ot yoga tends to be a subject of some controversy in yoga circles. Some say they love it, that they’re even “addicted” to it, while others can’t understand why a person would want to voluntarily subject themselves to it.
My response is less visceral, more informed by Ayurveda—often called yoga’s sister science—and the experience of understanding how the elements work for me, and how I’ve seen them at work in my students 12 years of teaching.
The thing is, yoga and Ayurveda are inextricably intertwined. Well, they should be. Or they were. Anyway, they’re derived from the same ancient texts. However, when yoga took to the West (mostly in the last 100 years), largely in the form of physical practice, or asana, we left some of its underpinnings (e.g. Ayurveda, in some cases) behind and went full-steam ahead with what we Westerners love most: doing. And to underscore that, doing whatever it is as full-on as we can possibly conceive.
If you aren’t familiar with Ayurveda, a quick primer (or click on the link above for more info). Ayurveda looks at the world, including our bodies and minds as constructed of five elements: water, earth, air, space and fire. At birth, each of us is made up of a different mix of these elements, with one or two tending to be dominant. These elements govern most everything about us from our digestion, mental state, appearance to our very way of being.
One of Ayurveda’s basic tenets is that like increases like. Meaning things that share the same properties/qualities are mutually reinforcing. Stay with me, I’ll provide a few examples in a sec. For people (like me) with fire as their dominant element, also called pitta dosha, we have to be mindful of things (e.g. foods, environments, lifestyles, etc.), which are already fiery in nature, as they will pump up the fire we already have in abundance. This is the rub with hot yoga for pittas, in particular. Like (hot, sweaty yoga room, coupled with a typically-vigorous practice) increases like (the fire element already high by accident of birth).
To make things even trickier, sometimes the things that are increasing what is already out of whack feel reeaaallly good, hence when people feel addicted to hot yoga. Generally, when you look around a hot yoga class, you will find mostly pittas, because this is the type of practice that most appeals to them. And, of course, it is the type of practice that is the least balancing for them. The trick is that the ego gets involved and as fiery, pitta people we like vigorous work, competitiveness, orienting toward a goal and even heat.
This is not to say hot yoga can never be a good choice, even for pittas. Ayurveda would look at the situation holistically. For a pitta, it may be true that hot yoga may never be a balancing choice of yoga practice. This doesn’t mean pittas can only do restorative, easy-breezy yoga, but the all-out nature of it tends to aggravate pittas. Pittas may (and often do) say they feel great after taking class. But consider, great as in more balanced? Or great, as in having satiated an addiction, accomplished a goal, worked to your max? And for you, are those things the same? Which is more important for you?
The benefits hot-yoga proponents attribute to the practice: increased flexibility, releasing toxins, joint mobility, are all available in good ol’ regular yoga too. Granted, the heat may make these things feel more accessible, but it takes an experienced practitioner to know what is flirting with his or her edge, and what is false flexibility beget by a 100 degree room.
For me, as a teacher and practitioner, as much as I love the feeling of accomplishing something physically-demanding and even getting a good sweat going, when I set my ego to the side, I realize I don’t leave the yoga room more balanced than when I came in, unless I practice hot yoga only sparingly. After all, balance, is what yoga is, what it means, in fact.
There are times, Ayurvedically-speaking, when hot yoga is more appropriate than others, like in spring, when we want to move some excess kapha (stagnation, inertia embodied in the elements of earth/water). More generally speaking, hot yoga may be an OK choice for kapha types on a more regular basis. Though, as you may notice if you look around the room in your hot yoga class, this isn’t the kind of yoga that tends to appeal to kaphas. Ahh, the rub of the ego.
It is not a black and white thing. And it would be to misunderstand to come away from this reading thinking, “she said hot yoga is bad;” instead, think about taking a closer look at how you feel when you practice hot yoga, trying your best to keep your ego in check (always hard) to see if it’s a balancing practice for you.
Here are a few questions to consider:
- Are you a pitta-type, meaning fire is your most dominant element? See Banyan’s great self-quiz to give you a glimpse.
- During yoga class (hot or not-hot), do you feel competitive with yourself, or the person next to you?
- Do you find yourself taking every variation your teacher gives you to push your pose to the next level?
- Do you feel envious, angry or frustrated during your practice that it’s not as advanced as a fellow practitioner’s?
- When you can’t quite get a pose, say handstand, do you keep kicking up (say 7-8) times, or do you let it go?
- When your usual hot-yoga teacher is out for the day, and a substitute teaches your class (maybe not a hot class), are you frustrated you aren’t working hard enough?
- Do you skip the class to wait until your usual teacher returns?
- Are you rigid about your practice? Meaning if you miss a day you feel frustrated or berate yourself for the failing.
- Do you struggle at times with thoughts of envy, judgment, anger, frustration that lead you to take action you later regret? Are these qualities more present after you practice yoga?
- Do you practice hot yoga because you think it is physically more demanding than non-hot classes?
So as you may guess, the more yeses to the above, the more you may want to consider if a hot practice is the right choice for you.
You also have live in your real life, of course. It is possible, even as a pitta-type, to take a hot yoga class and not leave with your fire aggravated. Say that hot yoga is all that’s available in your community, or it’s the only class at your local studio that fits in your schedule–can it work? Yes, well, maybe. The key is being willing to set your ego to the side. Not to take every variation your teacher gives you to make a pose more challenging. To even sit in child’s pose (gasp) every once and a while or do some sitali pranayama to cool yourself down while the rest of the class does a fiery pose that isn’t the right choice for your body, or your mind.
Our Western culture is embedded with the value that working hard is virtuous. Being mindful of what you are imbibing via your yoga, how it’s affecting your mind and your body, are all a part of the practice. Take the time to unearth your assumptions. Sometimes working as hard as you can isn’t always so balancing.