Yoga, Kicked Up a Notch
by Sarah Firshein
Packet Online for Central Jersey, January 22, 2008
In a sealed 100-degree room, the standing bow pulling pose becomes even more difficult and summons mental quietude for balance and stability.
It is a Thursday night in mid-December, but here in Skillman, it’s hot enough to make Dante himself sweat.
My T-shirt is already soaked, and my hands and feet are dripping with sweat; despite this, yoga instructor Kim Dodson quietly asks me to move into adho mukha svanasana, a posture that is known colloquially as downward dog. If nothing else, the inverted pose requires arm strength and leg stability, two prerequisites that don’t hold up well on a slippery yoga mat.
Still, Ms. Dodson remains encouraging. In the softly lit room that, thanks to space heaters, has reached just about 100 degrees, her voice both calms and motivates.
Tonight’s class is one of the three weekly hot yoga classes offered at the Princeton Center For Yoga & Health. Hot yoga, at its core, is exactly as it sounds: yoga performed in a very hot room. Despite the fact that a 90-minute class can be mentally and physically taxing, the practice has garnered a stable of loyal followers.
One such disciple, Flemington resident Carolyn McMann, has been practicing hot yoga at the center for more than a year and believes it feels like a meditative sauna with movement. For Ms. McCann, a runner who has lived in the Midwest and the Southwest, the class provides a chance to stretch her muscles and soak up her beloved humidity literally.
According to Deborah Metzger, the Kripalu-certified founder and director of PCYH, "hot yoga benefits the mind, body and spirit. It’s a specific form that really detoxifies. And it’s strengthening. It’s a very willful practice, improving concentration, focus and balance.
“You have to face the challenge of the heat,” Ms. Metzger adds.
Hot yoga classes vary considerably in philosophy and method. Current practices, most agree, are an offshoot of the Bikram tradition, a strict series of 26 hatha yoga postures, or asanas, made famous by Bikram Choudhury, a Los Angeles-based yogi who recently made the news when he tried, unsuccessfully, to patent his sequence. Bikram, as he is termed within the yoga community, is known for his authoritarian teaching style and unwillingness to modify his series.
Gina McLaughlin, a Montgomery resident and yoga instructor who teaches the Monday-night and Saturday-morning hot yoga classes at PCYH, takes a more compassionate approach. “Bikram is a lot more arduous it’s really strict. Mine is more of an approach where you honor your own body. I’m not going to not let you leave and not get a drink of water,” she says, referring to a well-known rumor about Bikram’s stringent in-class rules. Nonetheless, students in Ms. McLaughlin’s class will find that she stays fairly consistent to the Bikram, or classical, sequence; each pose is held twice, with a brief rest between sets. Practicing the poses twice, Ms. Metzger says, allows students to work on their self-alignment.
“It’s a journey,” Ms. McLaughlin adds. “It starts with pranayama breathing to warm up the body to get the lungs going. Each posture is built upon one another, all leading up to full extension and full compression of the spine. It works every muscle, every tendon, every ligament (and) cleanses the whole system.”
Ms. Dodson, an ashtanga trained instructor and Princeton resident, sees the benefits of staying true to the classical method people really like to do the same poses all the time; you can’t do as many poses because you can’t overheat but has chosen to put her own spin on the practice. Previously a ballet dancer, she wanted to include a significant warm-up session before keeling into the strenuous series of balancing poses.
Students in Ms. Dodson’s class will notice that her series of approximately 25 poses includes the vinyasa, or flow, element of ashtanga yoga. “It’s a good blend between ashtanga and classical hot yoga,” she says. “I felt like there were some poses that were missing and that some things that could be improved upon. I offer more abdominal work and more hip-opening (poses).”
Ms. McCann has taken both instructors classes and believes each is really quite relaxing…. Your body moves much more freely, so you get some good stretching.
Ms. Dodson and Ms. McLaughlin agree the effects of hot yoga are widespread. Ms. McLaughlin points to some physical effects: increased circulation and the benefits of a workout that engages the whole body.
“If you work out in the heat, you will see that you are able to stretch more gently and it helps you generate energy for your practice,” Ms. Dodson says, citing cultural endorsements of sweating, such as Roman caldaria and American-Indian sweat lodges. Additionally, she points out, “there’s the benefit of meditation. In a hot room, we have to rest a little between the poses because we can’t get overheated. The resting is a great opportunity to meditate in those spaces in little spurts; it helps develop the mental side of yoga.”
Who is hot yoga best suited for? Both instructors and Ms. Metzger would recommend it to most adults, with the exception of pregnant women, or men and women with high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease. (As always, consult your doctor before significantly changing your workout regimen.)
“You can do it every day, but I would recommend you build up to it,” Ms. McLaughlin says. “And you can do this even if you’ve never done any yoga before. But listen to your own body if you wake up and you’re totally fatigued, back off.”
Ms. Metzger agrees, adding, “You’ll know what’s good for you. If hot yoga isn’t good for you, you’ll come out of the class feeling jittery, over-stimulated, not happy or not able to sleep that night. Maybe that practice is not right for your constitution. People need to find the tradition that suits them.”
Ms. McCann, of course, finds hot yoga is a tradition that suits her well. After class? I feel like a taking a long nap, and your whole body and mind is completely relaxed, she says.
PCYH offers 90-minute hot yoga classes on Mondays at 5:45 p.m., Thursdays at 6 p.m. and Saturdays at 11 a.m. For more information, call 609-924-7294 or visit www.princetonyoga.com/home.
The Yoga Lexicon
Deborah Metzger, founder and director of the Princeton Center For Yoga & Health in Skillman, weighs in on yoga language:
Kripalu yoga: A form of yoga as taught at the Kripalu Center in Lenox, MA, emphasizing proper breath, alignment, coordinating breath and movement, and honoring the wisdom of the body.
hatha yoga: The yoga familiar to most in the West. Its focus is on the physical postures (asanas), pranayama (yogic breathing practices) and meditation.
asana: a yoga posture; literally, to sit or be present, or to be established in a physical posture. Posture names have the word asana in them; i.e. tadasana means mountain pose.
pranayama breathing: The yogic science of breath control. Prana means life energy; ayama means control or mastery of.
ashtanga yoga: the system of yoga developed by Pattabhi Jois, one of the primary students of Krishnamacharya (often considered the father of modern yoga). A vigorous and challenging practice.
vinyasa: Breath-synchronized movement. Flowing from one posture to the next coordinated with the breath.