Author’s note: This is my opinion. It is a broad view looking at the generalities of this huge pool of studios, which does include amazing teachers who do value all the riches of the tradition, but as I see it, overall, hot yoga is pushing the industry in the wrong direction.
Based on my personal experience, I conclude that hot yoga is not only dangerous, it’s also not yoga.
It’s time for this trend to end, or at least for us to stop calling it yoga.
The Sanskrit meaning of the word yoga means yoke, or union; to bring together body, breath, mind, emotion, and thought. All of which affect our energy and allow access to our center, referred to as the Atman or Soul. The part of us that is infinite and pure consciousness.
Ever since that fateful day in March of 2020 when the world shut down, like most, I questioned many things. As I was forced to solely practice alone at home, I noticed that within the first year, I became more flexible in my body, more peaceful in my mind, and more openhearted, even in the midst of uncertainty, living in the turmoil of a global pandemic.
I had never felt better, and I realized that hot yoga took me away from what had initially drawn me in. I began to wonder why I drank the Kool-Aid for the 10 years I taught and practiced in the heat.
Before I continue forward, let me take you back 30 years to the beginning of my yoga journey.
I was a teenager in the mid-90s and suffering with CPTSD (which wasn’t a thing then) while recovering from a failed suicide attempt. I was broken, ashamed, and in need of feeling my body and a connection to something greater.
I was lost, drowning in the dark waters of despair. I was far too comfortable living in the fight/flight/freeze response, dissociating from my body. I lost all faith and the will to engage with life; I was devoid of all feeling.
It was in talk therapy staring blankly at a Bohemian therapist from behind my invisible yet tall, thick, impenetrable wall that she recommended I try yoga. Somehow, possibly divine intervention, I found this intriguing. I think my higher self understood this to be a catalyst for change.
The teacher she recommended was middle-aged, although my teen self remembers her as “ancient” with a unique and eccentric personality; she was nothing short of fabulous, although then, I just thought she was super weird.
She talked about her experience of rebellion and activism in the 60s, fighting the status quo while using critical thinking in order to live authentically with passion and purpose. She talked about philosophy and consciousness, popular psychology, and other obscure things I didn’t quite comprehend.
This was the era of denying generational trauma; unpleasant topics were not up for discussion, and most detrimental things were swept under the rug to never be spoken of.
I was enamored by her enthusiasm to speak the faults within our society and the darkness within the human condition, the things I wanted to address but somehow couldn’t. I only met them in my thoughts while zoning out in my waking hours, wondering: how could there be a God with all this suffering in the world? And how was I ever going to be okay having lived through such terror?
That dim, barely lit light within my teen body stoked brighter with each class I took. I dove in and swam deep over the next 15 years and gained momentum after moving to Boulder in 1998 when I began practicing every day.
I learned from many teachers who all offered the same type of 90-minute class that used the poses as a way into the more subtle layers away from ego toward intuitive knowledge while focusing on using the breath to open up the conversation between mind and body, and I fell in love with the language they spoke.
Holding poses long enough to sit with the discomfort, intelligent slow sequencing—little resemblance to how power vinyasa class is structured today and dominates studio schedules and even teacher training. I found validation in what I was feeling, and the courage to be seen and heard, and I began to feel better, which trickled into more talk therapy where I let down the wall and started letting out my stories.
I learned about the nervous system and the detriment of external forces conditioning our behaviors, taking us further into a place of separateness and lack mentality. How true yoga will unveil the false narratives and liberate students to be free in believing they are already enough and deserving of the life they desire, already owning the tools to create it.
Everything learned on the mat parallels life off of the mat, while also providing ways to manage stress by incorporating the knowledge into daily life experiences, making for a more harmonious and easeful way to engage with the world.
What a precious gift I received by finding yoga when I did, before it became this watered-down version that now resembles an exercise class.
I will gamble making an ass of myself here, because I feel safe in assuming my yoga journey isn’t a common experience happening in hot studios today, and here’s why:
1. A hot studio is filled with distractions.
2. The heat.
Sweat would drip from every pore of my body and would start the second I stepped into the room. Even as the teacher, it was distracting to feel beads of sweat drip from armpit to elbow and make my choice to either ignore it (very anti-yogic to push away discomfort), discreetly try to stay ahead of the dripping with having a hand towel near, or make a joke about it, which I preferred because at least that addressed the obvious and made my struggle relatable to my students.
I certainly lost my words, my flow, my sequencing, and my mental focus when distracted by how hot I was. Having low blood pressure, I was often lightheaded and dizzy, needing to pause, grab onto whatever was close to regain my sight and feel my feet under me. How can students hear the whisper of the soul as I’m distracted and fight falling to the floor, or if they feel similarly?
3. The music.
Not all music is a distraction; yoga music, sung sacred mantra, sound healing singing bowls, and soulful music of singer-songwriters can be essential to addressing our feelings and shifting moods and vibrations, but what has been popularized are playlists full of pop, rock, hip-hop, and rap music that actually detours the inward focus. With lyrics on violence, objectifying human bodies, partying (escapism), and dominant cultures desire for excess, these playlists are often at a volume of an exercise class with pumping bass lines leaving the instructor to have to yell over the loud music.
How can you hear the quiet whisper of your soul when you’re enjoying the music and singing along, or wondering why that kind of music is playing at a decibel where you can’t focus on anything else?
4. The mirrors.
A huge distraction perpetuating vanity and the outward focus on how something (or someone) looks, over focusing on how it feels. Sure, it can be nice to peek in the mirror for basic alignment, but usually mirror gazing is feeding the ego, which is oppositional to the teachings in yoga.
How can the message from within be heard when the inner dialog of observation feeds obsessing over the shape your body, or your reflection, or that of another student’s, kicking up your inner bully, nitpicking all the ways you dislike the way you look? How can you be in the inner experience with your soul when your ego is screaming judgments toward self or others?
5. Fast-paced flows and complicated poses.
Sure they are fun, and can push you out of your comfort zone and help build strength and flexibility, which is a valid way of learning the inner dialog when facing challenges, but not to pause in any pose and breathe to meet the divine with grace at your edge, in your sweet spot of effort and ease, will only rob you, the student, of the benefits of the practice, not enhance them.
Let me confess, I am a sweaty person. I would judge myself and get more insecure with each sweat mark that appeared in (let’s be honest here) undesired places to bring attention. Once I was tremendously embarrassed when giving a student a neck stretch in savasana when a bead of sweat fell from the tip of my nose onto their cheek! What could be more grossly distracting than someone else’s sweat hitting your body?
These hot power vinyasa classes are elevating the heart rate so much so that the breath is lost, and the body is just burning up calories. This is especially dangerous for new students who feel pressured to keep up, opening themselves to injuries that can put them out of commission or even into surgery.
There is just not enough instructional time to properly get students into good alignment (for them) and allow them to find their edge (that day) and then offer the space in that place to be present with themselves in these kinds of classes.
The importance of breath in a class is to allow it to expand and keep the sweet spot alive in a pose, nothing more. Why are teachers asking students to perform ujjayi pranayama, which is a heating breath in a hot room? You can read an article explaining more on the breath here.
It takes a mindful teacher, and student, to remain safe practicing in this extreme environment.
But we are conditioned to be productive and maximize output, so this popularity makes sense; these studios are giving the people what they want. But I think it is our job as conscious humans to strive to evolve in a way that upholds the ancient teachings to make our modern stressful and often times painful human lives better balanced and more at ease.
If we do that then we live in better harmony with each other and our environment. This is what is written in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali some 2,000 years ago. The studios that do honor this history, in my area anyway, are in danger of disappearing because of the hot competition.
If I haven’t already piqued your interest to ditch or detour from a heated class, here are some well-known facts about extreme heat and its effect on the body:
>> Heat exacerbates inflammation.
>> Heat masks pain.
>> Heat dehydrates.
>> Heat elevates heart rate.
>> Heating the body from the outside in can cause injury with a false sense of soft tissues being properly prepared for practice.
Generally, when the body gets too hot, the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, and other organs don’t function normally. A scientific study referenced in an NPR article from July 21, 2022 said this:
>>Heat can also affect your mental health state in a negative way.
>>Heat can lead to flare ups of chronic conditions such as asthma, migraines, arthritis, kidney disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
>>Heat may make you sweat, but only 1 percent of your toxins get released through sweating, so hot yoga does not increase the body’s detoxification; your diet and mindset are more productive detoxification remedies.
>>Heating a room to the extreme temperatures of 98-108 is not economical for a business or the planet.
Even the effect of some prescription drugs will be altered by consistent time spent in extreme heat. Like ones used to regulate heart disease, diabetes, and thyroid function.
This dilution of the industry has created a slippery slope of spiritual bypassing, cultural-appropriated exercise under the false pretense of uniting mind and body for healing.
I have zero interest to “Namaslay.” I seek inner peace and flexibility. The beautiful thing about a well-balanced practice and living yoga is that it will purify and regulate all systems of the body and organically keep you at a healthy weight.
In a culture where it is common for the majority of the population to value an outward appearance over an inward feeling of harmony, students either love my class or hate it.
I am like cilantro in that way. Those that hate it get a poor taste in their mouth from being guided inward beyond the body. They don’t want to look within; they only want to project an outward image.
My class is paced slowly to sit and reflect, to feel and contemplate, to uncover what’s beneath the false narrative that replays in our heads. This is hard to do in a society that fosters and supports the disconnect, and keeps individuals distracted and addicted to external sources of entertainment and consumption.
I won’t give up my fight to preserve this mind-body practice, and I hope you will fight to find a studio that offers you the opportunity to experience the benefits of what true yoga offers, which has nothing to do with sweat.
The ancient Hindu scripture, The Bhagavad Gita summarizes “Yoga is a path of self-discovery, to the self, through the self.”