Are you thinking about trying Bikram or another form of hot yoga? If so, prepare with the tips and honest advice in this blog.
I’m dubious of any style of yoga where students pass out in class. Call me a traditionalist, but I fail to see how fainting brings us closer to enlightenment. However, I also suffer from extreme FOMO and I don’t like to leave trends untested.
That’s why, against my better judgement, I decided to hop on the hot yoga bandwagon.
What’s the deal with hot yoga?
Hot yoga found popularity after the boom in Bikram, a somewhat sadistic style founded by Bikram Choudhury in the early 1970s. In Bikram classes, students are subjected to 40-degree heat while battling through a series of 26 postures. It’s a right laugh.
The practice has numerous celebrity fans, including silver-fox Clooney, Demi Moore and Madonna. Jennifer Aniston, often hailed as the queen of hot yoga, credits Bikram classes for her enviable lean legs, toned arms and washboard abs.
Not for the faint-hearted, classes are designed to push students to their limits in an attempt to “detoxify” the body and create a transformative and uber-spiritual environment. It’s not unusual for students to report feeling divine highs after class (severe dehydration will do this to ya). If this doesn’t sound scary enough, when Bikram Choudhury was interviewed about his yoga, he said:
“I try to kill them. They don’t die. I own — I torture them”.
Get this man a valium, stat.
While modern-day hot yogis don’t share Choudhury’s crazed teaching methods, the classes still verge on maniacal — some students collapse, cry and struggle to cope with the intense conditions.
Despite all this, hot yoga continues to be a popular offering at top studios across the globe and it wasn’t difficult to find a nearby evening class that I could attend after work.
As a regular practitioner of ashtanga, considered one of the more athletic styles of yoga, I thought it would be a breeze. This was my first mistake — nothing could have prepared me for the extremity of the class.
The room was blisteringly hot, not just from the artificial heaters but from the sea of bodies packed tightly together. The air was barely breathable between our long, heavy exhalations and forced perspiration. The brutal temperatures were magnified by the demanding sequence. It was enough to make the most advanced yogi burst into tears
Yet, regardless of the pain, I can see why these classes are so addictive — they’re the heroin of hatha yoga. The feeling you get afterwards, as you’re crumpled on your mat, is akin to the feeling you get after good sex — you’re a puddle of nerves, exhausted and elated.
Now, this isn’t an opinion piece on hot yoga (although you can probably tell I’m not a fan) — it’s a guide on how to prepare for your first class.
There are plenty of articles talking about the benefits of hot yoga but only a few that mention how dangerous it can be. I’m not scare-mongering — I’m being practical.
Unfortunately, it’s too late for me. I walked into the studio totally unready for what was about to happen. If I had been better prepared, my experience may have been more positive.
Hot yoga doesn’t lend itself to beginners
I’m all for inclusivity and accessibility when it comes to yoga — it’s a universal practice that can be enjoyed by everyone. So, it pains me to say hot yoga just isn’t suitable for beginners.
There will be a lot of people who disagree with me on this and that’s okay. If you get a really good teacher who’s able to adjust each student and provide plenty of modifications, then there isn’t a problem. But due to their popularity, hot yoga classes are usually packed and it’s not always possible to provide that level of care.
And if you’re heading to a Bikram class specifically, the sequence is advanced, bursting with backbends, balances and knee-breaking postures (such as camel, locust and supta vajrasana). These are hard enough when you’re not on the edge of heat-exhaustion.
If you want to try hot yoga, I’d encourage you to build up to it. See how you get on in a yoga class at room temperature (there’s a novel idea). If you really want to jump straight into the frying pan, make sure to speak to the teacher beforehand. They will be able to explain the sequence, suggest variations and recommend suitable props.
This is a point of contention among hot yoga practitioners. Some teachers tell students not to drink any water at all during class because, apparently, drinking is a distraction. According to this group, students should master their physical discomfort and focus solely on their practice.
Have you ever heard more puritanical bullshit?! In any other situation, if someone refused you water (a basic human right) you’d tell them where to shove it. Just because your yoga teacher tells you not to drink (note yoga teacher, not medical professional), doesn’t mean you should listen.
When temperatures soar above 30-degrees, we lose a lot of water through sweat. This, coupled with the fact many of us don’t drink enough throughout the day as it is, could lead to disastrous consequences. Our number one priority is our health — we must listen to our bodies in any exercise class and hydrate as we see fit.
Can I just reiterate how hot these classes actually get? I know I’m repeating myself but, seriously, I anticipated lukewarm.
There’s nothing more distracting than sweat-induced blindness. I couldn’t keep up with the class because I was constantly wiping beads of perspiration from my eyes.
Forgetting a towel seems like a rookie error but it’s quite common, especially if you’re coming to hot yoga from a gentler style of practice. Oh, and you’ll want to shower afterwards. Especially, if like me, you were planning on going straight to the pub after.
Take your make-up off
Again, this seems so obvious in hindsight. However, at the time, I didn’t think twice about walking into class with a face caked in make-up. We’re talking triple-layered mascara, heavy foundation and bright rainbow lipstick.
Imagine my horror when I left class looking like a watercolour clown — wet black and gold streaks ran down my face and my perfectly painted smile was smudged and sad looking. No wonder I didn’t make any friends.
I’m joking — just dress sensibly. Baggy clothing isn’t your friend in hot yoga. It sticks to sweaty limbs and absorbs perspiration like a sponge. Before you know it, you’re drowning in reels of damp and disgusting fabric.
You don’t have to rock up looking like a skimpy Lululemon model — but “less is more” really applies here.
Bring a sweat-proof mat
Although this is coming towards the end of the guide, it’s actually my top tip.
My first hot yoga class was absolutely miserable because I couldn’t hold the postures. It’s hard to focus when you’re fighting a losing battle with a slippery rubber mat. Trust me, you’ll never win.
Special sweat-proof mats do exist but it’s far cheaper to purchase a plain old cotton one — when I bought mine, it changed my life (I imagine women feel similarly about their first-borns). The material simply soaks up the sweat (mmmmm) and provides practitioners will a better grip.
Leave if you have to
Some teachers tell you to stay in the room no matter how faint, dizzy or sick-to-your-stomach you feel. This is complete nonsense.
There’s no point in harming yourself in the name of dedication or detoxification. If you have to leave, leave — alternatively, come into child’s pose if you need a break.
Yoga isn’t a competition you’re not weak for tapping out. In fact, it shows a supreme amount of awareness and respect for your body. Never push through your pain barriers in the name of finishing a class.
What happens when it’s over?
Weep with joy remember it’s really important to rehydrate and take it slow.
Brits like me are unaccustomed to temperatures over 20-degrees (that’s practically a muggy summer’s day in London) and will feel terribly woozy. Spend some time sitting down and relaxing.
Above all — enjoy the process. Just because I will never step foot into a hot yoga class again doesn’t mean you shouldn’t! Everyone should pursue the style of yoga they love best, it’s just a matter of staying safe while doing so.
Liked this blog? Read “How to survive teaching your first yoga class“.
Image credits: Guardian (Karen Yeomans), Wikipedia, The Independent and The Atlantic.