Some like it hot

I always roll my eyes when people here complain the weather is “too hot”. I know no “too hot”, but I am very well acquainted with a number of different “too colds”; wet miserable cold, bitter stinging cold, shivery cold, numb cold… I sleep with a duvet all year round and get teased at work for turning all the fans off.

But a little part of me wondered if actually, I would deal well with heat when it was more than our mild British summer heat. Or would I also be reduced to a limp lettuce leaf, meek and uncomfortable?

As I looked forward to my first Bikram yoga class – years after promising myself I would try yoga and months after being given a recommendation for Bikram Yoga Chiswick – I wondered if my right to roll eyes would be swiftly revoked.

I had packed my bag full of towels and electrolytes, made sure I had eaten sensibly and stayed hydrated, and slightly nervously asked the surprisingly welcoming staff on reception what I should wear and how much water to take in. I had a vague idea of what to expect, but turns out it was all the opposite.

Here are the experiences that stand out from this first encounter with hot yoga:

Day 1 – first practice

I had been warned to take it easy, to make it my goal simply to stay in the room for the full 90 minutes, and to take breaks whenever. One litre was the standard amount of water taken in, and most women wore sleeveless tops and capris rather than the sports bra and short shorts I had expected.

I actually didn’t struggle with the heat one little bit. I didn’t yearn for sips of water and took them mainly out of precaution, not even finishing my 750ml of water+electrolyte in the 90 minute session.

I surprised myself with my strength in postures, but felt disappointed in my lack of concentration and meditative abilities. Nothing felt overly fatigued, nothing felt overly painful, balance was better than average and even flexibility wasn’t as horrendous as I had feared. The back-bends were by far the worst bit, as I seemed to go from “absolutely fine, am I even bending” to “oh god oh god oh god by spine is about to snap and I have no way out of this” in a matter of millimetres.

After class, I finished my water, and promptly refilled my bottle with a second sachet of electrolyte – which I was unable to finish during the course of the evening. I didn’t feel particularly exhausted, rather more like I had just had a long shower after a busy and warm day.

Towards the end of the evening I started to get a dull headache that prompted me to retire to bed early, only to lie awake as I realised I wasn’t really all that sleepy. As I lay down, I felt relieved, and realised at that point that actually, my body had been through quite a bit.

Day 2 – day after first practice

Woke up with a slightly dull headache, but not noticeable enough to do anything about. As it grew in intensity, I counted up how much water I had consumed in total on the day of my first practice; only about 3.5 litres – what I would aim for on a warm and active day anyway. I promptly took a painkiller and chugged down a 750ml bottle of electrolyte, and the headache faded.

Meanwhile, the muscle soreness crept up towards early afternoon; achey hips, a tight upper back, and sore traps. Good to know something had been working!

Day 4 – second practice

Felt horribly waterlogged and soggy – a combination of humid weather and, I suspect, the onset of my period. Otherwise felt healthy, strong, and looking forward to pushing myself a little more in practice now I knew the postures.

The complete reverse happened. Although I felt incredibly strong in the first 25-30 minutes, I very quickly felt dizzy, the outsides of my field of vision darkening into a fuzzy tunnel, legs and back weakening and a very slight sensation of nausea. I took many breaks to kneel down on the mat and try to refocus my energy. It was a real struggle.

I didn’t finish my water in class, but I finished the bottle when we finished, and guzzled an entire fresh bottle of water on the way home. This time, I felt absolutely fine – invigorated, even – throughout the evening, during which I gulped down a couple more glasses of water.

Day 5 – day after second practice

No adverse effects this time. Made sure to stay hydrated throughout the day, and although my back felt worked, the only real muscle soreness was in my hips (and one forearm, though that could have been from anything) .

The main thing was that I felt great. All the bloating and fluid retention melted away! That could have been due to my period starting to ease off, but I feel the sweating did accelerate the process.

After 5 practices

Although I haven’t struggled with hydration again, the amount of progress I perceive and the way my body feels completely varies from one session to the next. Some days some postures are solid and strong, some days those same postures just don’t even begin to work.

Some sessions feel like they have a huge impact on my body shape and how I feel, some sessions leave me fairly unchanged. My back always feels like it has been worked hard after a session, and I fall gratefully into bed a few hours after each session.

Part of the next-day wellbeing is undoubtedly to do with the fact that after a session I crave watery fruits and vegetables, which steers me towards salads and smoothies for dinner rather than more starchy dishes.

Overall, I do feel I am more flexible and my lower back certainly feels stronger, while my upper back and neck feel significantly less tight. These are huge positives, particularly the neck easing off – it has been a very long time since I have been able to look over my left shoulder without pain.

… How many more practices?

It will soon be time to ask myself whether I renew my membership and what sort of plan to renew with.

The pros: I have enjoyed having structured classes again, a block of time where I cannot be reached by the outside world, a chance to focus on me. I have loved sweating, and pushing myself in a way that I can only do when I know I have no more work afterwards. And of course, I have been appreciating a greater range of motion in many joints that I had given up on.

The cons: Well, it’s fairly expensive. It takes a lot of time out of the day: 90 minutes for the session, 30 minutes to remain in savasana then shower and change, plus I normally arrive at least 20 minutes early. Not to mention travel time. And frankly, last time I planned to attend a class I scrapped my plans, simply because I couldn’t face having to go through the exact same routine, sit through the exact same script, yet again.

The bottom line: I think I will take out a 10-session card and continue to attend once or twice a week, but probably not more than that. When I go back to jiu jitsu and get my fill of back-breaking effort and sweating, I may only go once every 10-14 days to iron out the creases, which is why I wouldn’t splash out on the yearly membership.

Update:

Having found out about the dark and dirty side of bikram yoga – its founder, Bikram Choudhury – I will not be practicing any more bikram yoga. As much as the postures remain traditional postures, I just can’t take the whole set-up seriously anymore. There are too many other types of yoga, and even hot yoga, out there for me to support an industry I don’t believe in.

I am more curious now – and less apprehensive – to explore different types of yoga and to seek out one-to-one tuition so I can really get the most out of each pose and understand the practice a little more personally.

Meanwhile, it is now clearer than ever to me that while yoga is undoubtedly a hugely beneficial activity which has grown in popularity as people seek more holistic and spiritual ways to ease the stresses of daily life, bikram yoga in particular has enjoyed a surge in popularity due to the highly in vogue “detox” sensation from sweating profusely. I fear that many bikram yoga enthusiasts have bypassed the spiritual side of what should be an entire lifestyle, treating it as a high-horse on which to quietly sweat out a hangover – I particularly like the Economist‘s analogy that “Bikram is to the yoga world what fast food is to the culinary world” – but then… does it really matter why people enjoy it, if it makes them feel good?

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