Yoga teachers often describe yoga poses in terms of their heating and cooling qualities. Many of us sequence our everyday yoga classes with these qualities in mind. For example, I like to start a practice with heating poses, and move gradually to cooling poses, ending with a generous Savasana (final relaxation).
As we move into summer, I orient my classes toward the cooling side of the spectrum. As a person who’s prone to overheating, I’m well aware of the downsides of adding more heat to an already over-cooked body. But many of my students love the more heating poses—standing poses, backbends and core work. In order to continue to offer a well-rounded practice, I still include poses that may be inherently heating.
How can we balance the need to stay cool with the desire to engage in a well-rounded practice? When I studied at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune, the late Geeta Iyengar proposed a solution. In the last days of a three-week intensive, as we were preparing for the grueling 20-hour flight back to the States, Geeta offered a markedly more gentle approach to practice than she had in the previous weeks. While we spent much of our practice time in calming restorative poses in those final days, we still practiced standing poses in every session. The standing poses we practiced did not have to create excess heat, she said—if we practiced them with a “cooling intention.”
In an indirect way, Geeta was talking about an aspect of karma. Karma includes both intention and action. This means that our actions bear consequences—pleasant or unpleasant—depending on the action, but also on the intention behind it. Our intention colors the results of our actions. For example, if we practice asana with an aggressive or competitive attitude, we are likely to feel more heated or agitated after our practice. If we practice with an attitude of curiosity and openness, we can practice any pose, even heating poses, and emerge from practice with a sense of calm and ease.
Here are two key ways I’ve learned to manifest a cooling attitude while practicing asana:
- Be aware of your breathing. The way we breathe influences the state of the nervous system. Restricted or agitated breathing in any pose can cause a sympathetic (fight-or-flight) response, including heat and agitation. Slow, deep breathing yields a cooling, calming parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) response. If your poses are restricting your breathing, relax your effort.
- Stay inside your body. Even though most of us know that yoga is not supposed to be competitive, we all tend to compare ourselves to others, and to our past or imagined future practice. We tend to approach yoga as if it were a sport, focusing on what we think poses should look like. Turning awareness inward, to the internal moment-to-moment sense experiences in each unfolding asana can help us dampen the tendency to practice aggressively.
Try these suggestions and then take time between poses to feel the aftereffects. This will help you develop an inner reference system to guide you toward a practice that both energizes and cools you.
Charlotte Bell has been practicing yoga since 1982. She is the author of several yoga-related books (most recently, Hip Healthy Asana) and founder of Mindful Yoga Collective in SLC. www.CharlotteBellYoga.com/