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Yoga: A question of hot or not?

20 March 2014 5,254 views

By Rita Watson (Consulted by Katherine McHugh)

Someone asked a yoga teacher/friend of mine and me to: “…give me the scoop about hot yoga!” My initial response (as one might imagine) was: “Well, if it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it, the highest aim of yoga is to bring alignment, integration, union, of mind, body and spirit.”

So, “What’s with yoga (hot, or not*)?”

This question underscores a burgeoning challenge for yoga teachers of today, hoping to bring classes into balance and alignment (with integrity) towards the original sacred ritual and practice. The intention of many a yoga teacher, in community, is to enable participants to practice a joining, a uniting, and a restoration of symmetry.

This effort takes place with the hope to heal an often convoluted sense of self (body, mind, and spirit) that accompanies our lives. Many of us have come to accept the idea that our thoughts and actions are more intimately connected to the outside world than to our deepest selves. Yoga asana (postures), breath and movement counter this, by increasing balance, strength, and stability. Thus, diligent, intelligent, and directed practice, such as “hot yoga” encourages students to bring mind, body and spirit into union. In fact, when translated from Sanskrit into English, the term “yoga” means: yoke, or union.

At the most visceral level, yoga is a tonic for the nervous system, focusing largely on the stabilization of the sympathetic nervous system…”the fight or flight response”, charged with human preservation in the event of crisis.  When in danger, the body draws resources from non-essential bodily functions (e.g. urination, reproduction, digestion) and redirects our ability to act with force, strength, and acuity.

Thankfully, our bodies have evolved in such a way as to provide us at all times with what we need.   In times of extended danger, however, our minds may come to accept distorted explanations for our suffering. Driven into states of panic, fear, or anxiety by today’s stressors (such as loss of employment or wages, foreclosure, or physical illness) the nervous system is forced into excessive action, an unsustainable demand.  We feel fatigued, depleted; we become emotionally compromised, and inevitably, this leads to a sense, and often to a physical manifestation, of dis-ease.

Yoga helps to calm and balance the sympathetic nervous system. Through asana, breath and movement, blood flow resumes its proper course,  oxygenating muscle fibers, flowing to the master gland, the pituitary, enabling it to work fluidly and efficiently (instead of having to constantly pour out hormones to compensate for temporary bodily imbalances). Yoga allows the taxed, “stressed” endocrine system to relax, while adequately supporting both the circulatory and digestive systems, circulating oxygen to the heart and lungs, supporting respiration, and restoring proper blood flow through the heart.

So, hot or not?

Yogis, listen to your bodies, most especially, during asana practice. “More is not often better”.   Yoga can offer therapeutic benefit in this sense, when the practice is not obscured. Through breath, posture, and movement, the body can heal, the mind calm and focus; body, mind, and spirit can be restored to proper cadence, balance. Thus, in true form, any yoga is “good for you”, whether practiced in heat, over many years, even during one’s very first class. Thus, yoga is a personal journey:  in class (one might hope) teachers offer support, as an informed inquisitive, practiced, strong, kind, knowledgeable, creative, gentle (yet firm), holder of transformative and healing space.

A myriad of suggestions, ideas, editorial opinions, etc., for and against styles of yoga (such as hot) could be offered and/or argued. In the end, yoga is a personal journey. Ultimately, the true test of a healing practice comes from the guidance under which it is created, the intention of the practitioner, and maybe, a bit of luck.

Yoga, as therapy, seems to be able to distill the highs and lows. The teacher becomes a trusted guide, offering the class a personal journey of awakening, attunement, balance, and movement, for the practitioner’s body, (one might hope, by shavasana) towards a healed state, so one can move back into the business of living healthy “off the mat”.

Again, health, “well-being”…not an easy task,   for this process, volumes can (and have) been written!

Katherine McHugh, LMHC, RYT500


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