About a year and a half ago, I had a bit of a midlife crisis. After years of staring at a computer screen for 12 hours a day, I was overweight, inflexible, and stressed out. My lower back, which has been a problem for me ever since college, was in low-level pain more or less all the time, with occasional weeklong bouts of sharp agony. My mind was buzzy and distracted. And just as a final insult, I developed a case of plantar fasciitis. I mean, c’mon. I felt old and decrepit. At 40!
So I decided to do something about it. I took a year off work (a sabbatical you can read about in a story I did for Outside magazine) devoted, in part, to getting healthier. That involved eating better, getting outside more, spending more time with my kids, and staring at screens less, all of which were pretty easy and immediately rewarding.
But getting healthier also requires regular exercise, which is a problem, because I really don’t like exercising. Running? Hate it with the fire of a thousand suns. Going to the gym? An existential despair generator. CrossFit? Lord save me from fist-bumping fitness enthusiasts.
So what to do? I decided, pretty much at random, to try hot yoga.
Since then, barring occasional breaks for travel, I’ve done hot yoga two to four times a week. In the interim, I’ve lost 30 pounds, from an all-time high of 210 to a not-since-high-school low of 180. My lifelong back pain has all but disappeared, as has the plantar fasciitis. While I don’t exactly have six-pack abs (my son Huck, squinting at my belly: “Eh, maybe a two-pack”), my muscle tone and definition are vastly improved. And I have a newfound mental focus and emotional equanimity. In short: hot yoga has been great for me.
But why, exactly? What about it has made this veteran exercise hater into a regular exerciser? That’s what I want to explore here.
Now, yoga generally, and hot yoga specifically, has come in for a lot of skepticism lately — see here and here for good examples — so let me be very clear: hot yoga is not for everyone. Everyone has different needs, different bodies, and different proclivities, and will benefit from different things.
And like any form of exercise, hot yoga comes with risks as well as rewards. The standard form of hot yoga — Bikram yoga, which is what I do — involves spending 90 minutes in a room heated to 105 degrees, at 40 percent humidity. Consumer Reports calls dehydration and heat stroke “hidden dangers” of Bikram yoga, but if the connection between sustained, intense heat and dehydration is “hidden” from you, you should probably be taking remedial physiology courses before doing any exercise at all. Continue reading >>