10,000 Vinyasas

A Tale of Two Practices: Temperature, Maehle, and Bringing Acceptance

by on Jul.02, 2011, under Yoga, Yoga practice

I have addressed this issue before in this blog, but to review: during yoga or any athletic activity, I sweat profusely. When temperatures are too warm and humid, my abilities and concentration start to falter, and my performance suffers. This is not new, and is peculiar to me alone, but it has been a source of some frustration in my yoga practice. I have been taking a led Primary Series on Saturday mornings, interspersed with a Mysore practice at the studio when eminent teachers appear. Of course, this has been quite the hot summer already, starting at least 4-6 weeks early and featuring relentless heat. Last Saturday, I arrived at the studio for the led Primary and noted that the temperature in the studio was already warm. At this point, I had all my “sweat management tools:” the towels, blanket, bandanna, etc., ready to begin, but this time decided to approach the practice in a slightly different way, since I knew what I was in for. What I told myself this particular morning was to just relax, remove all expectations of what I would like to “accomplish” during the session and simply accept whatever came from doing my practice on this day. I was just as hot and sweaty during the series as I anticipated, and my practice by any objective standard was below par, but it didn’t matter–my acquiescence to the experience produced a kind of serenity despite the conditions. Although feeling drained and somewhat tired, I left feeling more satisfied than I had in some time.

Today’s Mysore practice was much different, primarily because I had the benefit of a cooler environment. It felt at least ten degrees cooler this morning in the studio when I began the session and I could detect a dramatic change in my focus and concentration. Without having to react to extensive amounts of sweat dripping from all parts of my body, I could pay much more attention to my breath, the order of the poses (I didn’t forget any or mix up the order, something that happens frequently), and consequently, I had an easier time lengthening my practice and taking full advantage of the instruction. I exited from this practice feeling energized and serene, a fine combination, and one I’ve rarely experienced. I got a strong feeling that this was pretty close to my ideal yoga practice.

Well. What can we learn from these two Saturdays? It seems clear to me that, although I can clearly derive more benefit from practicing yoga in a cooler environment, this is something over which I will have little control, at least until I am in charge of my own studio (joke!). Therefore, acceptance of the prevailing conditions is my only weapon, and the results of this are measurable, at least psychologically. Whether my physical practice benefits is another issue. I should also at least attempt to practice as much as possible in cooler environments, to the extent that I am not sacrificing the quality of instruction. Since I am doing my own practice on an almost daily basis, this is well within reach. To conclude, when I was teaching at the resort in Riviera Maya a couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to peruse Ashtanga Yoga, Practice and Philosophy, by Gregor Maehle. I quite enjoyed this book, with its thorough review of the Primary Series combined with many alignment and anatomical comments. What stopped me in my tracks was this passage on the correct temperature, since it flies in the face of many yoga instructors’ ideas on temperature, and I quote it in full:

“If you practice on a hot country, you will heat up quickly. This is especially true of males. Care needs to be taken not to overheat if one is engaging in strenuous practice in a hot environment. As with any type of engine, so also with the human body: overheating is not good. Sweating is healthy, but if sweat drips from the body it is a sign that the body is no longer able to cool itself adequately.Sweating to this degree on a daily basis literally drains life force from the body. A temperature of 68 F would be ideal for practice, but practice speed needs to be adapted–faster when it’s cold to increase heat and slower when it’s hot to cool down. On a hot day, focus on the cooling quality of the breath.
Heating the yoga room to above 77 degrees may produce more flexibility, but it decreases strength, stamina and concentration. If yoga were only about flexibility, contortionists would be the greatest yogis. It is worth noting that extreme flexibility is often a result of biochemical imbalance. True posture is about the ability fo focus deeply within.
The Ashtanga Vinyasa practice attempts to balance flexibility with strength. Real yoga ‘will walk the edge between opposing extremes.’ Rather than desperately cranking ourselves into one particular direction in a posture, we expand simultaneously in all directions. The first pair of opposites that we discover in physical yoga is strength/flexibility. Excess flexibility is an obstacle because it means loss of strength, and vice versa. We should never build up a degree of flexibility that is not matched by the necessary support strength. On the other hand, building up great strength withouth increasing one’s flexibility restricts the range of joint movement.
A heated yoga room helps flexibility because it increases vata and pitta. A cold yoga room helps strength because it increases kapha. A cold room also increases awareness and attention to detail. We have to study the posture more deeply to get to the same point in a cold room, but this pays off in terms of benefits. There is more learning if the temperature is low, and the body becomes sturdier due to the awakening of physical intelligence. We can avoid this process by turning up the thermostat, but everybody who has worked through a couple of winters with only moderate heating values the gain in refinement it brings.
If temperatures are high, proper ventilation is necessary. The western fashion of keeping all windows closed in sweltering temperatures so that you can see puddles of sweat on the floor is surprising, considering that I have never seen a yoga room in India that even had closeable windows. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika warns in several places of the dangers of too much heat and too much heating, by staying too close to the fire for example, and also of excess physical exertion. Getting too cold, for instance by taking cold morning baths, is also not recommended. The idea here is moderation: staring away from the extremes and abiding in the center. Once a yogi is fully established, however, extremes will no longer be of concern. ”

I have nothing to add here; this is as good and complete a dissertation on temperature as one could hope for. I think this may be the final word on sweating that appears on this blog, for those who are tired of reading about it.

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2 Comments for this entry

  • Lisa

    Interesting post, and I like that idea of releasing expectations about what a practice should be in terms of accomplishment – and instead approach it with acceptance of what comes. So true and it puts you in a state of peace and relaxation, then it’s funny because many times these are the conditions where the good stuff happens without grasping, you know?

    In my Primary Series Gregor book, this same passage about practice temperature is there, but my book references the temperature in Centigrade, not Farenheit. So I had to click on over to google to find the equivalent temp because I’m not up on my Centigrade measures. Anyway I’ve been quite interested in the topic of ideal practice temperature because until recently, on weekdays I was practicing in a very cool room daily, the gym at the building where I work. They keep it around 64 degrees in there, with ceiling fans usually on full speed. This made it next to impossible for me to build up the good juicy heat, but then I realize it caused me to work the technique in a really attentive way because I had no other choice. In the long run it has been of benefit to me, I think.

    Have practiced in very hot and humid conditions too when the sweat seems to be jumping out of my skin. Whatever the room feels like, I view it that we are training our minds to be more adaptive and less reactive to what we’re faced with both on and off the mat.

  • carl

    Thanks, Lisa! Because of my idiosyncratic response to heat, I have also been interested in practice temperatures for quite some time. Of course, I think you are entirely correct: yoga is, among many other things, a process of becoming more proficient in turning inwards, which lessens our dependence on outside “weather.” I am sometimes dismayed at the dramatic effects of temperature on my practice, however, but your led Primary a couple of weeks ago was an interesting exception that I hope to experience again and more often.

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