Can you handle the heat?

Bikram yoga asks you to contort your body and test your limits at 105 degrees Fahrenheit

Doing yoga in a heated room allows the muscles to stretch more deeply and the heart to pump blood faster through the body.
Doing yoga in a heated room allows the muscles to stretch more deeply and the heart to pump blood faster through the body.
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It’s 9:30 in the morning. I’m in a room set to 105 degrees Fahrenheit with humidity of 40 per cent and I’m twisting into shapes and stretches unfamiliar to my body. It’s my first day of Bikram yoga—otherwise known as hot yoga—that includes 26 postures and two breathing exercises.

Approximately 20 people are in the room with me and all of them have apparently been practicing yoga for much longer than I have.

I notice the older lady behind me; I can tell she’s in deep concentration and is moving her body with considerably more ease than I’d expect.

Our instructor, Tanya Harrington of Feel Yoga Kingston, uses analogies to influence the depth of our poses. During one pose, she tells us to extend our hands in front of us like we are “shooting arrows into the sky.”

Thankfully, the second half of the class has us positioned on the floor, stretching and releasing tension in our spine and chest. Better yet, in the last few minutes we perform breathing exercises to relax our bodies and minds.

Throughout the class, Harrington relates our movements in the studio with the benefits to our everyday lives. Although we may not realize it, the ability to totally relax our bodies in stressful situations is a good tactic to overcome trauma, she said.

The poses of regular yoga and hot yoga are similar, but with different effects. She said the hot studio allows the muscles to stretch more deeply while detoxifying the body.

When she first started yoga in her 30s, Harrington said her body felt more like that of a 70 year old. After years of heavy athleticism, she had multiple surgeries that left scar tissue, and she was beginning to see signs of arthritis.

“Once yoga was incorporated into my life, I felt like my body did in my early 20s,” she said. “I sort of felt like I got my life back a little bit.”

She said hot yoga can heal the mind, as well as the body.

“It’s the connection that you have with your mind to the body that creates a metabolic cleansing to get rid of toxic emotions and thoughts, and allows your mind to be in your body at peace,” she said.

In terms of the body, the skin is an important organ for removing toxic waste, which is helped through sweat. Being in the hot studio allows the skin to convert various fatty toxins into water-soluble compounds that we can sweat out, she said.

“Because of the heat … the heart has to pump the blood so much faster,” she said. “It accelerates everything.”

Harrington said she wouldn’t recommend someone practice Bikram yoga in a non-heated room, though.

“Some people are less tolerant of the heat,” she said. “[But] we don’t advise people to [practice without the heat] because the postures are such that you might find your body would get sore.”

Harrington said some other benefits of regular practice are enhanced sleep, decreased signs of anxiety and depression, promotion of memory, concentration and physical strength, while encouraging a holistic balance of the body. She said the routine of yoga practice may contribute to its healing potential.

The concept of routine can also compare to going on a diet for a certain amount of time—you can eventually feel the results, she said, adding that many students report feeling “addicted” to the practice.

While many studios offer hot yoga classes, not all will necessarily teach the Bikram tradition, Harrington said. “Other studios in Kingston have hot yoga—they do any kind of yoga in a hot room,” she said. “They’re not doing something that’s from an intelligence out of India.”

Many types of yoga today are designed and practiced as a form of exercise, she said, which ignores the aspect of Bikram yoga that focuses on the mind, body and spirit connection.

Harrington said the yoga we practice today is very different than it was when it was conceived thousands of years ago.

When yoga first came about, people would sit and morph their bodies into positions that weren’t normally possible, she said.

“Basically what I feel has happened is they’ve had to make yoga so that North Americans and people in developed countries [could do it],” she said. “It couldn’t look so crazy.”

“They’ve had to really dilute it,” she said. “If you saw that in Canada [you would think] ‘those people need to be put away.’ ”

The reason yoga was developed with lots of impossible positions, she said, was to experience an altered state of mind.

“They believed they were getting all the neurological benefits in the ultimate state of consciousness.”

The popularity of yoga in North America has evolved slowly, she said—it has trickled in, person by person. One influence that brought yoga to North America was WWII.

“Doctors and nurses started practicing,” Harrington said, when they would travel to the East to serve, and would then bring what they knew back.

Other influences include yogis who have come to settle in North America, she said. Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram yoga, was invited to the US by President Nixon after seeing reports in Japan about his abilities.

Although one of the most popular areas in India to practice yoga are secluded centres, she said it’s slowly changing.

“It’s starting to come up in major cities,” she said, adding that in the cities yoga is starting to be practiced more along North American lines.

Yoga has also become an area of interest in the academic sphere.

Queen’s department of religion offers a course called Yoga in India and the West, a popular program run once every other year.

The professor, Ellen Goldberg from the religious studies department, has been teaching university students—and yoga instructors—since the late 80s.

A peace sign mat welcomes me to her dimly lit office, along with a framed picture of Buddha above her desk.

Goldberg said in her class, yoga practice is considered field research. Students are to practice yoga and keep a journal of their experience. They must then relate a case study of a particular tradition to the history and philosophy of yoga.

“No pun intended,” she said with a smile, “but it’s a hot yoga course!” Goldberg said the earliest forms of yoga were practiced in India. “[They were] originally translated orally from guru to disciple,” she said, and it started as a simple seated position, possibly with the feet folded up.

Since then, it has evolved into hundreds of poses.

“To understand yoga is to understand the history of Hinduism and Buddhism in many ways,” she said. “We are looking at over 2,500 years of religious history that has spread all over the globe … we are just latecomers to this development in the West.” The practice of yoga involves more than a series of poses; it also combines the strength of your body with your mind, Goldberg said.

“Postures are really just a preliminary. There is an inner world that is not really celebrated, shall we say, in our culture,” she said. “But for yogis, this is a very important part of being human. They recognize that there is an internal world as well as an external world, and they have the techniques to get in tune with that consciousness.”

With files from Kelly Loeper

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