In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are realizing there are countless ordinary activities we took for granted. Exercising at a favorite local gym or fitness studio may be one piece of everyday normalcy you're now desperately missing in quarantine life. And if you're someone who prefers a boutique class or specialty workout, then you may really be missing the ambiance of your familiar surroundings. But as we continue to self-quarantine and help flatten the curve, is there any way we can recapture the magic of an in-class experience? For example — can you do hot yoga at home?
First of all, it's important to understand what "hot" yoga really is — and what it isn't. While Bikram Yoga is often grouped in with other types of hot yoga, this specific branch of the practice started in the 1970s and consists of the same 26 postures performed over a 90-minute session in 105 degree F (40 degree C) heat at 40 percent humidity. The controversial practice has been criticized for its safety risks and the alleged sexual misconduct of its founder. And while plenty of people continue to participate in Bikram, it's not the end-all-be-all of hot yoga by any means.
So, What Is Hot Yoga?
"Hot" yoga really just refers to any vigorous form of yoga that's performed in a very warm and humid space — that typically means something between 80 and 100 degrees F (27 and 38 degrees C). Those who prefer a hot practice say it improves their flexibility, and the amplified sweat helps get their heart pumping in a way room temp yoga can't. And while the majority of those claims can be chalked up to anecdotal data, individual preference plays a huge role in yoga and fitness, so for some, heat is an important aspect of the overall experience.
"I think people love the hot yoga process because you sweat so much it feels like it must be detoxifying — sweating is absolutely cleansing in and of itself," Kala MacDonald, a Los Angeles-based yoga teacher and founder of the nonprofit organization, Yoga to Cope, says via email. "Not to mention, hot classes allow the body and its muscles and tissues to open up more quickly, allowing the yogi to enter into bigger, deeper shapes more quickly than they might be able to in a non-heated or 'warm' room."
MacDonald believes maintaining a semblance of normalcy can be essential for some people navigating discomfort and sadness in this unprecedented era. "In uncertain times, it can alleviate some unnecessary stress — which isn't welcome or wanted in your practice anyway — to stop trying to control what you can't control," she says. "We don't know when our adored hot yoga studios will be able to reopen, so it's up to us to find the heat we so crave in the interim."
Don't Be Afraid to Move It Outside
One way MacDonald suggests warming things up is to step out of the traditional studio headspace and step outside instead. "If it's sunny, maybe skip the mat (but not your sunscreen) and get out in the grass for a grounding sequence warmed by the sun," she says. "There is science to support that simply connecting with nature, removing the barrier between your feet and the earth, creates a chemical and emotional shift upward in the body, mind and mood."
If going outside isn't an option, or the weather isn't cooperating with your yogic intentions, MacDonald has some other ideas too, calling upon the formal breath control practice of pranayama, which includes variations that are thought to warm the body and stoke internal heat. "Opt to stay indoors and instead of wishing for or relying on external heat sources, build your own fire from within by incorporating heat-building pranayama and intentional movement into your practice. Begin with some enlivening Kapalbhati or Bhastrika, make every transition and asana [pose] effortful and purposeful, and continue to grow the breath throughout as you move toward a melty savasana [corpse pose]."
San Francisco-based yoga teacher Gillian Confair has a slightly more offbeat, if not equally effective, idea for heating things up. "I mean, keep your bathroom door shut and take a massively hot shower," she says via text. "Then throw down your mat in the literal sauna of your bathroom, pray you don't put your foot in the toilet, and ask yourself why your yoga has to be hot."
While Confair is kidding about the bathroom yoga idea (maybe?), she raises a valid point for anyone obsessively trying to recreate the sweatiness of a hot studio practice at home. "The world is on airport rules right now," she says. "We're all wearing sweatpants, obsessed with "Tiger King," and eating 12 meals a day. If there's ever a time to shake up your routine, it's now. I promise you, there's more than one path to a calmer mind, and sticking to a rigid idea of 'this is what works' will likely lead to tears and frustration."
MacDonald agrees that this unexpected global crisis may actually be an opportunity for yogis to do the challenging internal work of the practice instead of focusing solely on the external asanas [poses]. "Hot yoga lovers often seek intensity and a faster pace, which can be great," she says. "However, I think this COVID-19 shift is forcing us all to slow down and change things up, and it's giving many of us time to work with. Now is the time to slow down and to explore other aspects of the practice that are heat building and detoxifying. Without the hot room, it's up to us to do all the work. I think maybe up until now, it was easier to feel like we didn't have time or the desire to dive deep and do 100 percent of the work ourselves, but I challenge people to see what they can do without the hot rooms to help. I bet people will be surprised by how strong and capable they are in a stripped down session at home with just a little curiosity and playfulness sprinkled on their mats."
Creativity Is Key
San Francisco-based yoga teacher Erin Gilmore has her own opinions on hot yoga, having taught regular classes for several years at San Francisco's Yoga Flow studios, which are each heated to varying temperatures (their newest location heats the practice space to 90 degrees F, or 32 degrees C). "I teach hot yoga and practice hot yoga because I like the challenge of it," she says via text. "It makes me focus more. And mostly, I just like to sweat."
And while the San Francisco Bay Area's shelter in place order has put a wrench in her regularly scheduled practice plans, she's found ways to recreate that temperature-controlled feeling outside the studio's walls. "I am missing this ingredient a little bit in my home practice, so my low-tech fix was to just put my Dyson space heater close to my mat and crank that baby up," she says. "My friends and students on Zoom noticed and I saw quite a few of them scurrying out of their Zoom square to retrieve their own space heater."
Another workaround Gilmore's taken note of during her virtual yoga classes: an impressive array of cold weather fashion choices. "I've also noticed some of my more avid heat lovers layering up in all their finest winter athleisure," she says. "Hats, hoodies, thick socks. The people will find a way to make it hot and spicy even from the confines of their shelter in place home studios. But do be careful with how close you put your Dyson to your mat. I started to feel like my eyelashes were going to catch fire. So watch out for that."
At the end of the day, a yoga practice is deeply personal, and most teachers would agree that the priority is your personal experience and safety. If cranking up your heater (from a safe distance) or piling on your ski gear elevates your experience on the mat, then by all means, get your sweat on. But MacDonald has some food for thought for those desperately craving their pre-pandemic routine. "I get that people want what they're used to and it's easier to try to recreate a comfortable setting they know and love as opposed to doing things completely differently in a whole new way and a whole new environment," MacDonald says. "I guess if it's easy and makes a person happy to set up a heater and try to recreate a hot studio vibe, great. If it's creating stress and anxiety trying to make something exist that just doesn't, it's best to just embrace the change and transformation and find new ways to be excited on their mat."