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Beyond the Hot Room...

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 fini