November Newsletter: Hot Yoga, Ayurveda & Recognizing Afflictions
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
Vata season has arrived! Here in middle Tennessee the air is cooler, the leave continue changing and on November 1 we had our first frost of the season. For some regions, such as New England, snow has already dusted the rooftops, streets & trees. It's also around this time of year I return to attending hot yoga classes a couple times weekly. The kapha quality of my constitution benefits from weekly or twice weekly hot vinyasa and I absolutely love it. This autumn and winter is definitely going to be very different. My favorite hot yoga studio recently closed down because of the pandemic recession and I'm uncertain this season of cold, flu & coronavirus is a good time to frequent hot classes anyway.
I get asked about the Ayurvedic perspective on hot yoga often, and I think its a really great question. Hot yoga definitely has its benefits but it's certainly not a one-size-fits-all sort of practice, and it isn't very beneficial as a year-round practice. From an Ayurvedic perspective one rule of thumb is "like increases like," so naturally hot yoga is a very pitta-increasing practice, and it tends to attract a rather pitta-dominant crowd. Since like attracts like, the focus of an Ayurvedic approach is to use opposite therapy, which is not unique to just Ayurveda--the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali shines light on the mental exercise of "Pratipaksha Bhavana" or "cultivating the opposite."
This isn't to say that no one can practice hot yoga, as it certainly has its benefits. Cultivating the opposite for a person with a kapha dominance could reasonably involve recommending regular hot yoga--especially during the winter & spring. In addition, a vata dominant person could include occasional hot yoga classes into his or her practice throughout the winter & spring as well. That's not to say that a pitta dominant person can't ever practice hot yoga; winter & early spring is a great time for a pitta-type person to practice hot yoga a few times during each season.
However, the dedicated hot yogi very possibly doesn't want to read any of this--I write this from experience. I started my practice in a hot yoga studio the winter of 2010 and was instantly hooked into the heat. This was before I knew anything about Ayurveda or yoga and decided to take a class because a coworker said that hot yoga is an "intense class" but that I would probably enjoy it, being an "intense" person myself. The class was intense and my coworker was right, I did enjoy it--that and the cold lavender towel the instructor placed on your forehead at the end of class. I practiced exclusively Hot-26 & hot power vinyasa year-round the first two years of my yoga journey and felt great.
Coming from such a dedicated hot practice, why can I now say hot yoga is not good for everyone? This year I taught an Ayurvedic mini-session for a popular Nashville hot yoga studio's 200-hr YTT program. The discussion on hot yoga brought up a lot of defensive barriers from a number of the students, including the studio owner. "That's where I don't agree with Ayurveda" is approximately the exact words the owner shared with me and her group of YTT students as she expressed her opinion on the topic.
The thing is I really get it--telling people they shouldn't practice hot yoga isn't something I enjoy. Being challenged isn't comfortable. But being comfortable is an illusion that that can fluctuate or change. I also have a very personal experience in what happens when you keep pushing yourself to show up for hot yoga when it's not actually serving your wellbeing.
In early summer 2013 I was at a frenzied pace with my hot yoga practice. At times I would be in class twice daily--this type of doubling down was praised at the studio. I wanted to prove to myself I was stronger, more flexible, skinnier, etc., and was in a deep competition with myself. After a time of maintaining such fanatical rigidity in my yoga practice, I started experiencing serious fatigue and ended up checking myself in at an urgent care center with severely low blood-iron levels--I was very anemic and ended up on an iron IV that afternoon in addition to a 2-month long regimen of prescription iron for the rest of the summer. The physician who treated me told me quite plainly that whatever I'm doing I have to stop because it's not safe; all I could think is that all I'm doing is hot yoga.
I struggled with wrapping my thoughts around this experience for some years; how could a yoga practice--my yoga practice--that healed me from so much physical injury & strain somehow transform into a poison? When I became a certified yoga teacher in April 2014 I was still practicing hot yoga (although not frenzied), and I started teaching it, too. Over that time of teaching & practicing hot yoga, some similar sensations started to remerge and my anemia was once again being poorly managed by my excessive time in the hot yoga room. At some point in the summer of 2018 I made a hard yet obvious choice that I couldn't both teach hot yoga & practice it. In deciding to keep hot yoga for my practice I released myself from teaching it any more. Over time, I've established a lot of discipline in my hot yoga practice so that I can continue to explore & enjoy heated practices, but it has taken a lot of personal inquiry & honesty.
These days having a deeper understanding of yoga, ayurveda & myself, I can look back in my years of practice to see the afflicted patterns of the kleshas expressing themselves in my yoga and my lifestyle choices--hot yoga was no exception. Let's take a moment to look into the kleshas.
Also expounded upon in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the word "Klesha" means affliction, poison or obstacle, and there are a total five kleshas: avidyā, ignorance; asmitā, egoism and externalizing one's self-identity; rāga, unhealthy attachments/ desires and addictive behaviors; dvesha, aversions and deep hatreds; abhiniveshāha, irrational fears, fearful behavior and clinging to life. These five obstacles show up in our everyday thoughts, behaviors & choices. Subversive & highly influencing, the kleshas prevent us from being able to perceive our surroundings, ourselves or others with clarity, intelligence & compassion. But, how can something like hot yoga develop into feeding these unhealthy thought patterns?
Revisiting Ayurveda's therapeutic foundation of like attracting like, when a specific doshic energy attracts an increase of its own doshic energy, this becomes an imbalance, and aggravation and over time can become chronic disease. So, in the case of hot yoga and the heavy presence of pitta dominant people in a hot yoga class, this is going to lead to pitta aggravation. However, when including the awareness of the kleshas at play, the effect on the mind can be more difficult to comprehend and to release, such as I experience in my own journey unpacking my hot yoga addiction.
Is it fair to call an obsessive hot yoga practice an addiction? I'm not really sure, but when I practice self-inquiry to understand how the kleshas show up in my life, my hot yoga practice was definitely linked to egoism and unhealthy attachment. Noticing how the kleshas manifested physically; I pushed myself into chronic pitta imbalance in the form of chronic anemia. Yet I still clinged to the practice even after experiencing acute health problems from excessive hot yoga. It took me years to understand that my pitta-kapha nature can't maintain hot yoga all year and all the time, while embracing a more seasonal & compassionate approach to my hot practice.
So how can you start approaching your yoga practice with heightened awareness offered from learning about the kleshas? Yoga is a radical practice that offers us a pathway for deeper Self-innerstanding, thus liberating ourselves from destructive patterns and elevating consciousness. Understanding the kleshas can empower us with a framework for shining light into our shadows to reveal bhakti.
As it gets colder, I'm still wondering if I'm going to attend hot yoga classes or not this season, but I will continue cultivating my yoga of self-inquiry and I hope this has helped in sparking the fire of the mind to explore your own self-inquiry as well.
When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite [positive] ones should be thought of. This is pratipaksha bhavana.
~Yoga Sutra 2.33