Is Hot Yoga Overindulgent? ~ Bruce Stephens

Via elephant journal
on Jan 3, 2011
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Heat Stroke 134/365 by SashaW, on Flickr
Photo Courtesy of Sasha Wolff

The Heat Is On

Classical Yoga theory teaches us about the eight steps, or ‘limbs’. The Yamas are the first of these eight limbs, and can best be described as ethical disciplines or universal moral commandments. Under this heading of the Yamas, we find Aparigraha. Aparigraha has been explained as non-hoarding, and is often considered another aspect of Asteya or non-stealing. It suggests to the yogi that gathering things he or she doesn’t need is a form of stealing. Another way of putting this, as spoken by Mahatma Gandhi, is that being wasteful is, in fact, stealing from the poor. Certainly, this basic awareness of the interconnectedness of our existence here on earth is one of the fundamental teachings of yoga, as of most wisdom traditions. And, as yogis, we strive to act with awareness of the karmic ramifications of our actions, as defined by the Yamas, and through our actions we teach the rest of society by example.

So, in light of this, I must question the actions of a popular form of yoga. With all due respect to Mr. Choudhury and the lineage he represents, I wonder if the Bikram yoga practice—heating a yoga shala in excess of 100 degrees—is in line with Aparigraha. I am sure that this system has been profoundly beneficial for its adherents, and has done much good to its practitioners and the world at large. However, we live in a time of rapid climate change due to greenhouse gases, a time when wars are fought for oil, so I posit this question: Is it in line with the Yamas to use energy so wantonly to create this environment for yoga? Is it really necessary or is it an indulgence, the equivalent of driving a Hummer?

I fully understand that Tapas are considered a part of Niyama, the second of the eight limbs of Yoga. Tapas literally means to burn, or to purify by heating or by fire. This applies to both one’s body and one’s practice, or spiritual life. The body is regarded as a vehicle for spiritual growth, and the copious sweat of vigorous asana practice is a literal and obvious example of Tapas in action. Asana induced sweat keeps the yogi’s body clean and supple. I love to sweat with the best of them, but is it necessary to create an extreme external heat source, or can a similar effect be achieved by the use of bandhas and vinyasa? Is it worth the greenhouse gases? Of course, each studio has its challenges of heating and cooling, and with each passing year, I really appreciate warmth. But I recall, many years ago, being present when Pattabhi Jois was asked about asana practice in cold weather. His response was simple: wear more clothes.

Breath is a foundation of yoga practice, and Bikram yoga requires one to breathe super heated air in a closed environment. Certainly it does not create an abundance of negative ions. I am fortunate, I believe, that my humble little yoga studio is a couple of blocks from the Pacific Ocean. With the prevailing onshore flow of air, most days we are blessed with fresh ocean air for our practice. It almost seems criminal to alter it more than necessary. Although our old building can be drafty and austere at times, we have come to appreciate the different seasons and solar angles, what each side of the year has to offer. The steamy summer afternoons seem suited for furthering flexibility, and the cool winter classes for testing, and increasing one’s strength.

Is there a solution to this conundrum? Two are obvious: either wait until summer or move to the tropics. I also suppose that avid practitioners of the heated method could install or deploy enough photovoltaic panels (or similar renewable sources) to offset the extra CO2 emissions. A Bikram line of solar panels?

Ultimately, it is about the Yamas. We are asked, as Yogis, to embrace a profound code of ethics, and practice self-inquiry. Thus, we must all be vigilant of how our actions affect the whole of our world. I regard most yogis as the elite of the world, a noble class dedicated to self-discovery and peaceful living, but that does not give us license to use the world’s resources in a selfish way. In our modern world, embracing Aparigraha requires nothing less of us.

Bruce Stephens began his study of yoga in 1976 with Manju Jois. Ending every class with a meditation, Bruce shares the knowledge gained from such teachers as Thich Nhat Hanh, Ken Wilber, and the Dzogen lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Surfer, poet, gardener and occasional host of the Full Moon La Paloma Poetry Slams, Bruce deeply loves and cares for the community of Encinitas and the people that reside there.


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15 Responses to “Is Hot Yoga Overindulgent? ~ Bruce Stephens”

  1. Thanks for this provocative post, Bruce. I have to admit, I never thought about it in this light before.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  2. AMO says:

    You might have checked on the proper spelling of the man's name if you were going to use it. It would have been easy, it's on his main website, His name, for the record, is Bikram Choudhury. There are many ways to spell Choudhury in India as it's a common name, but each Choudhury would like his name spelled the way he and his family spell it. Just as you would not like to have your name spelled Bruce Stevens.

    I plan to open a hot yoga studio, but I'll be investing in a Bloom Box. Every yoga studio owner needs to be looking at the energy consumption of their studio. Do you sell bottled water that is shipped 1000s of miles in petroleum containers raping the native lands from which it's taken and leaving the people with no fresh clean water to drink (Fiji for example?). Do you sell yoga mats that are made by 9 year old Chinese children in poisonous factories? Do you encourage your students to throw their mats away every year or two so you can sell more? Do you push "healthy" drinks and foods like coconut water for which the ingredients are grown in tropical areas where farmlands needed to feed the native people and rain forests are burned in order to grow coconut trees to make juices that travel around the world on tanker ships so you can feel "healthy"? Do you wear $300 yoga outfits made by people in Brazil who earn less than $1 a day working in a factory and go home to children who can't afford to go to school? I love hot yoga. In fact, with a congenital joint dysplasia it's the only form of yoga I can safely practice. My joints are injured and dislocated if I practice in the cold. Loving hot yoga does require that I do my part to care for the planet. Choose your battles Mr. Stephens. Do you travel? If you've been on an International flight in the past 5 years you've burned more "unnecessary" carbon than the average hot student IN A STUDIO will in the same amount of time. Did you buy the carbon offsets for that flight? Do you drive to your studio? How far? In what? If you drive 5 miles to the studio in an SUV you've used more fuel than your share of the class and you've done it alone whereas the studio is heated for many. Thank you for asking the question. But don't stop there. If you drink soymilk or soy anything, do you know if it came from South America, where most of America's soy is grown? I ask you these questions because unless you don't heat your house, the studio uses less power per person per day than you do by far. Before the reader starts feeling guilty for loving hot yoga, let us remember that as the class fills with bodies, the doors are closed, and we all begin to sweat and breathe the machines don't have to work as hard to heat the space because it gets hot just from being full. Hot yoga practiced alone at home IS very consumptive, but in a studio it's not so bad. I know lots of newer hot yoga studios who specifically buy green energy for their studios. Check it and see if it's available where you live, encourage your studio owner to look into it. Meanwhile, drink local water in reusable bottles and keep that yoga mat until it FALLS APART. Buy local, your food, your clothes, your mat, and walk to class. Buy carbon offsets when you travel. You'll be doing a LOT more for the planet than you would avoiding a heated studio, which frankly, because of people like me, is going to use that energy any way. Remember, every body in the room lowers the need for the heaters to go full time so pack those hot studios my friends, save the planet, do yoga…

  3. yogiclarebear says:

    Bruce, I'm with Bob on this…never considered this point of view. It is interesting, I "resolved" to draw back my own heated yoga practice this season because it requires me to travel an hour to and from studio, and it takes a lot of my personal time and energy that I know I should be putting elsewhere, partly into continuing to develop a home practice. Now I feel like there is another reason to find a little more moderation in my heated practice. Thanks for the perspective.

  4. AMO says:

    OK, so I posted this once before. Let's see if it stays up here this time. What's up Elephant? I hope that was a glitch, because I SAW it post…

    As a writer you have a responsibility to spell the name of the people you write about correctly. As you would like your name, which has many common spellings, to be spelled Stephen instead of say Steven, so you should take care to spell Mr. Choudhury's name correctly. It's easy enough to look up.

    I am a hot yoga teacher, trained by Bikram. Many Bikram studios are buying their heat from Green energy companies with very low impact. Do you light and heat yours studio that way? I will be purchasing a bloom box for my studio. It will be expensive but worth it, for long term costs and for the planet. As for the general truth that most Bikram studios are heated with forced air gas heaters and electric humidifiers, nonetheless they are heated in most cities for large numbers of people and the carbon emissions per student are relatively low. They use less energy per day per student than heating your house or driving 5 miles in your SUV to the studio, much less.

    I lived in San Diego for 25 years and for me, a person with a congenital joint defect, joint dysplasia, and Raynaud's syndrome, it gets very cold there. I can't imagine practicing in a cold room in a very cold climate, like Wisconsin for example. I can't practice yoga in a cold room or my joints, knees, shoulders, dislocate. Hot yoga is the only way for me. That said, everything possible should be done to reduce waste and to maximize energy use in every studio. If you're heating your studio at all, and you really should be in the winter time on the coast, you're using some heat. Let's say the outside temperature is 45 degrees, you raise it to 70, I raise it to 105. You've gone half the distance I have. I certainly hope you aren't making your students practice yoga in a 45 degree studio! Seal up the dual pane windows, winterize to keep cool in summer and warm in winter, but don't turn off the heat, brrrr!

    Do you sell bottled water in your studio? You're selling carbon impact packed in petroleum, taken from the ground 1000s of miles from your studio and leaving the indigenous people with no clean water to drink (Fiji). Do you sell yoga mats? Are they made by small Chinese children in poison chemical filled factories? Do you encourage your students to change them every year or two instead of putting them in the washing machine and using them until they fall apart, then donating them to an animal shelter to line the dogs pens? Do you encourage your students to drink coconut water and acai berry products and other things that are grown on land that once fed the people of South America or was home to rain forests and that has been shipped 1000s of miles in tanker ships packed in petroleum products? Have you traveled Internationally in the past 5 years? If so you've used far more carbon on one trip than I have taking Bikram yoga daily for the same number of years. Did you buy carbon offsets for that trip? Why not? You can buy carbon offsets for your yoga too if you like. If you eat soy products do you check to make sure the soy you're eating isn't from South America, where most of the soy eaten in North America is grown, impacting the planet deeply in shipping costs?

    Once a hot yoga studio is packed with students who are moving and breathing and sweating the machines don't have to work very hard to keep the space hot. The heaters and humidifiers shut down.The more people go, the less energy is used and they are going to have hot yoga studios so you might as well go. Make them more efficient by going to hot yoga.

    A piece of advice. You really should research the actual impact of a thing before you write about impact. Now, let's see if this post stays up…

  5. Alan Haffa says:

    I don't do Bikram, but how can you compare driving a Hummer to heating a room up for yoga? How many people drive in the Hummer? 1? 2? 4 or 5 at most? How many students are in a typical Bikram class? So, if we are talking about economical use of resources you have to consider how many people benefit from the expense of that resource. You also have to consider alternatives. Clearly, there is no necessary need to drive a Hummer rather than a more efficient vehicle. The only benefit is status. In the case of Bikram, there may be physiological benefit to doing yoga in a heated space. I really don't know as I am not a kinesiologist, but it seems plausible and that is clearly the belief of Bikram teachers and students.

  6. Mercury Roberts says:

    Nice topic, Bruce. Always thought provoking
    and emotionally reactive to judge a style of yoga (especially in a spiritually framed and politically correct way).

    I feel provoked and reactive.
    Thanks for that.

    Don't get me wrong, weighing environmental cost into individual modern human behavior has value.
    But also weigh the entire system.
    The environmental and social costs of the toxic capitalistic culture built on fossil fuels that we live in.
    Unmeasurable really.

    Hot Yoga is an easy target.

    I love hot yoga.
    Do it all the time.
    Drive quite a way sometimes to do it.
    The physical vitality and inner peace that it provides me are also unmeasurable.

    Selfish? Maybe.
    Doing my best everyday to be the best person I can be.

    Let's see . . .
    If you live in the developed world – especially north of the tropic of cancer . . . one cannot even begin to tally their own consumption and impact in this fossil fuel burning world.
    A great deal of our personal fossil fuel usage is hidden from us and almost impossible to calculate. For instance, the food that most eat is produced using oil in the fertilizer spread on the crops, fuel in the tractors that plowed the field, and diesel in the trucks that brought the food to market, amongst other things. The newspaper you read in the morning required fossil fuels to create the paper, run the presses, and deliver the paper. Just this morning I put stevia from Brazil into my coffee from Sumatra. Every product that you use during your day has a similar story.
    The average number of miles that you drive each year, and the mileage of your car(s). The number of miles that you drive/fly each year on airlines, buses, trains, taxis, and motorcycles. The amount of electricity that you use in your home each year. The amount of natural gas, propane, kerosene, or heating oil that you use in your home each year. The amount of gasoline that you use in your lawnmower/weed eater each year.
    What about the heating and transportation costs of the government and military outposts at the poles that are measuring the ice melt?

    Sell your car, down your thermostat and turn off that air conditioner.

    Now get 3 billion people to cut back.
    While the other 3-4 billion want to step it up.

    We have quite a problem here.
    Human nature, politics . . .
    And quite a population problem.

    The only external answer I can think of is world dictatorship, extracting compliance from each economy.


    It’s the devil and the deep blue sea. Cooked alive or under a world-sized jackboot. Either way, I’m not paying attention to Kyoto or Copenhagen. I"m turning up the appreciation and gratitude and turning down the thermostat at home. I'm eating more local meat and vegetables and going to hot yoga. I am working to be more present in the big paradox of it all and eating often at Chipotle. I’m stocking tinned food for the ark that’ll take me to whichever godforsaken corner of the earth is still inhabitable when it all goes tits-up.

    See you there.
    But stay away from my tins.

  7. Charlotte says:

    I have wondered about this. The yoga culture, in general, supports the idea of sustainability, so it seems a little strange that hot styles, and so many others, choose to push up the thermostat in order to cause students to sweat. Citizens are encouraged to keep our home thermostats at 65° in the winter. 105° seems wasteful to me.

  8. Moksha Lover says:

    Hi Bruce!

    I'm not as familiar with Bikram yoga, but there are other forms of hot yoga, like Moksha Yoga, who have put a great deal of thought into the impact hot yoga has on the environment. Here's their philosophy (off of their website-

    "We sweat green! Well, not literally, of course, but we do operate based on a deep sense of responsibility for the effect of our actions on the natural environment. In fact every Moksha Yoga studio signs an agreement to operate with strict environmental controls. The studios are built with sustainable and non-toxic supplies, lights and heating systems are low consumption and all studios are cleaned with environmentally-friendly cleaning products.

    We take our day-to-day environmental efforts a step further and donate monthly to Zero Footprint. Zero Footprint is an organization that measures the environmental impact a home or business is having on carbon emissions, a leading contributor to global warming. When emissions are determined, measured donations are made and Zero Footprint plants trees and protects watersheds to offset the negative effects our day to day power usage has on the environment. Moksha Yoga is now a Zero Footprint organization!! To offset the effect of your home, office, commute to work, airline flights, etc. visit"

    Just thought I'd throw that out there for the rest of the hot yoga-lovers! 🙂

  9. Emer says:

    You make some great thought provoking points. As far as I can ascertain elephant journal exists to support and honor difference but for the sake of us avid readers, who exist in backwaters 100 miles from a Hot yoga studio, employ a little charm and grace to your text. It is not a battle just an interesting opinion piece and you could do worse than to follow suit. Please?

  10. Bruce Stephens says:

    Dear Moksha Lover –
    Thanks for your post. This kind of thoughtfulness and awareness is exactly what I was hoping to encourage. I applaud those who think things through, that is to say, zoom back and look at the big picture, and then act accordingly. I see that Moksha Yoga has embraced the ideals of aparigraha and sustainable living, and I say good for them. Awareness of the ramifications of our actions is a big part of the healing of our planet. Thanks, and if I ever get a chance to practice at a Moksha studio, I will do so (with a relatively clean conscience!)

  11. Bruce says:

    Alan, you make a good point. I was just trying to shine a little attention on what I perceived to be a bit of a disconnect in one sector of the Yoga community. There is a hot yoga studio in my town with zero insulation in the ceiling! So much heat wasted. Yet there are other studios like Moksha Yoga (see post below) that have taken their carbon footprint into account. I certainly didn't want to paint all heated studios with the same brush, just to generate some thought and discussion. In my own life, I compost, grow edible gardens, shop at the farmer's market, catch rainwater, and try to ride my bicycle or 75mpg scooter whenever feasible. Small acts, but hopefully helpful to the totality. I find the concept of "aparigraha" fascinating, somewhat unique in the moral codes of the wisdom traditions of the world, and I wanted to explore where this concept might fit in to the lifestyle of the modern yogi. I appreciate your input.

  12. Bruce says:

    Dear AMO –
    I live close to my studio, don't drive an SUV, in fact, ride my 75mpg scooter whenever feasible, my 10 year old yoga mat is probably good for another year or two, and I refill my metal water bottle with local water. My yoga clothes are also several years old, in fact I abhor pricey clothes that you are only going to stretch and sweat in! I also compost, have an edible garden, shop at the farmer's market, etc, etc. I wasn't trying to take anyone to task, I was just hoping to explore the concept of "aparigraha" to the modern yogi. I am very curious about the Bloom Box, which, I understand, is a fuel cell. Keep us informed about how that works out. And sorry about the mis-spelling, my bad.

  13. Prakash says:

    A healthy style from yoga .After the Yoga what has happened to the Mind ,The Body and The Soul. ,For this answer is received from within the Self , then the Yoga has lived in for ever

  14. reat topic. and I think AMO has the right line of thought, not only should we think about the heat, but the plastic water bottles and the non-green mats and the coconut water and all sorts of hypocrisy and I think this was exactly your point. That in all things we do the yoga studio, teacher, student we all have the task of being MORE aware and to do MORE than your average person to think in terms of ahimsa and Aparigraha .

  15. Deepthoughts says:

    If you really wanted to feed the entire globe you would increase CO2, thats why they stopped calling it the "Green House Effect", because people started realizing "hey whats wrong with a greenhouse effect". Then they started calling it "Global Warming", but when the real scientific data proved the planet was wasn't even warming, then they started calling it "Climate Change". Al Gore and Bill Gates need to create a fictional crisis so they can tax you for breathing as they jet around the world from one mega mansion to another, in between board meetings for Apple, where they laugh about the suicide nets for the slaves. Mean while we're naval gazing as a the real environmental holocaust – read – GMO is unleashed on the planet killing biodiversity and destroying human health irrevocably.