I keep receiving questions regarding whether it’s important or good to heat the yoga shala and whether this aids in detoxing. I also hear people reasoning that the shala should be heated to emulate the heat of the gangetic plains in India, which is supposed to be the native environment of yogis. Now during the 1980 and 90’s I travelled extensively through the gangetic plains but I must say that I found them surprisingly bereft of yogis. On the other hand if you went up into the freezing Himalayas you found that the yogis were stacked up to the rafters. Surprising, isn’t it!
Do you remember that even Krishnamacharya went up into the Himalayas to practice tummo, yoga of inner fire, while sitting on the ice? You can’t practice that down in the gangetic plains.
Nowadays Western yogis are really emphatic about keeping the windows of the yoga shala closed. I remember that neither KP Jois old shala in Lakshmipuram nor the Parakala Matt in Mysore (where T Krishnamacharya taught) ever had any windows. And I remember that during January at 4.30 AM I always froze in those drafty windowless rooms. And nobody offered to turn on any heaters because there weren’t any!
Now of course in many places in which today people practice yoga (such as North America or middle and Northern Europe) the temperatures drop much lower than in Southern India in winter. In these cases it makes sense to heat the room to room temperature, say around 20 to 23°C (68 to 74 °F). Everything above that would mean that if you practice vigorously, the bodies cooling mechanism (sweating) would fail, which can be noticed when the sweat starts to run off and forms puddles. People who practice in such a fashion usually age prematurely and if you look at them 10 years later they have a washed out and drained look to themselves because of all the prana they lost, by practicing too vigorously under too hot conditions.
Notice that the yogis were very concerned about loosing tejas (inner glow) and one of the ways of preventing that is to rub the sweat produced during pranayama back into the skin. This is a technique, however, that should only be used in the context of pranayama and not during asana, during which excessive sweating should be avoided. Hence, do not heat the room too much and if it’s warm outside keep the windows open. Many yogic texts (shastras) state that the shala should be well aired.
Another idea conveyed in the yogic scriptures is that one ignites ones agni (inner fire, notice the similarity between the English ‘ignite’ and the Sanskrit ‘agni’) to destroy the impurities and thus purify body, prana and mind. The idea that these impurities (ashuddhi) are something that you have ingested and need to sweat out is too simplistic. If you look into Patanjali the ashuddhi (impurities) are karma (past actions whose effects are lingering on), klesha (modes of suffering), vasana (conditioning) and samskara (subconscious imprint). These manifest, for example, as the obstacles to yoga (sutra I.30) but they come with a physical, pranic and mental component (sutra I.31).
Rather than simply sweating, the raising of agni is a process that engulfs the whole being of the yogi, that is body (through asana), breath (through pranayama) and mind (through meditation). Of course a vigorous asana practice is an important part of this process but so is diet (to prevent that agni is converted backwards into metabolic fire, i.e. pitta), pranayamas such as Bhastrika and kriyas such as Nauli and Kapalabhati. There is of course much more to this process than can be covered in a short post. For those interested you will find more info in my books on pranayama and yogic meditation but let me mention here one baffling fact: What the medieval Hatha Yogis called the raising of agni (fire), in Patanjali’s sutra is called the conversion of mind into intelligence. It’s the same process only on the physical layer it can be experienced as fire whereas in the mind it surfaces as the ignition of buddhi or intelligence.
The important fact that I want to convey here is that there’s more to raising agni than turning on the heater. If simply simply working out in the heat raised agni, every construction or landscaping worker wielding a jackhammer in the Australian mid-day heat would be as purified as a mountain spring! But that’s not how it works. I’ve done plenty of jackhammering in the mid-day heat and it didn’t purify me. Take my word for it!
But there’s another thought that concerns me when I’m thinking about all these yoga shalas that are heated to the max just to eke out that extra little bit of flexibility or sweat (which also could be eked out by working with more focus and refinement): A few years back I heard there were now about 50 million people in the world practicing one or another of these modern forms of asana. Imagine the amount of green house emissions we could save if all of us would heat up the yoga room just a few degrees less?
I don’t know how many of us yogis have noticed that a few months back NASA has finally confirmed that the West Antarctic ice sheath has torn itself loose and is now slipping into the ocean with no power on Earth being able to stop that process. It’ll be a mighty splash when it hits the ocean and this sheath alone will raise global ocean levels by 5 meters (in the US as far inland as Washington DC). 80% of the world’s population will be displaced with a lot of arable land and fresh water supplies being lost. The question now being discussed is not whether this event will happen (it will!) but how long it will take? And this sheath makes up only about 15% of the Antarctic shelf ice.
As a global yogic community, do we want to contribute to that? Can’t we just work a bit more intensely and intelligently in our practice and wear a little more clothing?
We‘ve had a lot of well-meaning yoga challenges recently so here’s another one: Heat your shala 5 degrees less to reduce your green house emissions-challenge.