yoga off the path


Many people practicing within the Western yoga tradition (and perhaps as many who are not) share a belief that ‘hatha yoga’ is part of an ancient spiritual tradition. It is not. The title of this blog post refers to the fact that I don’t consider my yoga practice to be in accordance with this belief nor even explicitly spiritual. I say, “explicitly” because I also believe there is nothing we do, nor any part of who we are, that is not inherently a reflection of our spiritual existence. This is partly why I refer to myself as a non-practicing atheist.

Contemporary hatha yoga is a worldwide phenomenon that originated in the early 20th century as a synthesis of Western physical exercise regimes and traditional Indian hatha yoga which was a meditation-based spiritual practice. Elizabeth De Michelis, in A History of Modern Yoga, dates the emergence of Modern Yoga with the publication of Vivikenanda’s Raja Yoga in 1896.

It was around this same time that an international physical culture movement was taking shape whose early 20th century influences include Scandinavian gymnastics, body-building as exemplified by Eugene Sandow, the Indian YMCA and even something known as “harmonial gymnastics” which was largely practiced by women (making it not surprising that women practitioners have dominated yoga as we know it, although that’s changing).

The next time you hear a hatha yoga instructor refer to Standing Bow Pulling Pose, or any other non-lotus posture, as something that has been practiced for “hundreds of years,” buy them a copy of Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice.

Mea culpa. I was as ignorant as anyone about this in my early years of teaching yoga. Most yoga teacher trainings include little to no information about the history and tradition of Indian yoga. If there is any attention paid to the philosophy of yoga it is typically misplaced on Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras, a compilation of yoga aphorisms that include only 2 or 3 references to asana practice. I’m inquisitive by nature and grateful for having discovered Singleton’s book which introduced me to the fascinating and recent history of contemporary hatha yoga.

…consider the term yoga as it refers to the modern postural practice as a homonym, and not a synonym of the “yoga” associated with the philosophical system of Pantañjali, or the “yoga” that forms an integral component of the Śaiva Tantras, or the “yoga” of the Bhagavad Gītā, and so on. In other words, although the word “yoga” as it is used popularly today is identical in spelling and pronunciation in each of these instances, it has quite different meanings and origins. It is, in short, a homonym, and it should therefore not be assumed that it refers to the same body of beliefs and practices as those other homonymous terms.

Mark Singleton in Yoga Body

The yoga I practice and teach has it’s roots in physical culture which was directed at people from all walks of life and is related to what was sometimes referred to as “householder” practice. I think of it as mindful exercise with the goal of creating healthy habits and cultivating self awareness in order to live a more intentional and meaningful life. Traditional Indian yoga was practiced by ascetics and monks. Physical culture gave birth to what Singleton calls “transnational anglophone yoga” but I didn’t think that would work well as a ttitle. Yoga off the Path basically means “yoga for the rest of us.”

Another topic I write about is recovery from male childhood sexual abuse. In the more esoteric yoga teachings, it is said that we practice (meditate) to remember our true nature, which is that we are already self-realized beings. The description almost perfectly mirrors the process of recovery from childhood trauma. My yoga practice is at once a tool for and a mirror of my personal recovery and growth. I learned to dissociate from my body at an early age and yoga has enabled me to re-inhabit it. Simultaneously, through introspection (meditation) I am seeking my pre-abused self so that he may claim the happy and productive life that was denied him.

the purpose of sweat


The body is approximately 60% water. The blood is mostly water and is used to distribute oxygen, nutrients, hormones and other substances to cells as well as remove metabolic byproducts (not toxins as is commonly thought). Water is used to cushion the spine and brain and acts as a kind of shock absorber to prevent injury. Water is a critical component of our body’s cooling system (through evaporation of the sweat). The electrolyte components of water regulate nerve and muscle function, blood acid balance and the amount of fluid in our cells. The body regulates the levels of all substances such as minerals, trace elements and electrolytes and so some of these are naturally eliminated through the sweat and eliminatory systems.

The primary purpose of sweating is to regulate body temperature. Sweat transfers heat from inside the body to the skin where it is released into the air through evaporation. The effect of vigorous exercise in a hot room is an increase in the amount of sweat which may therefore result in the elimination of more minerals and electrolytes — simple dehydration. A healthy diet with plenty of water intake is sufficient for most people to maintain appropriate levels of electrolytes and minerals. How much water is plenty? A common sense determination is to drink until you’re not thirsty. The more you sweat, the more you will need to replenish. (I say more about this below.)

If excessive sweating leaves you feeling any of the following symptoms during or after class you should increase your daily water intake but you may also benefit from taking electrolyte supplements: excessive thirst, fatigue; headache; dry mouth (or sticky saliva); decreased urination; muscle weakness; dizziness. Most hot yoga studios, including SHY, sell electrolyte supplements but a good homemade solution is to mix a little sea salt and fresh lemon (or lime) juice in a glass of water.

Sweat and Body Odor

Sweat itself has no odor. The odor from sweating results from the interaction of the sweat with bacteria that lives on the skin. Regular bathing with soap and water helps reduce the amount of bacteria in the skin and therefore may reduce or eliminate most body odors. A common odor in the sweat of some people who exercise vigorously is ammonia. Ammonia is a natural component of sweat but it’s usually too dilute to be noticed. A strong ammonia odor may indicate a high protein diet in which case it might be wise to increase your dietary intake of low-glycemic carbohydrates such as fruits (most), legumes, whole grains, certain starchy vegetables (try eating an apple or a small amount of unsweetened oatmeal an hour before class). A very strong ammonia odor that persists over time could also indicate liver dysfunction in which case a visit to the doctor is advised.

“Toxins” is a Misnomer

When people speak of “toxins” being eliminated through the sweat they are — whether they know it or not — referring to natural byproducts of metabolism. These eliminated elements might be considered waste products but, by definition, they are not toxins. In a literal sense the only detoxification that happens in the body happens through the eliminatory system. In extreme cases of metal toxicity there are chelation drugs that can be used to remove the metal poisons. The way in which hot yoga acts as a kind of “detoxification” process is to support our bodies natural systems and to assist in their optimal functionality. The best detoxification program is to maintain a healthful lifestyle including a healthy nutritious diet, minimizing intake of harmful substances such as caffeine, alcohol and tobacco, exercise regularly and reduce stress (before the fact when possible).

Bottom Line: How much water should you drink?

No matter what you may have read about minimum daily water requirements there is no one rule that applies to everybody. As with all lifestyle choices and decisions you are going to have to discover your own unique needs. Fortunately, all it takes is a little common sense and practice. I’ve already given you one solid piece of advice that is almost foolproof: drink until you’re not thirsty. Below are some other suggestions for you to consider. The ultimate goals are to develop a sensitivity to your body’s needs so you know when to drink more or less as well as to form healthy habits that will help keep you hydrated without having to think too much about it.

Before I get to specifics, a discussion about drinking water isn’t complete without mentioning pee. Notice that none of the suggestions below tell you to drink a large quantity of water at one time. Your body can only process so much water at once so if you drink large amounts you will end up peeing most of it away. Drinking small glasses more frequently is going to be more efficient than guzzling. The other thing about pee is that it acts as a barometer for dehydration. When you are properly hydrated your pee should be clear. Unless you’re taking Vitamin B supplements your pee should not have much color to it. The darker your pee, the more likely you are dehydrated.

In all of the following “a glass of water” equals approx. 8-12 ounces.

  • Drink a glass water immediately upon rising.
  • Drink a glass of water at bedtime.
  • Drink a glass of water 60 minutes before practicing hot yoga.
  • Drink a glass of water 30 minutes before practicing hot yoga.
  • Drink a glass of water 1-3 times during hot yoga practice, depending on how much you sweat.
  • Drink a glass of water immediately after practicing hot yoga.
  • Drink a glass of water every 15 minutes after practicing hot yoga until you are no longer thirsty.
  • Drink a glass of water any other time during the day when you feel thirsty.

Remember, these are suggestions and not rules. Try some or all of them and discover what feels right. Common sense and healthy habits are all you need to stay properly hydrated. You don’t need formulas or special programs to maintain a healthy lifestyle. You have all the information you need within you.

kolkata arrival


Kolkata looks and feels a lot like Hanoi. My two visits to Hanoi have minimized the culture shock here so I have to presume that those who’ve warned me about the challenges haven’t been to a similarly chaotic historical city. Kolkata is certainly larger and more populous than Hanoi, perhaps even a bit dirtier, but English is much more widely spoken and the people a little friendlier. I’m already experienced in ignoring the stares and questioning looks so that’s not troubling. the

I felt a little bad about refusing a group of teenage boys a selfie with me. I might have agreed but it was in a mall (I packed very lightly knowing I could get some towels and necessary sundries) and malls are so middle class and Westernized it felt weirdly uncomfortable. I hate admitting it but I might have been more amenable if they approached me on the street and weren’t dressed in fake, dated designer clothing. That makes me feel hugely patronizing and a little like a colonialist tourist but there you have it. On the other hand, I imagine if I were in an American mall and saw a group of teenage boys approach someone in a turban or Sari and ask the same thing I’m sure I’d think it was the boys who were being patronizing. I comfort myself for turning this around like that but I also wonder if what was being expressed wasn’t so much “look at us with this exotic specimen” and more an expression of acceptance and international brotherhood.

Most who know me will probably be surprised that I have to resist the urge to hold on to this momentary and minor incident and lose myself in an internal conflict far longer than is reasonable but this is emblematic of one of my inner struggles which is a conflict between a desire to live up to an idealized image of myself and acceptance of the fact that my judgement is merely that of an average human.

Survivors of childhood abuse learn early on that a minor misread of a situation can have devastating consequences so we tend to hold unrealistically high expectations for ourselves knowing exactly what to do in any given situation. Letting go of this feels risky but that’s an improvement over feeling like a mortal peril.

Another thing that makes Kolkata feel friendlier is that there are far fewer people trying to lure me to their shop or into their taxi and none of them persist when I politely decline. Sales pitches in Viet Nam were usually accompanied by grabbing, clutching and dragging. No one here has asked me for money yet. The most aggressive solicitation thus far was an over enthusiastic handshaker who seemed a little obnoxiously fake friendly. Admittedly I’ve been here less than 36 hours and I’m not in Mumbai or a major tourist mecca. I’ll be out in the streets more over the next three weeks and I expect to have a rich experience.

The most exotically ‘other’ scenario I witnessed, my “not in Kansas” moment, would have made a beautifully evocative Vine video (max. six seconds, in case you don’t know) but it was through the back seat window of a quickly moving car and I don’t use Vine. Nor would I have been able to get my phone out in time (if you’re asking who makes videos with their phone, the answer is everyone except me and people who will soon be in need of assisted living). So let’s use an old fashioned movie production method: imagine a small cow enjoying a snack of green leaves on the sidewalk suddenly being run off by a dog, for whatever reason a dog might want to do that, with a very large crow watching the affair from a perch on a handrail about two feet away.

There are a lot crows here. Most of them are quite large and many sound very angry at 5:00 am.