The Pitfalls of a Health and Spiritual Quest

There are some things you can’t avoid, no matter how hard you try, like the alarm going off on Monday mornings, the saga of Jon and Kate plus 8, and the James Arthur Ray’s sweat lodge incident. I so very much actively ignored it, but it confronted me, so here are some of my thoughts and reflections on it.

This past Saturday, I taught my Yoga for Newbies class in the morning, spent the afternoon in Jean Massimo’s Deepening Anusara Knowledge workshop, and then another good 3 hours getting mentored in the art of teaching. By the time I came back to my boyfriend’s place, I fell down on the couch like a sack of potatoes and had just enough energy left to say “Feed me”.

The TV was on, and I was in that state where you could stare at whatever moving image and it wouldn’t matter. My boyfriend was doing that stereotypical boy thing of channel surfing every other minute, UW Huskies game, commercial, flip, baseball, flip, news, flip. He stopped at some special report on That Sweat Lodge Story. Some news crew went in the sweat lodge and tried to see what it’s like. “That must be like the yoga class you took me to!”, my boyfriend said.

Yes, it’s true, to my chagrin, I not only did Bikram yoga for some time, but I also recruited my friends and family along once or twice. For me, it was such a good thing at the time, so surely, it would be nothing short of amazing for them too. Looking back, I cringe just remembering what they were going through. My boyfriend was so miserable mopping up his sweat everywhere, and his lower back hurt for weeks afterwards. My brother was just lying on the mat, short of breath and suffering because he couldn’t leave the room. I don’t think he’s forgiven me since.

I don’t necessarily want to talk about my mistakes in yoga and in life in this post, however. There isn’t enough time or space for that. I also don’t intend to bad-mouth hot or Bikram yoga, though I will say that most of the personal accounts here come from those classes. These stories are mentioned because they are relevant and anecdotal to illustrate my point.

What I *do* want to talk about is the psychology of how presumably intelligent, spiritual-seeking, healthy-lifestyle oriented people could get ourselves in destructive and deathly situations.

A disclaimer first: I don’t know all the fine details of what happened in the sweat lodge. I have tried to stay away from the mainstream media “analysis” as much as possible, and I am not claiming to know what happened in this particular situation. I’ve never read or seen The Secret. Until a couple days ago Arthur James Ray’s existence was completely unknown to me. I further don’t know anything about the use of a sweat lodge in Native American culture, and I’m not writing about any aspect of that in any shape or form.

Phew. Okay, got that out of the way 🙂

The Mental Training Allure

So there I was, watching this reporter checking out life in the sweatlodge, thinking to myself, *how* did this happen? Why would someone put themselves in that situation? It’s really easy for us to think of those people in the sweat lodge as gullible and dismiss their action as stupid or dumb. I can even imagine someone somewhere out there saying, “I would never do that, and they got what they deserved”.

And yet, it was so eerie for me to think back of all the times when I was exhausted, dehydrated, lying on the floor gasping for air in a 105 degree room with 10, 20, 30 other people in a hot yoga class, either because I wasn’t allowed to leave, or because I was “strongly encouraged” to stay. I remember being told something along the line of “training yourself to stay tough mentally”.

Well, who wouldn’t want to be stronger mentally, physically, spiritually (whatever that means)? To achieve this, we put ourselves in the hands of these “professionals” or “gurus” who promise a better version of ourselves, and we are willing to do whatever it takes. We so badly want it to work, and sometimes our desire is so strong that it overrides our built-in internal “oh shit” alarm. In a high temperature with so much adrenaline going, we can no longer differentiate between “Ok team, let’s suck it up!” and “Danger danger! Eject eject!”.

The Need to Prove Oneself, and the Need for Approval

Of all the times that I wanted to puke or pass out in my Bikram yoga classes, I could have very well got up and left. Yes, the room may have been locked. Yes, the teacher wanted me to stay on my mat. But if I really wanted to, I could have made a big scene, and I’m sure I could have left on my own free will. And yet, I stayed. Why?

Some part of me probably thought it was good for me, but more than that, I wanted to prove something, to myself and to others, that I can do it. I didn’t want to look like a wuss, that “I couldn’t handle it”. (I’m willing to bet this is how a lot of guys who come with their wives or girlfriends feel as well, but it’s also well known that men and women have different levels of heat tolerance). I wanted to gain the respect of the other students in class and the approval of the instructors. And you know what? I *paid* for this, I’m not leaving!

Come to think about it, it wasn’t really about the determination to do something, it was more about the determination to show something. Furthermore, the heat was cranked up so high that my ability to receive strong and true feedback from the body and mind was gone. I remember distinctly one particular Hot and Power studio so scorching hot that even the floor burnt to the touch and desensitized all feelings in my skin. Psychologically, I could have said yes to anything, and I trusted that I was in the hands of people who knew what they were doing.

The Misguided Notion of  “Tough Love”

No matter how crazy our world may seem, a big part of me believes in the inherent goodness of the humankind, and in my hot yoga classes, I believe that my teachers were trying to use their power for good, not evil. I believe that they earnestly believed they’re doing the right thing, that they’re helping others achieve better health and happiness. I’m willing to bet that they were not standing there thinking, “Haha, I can’t believe all these suckers paid me to sweat in misery.” (Well, you *never* know, but the chances are low).

So, in the same vein of how I convinced my brother and boyfriend to try hot yoga, there are teachers out there with a strong conviction of the benefits of being in such an environment. “It is soooo good for you”, they’d say. It detoxes (nevermind the how and what), it cleanses, it makes you tough and disciplined, it cures all that ails you, that’s a small price to pay for spending 90 minutes sweating profusely. Besides, you’ll get used to it.

And lucky for me, I did get used to the heat, but just because you can do something doesn’t always mean you should do it. There are many others whose heat tolerance and health conditions are just not compatible with such intensity, and if they have the need to prove that they could, and if someone, especially some “expert” to whom they paid a lot of money, says they should, well… we’re gathering ingredients for a potential disaster.

Who to Blame?

We live in a litigious society, and I’m pretty sure a lot of the lawyers and private investigators out there are rolling up their sleeves ready for some action in the Blame Game. All sides will have their story to tell.

The truth is, in order to grow, in order to change, it’s commonly accepted that sometimes we need to employ some very strong measures. It’s the Chinese medicine strategy: bitter drugs are good for you. We all need a certain amount of tough love to discipline us, to whip us in shape, and it’s hard and uncomfortable. I have no doubt that many have benefited from the sweat lodges and hot yoga.

And yet, all medicine will kill at a certain dosage. One man’s cure may very well be another’s poison. So, how do we know which is which?Who can we trust to guide us?

I don’t know the answer. I’m still trying to figure that out, along with many other life’s questions. All I know is, if and when my “oh shit” alarm goes off, my only hope is I will not question it, not for any glory, not for any guru.

Oh noes! Do not want!

Oh noes! Do not want!