I was speaking with one of the new teacher trainees at the studio recently, asking how her first day of teacher training went. Her reply deeply resonated with me, bringing me back to my first days encountering the sheer size of the yoga tradition. She said, “I have just realized how very little I know about yoga.”
Oh yes, the realization of how vast yoga really is. How very little, especially as Westerners whose exposure to practice has been primarily asana practice in a studio setting, we know about the tradition of yoga can be overwhelming, exciting, terrifying all at once. Especially if you’ve decided to undertake the role of teaching this ancient tradition.
How can one possibly learn to teach all of this?
Even to this day, I’m struck with the occasional yogic existential crisis:
“Am I teaching yoga? Can you even teach yoga? Am I teaching a fitness class? Am I offering authenticity? Am I being driven by ego to fill this space with bodies? Am I even a yogi?”
The classes I have found myself most driven to teach are classes that encourage students to meet their edges, to practice on the periphery of comfort. One could say I teach fitness or stretching, because, I do. I primarily teach vinyasa, hot yoga & yin. These styles of yoga are currently filling classes, they are trendy and offer the students a “brand”. Something that allows the student a pretty good idea of what they are getting into before they head to class.
Hot yoga is the trendiest of them all. Something about a ridiculously hot room, lots of skin, lots of sweat, a challenging vinyasa practice and a dimly lit room is vastly appealing to yoga practitioners.
But, is this yoga? Is this “real” authentic yoga?
I’m willing to admit, in the most traditional sense of the practice, hot yoga is not real yoga. Modern consumer culture likes to co-opt traditional spiritual practice. We dumb it down, and take out bits and pieces that resonate to make something that is marketable, and then sell it as something authentic. Hot yoga is very much the result of this practice.
One of my favorite quotes from Sharon Gannon, co-founder of the Jivamukti School of yoga, has become part of the foundation of my own practice as well as my teaching. Allowing me to find authenticity amidst the “brand” we currently teach as yoga.
This is how I reconcile teaching trendy and marketable yoga classes. I teach my students to look for moments of presence, moments of connection, moments on the edge, moments of humility, moments of pure joy and then to look at where they are limiting or resisting those moments as well.
Those moments certainly exist within a hot class. Hot yoga connects the yogi with a profound experience of the senses. It is difficult to ignore how you feel when you are practicing postures in +38 degrees C. That connection with the sensory world may be what draws people back to hot yoga classes again & again. For, it’s that very connection that is missing in our modern lives. We have disconnected with the natural world—we are becoming fatter, sicker and depressed because of it.
Our minds and our bodies are still primal. We crave the experiences of the sensory world, we crave being on the edge, we crave experiences that unite us with our bodies and the world around us. Hot yoga provides us with this very real experience, but in a safe, controlled and fun way. It is not a replacement for being in nature and connecting with the earth. But, it can be a little oasis in our technologically enhanced lives that brings us back into our body and mind in a very obvious way.
It seems that humans have long recognized the value of heat and sweating. Ritualized ceremonial practices involving sweating are practiced cross culturally in Native North American, Baltic, Eastern European and Scandinavian cultures. The extremity of the sweat is a spiritual practice. I certainly would never be so bold as to equate my hot yoga class to a ceremonial practice of sweating, but I think that there is clearly precedence in our history of intentionally seeking this experience. It feels good, it feels cleansing, and in the end we feel rejuvenated.
One thing worth mentioning is the claim that hot yoga detoxifies the body.
After researching the topic a little bit, I’ve concluded that there is little proof of this claim. Yes, the skin is an organ and we do remove toxins from our bloodstream through the skin. There is little evidence that this process is accelerated by increased sweating. However, yoga in general, can improve lymphatic flow which assists the liver & kidneys in removing toxins from the body through urine and feces.
Given the above reasons why we are drawn to, or may find value in practicing yoga in the heat—one might say the “cleanse” we gain from our practice could be more of an emotional or spiritual nature.
As practitioners, we innately feel this and continue to be drawn back to that sweaty mat, over and over again. Because, at some point during our hot practice, we might find ourselves profoundly in the experience. Where we are fully immersed in the sensory world, where the everyday chatter of the mind stills—it’s just the breath, the body and our experience of those things. Perhaps, that moment, is yoga.
And if that moment is yoga (union), then one would have to reason that even the trendiest of yoga classes offers the potential of providing students with an experience of oneness. In the end, knowing very little about the tradition of yoga is okay if you come to the mat to explore, to practice, and to learn where you are resisting your natural state of oneness. Maybe every once in a while, you’ll get a peek at the yoga you hold within.
Doesn’t seem quite so overwhelming after all.
Robin Hilton is a teacher in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. Inquisitive and always willing to challenge status quo, Robin enjoys exploring yoga through her practice, teaching and writing.
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Assistant Editor: Lacy Rae Ramunno/Ed: Kate Bartolotta