“Bikram”. Is it yoga?

I’ve recently started going to a Bikram-style yoga studio, taking advantage of an amazing £15 for 10days of yoga offer. Revisiting this, some would say controversial, form of yoga has of course reminded me of the things I like about it, and the things I like less. And the more I’ve thought about it, the more these identified likes and dislikes have evolved into things about the practise that I think are yogic, and things that I think are not. 

First of all, for anyone who isn’t aware of Bikram yoga let me offer a short intro. Bikram Choudhury is a contemporary “yoga teacher” who designed (and I believe patented) a sequence of 26 hatha yoga postures, all practised in a room heated to 40degrees celsius. More on why I used the inverted commas later.

Choudhury’s formula has developed some might say, a cult like following and his packaging of yoga has exploded over the yoga ‘marketplace’ in the western world, much in the way Starbucks stormed the coffee shop scene.  Whole studios opened up dedicated to the practice, and customers found the intensity of the experience addictive. Create your own caffeine rush with a bikram class. Ok, it never gave Starbucks a run for its money, but I trust you get my drift.

None of this is that new by the way, Bikram got popular in London at least 3 years ago. 

However, in recent times the popularity of his classes have taken an acute decline. Now, it is not my goal to give an account of the situation, but suffice to say there have been significant allegations of sexual assault made against Choudhury by his students. You know how to use google, I won’t patronise you with suggested links. Go do some research if you wish. But that’s the main reason for the slump, and many formerly named ‘Bikram’ studios have now changed their names.

So back to the original reason I decided to write this post.

I’m in the first week of a 10 day intro offer at a local hot yoga, former Bikram studio. I chose to do this largely to give myself a reason to practice with other people, to get out of the house and hopefully lose a bit of weight as the classes can be intense. I practised Bikram yoga at various London studios around 3-4 years ago just before the peak of its popularity. You know, about a year or two before an Evening Standard journo went to a class. Like most other students, the practice appealed to the side of me that oddly craves regimen, order, strict discipline and the joy of sweet relief that comes after a damn hard workout. My inner masochist, some might say (do we all have an inner masochist? Maybe that should have been the title of this blog…) anyway, I digress. Each of the 26 postures are completed in the same order in each class, twice, and instructions are given verbally to much the same script by all teachers. However, following several months my initial love affair with Bikram yoga gradually grew bitter. That same nagging persistent sense of ‘something not right’ that drove me out of government, told me that heating a studio at great expense to the planet and packing virtually hundreds of bodies like sardines into a tiny room was hardly in line with the true current of yoga. Hence those inverted commas (they also have to do with the business model behind the Bikram practise, it’s a total commercial machine, the antithesis of yoga). Fast forward to now. I decided to ignore all those elements for which I hold distain, and reap the benefits in the short term (do I sound like a politician with self awareness and no apology?) Anyhow, considering my life is at a time of changing tides, I decided a short sharp blast of Bikram vigour would be just what the (ayurvedic) doctor ordered. 

Ok, let’s try to get a bit more efficient with the words here.

What I like about Bikram!

1. It helps you develop TAPAS. ‘Tapas’ is one of the niyamas, literally meaning to heat the body in order to cleanse impurities that prevent us accessing union with the divine. The burning, intense quality of tapas requires discipline, determination, willpower and strength. Through tapas you persist in the face of adversity. In a Bikram class, your adversary is the heat, and your brain telling you to run the bleep out of the room. 

2. All that spinal cord work. If you could only ‘do hatha yoga’ on one part of the body, which part should it be? The spine and spinal cord is probably the area that would get my vote, and it certainly gets a huge amount of attention in a Bikram class, far more than say the hips or chest. Why is the spine so crucial? Physically, it elevates the body and provides a basic structure for the respiratory, circulatory, digestive and reproductive systems. It helps connect the brain to the nervous system. Energetically, the seven major chakras are distributed across the spine, and the pathway for kundalini energy to raise, is said to be ‘up the spine’. 

3. BRAMACHARYA (moderation). Another Yama. Staying calm under pressure. Keeping your cool (a steady even mindful breath) despite the intense heat. Maintaining balance even when conditions around you tempt you to blow it all off. Your body is demanded to moderate itself under an extreme external environment. 

4. The fact that it is always the same. Routine, familiarity, structure. At a time of change or flux in life, having things to do that are predictable can be soothing. Think I must be the first person to ever insinuate that Bikram could be soothing…

5. That the teachers do not demonstrate, do not offer hands-on adjustments, or offer props. And no music. This stripped-bare and somewhat distant approach allows the experience to be more internal and asks more of the student.

What I like less about Bikram…

1. The artificial heat. Destroying the environment for our western greed. Not yogic.

2. The business model of Bikram Yoga. It is very expensive to become a Bikram instructor, and it appears that Mr Choudhury was not moderate in demonstrating his material wealth. 

3. The allegations of sexual misconduct against Mr Choudhury himself. Antithesis of yoga. The opposite of Ahimsa (non-violence. Another Yama).

4. Where’s the softness, the compassion, the anahata chakra? The one-ness? In some ways, the number 5 like, is also my number 4 dislike. There’s always a flip side. The distant approach might be too much of a gulf for some to cross.

5. Rolling off from the end of number 4… Bikram seems to develop manipura chakra in the extreme. Must be a misuse of all that tapas, and I aint talking spanish mini plates. Good for those who need more of it, not so good for those who revel in their own personal glory. Individual strength and endurance prized over the universal experience. Perpetuates duality instead of looking at what we share in our human experience. In this way, Bikram is like western medicine. It is very good at delivering a specific aspect of the yogic journey, not so good at offering a holistic path. I really haven’t been able to identify the way in which it might show students the ultimate message of yoga, which is the unity and inter-connectedness between all living things, and as such the need to respect and be compassionate to all living things. It may be that I have simply not been going long enough, and am missing something. I do hope so.

Can I have a number 6? I miss chaturangas. Yes, no chaturangas in a Bikram class! Not one! Obviously this is a sorry state of affairs for me. 

So that’s it, my appraisal of Bikram yoga laid bare. What do you think about it? Would love to hear your views. 

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2 Responses to “Bikram”. Is it yoga?

  1. Jess says:

    Interesting….and makes me want to go and try a class less and less! The more I hear and think about Bikram (ignoring all the stuff about Mr Bikram himself) the less it feels like it would be yoga…maybe I should try it sometime, but I’ll need a lot of temptation to do that when I have found such wonderful teachers and amazing classes that fill my soul with love….if I get to sweat it out a bit, even better, but if sweating it out is the advantage, I’d rather go for a run….!
    Thanks for the blog :)

    • Many thanks for taking the time to read and reply, Jess. I have found personally that it’s worth trying Bikram, just to ‘know’ what it’s like. But definitely I don’t think everyone needs to try it. You might have heard the view of Ram Dass that ‘everyone is a teacher’, in that whoever we come across in life, they can teach us something. So I rather take that view with Bikram yoga. However. I am not going back this week. I’ve realised my body needs something else, and what I was giving it before was actually more in line with what it needed. If I want to practice in a community, I will have to make the 1.5hr journey into town to practise at the studio I used to be regular at – Indaba. Or find another one closer to home… :) As for the running as a way to sweat it out – I quite agree! I love that too. I’ve been going jogging in Hampton around twice a week. Take care and enjoy all your forms of exercise! :)

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