How I Survived Cold Yoga

by Eena

Thermals or fleece jacket? Or both? Though a yogini, I am hardly immune to the cold.

An easy way to get my sweat on in the cold summer of Europe (16ºC/61ºF is cold where I’m from, and where I’m from they think I’m pretty alien) would have been to step onto the mat doubly clothed. What an unpleasant change from the half-nakedness of yoga practice in the Philippines (27ºC/81ºF and above).

If nothing else, my clothes will at least cushion my fall.
(Photo courtesy of Awareness Warrior)

Pranayama was another option, but I wanted to move, move, move.  (hello, pitta here speaking)

I took the third option of a desperate pre-yoga jog at dawn to warm up. After three kilometers on the track, I felt ready for Ashtanga. I was wrong. Ten minutes later, I could barely straighten my legs in padangusthasana. My hamstrings had tightened from jogging. I mentally slapped myself for my brilliant foresight.

Following this experience, I decided to experiment and give cold Mysore practice a try the next morning. Not for the first time (another mental slap here) I was rewarded with lower back muscle pain from lumbar hyperflexion (rounding at the lower back). Luckily I knew exactly how to relieve the pain: counter with lumbar extension a.k.a. backbends (In case of acute injury, do not attempt this on your own; consult your doctor) then proceed to the finishing poses.

Lester, a fellow Ashtangi, once told me that an early morning practice is an honest practice. I could only grumble in response to that. Grumbling is pretty much all I’d do if I had to wake up earlier than 6am.

…everybody who has worked through a couple of winters with only moderate heating values the gain in refinement that it brings.

Gregor Maehle, Ashtanga Yoga: Practice & Philosophy

Hopefully I’ll never have to do yoga in such conditions soon.  But I admit, even the short stay in Europe had awakened in me a deeper awareness of my body.

In order to arrive in a pose at the same point in a cold room, I had to make sensitive adjustments without losing the balance between flexibility and strength. One without the other risks injury through lack of range of motion or stability. I speak from experience as a gymnast in my youth and as an overeager yoga practitioner (still in my youth :)).

Here are some possible adjustments to vinyasa-based yoga in a cold environment:
(Note that these may or may not work for you; every body is different)

  • Additional sun salutations (from the heart, really mean it)
  • Deeper, slower ujjayi breathwork, maybe even additional 3-5 breaths in the relevant postures
  • Emphasis on self-resistance or counteracting muscle expansion by resisting or pulling in the opposite direction, with or without binding
  • No skipping the vinyasa between sides (are you guilty of this too?)
  • No cheating in the low push-up or chaturanga dandasana90º elbows, no less! (note: sufficient core strength is prerequisite)

Most importantly, I included humility to my mix of personal adjustments. I swallowed a spoonful of pride with every step backward I had to take. Without condescension and only with chagrin, I say monitor the challenging edge closely. For others this is a gaping hole, but for my pitta nature the edge is usually a sneaky rut in the road.

Practicing in extreme heat or extreme cold increases the risk of injury when one has an obsessive need to arrive at a “perfect” picture of the pose. What many don’t realize is that one’s edge is in a different place every day, even when they practice at the same time and place. The mindset may have changed, temperament adjusted, diet slightly modified, body grown a little older, etc.

No two practices are the same. It is for this reason that the yogi practices mindfulness in any pose, even if the pose is just a “simple” warrior or triangle (which, by the way, are more complex than they look).  I like what Jessica Wilson says about a conscious practice, heated room or no.

One important concept I’ve learned through yoga is moderation. Stay away from extremes or dualities (hot vs. cold, thin vs. fat, what was vs. what should have been). Abide in the center.

Our journey in yoga may seem imperfect but there is no joy in focusing on a perfect future when we can never truly predict the weather.

Let’s be present where we are.

See you on the mat!