Hot Yoga Changed My Life, Body, and Spirit Animal
by Anne Helen Petersen
Here’s the deal, Hairpinners: hot yoga is the shit, and I have been addicted for the last three years of my life. I have defined abs, I have Michelle Obama arms, I have much-improved posture. I can do handstands and weird arm balances that defy gravity. I can beat most of my male friends in a push-up contest. I have the self-confidence to declare these things. And I managed to make it through a PhD dissertation and a job search in a jobless field with a minimum of stress and no significant breakdowns (a little white wine crying, no big). I feel confident and agile and powerful and ommm with little to no feelings of ridiculous. I can neither confirm nor deny that I have developed an affection for the music of Michael Franti.
My life, body, and general outlook on life have all changed, and I’m going to tell you a about how yours could change as well, even if you’re not an athlete (I wasn’t) and think yoga is silly (I did).
FIRST: HOT YOGA IS NOT THE SAME AS NON-HOT YOGA.
Hot yoga is yoga in a heated room. This heated room makes you sweat. Profusely. The heat warms your muscles and “opens you up,” which means that if you have the flexibility of a football player you won’t feel like quite as much of a dolt. It also means you sweat from places on your body that you might not have realized had the potential to do so. (Ankles and earlobes, I’m talking to you.) If you’re anything like me and thought yoga didn’t offer much by way of a workout, go to one class. Do it.
Hot yoga uses the same poses and philosophies that undergird non-hot yoga, and many/most yoga teachers teach both hot and non-hot classes.
There are two types of hot yoga:
1) Heated “Flow.”
(also referred to as “Heated Vinyasa,” “Heated Flow,” or “Power Vinyasa”)
These classes entail a lot of moving around: sun salutations, balancing sequences, backbends, inversions. Every vinyasa class is different. The room is generally in the 90s. I do this kind of yoga.
(also referred to as “Hatha” or “Hot 26”)
This guy Bikram has copyrighted a series of 26 poses. There are tons of Bikram-affiliated studios the world over where Bikram-trained people teach a Bikram-branded series of poses. Other studios that don’t want to be affiliated teach a similar series and give it another name. In Bikram, the sequence is always the same, and you hold each pose for a set amount of time. The room is hotter, somewhere around 104 degrees. Bikram is not my cup of yoga tea, but some people really, really love it.
SECOND: YOGA TAKES TIME.
Yoga classes last 60 minutes, 75 minutes, or 90 minutes. Add in 10 minutes before and showering afterwards (if you don’t, you will smell like a high school wresting mat).
Going to yoga once a week is awesome and will make you feel calmer, but it won’t dramatically change your body. Going 3–4 will build strength, balance, and flexibility, but the sweet, addictive spot is the nearly every day practice, when it becomes a question not of whether you’re going to go to yoga that day but when.
Because I’ve been a grad student for the last six years, I’m able to wedge yoga into my schedule at will. (Don’t be fooled: grad students might seem like they’re never working; in fact, like parents, they’re always working.)
Now, OK, I totally realize that I am in a privileged position. I have accepted a mountain of graduate school debt and six years of wage exploitation in order to have a yoga-friendly schedule. You might have a real job, children, or other obstacles getting in the way of your quotidian yoga practice, but chances are that you can find a studio that works for you and your schedule.
THIRD, YOGA TAKES MONEY.
Physical and spiritual enlightenment ain’t cheap. There are some awesome places that are donation-based, and more studios than you think will make deals for trade (you clean the bathrooms; they give you yoga).
You can also make your own hot yoga studio by turning on a space heater and practicing at home. I have done this, but it is borrring, because yoga is about kula, or community, which is to say it’s about hearing the other people groaning and ommming beside you. Kula also prevents you from stopping your workout halfway through to check Facebook.
Most studios will have several pass options: a newbie pass (around $20), a day pass ($12–20), a several-class package (depends), and an unlimited monthly pass ($80–120). Newbie passes are a great first date with hot yoga — they’re a steal, last between 7–10 days, and generally include the use of a mat and a towel (see below). Day passes are for suckers and tourists, and several-class passes are for those who want to practice once a week or don’t want to commit.
But when you want to change the way your body works and, by extension, your life, then you get the unlimited monthly pass. It’s pricy, I know. But yoga can/will replace the other exercise in your life, so think of it as a slightly more expensive gym membership with stress therapy added in. If you practice, say, 5 days a week, that averages out to about $5 a class, which is amazing. If you’re a student (what’s up, 22nd grade!) you can get a hefty discount.
FOURTH, YOGA REQUIRES (MINIMAL) GEAR.
In contrast to every other sport ever, yoga requires very little. There are no running shoes to keep current, no special tri-shorts to buy, no chalk bags or Gore-Tex socks. But there are a few things that you’ll need:
1) A mat.
Mats are cheap. Buy one on Amazon or at Target. $20. They last several years.
2) A towel.
When you and hot yoga start dating, you can just use one of your junior-varsity bath or beach towels. The big towel goes on top of your mat and makes it so you don’t accidentally fall into the splits or do a triple Sow Cow. When you and hot yoga get serious, then you can spring for a Yogitoes, which is like the secret decoder ring of hot yoga. Little plastic nubs keep the towel in place and this special secret fabric wicks sweat. You’ll be able to recognize these towels by their vibrant colors and the fact that every yogini in class who seems to have his/her shit together has one. Buy it on Amazon and it’s cheaper. [Note: No one is paying me to say this stuff, although, shit, I wish they were.]
Now, I’m warning you, don’t think you can pull a Ross Dress-for-Less and get the knock-off versions. They are not nearly as good and you might as well just keep your grungy bathtowel.
3) Yoga clothes.
Please do not be that undergraduate girl in my class who comes in Nike running shorts and a XL cotton sorority shirt. Avoid cotton altogether, as it will absorb your sweat and soon weigh as much as you do. You’ll also acquire clear evidence of crotch sweat.
Instead, wear something synthetic: anything that promises to be “Dri-Fit” or something similar. You also want your pants to go down below your knees, otherwise you’ll slip on your own thigh sweat in twists. You don’t need to spring for the super pricy lululemon stuff (it fits like an amazing velvety-yet-spandex body glove, but this academic needs to buy groceries after completing her hot yoga). I get my clothes from Target (hey hey Champion sports bras, $20!), Sierra Trading Post (thanks, Dad, for buying me all those ill-fitting fleeces; now I know where to get overstocked yoga tops) and eBay (new, not used).
FIFTH, YOGA WILL CHANGE THE WAY YOU THINK ABOUT EXERCISE.
Before yoga, I exercised not because I liked it but because I thought I needed it. I liked to run, sure, but most of the time I went to the gym because I felt that an hour on the elliptical was necessary just to maintain my figure. In other words: me and exercise were in a shitty relationship. There was a fair amount of begrudging and boredom, and a dearth of gratifying results.
Does this sound like you? Do you like exercise OK-ish, but hate the fact that it never seems to actually change your body? Do you use the elliptical because it’s the one where it’s easiest to read Us Weekly? Does lifting weights never seem to have any results other than hands that smell like nickels? Does the idea of working out always sound less appealing than a glass of wine and The Bachelor on the couch?
If any of this sounds familiar: HOT YOGA. Every day is different, every day is a new set of challenges, every day offers a new awareness of your body. I realize this seems like yogaspeak, but it’s the truth: I feel like I know each of my muscles within muscles, like I can spiral bones in and out. When my teacher talks about lifting my kidney band, I know what she’s talking about. You will feel better and stronger and then get addicted to the feeling of getting better and stronger.
Parts of yoga are hard. For some, it’s the balancing; for others, it’s the flexibility. Some people can’t open their shoulders; others (like me) have tight hips from years of running. But the good news is that no one is awesome at everything, nor is anyone worthless at everything. Men, for example, are better at things that require a lot of upper body strength (handstands, arm balances) but struggle with things that require open shoulders (backbands). There will always be a bitch pose that challenges you, and there will also always be a money pose that makes you feel powerful and awesome.
There’s also the issue of basically putting money in your body-bank. Lots of forms of exercise feel good now, but they wear your body down. If you’re a distance runner at 30, chances are that by the time you’re 50, you’ll have some sort of major structural body issues.
In contrast, yoga basically fine-tunes your body into something that will last. It strengthens your back so it won’t go out; it opens your chest to make you sit up straighter. Yoga lengthens and integrates your muscular system to make it less likely that you’ll injure it. And it always, always feels amazing after a day sitting in front of the computer.
As for the aesthetics, yoga is not explicitly or primarily about having a beautiful body. That’s a secondary and, frankly, super alluring byproduct. I’m 29 years old; my body has been through first and second puberty (second puberty = that thing in your early 20s when your body refigures yet again. No one f-ing tells you about second puberty). And I somehow have more tone and structure in all the right places than I ever have in my life. Yoga does different things to everyone’s body, but those things are beautiful and graceful and won’t make you look like skeletor-Madonna.
SIXTH, YOGA CHANGES THE WAY YOU APPROACH YOUR NON-YOGA LIFE.
I am a type-A person who likes to get stuff done. I have long wanted to control the way things are and how I want the future to unfold. And here’s what yoga taught me: slow down, breathe, and accept possibility. Corny, sure, but you guys, actually doing these things, both during as a result of yoga, has changed my life. It’s like my spirit animal used to be a really efficient badger and now it’s a slinky lynx.
Yoga might not be for you. I certainly didn’t think it was for me. But I was wrong, and the only thing that proved me wrong was going to a class (or 10). I’m addicted, but not the way I’m addicted to coffee — more like the way I’m addicted to The Hairpin, in that this is both what I should and want to be doing.
So try it? Tell me about it?
Anne Helen Petersen is a doctor of celebrity gossip when she’s not doing yoga.
Photo via Mind Body Green