The topic of heated vs. unheated yoga is a fiery one. Yoga has a way of working through someone’s body and into their being. It comes as no surprise that yogis have strong feelings about their practice and how it may or may not stack up against other forms of yoga. I am a yogini and yoga pervades every aspect of my life, but I am also trained as a scientist so want to present a fair representation of the topic. I’m still reviewing the scientific literature on muscle physiology and sweating (coming soon!). In the mean time, I thought I’d touch on the more esoteric side of the debate.
I am not against hot yoga per se, but rather unconscious yoga. Yes, heat (in general) can be healing and reduce pain (there isn’t’ research on heat and yoga specifically) . That said, yoga alone has been shown to reduce pain and in certain cases does so better than other forms of exercise or therapy. It comes back to the question of do we need the heat? Is it doing us any good? Why do we like it so much?
I don’t think that artificial use of extreme heat should have a place in yoga. In terms of milder heat, it is a trade off. Heat increases range of motion (e.g. flexibility) so the body can physically go deeper. Heat also decreases your ability to detect pain in the body. If you are working through an injury or have mild arthritis this might be a positive thing. But it might be ignoring the body’s warning that we aren’t ready for something. There are few (if any) mistakes in the way our bodies work. Pain isn’t fun for a reason. It is there to warn us that something isn’t okay. It is up to the mind to interpret that pain and how we should respond to it.
Life can be awkward, uncomfortable, and painful. At other times life is filled with ease, comfort, and feels more uplifting. The same is true of yoga. Ideally, in every pose you should feel Sthira and Sukha (translated to strength and ease). Part of this requires physically opening the body and learning the logistics of how to situate yourself in space. It takes time and work, but the elements of steadiness and ease should always be there on some level and are often accessed through the breath and a mental shift. Either way, the challenge is knowing the difference between healthy effort and pain. Putting yourself in an environment (e.g. hot yoga room) that bypasses this pain could be detrimental and lead to injury.
Heat does open the body and dial down the pain response, setting you up for this. Most yogis are more flexible than they need to be and need to balance their flexibility to feel supported in the pose and prevent injury. Others use heat to get them to a place their body may not be ready for. It is interesting to look at this desire and/or need to rapidly “accomplish” a yoga pose.
Many people commented or emailed me about heat allowing for a more “advanced” practice, which made me reflect on the goal of yoga. I come from a more traditional yoga school where the physical practice of yoga is just a small part of yoga and a lot of the work happens in your mind and your daily life. The teaching is, “It isn’t about touching the floor, it is about what you learn on the way down”.
Meaning part of the yoga path is moving away from our ego and the idea that an “advanced” practice means going into the world’s most “perfect” pose, banging out a series of arm balances, or rocking out the most contorted pose you can find. From this mindset, advanced means staying with the breath, becoming incredibly sensate about your body, and responding in a way that is actually useful for the body. Sticking your foot behind your head and handstands may be fun, but they aren’t making you happier, healthier, or a better person. Most the studies on the efficacy of yoga are conducted on novices and they get massive health and wellness benefits from introductory poses. So why do we get so crazy and funky with these poses? One of my teachers says that we have to give the body enough to do to make the mind stop. You need a contorted enough or intricate enough pose that you are so focused on feeling your way through it, that you can’t possibility be worrying about the ten million things going on in your life.
As you direct more attention to breath and body, it is amazing to watch the level of awareness grow over a long term practice. You learn to make tiny refined movements that completely change the way a pose feels and works the body, but most people wouldn’t notice the difference by looking at you. It is these subtle things like attitude, bhandas, and intricate alignment that make me think of a practitioner as advanced. But it is easy to get distracted by the allure of a pretty pose.
This mental shift has been one of the hardest parts of my personal practice. I am very type A and goal driven. I wish I remembered who it was, but a master teacher told me there is a difference between giving up and intelligently backing off. So I now I back off often, because I know that to get into the deepest version of a pose, I am compromising my breath or alignment in some way. I love yoga and want my practice to still be evolving in thirty years rather than causing chronic back issues. Every pose should feel good and create space in the body. If it doesn’t, take a deeper look at how you are doing the pose and if you are ready for that expression of that pose.
I think that if most of us are really honest with ourselves there are poses in yoga that feel less than amazing and maybe even terrible. Some of this takes time, but a lot of it can be changed with intelligent alignment, working with your unique anatomy, and working the pose within safer boundaries. This might mean working a different variation to get you strong enough or open enough for the next variation. Getting back to the issue at hand, it is the lack of postural integrity and mental restraint combined with heated yoga that is the problem. News flash: normal yoga can hurt you too and it can hurt you badly. So I am not against the heat per se, I am against the disposition that relies on heat to take you places that don’t honor your body and its current limits.