The hot yoga effect
Ayesha Nauth explains in her own words how hot yoga helped her to overcome and to manage the debilitating effects of her rheumatoid arthritis on her body
From a very young age, I have always been active and enjoyed a lot of sports. I competed in all forms of sports and exercises: athletics, rock climbing, basketball, and many more. But in my final year at university, at 22, my feet and hands started to swell all of a sudden. Then doctors carried out lots of tests and later explained that I had a condition called rheumatoid arthritis. This is a debilitating condition which affects the joints and causes high levels of inflammation in the body.
My stay in hospital at that time felt like an eternity. My hands and knees had become so swollen and painful; I could hardly walk.
The doctors prescribed a lot of medication and eventually I went back to university. I was really suffering, though, and couldn't even get to lectures; it was an extremely difficult time.
I continued with my studies and completed my university exams, then went back home to my parents. At that point I became mostly bedridden, my mother had to cut up my food, and I could hardly hold a cup in my swollen hands to drink. Getting in and out of bed was very painful, putting weight on my feet to walk was overwhelming. It was almost like I needed to learn to walk again. The doctors told me I would be in a wheelchair by the age of 35 because of the severity of my condition. At this point I had a walking stick.
I remembered looking at my body in bed and I had to use my hands to lift my legs out on the side to pull myself out; my brain was working, but not my body – it felt separate.
First yoga class
Rheumatoid arthritis is unpredictable. For a while you feel better, and then you plummet and your body is paralysed again. In 2006, a friend of mine was practicing hot yoga in London, and suggested that I tried it. I distinctly remember going in the room on the first day. At this point I couldn't turn handles on a door, and some of my fingers were showing signs of the effect of arthritis – swollen and curled in, my wrist bone was prominent.
My first class is etched in my memory. I couldn't get my body or mind around many of the postures. I was soon defeated and had to lie down in the room. Yet, I noticed after that first class, how incredible I felt, even though my joints were red and swollen. I enjoyed the group mentality, working with each other's energy and motivation helped me to be more determined. The students want you to be better and you can feel the spirit and the power of this in the class.
So I continued, even though my hands, my knees were swollen and huge. I couldn't kneel down or bend too much. Instead, I had to modify postures. I felt awkward and embarrassed. In the beginning, I was in tears for most of the class because of the pain.
One of the teachers recommended that I visit the studio's owner and take her class, which I did. She could see that I was in pain and told me: "This is just temporary. You are going to feel some pain during the class anyway, but it will get better, just keep going. It will get easier, you will feel better." Her encouragement helped me tremendously.
Yoga teacher training
I continued with my practice regularly, and even started the advanced yoga practice, 84 postures over two hours in the heated room. Then in 2010, something I never thought possible: I undertook a gruelling nine-week hot yoga teacher training. It was extremely hard but so rewarding to become a yoga teacher.
I was now living in Brighton closer to home and travelling back and forth to London on the train for nearly four hours per day, to teach and practice.
Then in 2013, my world opened up after I took part – and won first place – in the UK Asana Championships. I then went to Los Angeles to compete in the World Championships. I was now travelling and teaching on yoga retreats in Italy, Spain, India, and had the opportunity to teach in some incredibly beautiful studios around the world, in the USA, Canada, Thailand, Austria and Portugal.
I continued to push the perimeter of the pain barrier in my body because it was doable in the heated room. I felt it was safe to practice and move in this environment, even when in pain. I continued to add more training to my resume – pregnancy yoga, yin, and, a few years ago, in what I felt was a full circle, I completed my Fierce Grace teacher training with Michele Pernetta, who had spurred me on years earlier.
I feel extremely fortunate to have yoga in my life; it was ground breaking for me. I feel like it saved my life. When I am in the hot room, I instantly feel stronger, physically and mentally.
I decide to keep showing up, practicing and working hard. I felt my inflammation levels were lowering, my joint pain was decreasing, my grip strength was better, my skin was brighter and healthier, and my mind was clearer. I felt I had a second chance at life.
I know the intensity of the heated room can be off-putting for some, but I think with the intensity and the frequency of the yoga, these things really helped me. At one point I thought: "Because I have arthritis, I need to take it a little bit easier and slow down." But what helped me was the opposite – I needed to be consistent in this practice to heal my broken body.
I feel that hot yoga has helped to slow down my condition from progressing at a rapid rate because it was so acute. I can now reflect over 20 years of living with arthritis and the year spent in hospital on various medications, infusions and steroids and all the various treatments I tried.
I used to want to fight against my arthritis to get rid of it. Since I started my yoga practice, I have learnt to accept the condition as part of my body, with all its vulnerability and strengths. My rheumatologist calls the effects that hot yoga has had on my body a miracle and even invited me to give lectures at the rheumatology centre to other patients.
I love inspiring people through yoga, with community talks, teaching children in school, as well as teaching online and in local studios in West Sussex. I feel so fortunate to teach a passion that is symbiotic to my healing.
Today, I feel stronger than ever. I still get a few aches and pains now and again, but I just pick up my mat and head to class. I know that with a medical diagnosis, some people may think medication is the only way and give up , but I would invite people to yoga and see there are other paths out there. There's always a way, a more natural way – as long as you never give up, you are not alone.
Connect with Ayesha Nauth on IG @Ayeshayogamovement
Read more of the Hot Yoga Special Report from the February 2023 issue.