Friends, friends: it’s that time of year.
Every December folks roll into my yoga class ready to sweat out all the canapes and martinis they half-drunkenly inhaled the night before. Sometimes they’re wearing six layers of clothing in a 99-degree room so as to “detox” all the pinot and the feta and the gingerbread, armed with liters of coconut water and a couple of big towels for mopping up the evidence.
This always makes me a little bit sad.
I mean, I totally get it. I remember countless hazy, hungover twentysomething mornings spent rolling into Bikram classes feeling like I needed to do the same thing. Too many yoga practices that felt like atonement for the night (or the week) before.
A decade later, as a heated vinyasa teacher myself, I cringe to think that my class could ever be complicit in my students’ self-abasement.
So here I am to remind you: hot yoga is not a punishment.
You are not here to flog yourself for everything you consumed at last night’s holiday party. You’re not here to beat your body into submission. You’re not here to burn enough calories that you “can have” that extra beer tonight at happy hour.
You do not have to “detox” every bit of sugar you’ve eaten in the last month. Your body already has a great built-in system for that. It’s called your liver.
Get this: your body is your friend. Gulp, what? Yes, your friend. Your ally. Your buddy-for-life. Why not start celebrating it rather than shaming it?
Rather than making your yoga practice a participant in the kind of soul-sucking cycle wherein you eat and drink delicious things and then punish your body for eating them, how about you shift your mindset? Then, your yoga can become less a fitness regimen and more an opportunity to lovingly check in with your body and your mind in the midst of what is already often an intense time of year. An opportunity to get quiet. To listen a little more. To offer your body grace for getting up in the morning and getting dressed and trudging through ice and snow and staying healthy and awake and alive in some of the darkest, coldest days of the year.
Portland, Oregon-based studio owner (and former Olympic ice skater) Jamie Silverstein has written a powerful article about this. In “Cut the Fat Speak: An Open Letter to the Yoga Community and Message for the Holiday Season,” she writes:
“Every time we speak in terms that portray food, exercise, reward, even love (!) as part of an economy of exchange, we are latently affirming a message of, “You are not good enough as you are.” Every time we employ a rhetoric of action-consequence we effectively say, “You are not enough.” Simply, this is not yoga….
On a more personal note, as a recovered anorexic/bulimic and eating disorder (ED) recovery advocate, I feel that this language is not only maladaptive, but that it also reinforces a dangerous ideal. Both from my personal practices and my work in the ED recovery field, I’ve encountered how the negative conditioning an exercise-exchange economy adversely affects people. It is often tantamount to verbal abuse. This is ironic, because as yogis, we are committed to ahimsa.”
And living with ahimsa means creating less suffering, even for ourselves, right?
One of my favorite meditation teachings (I think it comes from Ethan Nichtern, but it might’ve been Susan Piver, too) is the notion that meditation is the process of making friends with ourselves. How beautiful is that? I know, I know; it sounds kind of cheesy at first. But when you really think about it, meditation (and yoga) are all about shifting the kind of negative self-talk that many of us are already pretty good at into a more compassionate, patient voice that greets ourselves as a beloved friend.
Here are a few tips for making friends with your body during a hot yoga class:
1. Use a witness-observer mind. Notice what you’re thinking, without getting stuck in it, or thinking it’s you. Your thoughts are just thoughts. They come and go. They’re not YOU. (This is pretty much the whole definition of yoga: learning to no longer identify with the fluctuations of your mind.) And once you figure that out, life is so much easier.
2. Remember that hunger is not your enemy. You don’t have to resist it, or avoid it, or chew 17 sticks of gum or drink 8 Diet Cokes a day to avoid actually eating anything. Hunger is actually a good thing. It reminds you to nourish yourself! Food can be a friend. Food can be celebration, and solidarity, and community, and holiday ritual. Food is here to fuel you, not punish or taunt or numb you. You don’t need to sweat it all away.
3. Treat yourself like a toddler. Picture your favorite 1-year-old learning how to walk. They fall on their cute little butts constantly, don’t they? They wipe out and belly flop and totally lose it all the time, and what do they do? They giggle, push themselves back up, and try again. Can you imagine if you spoke to a toddler the way you speak to yourself when you fall out of a tough balancing pose? (“Come on, dummy, you are a such a failure! You suck. You might as well just give up because this yoga thing is so not for you.”) Of course not, right? When they wipe out, you just smile and help them up and say, “Way to go, buddy! You’re doing great. Keep trying. You’re doing it!”
4. Three key words: Isn't that interesting? When you fall out of Pincha Mayurasana and CRASH, shaking the whole studio with your stunning wipe-out, notice it and smile and say to yourself, “Isn’t that interesting?” When your muffin top spills over the waistband of your yoga pants more than it did a month ago, rather than beating yourself up, notice it and say to yourself, “Isn’t that interesting?” This notion of “interesting” cuts the judgment: it’s not good, it’s not bad, it just is. It can shift everything in your day-to-day.
5. Be tender. ‘Nuff said. With yourself, with your body, with your practice, with one another. Silverstein adds, “If you are struggling with self-acceptance, as many of us do, let that be okay, too. Unfortunately much of our body-rhetoric and internal dialogue is harsh and prescriptive. Know you are not alone. Self-compassion cannot live in an antagonistic environment. The healing comes when we learn to acknowledge these voices without doing what they say.”
6. When you fall out of the pose, just get back in. No big deal. No drama. No judgment. Whether we’re talking about a pose, or a healthy lifestyle, or anything else you’re trying to make into a positive habit. You are not the worst yogi that ever was. You just fell out, and now you’re gonna get back in. Get lost, start over. As Pema Chodron says, “Feel the feeling. Drop the storyline.” And then move right along.
7. Let go of the idea that a hot yoga practice is a detox. I’m pretty ready to scrap that loaded “D” word already. Try to release the notion that your yoga practice is atonement for everything else you put into your body. It’s not here to wring out every “toxin.” It’s not here to sweat your “sins” out. It’s here to lovingly, patiently bring your body into balance, unraveling the knots, letting the prana (or life force) flow freely again.
8. Think of this practice as a celebration rather than a punishment. I’m ever-grateful to my longtime friend and student Stacy, who suggested this to me once when we were hiking in Point Reyes. She noted that when I teach I often respond to people’s pained faces (when they’re clearly being hard on themselves in a pose). And then she said, “Rachel, what about the opposite? What about the moments wherein you maneuver yourself into a new pose for the first time, and you’re bowled over with awe and excitement at the amazing things your body can do? Things you never thought it capable of doing? So much that you just want to cry from the wonder?” I love this. Try approaching your practice with a spirit of “Holy shit, this is amazing!” rather than “Dammit, I suck.” Everything changes.
9. Picture yourself as an eighty year old. If you’re lucky enough to live that long, you probably won’t be able to do any of this asana stuff. But you’ll still be trucking around this same old body, and you can choose to beat it up or love on it. Your call. I don’t know of anything that ever gets softer or kinder or more open from being beaten down, though. (At the risk of being a walking yoga cliche, let me quote Rumi, who said it best: “Be ground. Be crumbled, so wildflowers will come up where you are. You've been stony for too many years. Try something different. Surrender.”)
10. If you’re a teacher, commit to using body-positive languaging. Silverstein offers an inspiring pledge for teachers: “This season, I am committing to nourishment. I am committing to nourishment not just through physical food, but through language and action. I and my studio (The Grinning Yogi) promise to offer a message of acceptance and nourishment starting NOW. We are pledging the following:
- We will NOT teach from a voice rooted in an exchange economy of food, guilt, calories, indulgence, or anything related to not “being enough” as you are.
- We will create a safe-haven for our friends to feel empowered so they can take effective steps in promoting their own self-care and overall wellness.
- We will open a dialogue about what real nourishment is.
- We will remind our friends that food is food, love is love, and yoga… yoga is a GIFT!”
I am proud to commit to this pledge, and to make my hot yoga classes a sanctuary and a refuge from body-shaming. So come on in. Bring your perfectly-original body along. Share the love. You’re all welcome here.
Rachel Meyer is a Boston-based writer and yoga teacher. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, On Being, Yoga Journal, Tricycle, Yoga International, HuffPost, and more. You can find her at www.rachelmeyeryoga.com or @rachelmeyeryoga.
An earlier version of this article first appeared on Yoga Trade.