In the 10 years I’ve been doing yoga, I’ve been to hundreds of classes on three continents. I enjoyed stretching alongside C-list celebrities on conflict-free mats in Los Angeles as much as I liked standing on my head in a packed little studio in Tulsa, where the soundtrack was country pop and exhortations to “breathe, y’all!”
In fact, there’s only one kind of yoga I won't do: Bikram, or “hot yoga.” That's the kind where the students do a series of 26 strenuous postures in a room heated to 100 degrees or more.
Or rather, I won’t do Bikram … again. I have done it three times. The first was in 2007, on the recommendation of a hip friend. It was pretty miserable, but I got a sick sense of accomplishment from toughing it out for the full 90 minutes. (They even gave us free bananas afterward to replenish all the electrolytes that had just gushed out of our pores).
When I returned to the class the following week, though, the heat seemed somehow heavier and more asphyxiating than before. I felt dizzy, and the instructor suggested I take the resting “child's pose.” As my damp forehead hit the mat, I felt an unmistakable sensation in my gut. I was about to yak all over my fellow detainees and the already malodorous studio carpet. I fled, and the instructor followed me out. She was nice about it, but her tone made it clear that hot yoga is not for mid-class quitters.
Fast forward to last weekend. I saw a class at a new studio that met my three preconditions for attendance: cheap, nearby, and at a convenient time. Now, usually hot yoga places are like furries: pretty up-front as to what they're all about, since if you’re not into it, you’re really not into it. With this place, though, neither the class description nor studio name said anything about temperature. I realized my mistake as soon as I showed up and an attendant handed me a towel.
“You're gonna need it!” she said.
“Oh no,” I thought.
It was too late—I had signed in, and the class was starting. I figured I’d give it a go. Tiny puddles of sweat were already pooling on the parquet floor, and the thermometer read 94 degrees. Then the heater clicked on.
At 20 minutes, I felt like someone had put my kidneys in a Crock Pot. At 40, someone nearly kicked me in the face during half-moon pose, and I felt grateful for the rush of air. At an hour into the 90 minutes, I ran for the door.
“You okay?” the front-desk guy asked as I aggressively dabbed myself with my towel.
“Yep, but I think I’m done for today,” I said.
“Maybe you should just go back in there and lie on your mat,” he said.
I felt too woozy to suggest something I thought he could go and do. Instead I just rolled up my mat and wobbled out into the cool, 90-degree morning.
This appears to be a common quandary. Yoga is so soothing, yet hot yoga can be excruciating. You like feeling enmeshed with the group, yet you’re sure you’re the only one who feels like a Ballpark frank (“They plump when you cook ‘em!”). This yoga instructor seems to be handling the heat well, but then again his BMI seems to be lower than the legal drinking age.
I consider myself lucky; others have reported that attempting to leave hot yoga—or any yoga—before it was over earned scornful glances, and worse, from their instructors.
“About 50 minutes into the 90-minute long class, I broke: I was dying for my inhaler. And for a sweet, sweet taste of air-conditioning,” writes Adjua Fisher in Philadelphia magazine. “I’d almost made it to the door when a loud voice screamed, ‘You, stop! You’re. Not. Going. ANYWHERE.’ I turned to see the instructor pointing at me, and I quickly realized he was not joking. I felt like a teenager who’d gotten caught sneaking out after curfew. Embarrassed, me and my beet-red face scurried back to the mat and suffered through the remaining 40 minutes of class.”
Blogs and Yelp reviews similarly brim with stories of “Yogi Drill Sergeants” who berate anyone who tries to slip out early.
“Patrick was extremely rude to me as I exited the room 15 before the … class ended as I started to feel very sick from the heat,” one woman in Massapequa, New York, complained. “I was actually quite proud of myself for getting this far! But Patrick made it a point to humiliate me for leaving the class early. I just turned to him and said: I thought yoga wasn’t about ego?”
The etiquette page for hot yoga at the Yoga Health Center in San Carlos, California, takes a pre-emptive strike: “Do Not Leave the Yoga Room During Postures,” it commands.
That perspective is understandable, too. Yoga is supposed to be a community activity. Depending on the level of hippie woo-woo mumbo-jumbo one subscribes to, a rash of mid-class defectors can disrupt the energy of the experience and throw everyone’s chakras into a tizzy. Or it can at least be kind of distracting.
Then there are the health worries. A recent study by the American Council on Exercise found that a Bikram yoga class raised participants’ core temperatures to an average of 103.2 degrees, for men, and 102 for women—a level the study authors found concerning. Based on those findings, one of their recommendations was that participants should try to shorten the duration of the class from 90 minutes to 60. In a statement, the Council told me that they recommend, “instructors encourage participants to leave, and reinforce that sentiment throughout the routine.”
So, for those of us without any medical contraindications, what’s the etiquette of leaving hot yoga midway through? I put out a call for instructors to weigh in, and I received dozens of responses—some of which ended with the salutation, “peace and light.”
Yoga lore aside, it seems rare to find an instructor whose policy toward leaving is more Kim Jong Un than BKS Iyengar.
Andes Hruby, a former Hot Power Yoga instructor (she quit after deciding the heat was excessive), said it’s wrong for yoga teachers to try to keep their students captive:
If a runner fell over during a marathon in the desert we wouldn't
rush to her/his side and say “Your mind is weak.” We would encourage fluids and first aid.
Jeanette Doherty, who teaches vinyasa classes in Brooklyn, said it’s worth considering whether the discomfort you’re feeling is a “deep sensation—which can be beneficial for the practice—or pain—which is a warning sign that it might not be the best style or level.”
Mark Balfe-Taylor, director of yoga at TruFusion in Las Vegas, added:
I personally feel as though an open invitation to leave should not be given to students as to not create a disturbance for those staying in the class. However, if someone needs to visit the toilet, is feeling like they are going to vomit, is experiencing their cycle, has blood pressure issues, a poor heart, is pregnant or just weak from not eating well that day... if something is going on that won't pass from taking a knee or a moment in child's pose, they can step out and recover with a respectful exit, and return quietly.
Still, most didn’t go quite so far as to say instructors should “encourage” students to leave, or even let it go unnoticed. Jim Kallett, director of Bikram’s Yoga College of India in San Diego, said that while exiting should not be totally verboten,
… Encouraging it and “allowing” it without addressing it, is giving the “permission” people are looking for to avoid their own lack of self realization, latent power, and the hidden forces inside us.
Several said that if you do need to leave early, it’s best not to flee during the opening or closing meditation sessions, which are even sacreder than the already very sacred yoga time.
And just how should you make your exit? A head-nod? A sheepish namaste? Silent, shameful scurry?
Mandy Unanski Enright, a dietician and yoga instructor in New Jersey, said to keep in mind that it can take seven to 10 classes to grow accustomed to hot yoga. If you’re a beginner and feel you have to leave, she writes, do it as quietly as possible:
Loud, frustrated breathing and complaining out loud about the heat as they roll their mat up loudly is distracting to the other students. A simple head nod and wave good-bye to the teacher is appropriate—trust me, we’ve seen it before and get it! If a student is new to hot yoga, I prefer they tell me before the class starts so I can give them some guidelines.
As for the instructor, Enright says he or she should act like nothing happened.
“What you don’t want to happen is that one person setting a trend and everyone runs out of the room because they’ll think it’s acceptable.”
That probably means early leavers should also resist standing in front of the glass studio door, fanning themselves and grinning as everyone else sweats on.