Heat Up, Calm Down

In hot-yoga classes, students learn to strengthen their bodies and relax thier minds

March 03, 2007|By Tim Swift | Tim Swift,SUN REPORTER

There are bodies inches to the left and the right, the temperature is climbing, and the sweat is starting to pour down. Nearby, candles flicker, and a rhythmic beat pulses throughout the small studio.

Carey Nagoda sucks in a deep breath and plunges into another set of stretches and poses. It's late on a Sunday afternoon, and this how she unwinds from her weekend.

For the past year, Nagoda has been making an almost weekly ritual of a hot-yoga class at Charm City studio in Mount Vernon. An avid dancer, she sought out the class to build strength and tone her muscles, but soon found it also soothed her mind.

"It really de-stresses me for the workweek," says Nagoda, a 29-year-old engineer from Mount Washington. "When I wake up, the relaxation carries over into Monday morning. It's more of a shock going into the office without it."

In the class, the studio is heated to about 100 degrees as an instructor leads students through a series of poses and stretches with names like downward dog and pigeon. Similar to the effects of a sauna, the class improves flexibility and relaxes stiff muscles.

Some studios even increase humidity in the rooms to 30 percent to 40 percent, especially during dry winter months.

"The ambience is amazing," Nagoda says of the Charm City Yoga studio. "[The heat] actually helps you focus more and you forget everything around you. ... You go into yourself."

In a world of technological multitasking, the hot-yoga setting demands a student's complete attention, says Sarah Ittmann, owner of Bikram Yoga in Hampden.

"You really have to concentrate on what you're doing or you won't be able to do it," Ittmann says. "If you're thinking about your shopping list, you're going to fall over."

With students' attention diverted to their bodies and the teacher's instructions, Ittmann says, the yoga practice creates "a refuge from the thoughts whirling through our brains."

"It does create a longer capacity for concentration," says Kim Manfredi, owner of Charm City Yoga. "This capacity makes people more centered and not so shattered in their week, creating a sense of well-being."

Bikram Choudhury, an Indian yoga teacher and businessman, popularized the practice of hot yoga on the West Coast in the early 1970s. It has slowly become common in many parts of the country. Choudhury's version not only involves a heated room - set at 105 degrees - but also a standardized series of 26 poses done in 90 minutes.

"Bikram is always hot. But hot yoga isn't always Bikram," Ittman says.

Charm City Yoga studio's signature style is called "Hot Vinyasa Flow." While the temperature is set slightly lower, the pace is faster, providing more of a cardiovascular workout. The class runs about 90 minutes.

Skill levels vary, but, Ittmann says, students don't need an enormous amount of agility to take part in the class or prior experience with a regular yoga class. "People who aren't coordinated enough for step aerobics can do this," she says.

"I see people begin without a huge history of athleticism. And they keep coming back and transform themselves," she says, adding that yoga practice tones body parts that are hard to address with traditional gym exercise.

But hot yoga may not be for everyone, Kerry Stewart, a professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University, cautions. People with heart conditions, the elderly and young children should avoid prolonged exposure to high temperatures, he says.

"The heat can cause the heart to work much harder than it should," he says, adding that a healthy adult should be no worse for the wear by taking a weekly class.

As with other new exercise routines, check with your doctor before starting.

Ittman and Manfredi also recommend staying well-hydrated and practicing on an empty stomach. Students are encouraged to bring a water bottle to put next to their mat.

The key is to not get frustrated, and do what you can, Manfredi says. "We call it diving into the mystery."

"It's a very welcoming atmosphere," Nagoda says. "The teacher always stresses it's not a contest."

After an average class, Nagoda is drenched but relaxed as the lights go down and the music shifts from upbeat to serene and soothing. Her water bottle is almost empty, and she'll definitely need a shower, but she doesn't mind.

"It feels so good to sweat everything out." she says.



Do I need a mat?

Many yoga classes rent mats, but most students buy their own. Mats come in a variety of colors and styles and are available in most sporting goods stores and discount chains. They can even be found in Whole Foods and Barnes & Noble. The cost is usually $15 to $20.

A yoga mat should be fairly thin so as not to hinder you during postures that require balance; some teachers also recommend a slight texture for a better toe grip.

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