Saturday, 14 January 2012

Steamy sessions with a French baker

I didn´t quite realise what I´d let myself in for when I paid for a 25-day membership of a yoga studio in Clapham. Though well aware that the studio only offers classes of Hot Yoga (yoga practiced at a steamy 38°C), being hypersensitive to the cold, I found the prospect of some sub-tropical heat – even if it was to be artificial – fairly alluring. Similarly, given my back-catalogue of disastrous yoga classes (ranging from hours of meditative chanting to impossible acrobatics), I reasoned that it couldn´t be worse than previous experiences. However, I started to feel dubious as soon as the teacher entered on the first class of my 25-day stint. A squat Frenchman, his physique can only be described as slack: a soft, squashy torso with podgy bulges rounding over the elastic band of his very-short shorts. Though as the class progressed I warmed to his softly accented instructions, because he was unable to demonstrate lots of the positions I remained suspicious of his coaching abilities. My doubts were confirmed when I later discovered that this supposed yoga guru is also a professional pastry chef – a somewhat ironic dual identity.

Even if you put the French baker to one side, the actual yoga – consisting of short, basic sequences loosely linked to your breathing - wasn’t that challenging. Though by the end my body was pulsating, this was due to heat exhaustion rather than muscle weariness (I suppose an inevitable side-effect of a temperature gage that is pushing 40˚C). At one point, I was sweating so much I thought I was actually melting. It is certainly a purifying, cleansing experience, and far more effective than a sauna and a face pack. Similarly, for those who are particularly tight, yoga in a muscle-loosening 38˚C must be ideal for a bit of added elasticity. However, for those who are already fairly bendy, it seems a bit pointless. It even felt slightly sordid at times: lots of half-naked bodies packed like sardines into a small space, sweating profusely in a series of grunts and lunges. Within half an hour, your mat is flecked with splashes of your neighbour’s sweat, a periodic spray that continues throughout the class and which, when upside down in a Downward Dog, you are powerless to prevent. Furthermore, after an hour, even deep breathing - elemental in yoga - becomes increasingly unappetizing as sticky aromas start to overpower the incense. In fact, the inevitable pong seems to vary in pungency depending on the person next to you (and whether or not they are sweating out last night’s curry). In the most recent class I went to, I was squashed so uncomfortably close to the man next to me (alcohol sweats if I’m not mistaken) that I repeatedly hit him on the bum every time I did a forward bend… I snuck out of that one early.

I still (regrettably) have 15 days left of free classes, and so I’m not going to completely reject Hot Yoga.With the London Marathon looming ahead of me, the growing pressure to clock up some mileage and a body that feels particularly wobbly and brittle, I have resigned myself to some intensive yoga in a bid to build up a bit of strength. However, I can’t help but question if it is ever good for you to perspire that much: there is a reason why there are time restrictions on saunas and steam rooms. Ideally I would prefer to work up a sweat from challenging, muscle-shaking yoga sequences instead of radiators and dumbed-down imitations. Similarly, if paying through the nose for a class, I expect to hear hard-earned yoga wisdom from some spiritual quasi-Buddhist who has spent half their life in India… not a pastry-chef.

Back in the day when I still had an NUS card, I frequented the £1.20 yoga class at the Student Union in Cardiff. A blonde-haired, blue-eyed Scandinavian called Yulia – criminally bendy with the appearance of never having ingested a single toxin – led a demanding Ashtanga class that left your muscles throbbing and your limbs heavy. It certainly felt more organic. Then again, maybe I’m just a yoga snob... A fellow yoga-goon recently joked that if you put a bench press in a steam room and marketed it in the right way, you could charge £15 for a half-hour session - a prediction I can easily believe. Could Hot Yoga just be a fad? Another fitness craze with a little bit more staying power than most? A trend designed for those simply too lazy to work up a sweat on their own?

I’m yet to decide…

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