My New York Obsession

The Big Heat: How Hot Yoga Changed One Woman’s Life

In a city full of alpha downward dogs, it’s not always easy to find peace of mind.

Photo by Sam Roach/Unsplash

After trying it one time, with a low-grade hangover, in my 20s, during a blizzard, I’d written off hot yoga as extreme and masochistic. When the teacher said no one could leave the (very crowded, very humid) room until class was over, I experienced a wave of claustrophobia. But then a year ago, searching for an exercise class near my children’s school, I stumbled upon Fierce Grace, a London-based brand that offers a range of classes blending hatha, Bikram, and Ashtanga styles in a spacious room heated to almost 100 degrees. I had no idea that I could sweat that much, never mind that I would come to crave it. The emptied-out feeling of hot yoga is my current favorite sensation—that and its aftereffect, which is similar to the relief you feel after a good, hard cry.  

I also love that hot yoga is one of the million secret possibilities in this city. All you have to do is buzz the buzzer on the unassuming door between Bluestockings, which describes itself as “a collectively owned radical bookstore,” and the Japanese restaurant Mr. Taka Ramen. Climb the stairs and unzip your boots and check in at the front desk. Change and shove your stuff into a locker. Fill your water bottle. The large room is mirrored on two sides and windowed on two sides. The weather outside affects the humidity inside. It feels one way during the day with sunlight coming through, and another way in the rain or at night. The class is mostly women, some wearing essentially bikinis, and some men in shorts. 

In yoga I am neither busy nor not busy. It is a safe place to stop crossing items off the to-do list, to spend an hour quiet and still.

What I like best is to arrive early and secure a spot in front near the mirror. I lay my mat on the floor, the towel on the mat, my body on the rented towel—which still smells good, like lavender and laundry—and assume corpse pose, lying on my back with my eyes closed, my glasses off and to the side. The pinpricks of sweat start right away under my knees, in my elbows, and along my hairline. My breathing slows. The satisfaction is immediate.

Hot yoga begins standing, an instruction that’s consistent across classes and teachers at Fierce Grace. In other types of yoga classes and at other studios that I frequent (and enjoy), you might listen to poetry, live accordion, recorded Jerry Garcia, an ancient tale of inspiration, or the latest mishap in the instructor’s life. You might focus on triangle pose for half an hour, or roll tennis balls under your calves for a third of the class, whatever your instructor asks. Here, though, the encouraging instructors give the same precise, even scripted, directions, which guide the class through a sequence of poses, from standing to sitting. Certain poses—half moon; standing separate-leg stretching—feel like they were made for me. Others—fixed firm, standing ankle to knee—remain frustratingly out of reach. Regardless, sweat pours out of my body. Sweat pours out of my face. My mind quiets. The teacher tells the class when it’s a good moment to have little sips of water.

fierce grace hot yoga nyc
Photo courtesy of Fierce Grace NYC/Facebook

The repetition of poses is useful for observing minute changes in your body over time. It’s too hot to make extra movements, too hot even to fidget with your hair or clothing. It’s too hot—hallelujah—to think. You keep your breathing even and go through the poses calmly so as to not set off your body’s panic at the temperature. You keep your abdomen in and your mouth closed. After the final breathing exercise, you end in corpse pose, experiencing total relaxation and surrender.

No one talks during class, and even after in the dressing room there is a certain reverent hush. I peel my clothing off, shower in the bare-bones changing room, and pull on my street clothes. I, who (perhaps) absorbs too much of the environment too easily, who (perhaps) feels too much, who (perhaps) is too quick to anger, am wrung out.

Hot yoga stops the part of me that tries to do all the things at once: my job, yes, but more ceaselessly it’s the spreading of cream cheese on white bread for the green lunch box, and almond butter and grape jelly on brown bread for the blue lunch box. It’s the filling out of class-trip forms and buying the trifolds for the science fair. It’s walking our puppy before taking one child to school early for extra reading and the other for a meeting on impulse control. It’s endlessly unloading the dishwasher and vacuuming the house, which our (handsome) puppy is determinedly chewing up from the inside. But the deeper truth is probably that I like being busy because being busy is better than the sadness I sometimes struggle with when I am not busy. In yoga I am neither busy nor not busy. It is a safe place to stop crossing items off the to-do list, to spend an hour quiet and still.

Because we live in a city that sells us every kind of stimulation constantly, it is an excellent feeling to let everything pour out.

Because we live in a city that sells cold brew and matcha lattes and rosé and offers every kind of stimulation constantly, all around us, and, yes, often through our shiny glass phones, and, yes, within our unquiet minds, it is an excellent feeling to let everything pour out. I don’t know anything about the science of cleanses and toxins, but hot yoga feels cleansing, better than drinking (a lot of) coffee to get going in the morning and drinking (a lot of) alcohol to put out the nightly fire in one’s brain—as if a fire can be put out with alcohol.

I zip up my boots and descend the stairs to Allen Street, with its Ubers and ambulances and overflowing trash cans and interminable construction, and enter the Second Avenue subway station with its strong smells and loud noises. I wait for the F train to barrel through and send the rats back into their holes, for the doors to open just long enough to let some people out and take me home. The city is the same as it ever was, but for a little while, I am different.

Jenni Ferrari-Adler is the editor of the food-writing anthology Alone in the Kitchen With an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone, and her writing has been published by Tin House, New York magazine, Glimmer Train, and Bellevue Literary Review. She can be found on Twitter @JenFerrariAdler.