Originally published: August 5, 2012 by remingtoncooney |
Just the other day, my roommate and I sat in heated debate over whether hot yoga can, firstly, be considered “yoga” at all, and secondly, whether it’s actually beneficial for you. My roommate, Troy, is a yoga teacher himself but he does not teach the hot asana style. On the contrary, he is very much against the teaching of this style especially when it’s done in the patented form us hot yoga lovers have come to know as Bikram yoga. Troy claims that many of his students have done Bikram’s prior to attending his class and now come to his class with complaints of aches, strains, and injuries that the intense Bikram’s style has induced. Troy also says that the format and philosophy of Bikram’s – whereby one “locks, pushes and forces” themselves into postures – goes against what yoga has traditionally set out to achieve. And you know what he’s right; he’s spot on. Bikram yoga steps as far away from yoga as you can possibly go, whilst still retaining the title “yoga.”
And as we were arguing over whether Bikram yoga is good for you or not (I was for Bikram’s, he was against), I realized a few things about spiritual practice and what is really at the foundation of yoga. But before I go into that I would like to start off with recounting my experience of when I first tried Bikram yoga.
(Just a side note: when it comes to spiritual practice I used to be more of a traditionalist. I used to want to do the practice in the format closest to how it was originally created. The reason for this is that spiritual practice becomes modernized and Westernized when it reaches, well, The West. Practitioners in the West typically reflect their life philosophies onto ancient Eastern philosophy. One could argue this tampering with the traditional practice seems to bastardize it often to the point where the reason for practicing is missed altogether (then again you could say the same thing about this very blog…but let’s save that argument for another time). It seems here in Vancouver and along the West Coast, Yoga has become trendy because it’s a good physical work out. And the reason hot yoga was developed was so that you could get an even better physical workout as you sweat your body into shape. This is why, I, like many others, felt it was a superficial practice and one that didn’t adhere to the traditional philosophy of yoga; that is, until I tried it).
When I arrived back in Vancouver, after the Christmas holidays of 2011, I was jobless, homeless, and somewhat directionless (my only directions being: get a job, and get a home). Looking back now, this was one of the best and most exhilarating moments of my life. It was daunting, for sure, but it was like I had this new, blank canvas that I could paint anything on. Despite my initial excitement, after 3 weeks of couch surfing with still no job (I had a few job interviews lined up) or no potential home I was starting to get a little anxious and depressed. I was asking those questions, “what the hell am I doing with my life?” and “where is this all leading?” By the end of the third week I was starting to feel really despondent. What was once a romantic “freedom” was now leading into existential crisis. It was during this week that a friend of mine suggested I join her for hot yoga. I thought it would be worthwhile checking it out and I was living in “yes-man” mode anyway, so there wasn’t much at this point that I wouldn’t try.
Entering the 37 degrees room was a strange experience indeed. Everyone was so close to each other, there were mirrors everywhere, which made it even more intimidating, and the teacher was mic’d up so that her voice boomed through the class room: “lock your knees, LOCK YOUR KNEES!”…
But once I got past the self-consciousness and the intimidating layout of the room, I began to feel better and better with each deepening posture. I hadn’t breathed like this in so long, I hadn’t stretched like this, I hadn’t sweated like this. But the best thing was, I wasn’t thinking this as I was doing it, I was just doing it. Something about the intense heat and the blaring, bootcamp-esque voice of the teacher puts you into this kind of suspended stupor where you are so uncomfortable that all you can do is focus on your breathing and stay present. It forces you to stay present because anything else is too unbearable. All you can bear is remaining with the breath in this moment. It reminded me of the days when I did long distance running. I would go into a similar meditative state where I would focus on breathing in the here and now because I couldn’t handle the run any other way. And for me, this leaves an incredible, euphoric feeling because in the course of that event, I have forgotten about everything that exists outside the moment that I am in.
Right now, this probably all sounds very unappealing and hardly relaxing. And the thing is, at first, hot yoga is really uncomfortable and not relaxing. But as you continue your practice, you learn how to relax in an insufferable environment. And as your practice deepens, the “uncomfort” of the environment begins to switch and you realize that 99% of what is unbearable in the hot yoga studio, is actually, in your head. This pain and discomfort that hot yoga supposedly creates, is mostly your head telling you stories. And as you root yourself further into the postures and breathe more in-depthly with each passing class, you begin to build up this mental acceptance to what is “uncomfortable” and you learn how to meditate and let-go in a situation where your mind would have once said, “get me out!” In other words, you learn how to meditate through a challenging experience.
Whether this is healthy or not, I’m still not sure. What I do know is that doing a hot yoga class makes the rest of the day’s challenges a lot easier for me because I’ve already meditated in the most disagreeable state I will be in all day. So, now I can meditate anywhere else. What results, is a removal of the fear that we may associate with everyday living. This is because we are being confronted with all our fears within our yoga practice and we are choosing to deal with them through breath meditation. Later on in the day, when I’m faced with other challenges, I approach them in a similar way: through the breath, which will always, without fail, bring a sense of presence, grounding, and acceptance. The more I practice this, the more I am able to meet any confrontations face to face rather than running away, which is something I used to do…a lot.
This is my argument for hot yoga; however, there are some undeniable things that make hot yoga a dangerous practice. The instructors are encouraging you constantly to push and force your way into postures. This is NOT yoga, and on a macrocosmic level this is not how we should be living our lives. You must listen to your body, where does your body want to go today? How far does it want to be pushed? By no means should we be pushed passed this limit that our body gives us. What we need to learn is how to understand this limit, which is ultimately a self-taught practice, but one that a yoga instructor should give guidance with. Bikram’s instructors rarely give this sort of guidance as they come come from a very Western mindset; a mindset that believes deeper is better and the more we push, the more we achieve.
Yoga practice traditionally embodies the Taoist philosophy Wu-Wei where we are putting in an effortless effort. We are pushing, but in a way that is not over our limit. As we push, our bodies push back and in this state of balance our bodies reach a harmony known as Yin and Yang. A meeting of feminine and masculine in the form of balance.
It is understandable that because the modern western lifestyle has become so intense, our spiritual practice must also be more intense and rigorous because it will naturally reflect back the balance we hold in our daily living (which is often more imbalance than balance). This is why Bikram yoga has become so popular over here in the West.
A little more traditional.
Nevertheless, it’s great that a yoga/meditation practice is becoming mainstream because it’s the start of realization. The start of awareness that we need to breathe and meditate on the present moment in order to really engage with our lives. Every activity, every challenge, everything we do, needs to be met with the breath for us to fully engage with that which we are presently doing. Yoga is the practice that allows us to understand and develop this. Whether you’re doing a rigorous Bikram’s sequence in a smelly, sweaty 37 degree room, or a lighter Yin sequence on the white sands of a Bali beach, it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day. What matters is your understanding and your attitude.
You must always ask yourself, “why do I practice?” And if your answer is: “Because it makes my beach body looks AHHHHmazing and I feel super spiritual,” then you may be missing the point. But if your answer is more along the lines of “because it deepens my mental awareness, allows me to return to breath, and cultivates an intense self-love where I can appreciate the physicality of my body and what it is capable of,” then, my friend, you just might me onto something.