I’ve already vaguely mentioned the topic of yoga before, but I think it’s time to revisit. Maybe because I’ve upgraded my practice from a static and sporadic DVD-only flirtation, maybe because I recently went to lunch with a yoga teacher (who graciously agreed to later write a guest article for the blog!), or maybe just because I’ve been planning on expanding my expertise a little bit to cover the topic, but it’s officially time to explore it further.
First off, let’s visit why people not struggling with physical conditions tackle yoga. For the sake of relative brevity, I’ll mostly leave out the spiritual aspects of the practice, even if I do believe those benefits are also highly important.
The word yoga in Sanskrit means “union,” and in my interpretation of that, it essentially is the practice of having the body and spirit work holistically — physically, the muscles, bones, and where they come together (tendons, ligaments) all working in alignment in harmonic tandem with your breath. Breath in yoga practice is essential, and if you aren’t breathing properly from the beginning and later learn to coordinate the movements with the breath, the difference is phenomenal.
Yoga can accomplish a seemingly limitless number of things — most obviously it’ll increase flexibility, strength, and balance. Perhaps most remarkably, as long as you’re unfazed by competition (comparing yourself to classmates is a ubiquitous challenge, one that Gaiam blogger Kathryn Budig addressed recently in a beautiful post) and focused on your breath and awareness of your own body (what they call the “body-mind”), you will find yourself feeling far more centered and grounded. Few other athletic pursuits offer that, I find.
Personally, I find that yoga is also a mindful exploration of learning to acknowledge and then tuck that ego away, an important exercise in humility and peace, and in a regular practice encourages pushing yourself without said ego to accomplish feats you never previously imagined possible.
Now, let’s pull out the big guns! What do I mean, I’ve “upgraded” my practice from a DVD-exclusive one? Well, I have to admit: My previous mentality on sticking only to private yoga lessons at $60 a pop did crumble as soon as I found out my gym offers free classes (of all types, zumba included!) every week, included with membership. So I began attending a yoga-for-all-levels class with an excellent instructor called Brian at my gym.
After regularly attending Brian’s class — which is challenging not only for me but for 100% of the rest of the class, most of which I assume is physical-affliction-free (or relatively so!), my curiosity for the recent hot yoga trend began to burn (pun, admittedly, intended).
Why hot yoga? Heck, what is hot yoga? Hot yoga is the practice of yoga in a literally hot temperature; there are various types, but the kind I’m doing is called Baptiste. The really hardcore kind is called Bikram, and that’s done in a room heated to 105°F(!). Baptiste is a bit less intense at a balmy 90°F or so, sometimes up to 95°F.
A lot of people balk at the idea of doing sun salutations in desertlike conditions, and while I don’t blame them, I invite them to hear me out.
The reason behind the heat — which is supposed to be dry, so your sweat evaporates quickly and detoxifies you nicely — is myriad: again, it detoxes you; because muscles contract in the cold, the heat has an opposite effect and allows you to go deeper into your poses; and the heat intensifies the practice for a cardiovascular boost.
Because dehydration is a possible risk in such conditions, it is advised that although you should not eat up to two hours before your practice, you should certainly guzzle down copious amounts of water before, during, and after it.
Admittedly, I was never that avid of a yoga practitioner in the past. At most, I would start my mornings with a twenty-minute gentle series of relaxing yoga from Rodney Yee of Gaiam’s AM Yoga DVD, or I’d go to an hour class or two per week, max.
However, because I’m on this kick to try new and intense things, I purchased two months’ worth of unlimited hot yoga sessions at Power Yoga on Main (to any locals, I recommend it). For my first session I went quite a way’s away to take a ninety-minute intermediate class with a friend and my boyfriend. It was exhilarating! And I was so sore the day after — the depth is no joke. Since then, I’ve been going to my studio three times a week (don’t go to Bikram nearly as often, though!) and the improvements have been jaw-droppingly rapid. (One of my favorite instructors told me she had made improvements within her first two years of Baptiste comparable to the progess of her previous seven years of not-hot yoga.)
Already, I have witnessed a dramatic increase in strength and balance (flexibility for me is difficult to measure because I’ve always been sort of freakishly bendy, though I do think it too has improved); what was almost impossible for me the first couple of times now isn’t easy, but comes a lot more readily than it used to, and my endurance for the heat and the intensity of certain postures and movements has definitely increased.
However, I do have a few concerns: With the titanium plates on my skull and the subluxation in my left shoulder, is it safe for me to attempt inversions? And how good an idea is it for me to do balance poses (e.g., tree pose or warrior 3) on just my unaffected right leg? Does a lack of equilibrium between the two legs create a subsequent problem? Will it just perpetuate their already existent inequality?
These are explorations I will take with me to medical professionals and hardcore yoga practioners, of course. (And then I’ll check in with the rest of you.)
In the meantime, the benefits of my hot yoga practice are hardly short of addictive: I now attend Brian’s class Mondays and the Baptiste three other days of the week, and I can hardly get enough. (Another pro: I’m starting to develop the outline of a four-pack. Hehe.)
Some thoughts/tips: You will be covered in sweat when you leave. If you’ve got someplace to go afterward, do yourself a favor and bring a change of clothes. Bring ample amounts of water and a hand towel. For those of you wanting to use a regular yoga mat you already own, you’ll probably have issues with slipping. Bring a towel or yoga towel (Yogi Toes makes good ones) to lay over your mat to both absorb your sweat and prevent slippage. If you’d like to adapt hot yoga seriously, you can follow in my footsteps and invest in the pricey and heavy but supereffective sticky mat by Lululemon, simply called “the Mat.” Because it’s made of recycled rubber, it’s initially smelly and weighs as much as an infant, but I threw mine in a Jacuzzi filled with multipurpose cleaner and water and soaked it, jets running, for an hour or so, and it’s fine. (The smell goes away naturally with time, but for those of you with particularly sensitive olfactory glands, you might want to deep clean it first.) In any case, it’s perfect for a hot yoga practice because it is sticky against sweaty skin, and doesn’t distract from your practice, allowing you to be much more present. Wear flexible, breathable clothing (stretchy!). And sandals (you’ll be practicing barefoot of course). Be prepared to be sore the next day, especially in your shoulders and core if you’re not accustomed to planking! And again, do not focus on anyone else’s practice but your own — it’s all about you and what’s feasible for you right now, not even yesterday or tomorrow. Do not hesitate to modify; there are modifications for any pose so that you can best honor your body. Listen to what it tells you. Every day is different.
I’ve gone on for so long on hatha yoga (the kind that involves asanas, or poses, which the general Westerner pictures when we hear the word) that I feel this post would be far too meaty to go deeper into the branch of yoga that perhaps transcends them all: pranayama, or the technique of breathing, so I’ll save that topic for a future post.
For additional information on “power yoga” (I quote this term because it was created to appeal to Western audiences, as yoga originally was created for Asian bodies which vary much less than the diverse spectrum of body types we have out here), check out the book (which my studio always recommends to students of all types) Journey into Power by Baron Baptiste.
To our healing,