Exploring the Hot Yoga Trend: Is This “Real” Yoga? ~ Robin Hilton

Via elephant journal
on Mar 26, 2013
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Source: skinnyms.com via Lacy on Pinterest

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.

“You cannot do yoga. Yoga is your natural state. What you can do are yoga exercises, which may reveal to you where you are resisting your natural state.”

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.

Screen Shot 2013-03-26 at 9.57.54 AMRobin 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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29 Responses to “Exploring the Hot Yoga Trend: Is This “Real” Yoga? ~ Robin Hilton”

  1. Tinvin says:

    Nice essay.

  2. Robin says:

    thanks! 🙂

  3. Stacy says:

    As an instructor, I could not agree with you more. Excellent piece, there are so many people in big cities that simply think hot yoga is a form of yoga..when it is actually NOT. and it has become so trendy and it comes with many false ideas about what IS yoga… It is a physical form of exercise but does not hold true to the authenticity of the real purpose and meaning of yoga, which is to yoke, and a union of body mind soul and universe.

  4. Pix says:

    Thought you might enjoy this viewpoint. http://www.bodhiyoga.net.au/bikram-is-bad-for-you

  5. RAS says:

    In their book 'Yoga and Medical Science FAQ', Dr. Krishna Raman (a 30-year student of B.K.S Iyengar) and Dr S Suresh state that, medically, 'hot room' yoga is bad for the parasympathetic nervous system and, over the long-term, will result in one looking haggard.

    It is, of course, usually wise to avoid any teacher or form of yoga where one is exhorted, when in Uttanasana for example, to "Pull! Pull! Pull your head to your knees!"

  6. Daniella says:

    Thank you. Thank you!

  7. Robin says:

    Stacy – there is yoga to be found in a hot studio, but likely not in the asana moreso in the experience of practicing to one's edge and it depends on the instructor obviously. Some instructors are mindful of this, others just lead a workout. (I can say that I absolutely have done both). Pix – that's a very interesting article. I do not teach Bikram – haven't practised the series but it really does make sense that a teaching style that is exactly the same, non evolving & scripted leaves little room for the teacher's own exploration of yoga, that is something they'd have to be motived to explore outside of their teaching. RAS – I hope I do not end up looking haggard, but living in the never ending winter of Saskatchewan – the hot room has been my saviour this year, warms me to my bones! And yeah – "pull pull pull" – YIKES! You are welcome Daniella!

  8. Kait says:

    It’s been a long time since I’ve attended a hot practice. I do remember it being so incredibly warming in the dead of winter. It seemed easier to stretch out a little further.

    I like that yoga can be found anywhere, internally. Doesn’t matter about what class you take, you can find it where you are.

  9. Dusty Ranft says:

    Thanks for sharing..I agree with your conclusion. Love the Gannon quote.
    I like it hot and sweaty, if for no other reason than it feels good and brings me to my edge. I am in the process of opening my own hot yoga studio in Indianapolis. I just wrote my business plan and touched on some of the exact points you make.
    Check out http://www.facebook.com/treehouseyogaindy
    Much Gratitude

  10. Natalie Baginski says:

    I recently took a graduate level course on Ayurveda and Asana, and I was very very surprised to find that so many things I'd experienced previously in "yoga" classes were actually counterproductive to the goal of "yoga". If we take into account what we know about Ayurveda (which is a part of Yoga) and the teachings of the Gta( which is the essential teaching of Yoga) and the growth of higher states of consciousness (which is the goal of yoga) we find that asana without the knowledge of Ayurveda isn't yoga. Ayurveda without asana is not really Yoga. Reading the literature but not practicing asana isn't "yoga". Yoga means union, of silence and activity. So asana practice must support silence in the awareness, and the movement of awareness toward the Self during the activity of asana. If we really want a good definition of "Yoga" we have to go back to the vedic literature. "Established in Self, perform action". If the activity of the class doesn't lead me closer to becoming established in mySelf, I tend to not call it yoga. But here's nothing wrong with a good exercise class now and again…

  11. Stanka Kordic says:

    A great article. However, I would say, whatever brings people to the mat is a good thing.

    I have been a lifelong fitness nut, a runner, lifted weights, you name it. Not until one of my first yoga classes, a hot one, did something change. I wanted to know more, explore more. Read, studied, meditated. I tried many different styles, all wonderful to me. I am far from expert at any of it, in fact, with each passing year I think as you quoted, I know so little about yoga. Bottom line, the door was opened, and I chose to walk through. Curiosity is the best thing there is.

  12. Robin says:

    Thanks Dusty! Good luck with your studio!!!

  13. Robin says:

    Agree!! Thanks for your input! I agree and appreciate you taking the time to comment.

  14. Robin says:

    Couldn't agree more…. getting people into the door and on to a mat is definitely the most important part. This is why I'm fully supportive of yoga "trends". Even if they stray away from what one could call "real" yoga – they bring people to a place where they can choose to explore themselves ( using asana practice as a tool to do so), and perhaps along the way discover the yoga within.

  15. Mandy says:

    Beautifully written, Robin!
    There is something about hot yoga, about persevering through the incredible heat and humidity and making it through to the other side, that awakens parts of oneself that would otherwise remain hidden. The feeling of success, or of awe with the knowledge that we are capable of traveling to the edge of physical limitations and coming back again, allows us to gain perspective on other challenges we face in our daily lives.
    And, of course, having a teacher who's willing to explore those edges and has the awareness to see how malleable they are helps too!

  16. Marissa says:

    I'm a bikram practitioner, but I definitely am not an advocate of anything really. Anyway, this article is very opinionated, not really factual. And I'd just like to say that of course you will get dehydrated if you sweat that much! You are losing much more than water in your sweat! You are also losing important electrolytes. Which is why I'd just like to remind any hot yoga practitioner, current or prospective, to focus on replenishing electrolytes in addition to water lost in sweat.

  17. Lynn says:

    Beautiful. To be honest, I don't know what the measure of a good teacher is from a theory perspective. If I ever learn Sanskrit (8 words is my goal) I will let you know. I believe that yoga is something that we each possess – and there is a process to connect to it that can happen on the mat, or other places where that yoga exists. When I am on the mat, I am in search of that yoga – that connection, that release, that sense of delivery from the here and now to another place deep within. Hot yoga is a method, just as as Yin and Vinyassa. I feel compelled to practice and teach Hot Yoga, Yin and Vinyassa as well, because each one creates an experience in the moment. As a yoga teacher in training, I ask myself questions like, will I ever be worthy? What change must take place before I can be "a yoga teacher". To me, the best teacher is the one who can help create the environment for a connection to occur if it should. In practice, the teacher is part of the experience, as is the method, but the person experiencing is the practice.

  18. Robin says:

    Agreed! Thanks Mandy!

  19. Robin says:

    Couldn't have said that better myself Lynn! Thanks for your input! 🙂 You are going to be an incredible teacher one day I am certain!

  20. Natasha Shergill says:

    Natasha Shergill ~~ " Hot yoga " is a disease that has brainwashed most who practice it . Yoga as Westerners see it is JUST AN EXERCISE to keep fit .There is much more to it than a pose .YOGA is NOTHING TO DO WITH A PERFECTION OF POSE . ITS to do with a PERFECTION IN MIND. Regarding the statement there that " hot yoga detoxifies the body. " The body is detoxyfied of toxins by the Lungs ,kidneys and other organs not by such crap as sweating … YOGA ASANAS is a DOUBLE EDGED SWORD ~ that cuts sharp both ways … Never do yoga upto a discomfort level EVER and if u feel a slight pain that is little less than bearable dont streach. The BREATH and the POSITIONING of the body is supreme in any ASANA and not the REPITITIONS . main aim is to focus the mind on the pose at hand and hot YOGA is not YOGA at all ,ITS JUST ANOTHER MARKETTING GIMMICK by a SNAKE OIL SALESMAN .. ~ my two cents …..

  21. caitlin says:

    great article, i agree with everything of what you said. thanks for clarifying the real limitations of this hot yoga craze.

  22. Marissa says:

    I really did like your article, and they way you took such a pragmatic approach to the subject. All of these comments, however, really pointed out to me what a touchy subject it really is. Some people are really just haters (which is why I won't go into detail in defense of bikram teachers and students). And then there are those like me, who are truly lovers of bikram. I have never felt too uncomfortable, too hot, or over stressed during a bikram class. In fact, I had my one and only kundalini experience after a bikram class (not after any of the many kundalini classes I've been to!). I think it just goes to show that not every style is for everyone. Can everyone just accept that?

    Also, about the comments that hot yoga makes you haggard….Bikram and his wife are looking pretty vibrant to me!

  23. Jim McMahon says:

    I personally do not like hot yoga, though I harbor no ill will towards those who do. When I go into a studio to practice it is my goal to disappear into a meditative state and to move with the rhythm of the flow….not paying attention to anything but my own presence in that moment. In hot yoga I find that I feel bad -too damn hot – and am therefore distracted from my purpose so I simply don't do it. If hot yoga brings more people to the practice for whatever reason that's a good thing. I have heard teachers say that most of the forms of hatha in the US are distractions from the original purpose of an asana practice. Maybe so. I don't know. What I do know is that I find my center in vinyasa…

  24. Elizabeth says:

    I love the diversity of thinking & expression about this. I'm a newborn in yoga world, I started practicing in a Express Hot Yoga studio in Spring Tx, about 2 years now, and my conclusion is: I found myself knowing how beautiful human been I'm, what grace is to be Alive, & want to say that it has a lot to do with the instructors that leads us to "Connect", to find our natural state of oneness. The hot room is just the enviroment (my happy place) where I go looking for my own answers, where I share my light , and where I'm Grateful, and I think That is Yoga. Namaste.

  25. Robin says:

    Thanks Marissa! I didn't realize how touchy it was either! Although – the debate about what is "real" yoga and what isn't is surely a subject that can spark some good discussion.

  26. Robin says:

    thanks Elizabeth! I agree! Yoga is within.

  27. johnny says:

    the 'real' yoga is to be surrounded by illusion, but not be affected by it.

    you can practice that anywhere, anytime 🙂

  28. Zuzzie K says:

    Thank you for this 🙂 loved the article. I'm on the side of the authenticity of yoga practice, but you really need to meet people half way. If it takes an extremely hot room and being pushed to the edge for Westerners due to our high paced conditioned lifestyle to experience moments of presence and connection to self, that is one way to get to the state of yoga (union), 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."

  29. Robin says:

    whatever gets people in the door and on a mat. From there comes the possibility of authenticity….