How I learned to breathe in the hot room

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Low lunge with Moksha instructor Cyndie

If you look up Type A personality in the dictionary, there’s a good chance you’ll find my picture. I’m a perfectionist, a catastrophist and an overachiever. I generally sleep like shit because the wheels in my head are always turning. I have a terrible time relaxing. I feel stressed, a lot, and I’m always rushing. Lisa is forever telling me to slow down because it’s not unusual that we’ll be walking down the street together and I’m half a block ahead of her. I just don’t do slow or relaxed. Fast paced and constant motion are more my thing.

Add a little adrenaline and excitement seeking (and a healthy dose of anxiety) to the mix and I’m essentially Bugs Bunny’s Tasmanian Devil, whirling through life in a miniature tornado.

That’s how I exercise too. I like to flip tractor tires, wield a sledgehammer and jump on boxes. I love to run and crave the endorphins that kick in after an intense spinning class. I actually like to be sore the day after a workout, to know that I pushed my muscles to their very limits. But I’m hard on myself too. I’m disappointed if I feel like I haven’t worked hard enough – if I can’t do as many push-ups or pull-ups as I did the week before, if my 5k time is less than I thought it should be. I compete with myself, constantly striving to be better, faster, stronger.

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Mid box jump burpee

So when a friend suggested I give hot yoga a shot a few years ago, I laughed. Yoga seemed to be the antithesis of everything I need in a workout – speed, strength and endorphins. I’d never actually taken a class, but I envisioned a lot of mantras and chanting, poses that would require acrobatic flexibility, and little actual exercise.

I thought a yoga class might push a Type A girl like me over the edge with the quiet and the slow pace.

Hot yoga seemed particularly insane. I’m one of those people who starts to sweat when I walk into the gym, so how could I endure an hour in a room heated to 37 degrees?

But then Moksha Yoga opened up near me and offered a free trial. I bit the bullet, dragged a couple of girlfriends and off we went. I felt a bit panicked when I walked into the studio. The room was hot. And humid. And packed with people. I couldn’t imagine being in there for the next five minutes, let alone a full hour. As I lay on my mat, waiting for the class to start, I planned my escape route.

And then something really weird happened. As the teacher guided us through the poses, the heat started to feel really good.

With my muscles warm, I was able to stretch and settle into postures with greater flexibility and ease than I’d ever anticipated. I felt like I was getting a great workout – and I’d never sweat so much in my entire life. When we finally got to the last pose in the class, corpse pose (where you lie flat on your back, legs and arms extended), I felt totally relaxed and beautifully spent. As I walked out of the studio, completely drenched, I felt the familiar tingle of endorphins coursing through my system. I couldn’t wait to go back.

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Warrior II with Cyndie and Sari

That was in June 2011. Two hundred hours of yoga later, I can’t imagine my life without it. From a physical perspective, it’s an amazing complement to the hard core bootcamp, running, spinning, racing craziness that I subject my body to. My muscles are generally overworked and overused, and hot yoga helps soothe all that tension. My core has never been stronger, my once terrible balance has made a complete 180, I’m more flexible than I’ve ever been, and my posture’s lovely because I’m constantly thinking about sliding my shoulders down my back. And contrary to popular belief, yoga’s an actual workout. Holding poses like Warrior 2,  Dancer’s and Chaturanga engage muscles you didn’t even know you had. And vinyasas, which feature a continuous series of poses, can definitely be a cardio challenge.

Most importantly, though, yoga forces me to slow down and breathe.

As one of my favourite teachers pointed out the other day, yoga is mostly a practice of breath. Connecting breath to movement and being reminded to inhale and exhale helps my body relax. I am always running, rushing, racing in my life. For the one hour I’m on my mat, I settle down, even if I’m working hard. Deep breathing calms my mind and my body – which is no easy feat for a manic girl like me.

I’ve written about my challenges with anxiety and depression and how exercise is essential to maintaining my mental health. To say that yoga is a huge part of that for me would be an understatement. There’s tons of evidence supporting the fact that yoga lowers your heart rate and blood pressure, which in turn reduces the body’s stress response.

But more than that, yoga is mindfulness. The teachers often call out cues to pay attention to the sensations in IMG_4455your body. That focus becomes a kind of meditation; an awareness and observation of how you’re feeling. And sometimes, I embrace those feelings and let them achieve their full expression.

It’s not unusual for me to cry at the end of a yoga class. It’s cathartic – a beautiful release of emotions that I often keep pent up.

Each and every time I walk out of a yoga class, I feel like I’ve done something really great for my mind and body. It’s a gift to myself, really. And how often are we good to ourselves in the crazy of our daily lives?

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