I remember my first hot yoga class. I opened the studio door, the air was thick and heavy and walking into it was like walking into a wall. While the regulars barely seemed to notice the heat I wondered whether I would make it through class.
I was there because I’d heard that hot yoga was dynamic. I expected it to be a workout and was open to the opportunity to de-stress. What I was totally unprepared for was the kind of elation I felt at the end of my practice. I was relaxed but alert, calm but energetic, and I was curious about the simultaneous experience of these opposing sensations in my body.
As is the way with these things my body has acclimatized to the sensation over time and I had forgotten about this feeling until recently. At the studio we run a six week beginner’s course. Over the course of the first five weeks we break the power yoga sequence into small sections, workshop the poses and talk about the yoga practice with a focus on alignment. In the final week we put everything together into a 75 min unheated practice before students make their way into the hot room.
At the conclusion of the final evening of the last beginner’s course I asked the students about their experience over the six week period. I was curious to learn whether they’d started the course with any expectations and if so, whether it had delivered. Without exception each student had the same response. They had come for some combination of physical conditioning and stress relief but reported that the greatest benefit they derived was an energetic one.
As outlined in some of the earliest yogic texts, one of the three purposes of Hatha yoga is the balancing of the physical, mental and energetic fields (the two other purposes are purification of the body and awakening of consciousness). From a yogic perspective the physical postures open the body’s nadis (or energy channels) and the chakras (psychic centers), so by purifying the body and becoming more steady, both physically and mentally, we are better able to move prana, or life force, through the body with nourishing, healing and mind-body integrative effects.
From a Western perspective the physical practice of yoga increases circulation, creates joint stability and muscular strength and improves the functioning of all of the bodily systems. From both a Western and a yogic perspective we can affect this process through a conscious connection to breath - activating the sympathetic nervous system with each inhalation and the parasympathetic nervous system with each exhalation; one the fight or flight response, the other triggering a relaxation response. When we balance the inhalation and exhalation we can neutralize the currents of the two branches of the autonomic nervous system, creating equilibrium in our body - a doorway into a more conscious relationship between breath and energetic sensation.
In the beginner’s course we teach the importance of connecting to breath and focus on the mechanics of the ujjayi breath. This is, of course, just tip of the iceberg and yet in six short weeks students’ experience of this wonderful energetic shift was palpable and consistent. Such is the power of yoga.