Hot Yoga – The Key to Understanding the Self?


Yesterday, I went to a Bikram Yoga class, which is a 90-minute yoga session conducted in a 104 degree room. I didn’t intend to go to Bikram yoga during my Hinduism month. I would have preferred to go to a regular yoga class, however, this particularly yoga studio had the best Groupon. Being the cost conscious guy that I am, I decided to sweat it out in the name of savings.

I arrived at the studio, signed in, and walked into the super hot and humid yoga room. I set up my borrowed yoga mat and towel and laid down to acclimate to the heat.

At first, it didn’t seem so bad. I felt like I was traveling in Thailand again, but with a bunch of smelly sweaty people.

Then the class started.

The instructor, who was nearly naked, started us off with a few breathing exercises, which were fine.

Then the pain began.

Now, I am probably the least flexible person ever. Over the years I have managed to maintain some sort of fitness routine, but this routine rarely included stretching. As a result, I have problems like not being able to comfortably sit cross-legged on the floor. I am definitely in trouble the next time I go to Japan.

Bikram Yoga is a series of 26 postures which are derived from traditional Hatha Yoga. The goal of Hatha Yoga is to prepare its practitioners for meditation. By strengthening the body, you will be able to sit in the correct meditation for extended periods of time. By focusing on the physical postures, or asanas, you will learn to develop one-pointed concentration is a crucial component to meditation.

I was clearly unprepared for meditation as I botched every single one of those postures. I think the only thing I did correctly was drinking water at the break. Actually never mind, I spilled water all over myself.

I won’t go into the specific ways I was terrible, but lets just say that my Eagle Pose and Triangle Pose looked nothing like an eagle or a triangle.

The class did teach me two things about myself though.

I don’t know much about the body

The only times I really pay attention to my body is a) when my pants have somehow gotten tighter and I have to move up a belt notch and b) when there is something wrong with it (pain, sickness, etc.).

I noticed both those thing in class yesterday. The mirrors indicated that yes, I do need to lose a few pounds. The pain I felt doing all the poses brought my inflexibility to the forefront of my mind.

But as I went through the 90-minute class, I noticed that there were many muscles and joints and bones in my body that I never paid attention to, or noticed. When trying to balance on one leg, your perception of your leg becomes much more refined. There is pain in the foot, pain just below the knee, pain right below your butt cheek, etc. When your arms stretched in front of you, you notice the sensation in your shoulders, but also in your fingers.

Yoga was able to increase awareness of my entire body through pain, which sounds terrible, but is actually quite enlightening. It makes you realize how little you pay attention to your body, which you use everyday!

This makes me wonder what else I’m ignorant about…

The body controls the (untrained) mind

We know from science that the body, when in distress, sends signals to the brain that are interpreted as pain. When we accidentally touch a hot stove, a nerve in your hand sends a message to the brain. The brain receives this message and coordinates an emergency response (pain) which tells you to get your hand off the stove.

This instinctive pain response is a critical evolutionary trait that has helped humans (and animals) survive.

In class, my brain was sending me all sorts of messages. The room is too hot, I need to cool down. My shoulders hurt, I should lower my arms. My knees hurt, I need to stop sitting on them.

There is no gap between the sensation of pain and the recommended course of action that my mind wants the body to adapt. The sequence is uncomfortable yoga posture -> pain -> do something to end pain.

As the mind grows stronger, it can force the body to endure pain for longer than it wants to. It will accept pain as a necessary condition for improvement.

Through yoga, I was made more aware of how easily the mind takes cues from the body, our sensory perceptions.

Outside of yoga class, how often are our actions dictated by sensory perceptions, by external experiences? If we train our mind, can we sever the instinctual link between a negative experience and our impulse to get away from the negative experience? Can we get to the point where “negative” experiences just become experiences, with neither good nor bad qualities?

Implications on understanding the Self

We live in a culture where we believe we can understand ourselves through personality tests. I admit that I am a fan of the Myers-Briggs personality assessment. It seems fairly accurate for me.

Modern personality tests work because they assess how people react to external situations. Do parties exhaust you? You’re probably an introvert. When confronted with a new and unfamiliar situations, are you excited or worried? If you’re excited, you measure high on “Openness to new experiences,” if you’re worried, you’re low on that trait. Psychologists have grouped common reactions to experiences into traits, and then group these traits into personality types or temperaments.

Defining yourself by the sum of your reactions to external situations seems a bit superficial. I learned in yoga that my mind will try to get me to leave a hot room or to stop a stretch simply because it is painful. Does this define me as a person, this evolutionary trait of pain avoidance?

Perhaps we need to go deeper than a simple personality test. Maybe we need to understand how our minds and bodies really work, and understand that we are more than just a series of instinctual reactions to sensory perceptions.

If we can attain this understanding, how would we live out lives? Would we bothered by other’s people’s actions? Would our material aspirations cease to exist? Would we treat others better?

The Gita says this about people understand the true self:

They live in wisdom who see themselves in all and all in them, who have renounced every selfish desire and sense craving tormenting the heart. Neither agitated by grief nor hankering after pleasure, they live free from lust and fear and anger. Established in meditation, they are truly wise. Fettered no more by selfish attachments, they are neither elated by good fortune nor depressed by bad. Such are the seers…

They are forever free who renounce all selfish desires and break away from the ego-cage of “I,”“me,” and “mine” to be united with the Lord. This is the supreme state. Attain to this, and pass from death to immortality.

Detached and immortal….this sounds good to me.

Myers-Briggs never promised detachment and immortality by taking their personality test. The Gita does.

Which would you choose?