When I first started taking yoga, one of the first classes I took was from Bikram Choudhury in Beverly Hills in 1973. He didn’t charge me since that was in the 70’s and I couldn’t afford his high price of $10.00 a class. Back then there he did not use heat, just Bikram strutting his stuff as students were sweating from the inner power of the breath and the natural heat from the body holding strong postures.
Sometime in the 90’s Bikram started adding the high heat.
I can only guess that it started since in India it is so hot that to practice yoga there is no getting around the depressing heat. As things are going, it is very popular for those in the west to embrace the discomforts that those in the East are running away from in search to find greater comfort as they embrace modernism.
Kudos to Bikram for his genius marketing to bring people who are stiff and unfamiliar to yoga to get an instant result… Sweat! In the exercise world, If you are sweating you must be doing something right. So now here we are in 2000 and something. You walk into most yoga classes and within the first 5 minutes the heat is up to 90+ degrees and you are breaking out into a deep sweat along with a room packed with other fellow sweating yoga people… so, of course you must be warmed up… right? You’re hot, you feel that you can move better, deeper and you are cleansing all the toxins out of your body. And in order to warm up you have to sweat first, and do a million sun salutations before you can actually do “yoga.”
There is no give in these hot rooms. No window can be cracked; no fresh air can sneak in through the space at the bottom of a door. Heat!
It is all about the Heat!
When I think about doing yoga, I think about fresh air while I am breathing deeply. Breathing in Cleansing fresh air. When I breathe in, I am taking in the moment of newness and freshness.
So what has this HOT yoga done to the face of yoga in the last 15 years? Why are people getting injured practicing Yoga of all things? Could it be this false sense of instant flexibility? A good analogy for me is the vision of a glass blower creating a beautiful shape while it is hot and malleable, then, once it cools the piece is unmovable unless it breaks.
While doing a hike in the countryside of Ireland, it started to become very cold. My ears were hurting, my face was stinging. I took a moment to do downward facing dog. I went into the pose slowly as I began to breathe deeply and within one minute I was hot! Wow, no heater, no artificial heat, just from my own body. It was really, really cold outside. I warmed up so fast that my face became flushed with heat as my body began to stretch slowly and consistently. I had to take off my second sweater.
I believe I was out of touch with just when this phenomenon started to take over the commercial yoga world. I was at first under the impression that it was unique to the new popularity of Bikram Yoga (which was not popular prior to this), but when I began to take some classes when I returned to Los Angeles, I found that the class that I did like also had the heat up. I would stand near a window and quietly crack it open just a bit. The teacher would come around and close it. Midway through the class I was ready to go to sleep. I would be breathing in everyone else’s exhales. Not only that, but their flatulence, coughing, sneezing and since it was so hot and not a drift of air, all of their garlicy onion and broccoli body odors.
At that point, I must have been doing yoga for about 30 years. I was older but I didn’t think I was that weak, old, or out of shape since I did have a continuous practice of my own. I thought maybe I just couldn’t do classes anymore. Finally, I walked out of class and told the teacher that I could not do yoga in the time of the so called “Sars” outbreak with the windows closed and the heat up… I didn’t think it was a healthy way to practice, and instead of having more energy, I was exhausted! She gave in and said I could crack a window…. Hallelujah!
Breathing is the catalyst that moves all functions of the body’s vital energies. From Breath one creates heat in the body.
True flexibility is a continuous practice of intelligent movement and awareness. Little by little the body will move towards flexibility and it is real. The false sense of flexibility from outside heat will overstretch and leave a student without the understanding of the inner movement of posture. In my opinion, breathing deeply in a room without fresh air, elevated extreme heat gives a recipe for disease rather than health, over stretching and strain rather than an organic gradual release of muscle restriction.
One of my favorite books on Yoga right now is the well-respected book A Matter of Health by Dr. Krishna Raman. He describes the health giving affects of Asana as producing a “gentle sweat.”
The cardiovascular benefits from practicing yoga with awareness and dedication are undeniable. A practice of standing poses or backbends will produce a gentle working of the heart as well as a “gentle sweat.”
For me Yoga is Organic. Yoga is freedom. I don’t want to depend on an artificial environment in order to be able to practice yoga.
Beginners may find the intense heat helpful to encourage an expedient sense of flexibility. However, when students discover the internal power and heat from holding poses and breathing deeply, a maturity of practice will prove to be a life long gift of an intelligent, enduring practice of discovery, freedom and joy.
So, chill out and enjoy yoga the cool way.