Hot yoga horror. A cautionary tale.

I knew it was a mistake, the minute the studio asked me to pay for a mat, but occasionally I like to try to challenge some of the prejudices I have against certain classes (yes I have those, sorry) in an effort to explore and experience something new.

It was a cold and wintery day and I figured, what’s the worst that can happen?

The truth is, I sampled this type of yoga before. Years ago. And, that one time was enough for me to make a judgment call that the practice wasn’t for me. Yet here I was in a Bikram-style, hot yoga class, heart and mind open, ready to be proven wrong.

I had a horrible time.

It just pushed the wrong buttons for me; predominately a big red one that noisily flashed ‘Nope, nope, nope.’

Before you brush this off as a biased rant, I would like to say this while I still have your attention. This article is intended to offer a somewhat balanced perspective, based on personal experience. I appreciate that some practices take time, dedication and discipline before they bear fruit. And, I believe that each methodology is a system to be discovered in its own right. However, what I struggle with is why this practice is prescribed in such a pedantic fashion that yoga is no longer embodied but performed, in response to the demands of a teacher that has all the appearance of being on an ego-trip, which apparently is characteristic of the approach.

It simply doesn’t turn me on. It turns me off. If this was my first yoga experience it would go down in history as my only yoga experience.

What’s my problem?

I can take tough talk. But the chat, combined with certain elements of the sequence and instruction delivery, contradicts a lot of what I have been taught as a safe way practice. So it doesn’t bring out the best in me. Asking a student to relinquish responsibility for their own mind-body, with all the air of a well honed ‘teacher knows best’ attitude without any of the grace, feels careless.

Before you respond with arguments in the art of surrender and those oldskool Indian teachers, I’m coming to that.

Little variation, few modifications, the heat, cries of ‘lock the knee,’ the series itself and a sprinkling of fortune cookie philosophy, frankly, makes my face twitch. This isn’t the yoga for me. So I have put it back into my ‘proceed with caution’ box. Locked the box. And accidentally (on purpose) lost the key.

The great irony is that none of these things are exclusive to this particular methodology and share plenty of similarities with the Ashtanga Vinyasa system, which I love. Although it too is cast in the occasional shadow of controversy, there are elements of the Ashtanga system that act as management strategies for some of the extremity. Each series progresses one posture at a time and is intelligently choreographed to a melody of breath, bandha, and drishti, encouraging resilience, stability, and focus that arises through self-awareness and inquiry.

But this post isn’t about Ashtanga it’s about the hot yoga class I went to and it would be foolish to draw comparisons because I have dedicated hours learning to appreciate the good, the bad and the ugly of the practice. Ashtanga has offered me a solid education, but I am not married to it and now, more often than not, I stray into softer territory.

Commitment goes a long way

The truth is it is difficult to understand the principles of a practice by snacking on it. What you are exposed to during a 60-90 minute class is fleeting and microscopic, when viewed in context to the subject field.

At the end of the day, there will never be one way. Discovering your perfect match is a little like dating. Sometimes you have to kiss a few downward dogs to arrive at the right solution.

The important thing is to find a practice that fits you, that works for you – with you.

My advice to you would be, don’t settle. Keep searching, sampling, exploring, but at some point invite some discipline to practice by committing yourself to a particular path and seeing the same teacher, for a while, if you can. Just don’t give up your power until you’ve got to know them better.

While I don’t want to get into a discussion regarding traditional guru-student relationships here, since I’m not sure it is relevant, I would caution against putting a teacher on the guru-pedestal – especially one you see a couple of times a week. While there may be or may have been plenty of merit in engaging in a more traditional student-teacher relationship that emphasises surrender I would argue, times have changed. So, better to adapt tradition to suit our culture and our time.

However, building a trusting and consistent relationship with your teacher, based on mutual respect, can help you to deepen your practice in a way that means you can relax into their guidance without compromising your integrity. Instruction is no longer empty but becomes an insightful reflection of your practice and your potential, delivered on-target.

Begin with awareness

Whichever practice you choose to pursue, pay attention. Cultivating awareness and curiosity are at the root of self-injury and self-knowledge. Developing awareness will help you to interpret the feedback your body-mind gives you as you practice. It is the garden from which everything else grows.

So if you are hot for hot yoga, then here are a few things to simply be aware of:

The heat

Warmth is great for softening muscles and assisting detoxification, but when the heat is excessive it is easy to overextend in our enthusiasm for practice. While muscles can bounce back, tendons and ligaments are not elastic and take a long time to repair if stretched beyond their capacity.

Hyper flexible people need to work hard to focus on stabilising joints and avoid pushing to their edge. Less is more, should be their mantra. Although their bodies can bend brilliantly, they can lack the strength to support their range of motion and something, somewhere ends up compensating which can result in injury.

The load

First, life can kick your ass enough, without you adding to the load. Adding tension to the body can feel good in the short term and offer some release and relief, but longer term we need to offer some respite by balancing effort with relaxation.

Next, let’s talk about the knee-locking. The very idea of it keeps me awake at night.

It’s just a bad idea that can lead to injury, especially if you are balancing on one leg. It simply puts too much pressure on the joint, which can wear the cartilage and lead to arthritis.

For more info check out this article on Prevent Yoga Injury.

The sequence

I dislike the fact that the sequence is so repetitive. It offers the potential to progress quickly, but then little in terms of an on-going path through which you can progress. So, you plateau. The same sequence done again and again over a period of months and years can cause imbalance and create as many problems as it initially solved.

Finally, that swooshing up to a forward fold at speed puts quite a bit of force on the lumbar spine, squeezing the discs and placing strain on the sacroiliac joint, leaving your lower back vulnerable.