I’m sweating from parts of my body that were not designed to sweat. Eyelids, toes, fingernails – you name it. The towel beneath me is sodden and all around nimble folk are contorting their bodies into shapes previously the reserve of balloon animals.
This is hot yoga, a form of yoga that aims to de-stress, detoxify and bring a full range of motion to the entire body. Did I mention that it’s really, really hot?
Specifically, I’m at a Fierce Grace yoga class. Founded by Michele Pernetta – the same woman who introduced hot yoga to the UK some 20 years ago – Fierce Grace combines cutting-edge fitness ideas, such as HIIT and strength training, with traditional Bikram yoga methods to deliver total-body fitness, alignment and wellbeing.
Now, I’m widely regarded as the least flexible person on the planet. I’m also not blessed with the most graceful of running styles: more Zátopek than Rudisha. So I took myself off to Fierce Grace’s Brixton studio – one of many across London and the UK – to see how hot yoga might make me a better runner.
One of the first things I realise, on stepping into the sweltering heat of the ‘hot room’, is that hot yoga teaches you to breathe through your nose – unless you’re partial to gulping down mouthfuls of muggy air.
Most runners will struggle to breathe entirely through their nose when the going gets tough, but learning to do so in short stages – maybe a minute at a time – can dramatically lower your heart rate, allowing you to run harder, for longer.
The temperature at Fierce Grace’s classes is set to a barmy 38 degrees and, for the uninitiated, it takes a good 10-15 minutes to get used to. Even then, however, the heat makes everything three times harder. Learning to withstand 60-90 minutes of intense heat and trembling muscles will help you to shrug off mid-run fatigue.
The typical runner, with their over-developed quads, glutes and hamstrings, can suffer from a pelvis that is tipped backwards. This leads to lower back pain, tight psoas muscles and legs and a torso that are working against each other, rather than in tandem.
“Yoga works and stretches the body in a unified way,” says Pernetta. “It releases tension in the glutes and abdominals, and stretches the psoas.”
When we run, our feet absorb two to three times our bodyweight with each stride. They also contain 25% of all the bones in your body, all supported by a series of ligaments and tendons.
Needless to say, having weak feet is a recipe for disaster. Yoga strengthens the feet and braces them for the challenges of running, as Pernetta explains: “The feet-strengthening poses in Classic and Fierce Grace classes – Utkatasana, Yogi-Toes, Fixed Firm, Squat and one-leg balancing – help develop strong muscles, aligned ankles, strong arches and strong big toe joints.”
Traditional yoga is best known for its meditative qualities, and hot yoga is no different. Ever the sceptic, I was unsure how beneficial sitting in a cross-legged position and “omming” could really be.
I was pleased, though, to discover two things: one, that this form of yoga is much more than that; two, that in the relaxed atmosphere of the heated room, it’s impossible not to get a little bit zen. You can’t help but hone in on each individual body part – what’s being stretched, what muscles are helping to stabilise and, in my case, what really hurts.
This is great practice for the sort of association technique used by many elite runners – focusing on the minutiae of your performance, in order to block out the general sense of pain or tiredness.