Staying with Intensity – Why Hot Yoga is My Therapy

hot-yoga

It’s Friday morning and I’m probably 30 minutes into my 1 hour Hot Hour Bikram Yoga class, which in the 15 years that I’ve been practicing on a weekly basis could be the 3648 time I’ve done this – and yet as I feel the heat emanating off my mat, feeling into my warrior two pose, I find myself convinced the teacher has somehow made a mistake with the temperature dial in the room and all of us , engaged in the class are now faced with another 30 minutes of life-threateningly high heat. I look towards the door for my escape. Someone surely should say something before someone passes out? I look around the room and everyone just seems to be continuing , oblivious to the life or death scenario before us. My brain, on loop now, starts communicating one word quite perceptibly over and over again – “Run”.

Invariably, as is clear from my ability to now communicate this experience to you – I make it through the class. But I suppose the better question, is why do I and indeed why would anyone continue to place themselves in a scenario where they come face to face with so much discomfort ? Besides the well documented health benefits, including increased blood oxygenation, lowered blood pressure, improved circulation and lymphatic system functioning ( to select a few from a much longer list)- I , and indeed other research points to , the mental resilience that one develops from the practice of hot yoga. Many of these elements are the same building blocks I support clients to develop in the therapy room. Taking a closer look at these tools and why they’re central to mental resilience:

1) You Go Beyond Yourself : For one thing, you discover , like through many other endurance sports, that you have strength and mental will power that extends beyond what you previously may have considered you had –  “Pushing yourself outside your comfort zone is an accomplishment, and you may be surprised to discover that the upper limits of what your body can do under extreme conditions is higher than you thought”, ( Sara Barnes, Hot Yoga Benefits).

2) You Learn that Intensity Will Not Kill You : In line with the example I provided in the opening paragraph of this post , the hot yoga room is designed to create a physically and mentally intense atmosphere. In it , there may be many a time where your practice becomes so challenging due to the heat that all you want to do is run out of the room and into the cool of the air-conditioned yoga studio outside. Yet when you don’t, when you learn to breathe through the fear and anxiety that come up for you – you find a new freedom. I believe in this moment , that yoga practitioners discover they can meet Intensity face to face, and simply be OK ( instead of what their brain’s are telling them- which is that this is actually a life or death scenario). “By concentrating on carrying out the specific body posture and alignment of a pose and then holding it as you breathe deeply, the body starts to shift from a state of biochemical arousal and tension to calm and relaxation. Relaxing yourself deeply into a yoga pose through deep breathing lowers the brain’s response to threat.” ( Deborah Koshaba, Take a Stand for Yoga Today) . This transforms the relationship that we have with intense emotional experiences , where we learn we can hold ourselves and that space (and that it will pass) instead of feeling like we have to run or fight it.

3) You Build Focus: If you can find even just one moment of calm in the heat, holding a difficult posture while the sweat is pouring off you and your heart is racing – my hot yoga teacher use to say that then you have accomplished what you have come here to do today. Being able to focus and stay in the moment with the increasing stimuli and distraction we are faced with in the modern world , is both a challenge and also a huge asset. For one thing, it’s correlated with increased satisfaction and happiness ( Matt Killingsworth, Want to Be Happier? Stay in the Moment). It also allows us to better optimise our mental resources and respond with sensitive attunement to whatever is in front of us.

4) You Detox Your Mind : Yoga itself has been , for a long time now, linked with higher levels of GABA production in the brain ( which supports better mood regulations and lowered anxiety). I believe this is partly why hot yoga is great for stress-detoxification on a neuro-physiological level. In terms of cleansing your brain of unwanted thought processes too though , hot yoga is just as great simply because it is very difficult while trying to hold a pose in the hot room, remembering to breathe and listening to the next instruction the teacher is giving you – to think about anything else that might be happening in your life outside of the hot room. I’ve tried and believe me it’s near impossible. I’m not saying that you won’t have a few moments where your mind strays from the practice to other pre-occupying thoughts you might have , but to the greater extent you will find yourself present in the room , with all it’s challenges, and again besides cultivating focus on what you’re doing in the room – this also means that you’re NOT focusing on things that might be taking you out of the moment and are therefore irrelevant to your current practice.

The confidence, tenacity and focus that you learn to develop through the practice of hot yoga, like other elements, all carry over into your daily life and this has a wide ranging impact on the mental resilience with which you will be able to meet life’s challenges outside the yoga room. It also serves as a brain-detox, where you give yourself permission to take a break from whatever may be consuming your attention in your life at present. These key skills, are central to the therapy that I offer clients to also help them develop greater mental strength and flexibility to face their own emotional struggles and life issues. For more on how to build greater mental resilience in your life today, you can contact Anoushka at anoushka@abehpsych.com.

References

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/get-hardy/201305/take-stand-yoga-today, D. Koshaba , Take a Stand for Yoga Today , May 2013,  for Psychology Today Online.

https://www.udemy.com/blog/bikram-yoga-benefits/, K. Mlkoulk, Bikram Yoga Benefits: How Hot Yoga Can Transform Your Body and Mind
June 21, 2013.

http://www.livestrong.com/article/383592-hot-yoga-benefits/, S. Barnes, Hot Yoga Benefits, Aug 2013. For LiveStrong Magazine Online.

http://yoganonymous.com/eight-benefits-of-hot-yoga/, Yoganonymous, The Eight Benefits of Hot Yoga.

http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/207739.php, Yoga’s Ability To Improve Mood And Lessen Anxiety Is Linked To Increased Levels Of A Critical Brain Chemical, Nov 2010.

Tedx Talk : M. Killingsworth, Want to be Happier? Stay in the Moment, Nov 2011. For Tedx Cambridge.

 

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