Sweet Summer Sweat

Yoga and Life

I grew up in a little beach town in San Diego and boy did I love summertime. I would be at the beach from 9:00 a.m. for Junior Lifeguards until sunset everyday with my brothers and friends. When we weren’t out in the surf or playing volleyball, we’d slather our bodies in baby oil and soak up the sun. Only a couple weeks into summer and I’d have dark tan lines and a little golden scab perched on the top of my nose from all the exposure. Clearly the fear of skin cancer or sun damage had not yet been planted in our minds. We weren’t afraid of the sun, we worshipped it!

In India the sun is very highly revered as the dominant force that makes life possible on our planet. The word Hatha in Hatha Yoga (what we do in class) is actually two Sanskrit words combined, Ha which means sun and Tha which means moon. They respectively represent the masculine and feminine aspects inherent to life. Traditionally, many yogis in India begin each day with Surya Namaskar, the sun salutation (Surya is another name for sun in Sanskrit), and in doing so salute the divine aspect within themselves and in all of life.

This is not a part of Bikram’s beginning hatha yoga class though it is in his advanced class. There are millions of deities in India, the sun being one of them, and in Bikram’s advanced class they are all acknowledged, saluted, as a group in a flow of postures that together comprise the salute to the gods and goddesses. It moves in four directions representing East, West, North and South, to cover 100% of the celestial sphere. Surya Namaskar immediately follows this and is a flow of different postures all facing east, the sunrise. The moon is then acknowledged at the beginning of the next flow of postures.

As you can see, the sun, being the tangible source of a force and power that fuels life as we know it on earth, is so highly regarded that it is acknowledged with a salutation all its own. Is it not then fitting that Father’s Day falls around the Summer Solstice, the point at which the sun reaches its zenith in the northern hemisphere?

The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year and heralds the time of reflection, retreat and dormancy in which tremendous change takes place inside preparing for the upcoming outward growth of spring. In contrast, the Summer Solstice is the longest day of the year and heralds the celebration of summer sunshine and the ripening of the fruits and bounty that will soon be harvested in autumn.

Even though the solstice marks the longest day of the year it’s rarely the hottest. Just as the heat of the day peaks a couple hours past noon the hottest days of summer tend to come a couple months after the solstice.

I’ll admit that there’s a difference between summer in Austin and summer in San Diego. We all know what summer is like here in Austin, hot and humid! In San Diego it’s not quite so hot and far less humid. But the benefits of the sun and sweat of summer, like the heat in the Bikram studio are the same in both places.

People so often focus on the reasons why not to like heat and never allow themselves to experience and appreciate the positive effects of heat. Yes, the summer is hot and humid in Austin. Yes, the room is hot for Bikram Yoga. Yes, the heat causes you to perspire and your clothes get wet and stick to your body. But do you know how good all that sweating is for you?

Sweating is your body’s way of cooling itself down. As your body temperature rises your heart rate picks up and the blood vessels dilate to more readily move the heat from the inside by way of the bloodstream to the surface capillaries in the outer layers of the skin releasing the hot water and flushing the fluids and toxins through the 2-4 million sweat glands in the skin. The now cooler blood returns back to the center of the body to repeat the cycle.

Though we rarely think of it this way, the skin is the largest excretory organ in the body. Women tend to have more sweat glands than men but men’s sweat glands tend to be more active–that’s why they sweat more. We are all born with sweat glands but the number of active sweat glands increases as we approach and go through puberty. This means that kids cannot necessarily cool down as easily as adults.

There are many ways that the body benefits while sweating from heat.

• The increased heart rate and metabolism is good for the cardiovascular system and burning calories which leads to weight loss.
• The hemoglobin in the red blood cells more readily releases the oxygen throughout the body and collects the carbon dioxide waste product.
• The higher amounts of blood flow and oxygen being released through the muscle tissues and all the way out to the surface capillaries near the skin keeps the muscles supple and well fueled, increasing flexibility and strength.
• The immune system is boosted by the simulated the effects of a fever–increasing the production of white blood cells.
• All kinds of toxins (i.e., nicotine, alcohol, cholesterol, heavy metals) get released in the sweat. Sweating is the most effective means of detoxifying the body and greatly reduces the workload for both the liver and kidneys.
• The skin gets cleansed by removing dead skin cells and flushing out bacteria from outer layers of the skin and pores. Profuse sweating can be like giving yourself a facial!

In arid or dry conditions as in the desert the sweat often evaporates immediately from your skin and you might not even notice that you have sweat at all. This can be deceptive and lead to dehydration if you do not drink enough fluids. But in more humid climes such as Austin that is not the case. Instead, the sweat pools on the skin, drips or pours off of it, or gets absorbed by clothing that then sticks to your body. I know many see this as unattractive or uncomfortable, but the positives far outweigh the negatives. It’s important to understand that a sweating body is a healing body.

Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, if you’re sweating you must be sure to replenish and remain hydrated by drinking lots of water and healthy fluids. It is the water in the body that enables your body’s systems to function well. I liken the water in your body to the oil in your car–it’s what allows things to run efficiently. Make it a habit to drink all day long. Keep in mind, if you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated and that means your body is suffering.

Here’s a recent discovery about sweat. In 2001, German scientists isolated a gene found in human sweat glands that secretes a unique antimicrobial peptide to the skin’s surface. This previously unknown antibiotic which they have named Dermcidin, in essence makes your sweaty skin the first line of defense against Escherichia coli, the dreaded Staphylococcus aureus and more. Couple this with the fact that we have the highest concentration of sweat glands on the soles of our feet and you can bask in nature’s way of preventing problems from ever happening. Forget about contracting a Staph infection at the Bikram studio—it’s not gonna happen!

When I learned this I couldn’t help but muse about the incredible efficiency, despite the complexity, of the human body. Doctors and scientists will never fully understand all the intricacies involved in the natural functioning of our bodies. I often have wondered how our ancestors dealt with health issues before modern medicine and remember being a teen dealing with acne. Way back then I questioned if all the creams and potions I’d been using were really helping and decided to see what would happen if I did the opposite and just rinsed my face with water instead when I felt something brewing under the surface. Guess what I discovered? The improvement was dramatic.

That experiment in my teens greatly shaped my approach to health and life–relax, let go of the mental tension and let nature have its way. Energy in nature always follows the path of least resistance and balances itself naturally.

Many students have heard me say in class that the body knows how to take care of itself. It wants to be well. Each cell in our bodies is unique and serves its own unique purpose and has its own unique needs. As long as we do our part by keeping a positive mental outlook, providing proper hydration, diet, exercise and rest, our bodies will be healthy.