My love-hate relationship with Bikram Hot Yoga
by Suzanne Johnson
Go to Death Valley in August, and plug in the humidifier. Replace the desert sand with carpet that smells like beer farts. Surround yourself with people who vary wildly in body shapes—all lined up in the mirrors like staggered foosball players—each wearing as little as possible. Congratulations! You’ve just created a Bikram hot yoga studio.
Up until a year ago, I belonged to a fun, upbeat vinyasa yoga studio where lifting your spirits held equal status with lifting your mula bandha. Every part of me loved it, except for two tiny bones between my thumb and wrist. The cartilage between these bones has worn thin from too many injuries over the years, and the resulting arthritis made downward dog and crow pose nearly impossible. I set out to find a yoga class that involved no weight bearing on my wrists, and Bikram is the only yoga solution I found.
Within a month, I found myself in an intense love-hate relationship with this style of yoga. My complaints are not original—ask anyone who avoids hot yoga and odds are they’ll list similar complaints: the studio is too hot to sustain human life (really, how are all these yogis still alive?) Each session takes too much time (ninety minutes in class plus time for a total redo on the shower and hair.) It’s repetitive, and boring, with no motivating music, no creative flow, and minimal feel-good messaging.
Yet I am drawn back again and again because it feels so good when it’s over. I began to physically crave all the parts I mentally drew away from. I learned to recognize that when my spine feels scrunched and I’m existing on tiny shallow sips of air, I’ve been away from hot yoga for too many days. I found myself looking forward to ninety minutes of one sole purpose, focusing only on what the instructor tells me to do. My mindset shifted: on the days when the best I can do is less than the class before, I’ve learned to think, “Good thing I came today, my body needs this,” instead of, “I totally suck at this.” And, maybe the next time I will do more, and that will be a gold star day.
How I fell in love with hot yoga
How did this change happen? Why do the parts of Bikram Yoga that I started out resisting now draw me in? I decided to break down each issue in this love-hate relationship, and this is what I learned:
First issue: the heat. Intense, humid heat is an ancient practice for health for northern cultures. Think Finnish saunas and Native American sweat lodges. New research calls this thermotherapy, and suggests that time in intense heat works at a cellular level, keeping our telomeres long, springy and youthful. And that post-sweat detoxed skin glow? You can’t get that any other way.
Second issue: the militant repetition. Same 26 poses, each done twice, and every instructor guides us through by repeating the exact same phrasing. No variation. I used to think of Bikram as “Yoga For Engineers” because of the predictable sequence, but I’ve come to appreciate the routine. Once the mind can relax, and muscle memory takes over, movements become a physical meditation. I stay firmly rooted in the present, focused on posture and on breath, because I literally cannot manage to do more than that.
Finally, those awkward poses. Bikram poses are in the same family as the usual yoga poses, providing stretching and alignment. Bikram adds an emphasis on compression: tucking the chin firmly to compress the thyroid, pulling thighs alongside the abdomen to compress the large intestine, or squeezing the knees to compress the blood flow through the joint. The woosh of blood flow that follows the release is like alternating heat and ice on sore muscles, increasing circulation and decreasing inflammation, and helping to break down scar tissue that inhibits movement.
Maybe it’s the rush of blood through my joints after compression, or feeling that my ribs move more easily, but after each class, I feel relaxed and calm and powerful. I know my heart has been pumping and my lungs have been inflating and deflating just as they were designed to do, and my legs can hold me up (sometimes one leg can do it; sometimes they must be a team). My spine feels straighter and stronger and able to face the world. Most of all, I know I can overcome an uncomfortable environment in order to support this sack of bones and tissues that holds my soul.
That is why I keep going back.
5 Tips that prepare you for Bikram hot y
If all of this has tempted you to give hot yoga a try, let me share a few ways to make the experience less horrible, and maybe even something that feels good. Here are five tips I wish someone had shared with me me:
Tip #1: Come prepared. Any old yoga mat will do, but you need a special towel because you will soon be gushing sweat and your mat will turn into a slip-n-slide. My yoga towel has rubber nubbies that keep it in place on the mat, but some yogis use padded towels made just for hot yoga studio carpets, no rubber mat needed. Definitely, invest in one of these two yoga towel styles.
Tip #2: Plan your hydration. Fill your water bottle before you leave for the yoga studio, and down it on the way, then refill just before class. Actually, you should have been hydrating since yesterday; by now it’s too late. Sorry. Whether or not you hydrated ahead, definitely visit the lavatory just before class. There is no leaving the room to pee once class has started, and that heat can do funky things to your digestive tract.
Tip #3: Find a good neighbor. I like to arrive just a little early, when the room still has a good selection of locations, and lay my mat so I can choose my neighbor. Two qualities in a good neighbor: a calm demeanor, and good balance. I avoid the surprisingly enthusiastic yogis doing impressive pretzel moves before class begins. This is the time to quietly acclimate to the heat (and to the smell, honestly.) Choose a neighbor who won’t intrude on your space, physically or otherwise. It’s harder to spot the yogis with good balance. If someone near me wobbles during the one-legged balance poses, so do I. Sometimes it’s a matter of learning where not to aim your eyes.
Tip #4: Look up! Do not place yourself so your head is directly under a ceiling light fixture. One unusual feature of Bikram is the frequent, short savasana during which the eyes stay open. Never should you close your eyes until the final savasana. Why is this? We are staying present, people! No drifting off or making your mental task list for the rest of your day. Which is all well and good, except when staring straight up at a 100-watt bulb.
Tip #5: There is no shame in standing still. A year into this I still occasionally skip poses and just stand there, waiting for the buzzing in my ears to pass, and I’m not the only one. Some days just keeping yourself in the room is enough work, letting the heat work its magic on your telomeres and your psyche. Give yourself a gold star for showing up and staying put, and just breathe.
featured image Bikram Yoga St. Johns via Yelp
Suzanne Johnson lives, writes and plays in the Cascades of Central Oregon. More of her writing is at SuzanneMyhreJohnson.com