People wonder about the appeal of doing yoga in a hot room. Reasons for hot yoga’s popularity are individual but also broad and deeply rooted. Mircea Eliade, former professor of religion and philosophy at the University of Chicago, wrote in YOGA: Immortality and Freedom, that the Indians, in the Rg-Veda, called the practice of using heat and ardor in ascetic effort a tapas. Tapas, he wrote, cleanses the yogi and prepares them for another dimension.
From the start yogis aimed to find this other dimension in order to reach the state of samadhi, a union or absorption into the Godhead or Brahmin. They did yoga to live longer in order so they would have more time to work on perfection of self.
In another book, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Eliade traced the history of North American Medicine Men (Indians) and their use of heat during rituals of healing as in the sweat lodge. Original peoples of the Americas believed in the sweat, an important spiritual process took place which reflected the birth-and-death cycle. They used the sweat lodge as a technique for vision seeking and personal transformation. These sweat-rituals in the Americas have not disappeared.
During the last 16 months, I’ve participated in the indigenous ritual of the sweat three times; twice on Arizona Apache Nation land and once in the Arizona Navajo Nation. They fully accept that healing happens during the process of flesh meeting heat in containment. In both cases, time in the environment centered on prayer, chant, and a trust in the entire process from going into the container and making it dark to emerging from the container into the light.
In our modern heated yoga studios, equipped with light dimmers and cooling systems, yogis are experiencing what these cultures have known for centuries but we have much to learn.
WHAT THEY KNEW ABOUT HEATED ARDOR THAT WE ARE LEARNING
Seven years ago, I started hot yoga while living in Hawaii. There, tapas taught me to control my breath and pay attention to everything. I noticed that heat and yoga burned away some rubbish within and without, and it lit an inner fire that cracked open my heart and spine. I embraced this crackling flame as it brought me to deeper awareness and a fuller surrender to Self. Drops of sweat from my forehead were my tears, my mat was sanctuary.
Through the mental and physical reshaping of hot yoga, yogis learn to ignore the heat and move with ease into postures of dis-ease. This focused movement teaches the yogi to ignore that which can be ignored. This is yoga focus which leads beyond obsession with the room temperature to a place of transformation where yoga becomes fluid and effortless no matter how hot or cold it is.
At the very least, heated ardor opens healing possibility in each body and because it was good to me in the short term – healing my back – I embrace the flame and pass it on
THE CONTAINER WITH HEAT AS CONDUCTION
When we put ourselves in position to experience tapas in yoga, we relinquish any sense of control and deliberately let go of everything outside the door of the yoga room.
The shaman (well-equipped yoga teacher) prepares the container (yoga room) and lights the fire, but he or she cannot force change; only the yogi can open the door to newness. If the yogi opens up and releases their sense of control, the process works like sandpaper on wood by slowly whittling away resistance as the fire of tapas does its reconstruction on body, mind, and spirit.
Another aspect of the ritual container is the yogi’s willing submission to a common identity – which means letting go of entitlement and status – because in the container each yogi is nothing more or less than one member of the community. Teachers and students are the same; and each person’s essential identity is a practicing yogi. This is radical, meaning it takes everyone back to the beginning, to the root where identity means everyone is alike: they are together in the process of change.
In this process, gravity and heat set the container apart as a place of work. They move upon the yogi as fiery tools chipping at the yogi’s ego. With time, as in the sweat lodge, yogis see that each session is a symbolic new birth from the small self to a larger Self. Leaving the yoga room is like leaving the sweat lodge where yogis emerge from a heated container and common identity back to their lives as they were but they have encountered the tapas of cleansing and renewal.
If the yogi becomes impatient with the slow pace of change, yoga will one day wake them to a new awareness where they might ask why they’re in such a hurry. This leads to insight and the beginning of a more conscious Self-identity; one more likely to unearth the hidden motivations of ego.
The combination of yoga and heat forms a tapas which is ritualized and sharpened by asana and reinforced by mantra. The yogi drops from life anything stealing their inner peace. This is the gift of relinquishment where the yogi, like jewels tempered in fire crafted by the hot room, is cleansed and polished by fire.
The benefits of tapas in heated ardor are not just a narrative stretched beyond recognition; they are truth force – satyagraha – of hot yoga in practice. From the middle of this tapas, container, and ritual, yogis stand as witnesses to the burning embrace of change and they become living metamorphosis of brilliant unfolding.
BELIEVE THE AWESOME CONDUCTION
We do yoga because we believe it transforms lives. We believe because we’ve experienced it; and just as a habit starts with small steps, hot yoga begins at the beginning where each footprint leads to a cleansing fire that over time heals and molds hearts and minds.
Take the step into heated ardor and find your way to yoga to claim the peace you earn in the container of tapas. In energy talk, it’s a matter of conduction, where a collection of asanas shape, move, and mold whatever and whoever is heated from the depths of the awesome.