Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Investigating Hot Yoga

“All we ask is that you stay in the room,” the yoga instructor told us, the beginners, before we entered the studio. One would think that would be the easiest part of the 90-minute Bikram Yoga class, but that person would be underestimating the strain of hot yoga. Bikram Yoga is a form of Yoga started by Yogiraj Bikram Choudhury, emphasizing the physicality of yoga rather than the meditative. However, as many yoga teachers, as well as other “wise men and women” will repeat, ‘Where the mind goes, the body will follow,’ and in this scenario the reverse is also true. The Bikram style relies on a set series of 26 poses and 2 breathing exercises, repeated exactly each class. Each pose, like those in most yoga styles, starts simple and becomes more complex. The room temperature can vary from 95 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit. That is, indeed, hot yoga. Bikram Yoga makes a name for itself as healing your body as it works all of your muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints, which can be helpful in avoiding, or recovering from, injuries. The constant effort of the thyroid gland stimulates metabolism and blood-sugar balance, and many of the yoga poses have long been known to aid in stress reduction and mental clarity, as well as stress relief (Millado 2010). Sweating out the “toxins”, physical or psychological, in your body can be helpful as well.

In meditative yoga, the patterned breathing, ascetic stillness, and concentrated control can lead to altered states of consciousness, or trance states. In Bikram, if you do not concentrate on breathing, you will pass out. The heightened concentration on your inner and outer physicality initiates its own level of trance state where you are aware of nothing but your own body in space and time. Thus, one may think of it as a much more focused and high-energy form of an ordinary state of consciousness. Meditative trances of Indian yogis can be characterized by dissociation, a definite side-effect, I found, of over-association in Bikram, as well as auditory and visual religious hallucinations (Castillo 2003). Because of this aspect of yoga, Bikram has been documented to have some negative effects such as psychosis characterized by hallucinations after feeling dehydrated, eating poorly, and losing sleep (Lu and Pierre 2007). However, the class in which I took part was very competently led and I felt very safe and able to continue at my own pace, especially as it was completely normal for beginners to have to stop and rest as the more experiences members continued. A key element to this yoga class was that the poses were relatively fast and the instructor never stopped talking. Even as poses were being held, she continued to encourage and correct very quickly, her voice becoming a line for my ears to follow to prevent distraction.

There is repetition in the words she uses, as well as in the class itself, two sets of each pose, and the collective of Bikram yoga in that the exact process is repeated each class. This becomes a ritual, as does the laying down of the mats and towels, the preliminary stretching in the mirrors, and the instructor granting ending to the 90 minutes with a gentle, “Namaste.” Of course, this was my first class. The heat was stifling, fifteen minutes in and everyone was dripping with sweat. By the end of the fourth pose I nearly passed out. My ears buzzed, my vision swam, I felt like the boiling air did not have enough oxygen to go around. My extremities tingled and felt full of lead. “That’s normal,” she said, “Feeling faint, dizzy, as though you might throw up, that’s how you should be feeling.” Deprivation and physical discomfort are both common prerequisites to some types of trance, and are well demonstrated in this type of yoga. Even when you rest, you sweat. Through the pain though, the instructor reminded us of the benefits of Bikram to our minds and our bodies, benefits that would continue to manifest themselves into old age, such as strength of spine. She pointed out that 30 seconds in the 23rd and 24th poses (Head to Knee Pose with Stretching Pose, or Janushirasana with Paschimottanasana) can energize a person more than a full eight hours of sleep can. My roommate has had experience with hot yoga and she previously described to me how when the heat is on, there is no way to concentrate on anything besides your breathing and your body and your position. I found this declaration to be the case absolutely- even when I could no longer hold a pose and relaxed back onto my knees, breathing deeply through my nose, there was no room in my mind for any kind of thought or worry.

In this meditative and deprived aspect, trace, and obviously healing, is certainly possible. Yoga is, however, a lifestyle as well as a ritualized part of the day, as Tom Pilarzyk reminds, in that it leads to, “…reconnecting with a daily intention; checking our seated posture; watching the turning of our minds and the straying of our thoughts; welcoming difficult situations that test our resolve to stay present…reminding ourselves to breathe deeply, stay with the flow of energy…” (Pilarzyk, x). Harmonizing oneself with the world is not only an effect of yoga, but of many trance mechanisms, including the use of entheogenic substances.

On a personal level, it is important to me that my trance activity manifest itself in my physical day-to-day life, that is to say that my body does in fact follow my mind. Trying Bikram Yoga, or even the yoga I do more regularly, satisfies this requirement as having physical requirements and results. Beyond strengthening my muscles for the present and future, I do, after one class, feel more energized than if I napped all afternoon. It became very clear to me in this class that to find balance physically, which many poses required, one must find balance mentally, with a neutral mind. It seems that once one is advanced enough to continue the postures through the sensual symptoms described above without acknowledging his/her body’s demand for release, they go into a hot yoga trance, not extricating him/herself until the ritual is complete. In this vein, the origins of yogic practice involve shamanic practitioners searching for a deeper relationship with their inner natures than could be acknowledged in their own culture, and would often do so by isolating themselves in nature, often forests or caves (Stapleton, xiii), a familiar facet of trance.

In today’s fast-paced and highly socialized world, we are constantly bombarded with stimulation directed at all of our five senses. Thus, though the heat and difficulty of Bikram Yoga was certainly disoriented, it initiated a much-needed mental and physical cleansing for this beginner yogi. With further repetition and ritual, this method of trace could become addictive, a necessary part of life to keep myself in balance with my own blood and body, and to keep myself in balance with the natural world.


Castillo, R.J. (2003). Trance, functional psychosis, and culture. Psychiatry: Interpersonal & Biological Processes 66(1), 9-21.

Lu, J.s. and Pierre, J.M. (2007). Psychotic Episode Associated with Bikram Yoga. American Psychiatric Association 164 (11), 1761.

Millado, N. (2010). Stretch Yourself. Men’s Fitness 26(4), 60-62.

Pilarzyk, Tom. Yoga Beyond Fitness: Getting More That Exercise from an Ancient Spiritual Practice. Wheaton: Quest Books, 2008.

Stapleton, Don. Self-Awakening Yoga: The Expansion of Consciousness through the Body’s Own Wisdom. Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 2004.

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