Thought Lessons from Hot Yoga

Blog #9, Sunday Feb 21, 2021

As the crank noisily pulls you up the first roller coaster hill, the exploding little sparks in your gut jump onto an exponential curve, multiplying out of nowhere like drosophila, and you think your brain might be next in the line of explosions.

Even though you know the crank is noisy on purpose, even though you know it's designed to clack - clack - clack in just such a way that it heightens the anxiety and fear and excitement you already feel, even though you KNOW it, it STILL succeeds. You clamp your jaws, grip the bar, squeeze your eyeballs in, grasp for comfort in the tiny space of knowing you can either relent or resist, but either way, the out-of-control part is about to start, and…


Sometimes the ride down exhilarates you to your core, and you embrace the approach of the next hill, tantalized by the newly discovered breadth of your physical and psychological possibilities.

And sometimes it thrusts you so violently into dark and humid swamps that you don’t even have time to cry out before the briny muck fills your windpipe, and even as you choke, you know you must also find the strength to look over both shoulders for predators and somehow shield yourself against venomous, biting insects.

What the hell?

What’s the culprit here? Same roller coaster. Different results. How can the same dissent yield such different experiences?

The culprit is the thing between the fact of your roller coaster ride and the feeling you experience while you’re on it. And that thing is the thought you have about it in the moment that it’s happening. Think of all the thoughts you might be having as you assent:

Oh crap, this is gonna suck. - versus - O.M.G. this is soooo exciting! Or Ooooo weeee, HERE WE GO! - versus - Ack! I can’t stand feeling this out of control!

If I haven’t mentioned it already, I am a Pure Hot Yoga evangelist. By “Pure,” I mean, Bikram (all the nasty Guru-predator things associated with the namesake aside): bright lights, eyes open, 105 degrees Fahrenheit, 40% humidity, 26 strict poses, always in the same sequence, no leaving the room.

It sounds pretty bad. Some people say militant. They say adding the word “yoga” to “Bikram” makes the name an oxymoron. But this roller coaster analogy --I have learned how to master it in hot yoga, ESPECIALLY during COVID when we have to wear sweat-saturated masks that suck inward with every desperate gasp for air. (You gotta CALM that desperation with your MIND. I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me…!).

And here’s the thing: the skill is transferable.

Remember the “story mountain” plot diagram from when your kids were in elementary school? Maybe you don’t because they called it something else or because your kids were in elementary school in the 70s, before school teachers tried to teach plot analysis. It doesn’t matter. I’m a former English teacher, so it’s always at the ready as a useful tool in my head.

The “story mountain” is a way of simplifying, and making accessible, the structure of a story: there’s the setting and character introduction, then there’s the conflict, the rising action, the climax or turning point, the falling action, and finally the resolution (some teachers used the French “denouement,” --remember?!). Okay. So that’s the “story mountain.”

Now, let’s diagram Pure Hot Yoga with a story mountain: You are both the protagonist and the antagonist. (See? Interesting already, right?). The setting is a wish-it-were-no-so brightly lit, hotter-than-hell room with mirrors at the front and barely dressed strangers of every description in every direction, all around you. The conflict is a single, pulsating struggle between you and your thoughts. This drives the rising action, a battle between a primal certainty that you will die and a cultivated certainty that you won’t. Naturally, the falling action is your experience of completing each successive pose, sometimes with an awareness of infinitesimal progress, others with a triumphant sense of comprehension. And finally, the resolution: the evolution of…

  1. The trust you place in your prefrontal cortex, the mind that subscribes to “short-term loss; long-term gain”.

  2. The awe you have for (rather than judgment of) your physical design; the design that includes your diaphragm, which automatically OR intentionally pulls downward to draw air into your lungs; which in turn process that air and pass oxygen into your bloodstream; which then, with the help of your pumping heart, brings that oxygen, along with nutrients and chemical messages to your brain and muscles; which pull on your bones at your command and power the very movements you strove to master in Hot Yoga.

  3. The decisions you make to transfer this process to other challenges in your life --to your own personal roller coaster.

All that is to say this: my roller coaster took a deep dip this week, down from last week’s lovey-dovey perch and the week before its boss-ass scheduling successes. I went diving straight down into the murky swamp, new grief around my dad’s death, a cold, inescapable shroud. Pain and irritability and withered joy innervated me like fatty liver disease, like liquid wax in a loofa, and I became mired in mental muck. My planning success evaporated. Loving on my husband thinned to a single waxy thread of dental floss. Business-building got decapitated.

But I was able to keep my eyes open, like I do in Hot Yoga, where students are explicitly asked to face themselves in the mirror. And what didn’t happen was the violence of self-judgment.

But I was able to keep my eyes open, like I do in Hot Yoga, where students are explicitly asked to face themselves in the mirror. And what didn’t happen was the violence of self-judgment.

But most importantly, I know that the thoughts I choose in between the fact of the ups and downs and my experience of them will determine how I feel.

HOW YOU FEEL IS IN YOUR HANDS. Sometimes things just suck for no reason, and you don’t feel like feeling happy, so you CHOOSE to indulge in negative thoughts --poor me thoughts. Perfect! And sometimes things are seriously bad, and you want to feel sad, like when your dad dies; or uneasy, like when there’s a global pandemic; or unnerved, like when an angry mob storms the white house; or outraged, like when your people - people of color - get murdered by police; or dislocated, like when someone backs into your car...but it’s YOUR CHOICE. What to think about each of those things is YOUR CHOICE. And that makes me US our own free agents. For better or worse. Isn’t that amazing?

So let's roll, high ballers. $100K is nowhere in sight, y’all, but I am not thinking it never will be. I’m thinking I’m so glad I was able to make space to grieve; I’m thinking I’m so grateful for my family that lovingly accommodated my unpleasantries; I’m thinking I’m proud of my gains; I’m thinking I can’t wait to see how I figure out Facebook Groups and better streaming platforms… I’m thinking I’m rich already, in all these ways and so many more. Rich already.

What are you thinking today, free agent?

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