It’s the Saturday of Labor Day Weekend, 2011. There is a 16′ X 8′ storage container in my driveway that needs filling, and a plane to catch on Sep. 8th. I’m re-posting something I wrote over two years ago.
This morning I was in my yoga studio doing some cleaning, and a woman came in and asked me a question I hear often- “Do you teach Hot Yoga at your studio?”
A rather abrupt and frustrated “No” issued from my mouth, followed quickly by an attempt to explain what my yoga classes are like and just why it is I don’t like to practice or teach yoga in an overheated room with waves of nausea sweeping through my belly and sweat dripping off my brow… but by then she’d said “Oh”, and returned my schedule postcard to its box.
As soon as I got home, I went up to my husband’s study, flopped on his couch, and dramatically announced that ‘hot yoga’ was going to be my professional demise and perhaps I should consider a career other than yoga teacher. He turned towards me with that twinkly grin he gets when I’m being somewhat silly and unreasonable, and said to me “Sweetheart, instead of answering ‘NO’ when people ask you that question, you SHOULD answer you teach yoga that makes people ‘hot’!” And while I giggled, and he considered how he might be rewarded for such insight, it occurred to me that it was time to articulate to potential students (and those I see already at class) how the concept of ‘heat’ fits into my view of yoga.
My introduction into yoga consisted of taking gentle, evening classes in a candlelit room, moving slowly in and out of standing and seated postures. While my mind often wandered off the mat, I would, however, occasionally experience a sensation in my spine that felt like a mild electrical charge. Growing somewhat bored with this ‘gentle’ approach, I began to study ‘Ashtanga Yoga’. As the well-known Ashtanga teacher David Williams says, “If yoga is a tool for transformation, Ashtanga is a chainsaw.” How right he was.
Ashtanga Yoga is the system upon which most ‘hot yoga’ is based. Without diving deeply into the philosophical origins of yoga, I’ll condense it all greatly here to the following: ‘asta’ means ‘eight’ in Sanskrit; ‘anga means ‘limb’. ‘Ashtanga’ refers to the eight ‘limbs’, or guiding principles, of hatha yoga. Of those eight limbs, Ashtanga Yoga concerns itself primarily with the first four, which are external cleansing practices- the yamas, or moral code; the niyamas, or tenets of self-study; asana, or postures; and pranayama, or energy expansion, also less accurately translated as breath work. A consistent asana practice makes the body healthy and strong and prepared for meditation; pranayama prepares the mind through concentration on the breath. Together, these practices stabilize and steady the mind, readying us for the four higher limbs of internal cleansing practices, including pratyahara, or sense control; dharana, or contemplation; dhyana, or meditation: and samadhi, or enlightenment.
I practiced Ashtanga Yoga for many years, then studied with David Swenson, got certified, and began to teach it. As my own practice evolved, I moved away from a strictly Ashtanga routine, to one that became more ‘improvisational’ depending on what my body and mind needed on any given day. However, no matter how ‘improvisational’ my personal yoga practice is, or how varied my classes are, I consistently utilize important ‘root’ concepts that root me to my inner self, root me to the Earth and my external human community, and connect me to the long lineage of those who have practiced before.
To teach students how to move through an asana practice, I bring in four basic concepts; ‘vinyasa’- breathing and moving linked together; ‘ujjayi breath’– a long, even breath that increases internal fire and strengthens and purifies the nervous system; and ‘bandhas’- internal energetic ‘valves’ that, when applied and used correctly, unlock energy within the body and direct it towards our subtle body. Bandhas help us create a body that flows and floats from one asana to the next. In addition, we work with ‘drishti’, a sustained focal point for one’s gaze that helps to keep us balanced, centered and focused.
The synchronization of breath and movement in vinyasa heats the body from the inside, allowing blood to circulate more freely, relieving joint pain, and removing toxins from the internal organs. The sweat generated from the heat of vinyasa carries impurities out of the body.
Mastery of the ujjayi breath allows one to extend the length of inhale and exhale, as well as the spaces in between each breath. Steady, even breathing encourages a steady, even asana practice.
There are three major bandhas in the body. Put in a simplistic way, ‘mulabandha’, or ‘root’ lock is located at the base of the torso between the anus and the genitals. Engaged through a lifting action in the muscles of the pelvic floor, it serves to seal in ‘prana’, or life energy. The next is ‘uddiyanabandha’, or the ‘flying upwards’ lock. Its purpose is to direct prana upwards through the channels of the subtle body. These channels, or ‘nadis’ are located on either side of the spine. The third, ‘jalandharabandha’, or ‘throat’ lock, occurs when the chin is slightly lowered towards the base of the throat, thereby preventing pranic energy from escaping the body.
When these elements are working in concert- asana, pranayama, bandha, drishti– our mind is able to focus, thereby creating a deep state of concentration which sets the stage for the yoga practitioner to enter into the next ‘limbs’ of the eight-fold path.
So how does all of that create a ‘hot’ yogi or yogini?
When was the last time you savored every single bite of a meal, aware of color, texture and taste as the food was admired by your eyes, identified by scents wafting into your nose and relished as it hit your taste buds? When were you last at a meal where you ate enough to satisfy your hunger without over doing it into guilt, remorse and self-recrimination for having ‘over indulged’ yet again?
When was the last time you were in the company of a friend or loved-one where what mattered was the bonds of human companionship and unconditional love, not their address, or their possessions, or their ‘connection’ potential in your social ladder, or even a sense of ‘obligation’ to the relationship?
When were you last deeply, sexually intimate with someone? Do you regularly turn off the phone, cover the clocks, and get skin-to-skin, heart-to-heart naked with your spouse, or partner, or lover? Do you know the pleasure of moving in breath to breath harmony with another human being, building and sustaining sexual pleasure that isn’t contingent upon the ‘end’, but instead is focused on the means of the moment?
When were you last alone in the company of just yourself, at peace with who you are?
If you can ‘yes’ to many of these questions, then in my book you are on your way to practicing ‘hot’ yoga. Our inner fire purifies our body, focuses our minds, and connects us to our heart. The tools we use to create and sustain that inner fire on a yoga mat serve us off the mat, especially when we are aware of how to awaken the life energy that exists within all of us. Practicing your yoga on a mat, in a class, is just a first step. What truly, deeply, madly matters is when you follow your yoga off the mat, and let it guide you through your life, in moments that range from the mundane to the sacred and back again.
Now THAT is hot yoga!