I started doing hot yoga about ten months ago.
This was actually quite a surprise to me as I normally dislike heat in all forms. I hide in my Los Angeles home with the shades pulled when it is too hot out feeling a bit like a vampire who will be destroyed if I get hit by the direct rays of the sun.
Being an introvert, I’ve learned to associate heat with summer, the increased energy of people and forced social occasions I will be made to feel like I should attend. In truth, I’d much rather curl up somewhere cool and shady with a sweater and make a nest.
But, to my surprise, my body responded positively in the hot yoga room. The heat made me more mindful and my concentration more focused.
The only way I could make it through a class was to pay attention and breathe, effectively shutting up the committee in my mind who try to distract me every chance they get. My committee is more like the Houses of Parliament so being able to quiet them for even a brief moment was a good thing.
I also found the atmosphere of the studio and its instructors light and upbeat with a certain level of structure. (No latecomers allowed, strict adherence to the number of the people in the room, no mindless pop spirituality ranting).
This introvert finds that calming.
What is also refreshing is the male to female ratio. Surprisingly close to half the class is male. Having done yoga for over 25 years, seeing this many men in class is amazing. I imagine the sweaty workout aspect of it gets them through the door.
This is LA. People are hyper body focused so I imagine the obvious potential payoff at the end is worth the effort for most. And for some, just having the opportunity to parade their fabulous abs around without a shirt is impetus to try the class.
But, if they reap even a bit of the deeper meaning of yoga, even by osmosis, no telling how many doors may creak open.
Along with my happiness at seeing the guys in class, there are some more typical male behaviors that can show up. Depending on who the teacher is there can be a fair amount of grunting and struggle going on that can sound quite neanderthal in origin.
It can be painful to witness.
Being a yoga teacher myself, I want to walk over and help but that isn’t my role in this scenario. Part of any process can be the hurdles you encounter. Anyone stepping in could potentially negate it. Unless, of course, a person looks like they are about to cause themselves grievous bodily injury. That’s a different story.
So, when one particular man decided to lay his mat next to mine I had a moment.
He is an older gentleman whom I’ve noticed quite often in class. You really can’t miss him because you can hear him. He sounds a lot like the Santa Ana winds we get out here in Cali, wheezing and sputtering the moment he enters the room.
The last time I shared class with him he was two mats away. His face was brightly flushed with eyes fixed and hard. There were moments I feared he would pass out. Out of concern, I actually spoke to the teacher privately afterwards.
Many in class, both men and women, breathe with such ferocity it can sound like a bull whose had a matador’s red cape snapped in front of him. They snort, snuffle and moan, almost as if out of anger that their bodies are not responding the way they deemed they should.
It’s definitely not a calm breath. It’s a breath of panic, of trying to push through something uncomfortable. And, the saying is true, “what you push against only gets stronger.” The opposite of what yogic breath is meant to be.
I have found the best way to make it through a hot class is to keep my breath steady and quiet.
It’s counter to what many are taught as Ujjayi breath seems to be the norm now. Ujjayi is translated as victorious. I think it has been taken to the literal extreme and now many are trying so hard to make breathing audible to everyone around them.
It is not natural (or meditative) when the person next to you is doing his best imitation of Darth Vader. It is especially not good in a hot yoga room as it can increase the heat in your body. Patanjali instructed that breath be long and smooth, but he never mentions loud.
I’d like to know where the idea of loud breath came from.
So, when this man came in and dropped (literally) his wallet, water and rolled up mat next to me, I panicked. I quickly sat up and scanned the room for a place to go to get away from him. I remembered seeing him dripping and flailing last time and was afraid being next to him would invade my space and ruin class for me. I saw an empty spot and pondered relocating when something told me to stay put.
I decided that I would do my best to practice with authenticity.
I wasn’t sure how that was going to show up.
Would authenticity be being inwardly annoyed the whole time?
I remembered that the experience we have is due in large part to the outlook we have going in to it. Something placed this man next to me and there was something to be revealed.
His breathing predictably intensified as class began. I found I had to stop a fair amount of times throughout due to the added heat of a full class and an unusually hot day outside.
And then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed him stop and forward fold letting his body hang in much the same way I had just done. And he continued through the class varying postures in a similar fashion. Almost as if he had been given permission not to struggle by witnessing another giving herself that very permission. He went from just trying to follow along and keep up to inwardly listening and experiencing the yoga his body needed.
And it inspired me.
I realized that he had a lot of courage to keep showing up. He was fearless in his attempts and he did not care how he appeared to the rest of the room. His effort seemed much more valiant than many of his younger counterparts because in truth, it probably was not that easy for him.
Instead of just giving up like many of us would, he plugged away. He was using his willpower. Something I know I can fail to engage because it takes effort to do so.
His showing up in my path gave me the opportunity to re-evaluate an automatic response that was habitual and unproductive. God forbid anyone invade my space.
Who decided it was my space anyway? Just me. I needed to let that one go.
I was giving that thought a lot of power over me. I got the chance to move beyond my comfort zone and to use willpower to choose the experience I was going to have. I know I can cop out and play the victim and inwardly plead that it happened “to”me. Then I don’t have to take responsibility for my response. I’ve come to realize what a waste of time that is.
If we are looking to change, transform and be “yogic,” a good place to start is our own perceptions.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. My own habits were challenged when I was faced with something that I viewed as a disruption. But rather than view it as a disruption, choosing to look at it as just another unexpected turn on “Mr Toad’s Wild Ride,” can make more sense.
Do I laugh and hold on as best I can? Or, grip tighter with trepidation and distrust?
The universe is “no respecter of persons” so adopting a state of mind of not taking things personally can also be a worthy self preservation tactic.
This experience made me think a lot about Ganesha and how if we ask to have an obstacle removed often we get faced with it more than once in quick succession and wonder why it keeps showing up. It can end up being a vicious cycle if we never learn how to navigate through it.
So, I had a little moment that turned into a opportunity.
Sometimes, we forget we are all “works in progress.” For some of us our struggles are out there for the world to see, while others the work is more internal. But, for the most part, we are all trying to be better. Whatever we believe that to be at that moment. Words to live by next time you go to judge another without inventorying your own internal dialogue.
And my hope is that some of those “Bull Breaths” from class will eventually morph into meditations under a tree sniffing the sweet scent of flowers just like one of my favorite childhood literary characters “Ferdinand the Bull.”
Even bulls can change.
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Apprentice Editor: Brandie Smith/Editor: Catherine Monkman