yoga is to generate “ushna” (heat) from within the system. Drinking water in between asanas is not recommended as per traditional yogic science except under very specific circumstances. Moreover, anything above room temperature isn’t recommended at all.
The whole concept never ceased to amaze me, so i decided to talk to experienced yoga teachers and students from across the world, to learn and understand why the West makes yoga “Hot”. In a candid exchange with Rae Indigo [http://worldyogainstitute.org/woody/about-us/rae-indigo/], a veteran yoga teacher in Florida and the founder of the World Yoga Institute, she shares how hot yoga creates a lot more problems than it helps, but it is useful and appropriate in very limited situations.
“It is generally not considered the best yoga training for most people. Some heat can be nice (85 degrees in the winter heated room), but 105 is a very different thing. If people are practicing hot yoga in an 85 degree room in a severe cold climate, it’s very useful. But if you’re practicing yoga at 105 degrees in a hot climate, it is aggravating. But the main issue is whether there is fresh air coming in. Because if there is no airflow in the heated rooms, this is not healthy because you need to breathe fresh air and not the stale air of everybody else. Hot yoga is not for the mainstream, it is not for mass applications as you should be building heat in other ways,” Rae adds.
A close friend and a yoga teacher in Beirut, Layla, who did a residential teacher’s training for 2 years in India, has a pretty Eastern take on hot yoga. “From what I understand it’s not healthy. When we do hatha yoga, teachers tell us to avoid doing it in daytime because it’s too hot in India. They advise it is best before or after sunset. So to create a hot and humid environment to do hatha yoga I don’t think is good for the body.”
Tara Arora, a former software developer and now full-time mother in Singapore, has been regularly practicing yoga at home for almost 6 years. She shares how a hot yoga class in Singapore felt quite dehydrating to her. She attended a couple of those classes almost a decade ago and could not manage it at all. The climate in Singapore is equatorial, i.e. hot, humid, and rainy throughout the year. While speaking to her, my mind instantly wondered why anyone would want to do hot yoga in a tropical place like Singapore. Tara further says, “Thinking about it now, I find it very gimmicky.”
Asking to pick between hot and regular yoga, my neighbor in Philadelphia shares she has tried hot yoga classes a few times but is not a big fan. She says, “I worry about getting dehydrated or putting too much strain on my heart. The sauna-like feel of a hot yoga room seems to warm up muscles faster and help with flexibility. I’ve enjoyed the hot yoga experience more with gentle or moderate level classes and found it really refreshing to step outside into cooler air after a class. But for a more active vinyasa class, I prefer a regular temperature room or practicing outside where I can feel my body temperature rise naturally.”
Wendy Talis, who has been teaching Hatha Yoga and Pilates for almost 15 years in and around Philadelphia, expresses concern over students, especially beginners, going overboard in hot yoga classes. She shares that she has seen many of her students come to her with joint injuries because they practiced hot yoga for months. She adds, “Because the rooms are warm and humid, students end up over stretching their bodies, which often lead to long term injuries. Experienced students should be practicing hot yoga only once a week, that too, only in winter. Beginners, who have never practiced yoga before, should only stick to a regular practice under the guidance of a very experienced instructor.”
After exploring the subject as objectively as possible, my mind ponders how most of us don’t consult a medical professional before trying a new and rigorous workout. Experts at Mayo clinic warn hot yoga is not for everyone. The intensity of the workout and the hot temperatures have the potential to cause heat-related illness. Doctors advise you to check with them before trying hot yoga, especially if you have any health concerns or if you are pregnant. In fact, it is strongly recommended to skip hot yoga if you have the following ailments:
- Heart disease
- Problems with dehydration
- Heat intolerance
- A history of a heat-related illness (such as heatstroke)
Rae Indigo doesn’t hesitate to add how hot yoga often leads to destabilization of sacroiliac joints (joints between sacrum and ilium bones of the pelvis) and torn meniscus (knee ligament). She emphasizes on rehabilitation of those injuries at the earliest possible time in order to avoid further damage. “And guess what repairs those injuries? Yoga, of course,” she smiles. Rae takes me down a beautiful analogy lane as she asks, “What do you do when you host a dinner party for a bunch of people? You buy groceries, cook, and you clean before everyone arrives. That’s exactly what ‘asana’ (posture) is. It is known as “preparation”. It is nothing more than that. You’re preparing your body for revitalization, yoga, and meditation. What will happen if you don’t clean before the party? People won’t enjoy it. So prepare and keep yoga simple.”
Why don’t we have these instructions outside hot yoga rooms at studios across the world? Why don’t studios clearly specify the maximum number of hot yoga classes a student should take per week? In a nutshell, I would really hope that we don’t turn everything into a fad. Let’s not commercialize an ancient science just for the sake of selling it. Yoga is not a product, it is a way of life, and it is best if we learn it and practice it the way it’s meant to be. Let’s not sip beer while holding an asana (posture) and call it Beer Yoga. Let’s not caress goats and call it Goat Yoga when we should be solely focused on our breath and movement. Let’s just do yoga.
She lives in Philadelphia and practices yoga and meditation that she learned from a renowned Indian yogi and mystic, Sadhguru.
You can connect with her here: https://www.instagram.com/headsupchindown/