The first five years of my practice took place exclusively in the Bikram hot room. I spent 90 minutes nearly every day in that very specific environment (40 degrees, 40% humidity), sweating my way through the series with a sense of fierce dedication. At the time, I believed in the hot room and its supposed benefits. I trusted the studio owner and the claims she made about the healing powers of the hot room because I had never known anything else… and because I hadn’t bothered to do the research myself. I believed that I fundamentally needed the hot room to reap the benefits of my practice, to practice.
When I went to my teacher training in Los Cabos with Tony Sanchez at the Yogic Physical Culture Academy, I had those beliefs challenged. Thankfully, I am not only a yogi but an academic and I have been trained to stay curious about alternative perspectives and ideas, to seek to understand rather than immediately reject or deny what’s different or unfamiliar. I won’t lie — I had my reservations initially. I was actually worried when I left for training because I knew Sanchez didn’t teach in the hot room. (This stark departure from Bikram norms positioned Sanchez as a rebellious alternative teacher trainer amongst those embedded within the Bikram community.) How will I practice? I thought to myself. Will I lose all the progress I have made? What will my poses look like in room temperature? Oh my god, WILL I JUST FALL APART?! (Okay, that last one is an exaggeration, but you get my point.) I felt full on butterflies in my tummy when Sanchez announced the beginning of our first practice together in a regular, room temperature space. “Here we go,” I thought. I felt as though I was about to jump off the edge of cannon into a great precipice of unknown…
I felt the differences made by practicing in a room temperature environment immediately. At first, I struggled with it — emotionally. Physically, I was able to move through the 90 minute sequence without the tremendous struggle I was used to in the hot room. I didn’t need to drag myself through the practice; instead, I felt like I was floating my way through. This sense of relative ease left me feeling confused… and oddly disappointed. I had been conditioned to believe that the practice had to be torturous in order to be valid, to be satisfying, to be beneficial, to count. If it felt so comfortable… and so enjoyable… to practice outside of the hot room… it couldn’t possibly be effective? Could it? I had bought the claims that the nausea, the dizziness, the exhaustion, the headaches, the litres of sweat that happened as a result of practicing in the hot room were the inevitable and natural symptoms of the “detoxification process,” rather than actually being the consequences of dehydration and heat exhaustion. If I wasn’t experiencing profound suffering, was I still “cleansing” myself?
Throughout the rest of my teacher training, I answered that question during a process of thorough de-conditioning. I had to unlearn what I had been told in order to learn the truth about my practice. I learned that I had become dependent upon the hot room and its mirrors as the “only” circumstances in which I could have experience a “legitimate” practice; I had developed a dependency on an external validator for what is, in truth, a wholly internal and personal practice. I could go on about the glaring lack of peer reviewed scientific evidence to support the supposed benefits of practicing yoga in the hot room or the existing evidence that outlines the very real dangers of practicing in the hot room, but I’ll save that for another blog entry (oh yesssss)… Instead, I want to talk simply about the concept of dependency on such a specific and constructed environment in order to practice what must be inherently free of such restrictions in order to truly blossom and evolve, to be claimed as one’s own.
What brought me to this idea was a conversation I had over lunch with an old friend from university. Over the years, we haven’t been able to keep in touch much but, through the wonders of social media, I know her to be at least a casual yogi. When she arrived late and sat down in an obvious fluster, she vented about the massive levels of pressure she was experiencing in her life due to an upcoming career change that would take her to live in another country. She complained that she felt overwhelmed and was experiencing constant aches, pains and migraines. Her massive levels of stress were outwardly apparent, visible in how she was holding herself; her body language gave away her distressed mind state, no words necessary. I listened and then asked with polite concern, if she had been doing her yoga… “No, I haven’t,” she sulked. “I need to go back to YogaPopular* for Melanie’s* detoxification yoga.”
I was barely able to contain a snort scoff (you know the one) at the concept of “detoxification yoga” — another marketing strategy; rest assured, ALL yoga is detoxifying — duuuuhhhhhhh. (I’ll save that salt for another blog entry.) “Well, I don’t care if it’s detoxication yoga, but I think any yoga would be helpful,” I replied, casually sipping my green tea in the sunshine, feeling a comfortable sense of confidence, little to no stress evident in my body language. I doooooo my yoga, insert smug self satisfaction.
“No,” she states bluntly. “I need the hot room to cope with my pain.” Hmmmm… I pause and genuinely consider her statement; I recognize I’m in no place to tell her what she needs or doesn’t need because, truth be told, there’s no way for me to know what her pain feels like.
“Okay, but — how often are you actually able to get to the hot room?” I pause again before continuing, taking a moment just to evaluate my friend’s level of receptivity to my comment. Her face reads as though she’s acknowledging the truth in my question. The answer is apparent: not nearly often enough. “What if you just got on your mat at home? I understand that you enjoy the hot room, but if it’s limiting your ability to practice…” I don’t finish the sentence because I can see that my friend understands what I’m getting at. Depending on the hot room as the only space in which to practice is severely limiting her already limited amount of opportunities to get onto her mat — and she’s suffering for it.
“Well, yeah,” she says, “… but I practice vinyasa in the hot room…” She almost whimpers.
“I understand — and I teach vinyasa — but honestly, if I was talking to you strictly as a yoga instructor, not just as your friend, I would suggest Restorative Yoga for you because you’re dealing specifically with pain. Vinyasa is a great style of practice and it can indeed be pain relieving by proxy, but Restorative Yoga is intentionally designed to support the nervous system in order to encourage healing and facilitate pain reduction. You could snuggle up with a bolster and blanket, right at home, in your own apartment.”
“Yes, I understand, that would be your professional recommendation if I was coming to you as a student,” she replies. “Ugh, you’re right, I need to just do yoga.”
“Of course. I mean, you should do whatever you want to do — but if you’re in pain, you really need to be able to get on your mat,” I’m carefully trying to empower my friend to claim her practice without simply telling her what to do; I believe discussion and suggestion are often more powerful forms of communication than prescription and instruction. “What if you just got into Savasana and see where your body takes you from there? You need to be able to practice, whenever and where ever.” I don’t know for sure, but I’d like to think that my friend took my words of advice to heart; I hope her practice has become more available and liberated.
I think this conversation is relevant to many yoga practitioners who typically locate their practice within the hot room. I’m not specifically arguing against the hot room, per say, but I am advocating against developing a dependency for that specific context in order to feel like you can practice. Your yoga practice can take place literally anywhere.
TRUTH BOMB: you do not need to be inside four walls with a particular heating or humidification system to practice yoga.
In fact, you might find that your practice actually flourishes outside of those circumstances if those are the only circumstances in which you have ever explored your practice. All the benefits of your practice are accessible without the hot room.
I repeat: All the benefits of your practice are accessible without the hot room.
Beyond that, your body is under less stress when it’s not asked to exert itself within an extreme environment. Like I did, you might find your practice is way more enjoyable and progresses far more quickly without the excessive levels of heat and/or humidity. You don’t need to feel like you just got run over by a semi truck in order to have experienced an effective and beneficial practice. That’s right: yoga can literally be all gain, no pain. Mmmmm HM!
Yoga can be understood as movement natural to the human body and, as such, must be allowed to take place in natural settings, like *GASP* the OuTdOoRs. Manufactured human structures like yoga studios have their time and place, their purpose, and they can be wonderful spaces in which to cultivate one’s practice and they can provide you with a sense of community — BUT the truth of the matter is that your practice does not need to be dependent on those circumstances. You need to be aware that your yoga is your own and the only thing you absolutely must have in order to do yoga is your own body and breath.
Truth be told, you don’t even need a yoga mat. I don’t want to put myself out of work but you don’t even need an instructor in order to practice. Obviously a knowledgable instructor is a helpful guide especially if you’re new to your practice so you can be sure that you are practicing in a safe and sustainable way with the proper alignment, but there is something to be said about learning how to trust your own body while simultaneously getting some nurturing alone time — the ultimate “me time.”
Have you ever felt fresh green grass between your fingers in Downwards Facing Dog? Have you ever felt the wind try to tip you over in Tree Pose? Have you ever felt the sunshine kiss your skin in Savasana? Even if you’re not practicing outdoors, you can practice on your own in any space. Your living room, your bedroom, your backyard, your balcony, your favourite park, YOUR BED. Just you… and maybe your furry friend(s). Your practice is yours and yours alone, always available to you, whenever you feel like it. When you’re not dependent on a third party to provide the space you pretend to need in order to access your practice, your practice becomes truly liberated and empowered. Yoga studios are part of an economy; even those with the purest intent are still trying to market themselves to you as a necessary part to your practice (myself included). Yoga studios must be understood not as a necessity but as a helpful compliment to your practice.
Let’s not get things confused: you don’t need the studio, the studio needs you. Whenever you feel like it, you can unroll your mat and follow the lead of your body and breath. (Remember, you don’t actually need a mat.)
Literally — just go with the flow.
A couple further reading suggestions:
Sudden Cardiac Arrest From Heat Stroke: Hidden Dangers of Hot Yoga
Boddu, Prajwal et al. The American Journal of Medicine , Volume 129 , Issue 8.