I spent about six years doing daily classes of Vinyasa yoga (well, Ashtanga to be more specific). Sometimes before my morning flow(s), I’d take a hot class. Recently (the last two years) I have been taking ‘hot’ (what used to be called ‘Bikram’) yoga classes almost exclusively. The differences between the two (and the people who gravitate to one or the other) seem at first glance substantial, but let’s explore this further…
During this time (mentioned above), I noticed some ostensible differences between those who regularly attend hot classes and those who attend ‘flow’ classes. Before I get into those perceived differences, let me first share my own experience, and then let’s focus on the commonalities between the two.
In my initial experience, I first found ‘hot’ yoga to be, well…too hot. It also seemed far too regimented to me, with a defined and basically never-changing sequence. How was one to find and express bhakti or samadhi under these conditions? Contributing to my initial reservations, Bikram Choudry had ‘patented’ this ancient warm-up sequence, and even the dialog associated with it. The fact he was later accused of violating the sexual spaces of his students somehow added (illogically or not) to my growing aversion.
After six or so years of Vinyasa, I sort of ‘forced’ myself to go and see what was up with this almost cultish group of people. I sensed that in avoiding these types of classes, or in my nascent ‘aversion’ to them, I was missing a key yogic lesson. So I decided to immerse in it, see what I could learn, what I could experience, what ‘truths’ (or insights) might reveal themselves to me in the course of this journey.
What I discovered was (as with almost all life) not what I had expected or perceived from the outside looking in. At first, it seemed incredibly hard. Not the postures (essentially basic), but the durn old heat…the sweat dripping into my face and nostrils, pressing on me palpably, like a closely fitting (smothering?) hot air suit, or the embrace of the mythical Satan (or Looficer, as I prefer to call this idea, as the dyslexic satanists do). It was just so darn triggering…it reminded me of Djibouti, Somalia, Iraq, Kuwait, Quatar…super hot places (in the now common parlance of P.T.S.D. and ‘veterans issues’, it ‘triggered’ me…or tried to). I could feel my H.P.A. (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) axis fire up, giving me P.T.S.D.-like symptoms. I could feel my mind and memories (or my amygdala and hippocampus, to be more precise) trying to ‘go back’ to those memories, not all good.
It was hard to find time or ‘head-space’ (heart space) to be filled with gratitude, with devotion in the midst of all that heat and potential triggering. It was hard enough to stay focused, maintain my calm breath (and thus mind) and ‘do the drill.’ I was much more soothed by my home Kundalini or Yin practices. What was so good about this nonsense? Why was I even here?
The people seemed super-focused, almost grim in their concentration, determination, and almost religious attendance (and adherence to rituality). We didn’t ‘OM’ or talk about ‘spiritual stuff’ much, as we typically did in Vinyasa classes. The people seemed more there to ‘sweat it out’, more focused on using outer strength or Yang energy to get there, when Vinyasa is implemented by inner strength, by Yin, by allowing, not forcing or striving for some goal. They seemed to feel secure in the predictability of the sequence, in the ‘rules’ of hot. Nobody seemed to hug each other, or hang out sharing the bliss afterward, as they were apt to do in Vinyasa classes. They rushed in at the last minute, looking like someone who was grimly setting out to do an unpleasant job. They got the heck out of that oven the minute they could, as soon as class was over. It was a like a ‘fast food’ gym, done on a yoga mat. No enlightenment please, just here to lose twenty pounds or get in better shape (or maintain a good shape). It could have been hamsters on a yoga treadmill of effort without goals (or without meaningful ones)…or so it seemed at first glance.
Now bear in mind, these were my perceptions, and may not have reflected the actual reality. After all, I didn’t know these people, had no idea what their actual experience was. So I decided to have an experience of my own, find out what the deal was, come to know in the only way truly possible…through my own experience, and through sharing the experiences of others.
Soon the heat didn’t seem quite as bad…or at least it didn’t affect me as much. The pesky sweat coming off me no longer seemed like unwelcome and salty extrusions, but like holy rain. I had figured if I really had joy and peace in my yoga, I should be able to find it anywhere (or in any type of yoga ‘class’)…and did. Soon, the seemingly regimented sequence stopped becoming a limiting box, and became instead a expansive space from which I could find expression and personal growth and movement….while moving in the ‘constraints’ of the practice. Soon, laying in Savasana for fifteen minutes after class was not an ordeal, but a treat, as the room slowly cooled and wisps of cool, fresh air caressed my body as people left the room (and let cool air in).
Soon I found a lovely set of teachers who managed to bring a bit of joy, devotion , introspection, focus, or detachment into what on the face of it may seem an unimaginative and uninspired sequence/paradigm. Really, they helped (guided) me to bring that bit of joy into it myself, inspired me to bring it, or gave good examples by bringing it themselves. Soon, I was finding as much focus, joy, and peace in hot sequences as I had previously in vinyasa sequences, or in my home practice.
It became really cathartic. Laying in a pool of sweat at the end, I felt drained…of impurities. I had sweated a gallon in an hour (or close, it appeared). I was getting ready to fill myself up with clean, pure water – like a little oil change for my body. Keep those cells filled with fresh water, dontcha know?
So I continued that way for a while until one summer day recently I walked into the studio and my body, mind, and spirit (and thus what seemed like the entire universe) told me it was too hot to do a ‘hot’ at 9AM on what looked to be a blistering day. Thus, I returned once again to my core vinyasa practice.
So there it is…my meager experience of a decade. Hardly much to base any firm judgments on, or reach meaningful conclusions. It was barely enough to skim the surface, to teach me that I truly don’t know, and that there are as many answers and paths as there are (or were ever) people. Still, I like to make observations and comparisons, if nothing else for the pure ‘fun’ of it, or maybe because as a writer and observer, these things come to the surface naturally, like little checkpoints of where I am at the time, like little rough maps of the world I constantly update and refine (and sometimes throw away and start over).
This brings us to the commonalities between hot yoga and Vinyasa yoga (and their adherents, insomuch as they stick to one or the other, which many do). Examining the commonalities is always a pertinent first step before trying to define apparent differences.
Both are a type of yoga, which is aimed at union…union of body, mind, and spirit, and union of individuals with a higher Self within (and which possibly permeates the universe). Union of thought, word, and deed.
Yogis see yoga like a lotus flower, with many petals. The physical practice (at its core defined as hatha yoga) is just one petal. Within this petal are the many fibers of the various physical practices; hot, Vinyasa, Kundalini, yin, traditional hatha, etc. Other petals of yoga are bhakti (devotion, praise, and gratitude), seva (service to others), among many others.
In our commercial-based western society, we perceive these as separate and distinct. We try to find the best petal, and throw the rest of the flower away. Many argue that only devotion, or service, or praise, or meditation, or physical practice is the real yoga. Each tries to create ‘product differentiators’ to show how their brand of yoga is better religion, theology, or exercise. Each tries to develop new ‘products’ (types of or interpretations of …or focus on one of the petals as the best one…to the exclusion of all others. Each yoga ‘product’ is tailored to meet the desires of untapped segments of the ‘market.’ It’s taken a path toward enlightenment (or at least improved control over/acceptance of/union of) body, heart, and mind and turned it into the business of yoga, the marketplace of yoga, a growth industry, a financial cash cow for the merchants who peddle it.
In reality, it is just petals on a flower. Each has something beautiful to offer, each is needed for a complete understand or practice of yoga, each has meaning and value only when taken in context of (and conjunction with) the other petals of the flower. With that said, I will nevertheless try to ‘differentiate’ between ‘products’ as an entertaining and possibly instructive game, or as a way to document my thoughts of today for later review and consideration. Here goes…
First, back to the commonalities. Hot and Vinyasa are both types of physical practice, and thus parts of the same single petal on the flower of yoga. Both rely on the breath to calm and still the mind, to control, relax, and energize the body/mind/spirit complex at various appropriate times. Both help increase physical and neurological well-being. Both bring us together not as athletes or people with some low goal, but as brothers and sisters, as aspirants in a lifelong practice with no definite or even achievable goal. We just point to the light and start walking…or dancing.
Both practices rely on the drishti (calm focus of attention, concentration, consciousness) to facilitate the physical and mental changes going on underneath the surface. In the ‘western world’, both are mostly taught by super-fit young twenty-somethings in tight, fashionable, and expensive yoga clothes.
Both are often praised (or feared) as a sort of cult, religion, tribe apart from the desire-filled, greed-based majority of the world. Both are greatly misunderstood – by yogis and non-yogis alike. Both can better be implemented (acted out or manifested, if you prefer) with gentleness and allowing than with effort or trying. There are so many commonalities, it would take a tome (and has) to begin to describe them all.
The differences is what we Americans generally like, though, what we focus on. Which is better for us? Which will fit our ideas or images of ourselves better, help us lose more weight or get closer to the Divine? I get it, and will play along.
In general, hot yogis seem to love (take sanctuary in) the predictability, in the ostensible regimentation. They seem to like the heat, the sweat, the effort as cathartic, as undeniable indications that they are doing something, going somewhere. They want and get results…now; a pile of sweat and five pounds of water weight (and associated toxins) lost.
Hot yogis seem to be more pragmatic and determined. The might even seem a bit more grim in their seriousness about their practices. They are almost definitely more perfunctory; they show up early, generally stay (and sweat) in the same place day after day, if they can. They take class at the same hour(s) each day, and want the same instructor on that day. Their routines seem to vary little…and they like it that way.
Hot yogis often seem to eschew the potential religious, theological, spiritual aspects of yoga, preferring instead the tangible efforts and rewards of the physical realm. To many, it is just exercise, and they like it like that. They don’t want to be pestered with pesky OMs and spiritual ramblings. They have to get to work soon, and they only have one hour to get down and sweat it out, get their workout in. They don’t want to trouble their mind with new concepts that may conflict with their world views, religious preferences (or lack of them), or whatever. They want it like they want it, and that’s that.
Now of course, trying to generalize people and categorize them is a fool’s errand, one which we authors seem to love engaging in, even though we know it for what it is. Maybe it’s simply fun and passes the time between yoga classes, hikes, and pedaling (or skiing or snowboarding or climbing or riding). But (feeling like the old prejudiced ignoramus who said -back in the bad old days- that all African Americans were lazy, or all Native Americans were drunks), I’ll continue, since I took this thread this far.
Vinyasa yogis seem more about the devotional aspects of the physical practice. They like to invoke the pranavah; to AUM (OM) together, or sing kirtan (songs of praise, often in Sanskrit) and mantras (healing or focusing sounds and vibrations). They seem to dig the variability of various vinyasa flows (sequences). They most definitely seem to like the fact they can flow and they (nor I next to them) gets covered in icky, unsightly (and possibly stinky) sweat.
Yet we yogis are about union. Yoga means union. We are not about division or distinction, not about discrimination or determination. We are about experience, the special intimate inner experience and transformation that only the individual aspirant can know (through their own direct experience, and shared with the experiences of others, without judgment).
While the two ‘types’ of yogis may seem different, in the end they are the same. In the end, their eyes shine and they hug me…and the world. In the end, they experience the almost magical transformation a continued yoga practice eventually brings. And funnt enough, those same dedicated Vinyasa yogis you see at 9AM every day may also be the dedicated ‘hot’ yogis you see at 6AM (or whenever) every day as well. Surprise, surprise.
Maybe we’re all just yogis after all, each on different parts of our personal paths. Maybe you are a yogi as well, even if you don’t practice (for the beginning and pre-beginning are also parts of the path). Maybe we’re all yogis of the sort, inextricably united by the primary engine of yoga…the breath, which we cannot escape sharing with the entire planet. Maybe we are not just 7 billion shipmates on a rock hurtling through space, bnut seven billion yogi shipmates, untied by breath, despite our apparent or ostensible differences, united in spite of them. United. Yoga. Mmmm. AUMmmmmm
‘…and the less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine…’
-The Indigo Girls
(c) 2016, Mark Francis Mullen. All rights reserved. Facebook or no other entity owns or is entitled to unassigned rights to this document. It may be shared for free (with credit given to the author), as defined in applicable international copyright laws. I in no way allow rights to this document by virtue of publishing it on the original ‘blogging website’ or subsequent ‘posts’ or ‘shares’ on Facebook or other social media.
Photo credit Radiance Power Yoga (I’m pretty sure)