Why Reflections On Practicing Bikram Yoga
Why are you providing your reflections on practicing Bikram Yoga?
In February 2014, I reached a personal milestone of having practiced Bikram Yoga for 10 years. As part of my process of marking that milestone, I decided to reflect on my practice. Recently I ran across some notes that I had made to myself on February 16, 2004 about my initial experiences. As I reviewed my notes, I had continued to share similar thoughts over the years. In that note, I have my starting date as February 6, 2014.
What aspects of your practicing of Bikram Yoga will you be exploring?
I’ll focus on how I got started with practicing Bikram Yoga. Next I’ll share how my practice has evolved.
Then I’ll provide some reflections on several “components” of my practice – teachers and teaching. Maybe in future set of reflections, I provide some of insights into my fellow yogis and yoginis, and the various studios that I’ve visited.
After I share my reflections on these items, I move into an exploration of my practice and the philosophy of yoga, my practice of Bikram Yoga and its relationship to my other meditation practices.
I note briefly some of the controversies that surround Bikram Yoga, in particular, and all yoga, in general. I will have to share my views in another set of reflections.
I conclude with an exploration on the future of my Bikram Yoga practice…
What is Bikram Yoga?
Bikram Yoga is a type of Hatha Yoga that is named after its founder Bikram Choudhury. It has the following characteristics:
What are the claimed benefits of Bikram Yoga?
Bikram, who rebuilds cars, uses “car metaphor” to present the benefits of his system of yoga:
Practicing Hatha Yoga – and by that I mean doing my Bikram Sequence of 26 poses and two breathing exercises – is like getting a complete overhaul for your body. Full service! It cleans the gaps between the spark plugs, lubricates the joints, adjusts your fluid levels, changes the oil in your gearbox, rotates your tires and fills them with the correct psi. (Choudhury 2007, p. 2).
About the heat, Choudhury writes
… in that extreme heat we forge bodies and minds of steel. By pushing you to your limits and the beyond, I get you to understand that there are no limits. Everything is possible if you work hard enough and know what you’re doing.
When you practice my 26 postures, you are good for the day. You are energized, you are relaxed, you are calm. Nothing can come from outside and bother your body or your mind. I guarantee you. Such is the confidence I have this Sequence.
Choudhury explains that the physical yoga (Hatha Yoga) takes us beyond our physical bodies:
… in yoga we don’t deal just with the body, but also with the mind and the Spirit….
The ultimate destination of human life is Self-Realization…. Our mission here on Earth is to fully inhabit or realize the awesome potential of our true Selves….
We begin with the body, the physical plane…. Your body knows how to heal itself, and when you practice Bikram Yoga, you will experience optimum health, radiant health for the first time…
Yoga asanas rejuvenate the spine, the center of all energy in the body…. The postures also strengthen the immune system…. Through … the breathing exercises, we also create an essential and happy marriage between the heart and the lungs… And unlike all other types of exercise, yoga actually gives you more energy, creating a surplus rather than depleting energy or running down your batteries.
…. Yoga is the natural proven remedy … for both mental and physical reactions to stress.
…. Through training the body with rigor and determination, we also train the mind to concentrate.
Once the body and mind are trained and joined in harmony – I call this a marriage – they can live together in harmony and be invited into the house of the Spirit. Then body, mind and Spirit form a perfect union and a complete human being. A happy fulfilled human being. Listen to me now: If you follow my instruction and do my yoga posture Sequence to the best of your ability, you will live a better, healthier and more peaceful life. A life that’s in balance, and most likely a longer life as well. Your attitude – your entire outlook – will improve radically along with your body and mind; your relationship to all humanity will change. That’s what happens with begin to tap your awesome potential.
Is there something that I can you can direct me to materials that summarize the claimed benefits?
Yes. I have pulled together some information in the attached three appendices. Appendix A provides a brief description of the Bikram Yoga. Appendix B outlines some of the claimed benefits of each of the poses. Appendix C highlights eight key benefits.
How long have you been practicing Bikram Yoga?
“Officially”, I’ve been practicing for 10 years. As I remember it I got started on the first Wednesday in February 2004. The date was February 6th.
Why do say “officially”?
I say “officially” because my first encounter with Bikram Yoga was an “unofficial” one. My “unofficial” encounter with Bikram Yoga began in the Summer of 2002. I had given up running and was headed towards some indoor fitness programs. I had decided to try early morning yoga classes. There was a yoga teacher at the Rock Creek Sports Club who from the standpoint of some members was teaching this “strange” yoga class. I took the class based on the time it was offered. The teacher taught the same sequence of poses each class. On Tuesdays and Thursdays class was 60 minutes. On Saturdays, the class was 90 minutes.
Was the class billed a ”Bikram Yoga” class?
No. It was just listed as a yoga class. There was nothing memorable about the description. I was just interested in trying yoga and the class was offered at a convenient time for me.
When did you realize it was “Bikram Yoga” that was being taught?
We and I say “we” began to realize that it was a Bikram Yoga class about a year later. In the summer of 2003, the instructor announced that she was moving to Philadelphia. Her husband had taken a new job there and the family would be joining him. That’s when the “blue” Bikram Yoga book began to circulate. And by then some folks had discovered Bikram Yoga Tenleytown and were sharing their experiences.
At the Rock Creek Sports Club was the temperature of the studio 105 degrees and 40% humidity?
No. There was no attempt to create the temperature and humidity that are part of the “Official Bikram Yoga” experience. In the summertime, the air conditioner was on. In the wintertime, given the location of studio, the studio was often cold, even with the heat on.
What happened after the yoga teacher at the Rock Creek Sports Club left?
The “Faux Bikram Yoga” world was turned upside down. People quite the studio. Some stopped practicing yoga.
While the studio continued to offer yoga classes in the time slots, for those who had been practicing “faux Bikram Yoga”, the “yoga” just was not satisfying. People began to shop around. Sometime in September of 2003, there was this “rumor” that Bikram himself was going to be offering a weekend workshop at the Doubletree Hotel in Crystal City, Va.
Did you attend the weekend workshop?
Yes. That was my second encounter with Bikram Yoga. My first encounter was at the Rock Creek Sports Club.
What did you come away with after participating in the two-day workshop?
I came away “horrified”. I was not horrified by practice. I was horrified by Bikram, himself. I kept saying to myself: “What an asshole!”
Why were you “horrified”?
Keep in mind that I was familiar with the sequence of the poses. So the postures, in and of them selves, were not new. While there was some attempt to create a heated environment, it was hard to heat up a Ballroom that large. So there were not the heat and humidity challenges that I would come to encounter when I started my regular practice.
Here was the man who to me was incoherent, racist, sexist, and xenophobic. His language was “politically incorrect” and totally inappropriate. I kept saying to myself: Someone needs to talk to this guy before he gets hit with some sexual harassment charges.
What did you do after you attended the workshop?
I went back to the yoga classes at the Rock Creek Sports Club. My position was that I would take whatever classes were offered, and I did until February 6, 2004,
Did that “yoga” have a name?
No. But many, if not all, of the teachers at that time had trained at Willow Street Yoga, which was owned and operated by Suze Hurley. Hurley’s studio was focused on “Anusara Yoga”. My first yoga classes before my classes at the Rock Creek Sports Club were at Willow Street. And I had several classes with Hurley.
My shift from “Faux Bikram Yoga” to “True Anusara Yoga” provided me with my first glimpse into the different styles of yoga.
Did the “Anusara Yoga” catch on at the Sports Club like Bikram Yoga had?
If I remember correctly, it did not. In retrospect the popularity of the Faux Bikram Yoga was tied to the popularity of the teacher, Regina Dawley. She probably could have taught any type of yoga and would have had a large following.
Why do you think it was Regina and not necessarily Bikram Yoga?
Regina and I were neighbors and many of the practitioners were aware of that. Tongue-in-check my fellow yogis would ask me if I could intervene and get her to stay and teach. In the cleaners, at the Co-op, and in the parking lot of the establishments along Grubb Road, folks would stop me and start telling me their “Regina stories”, and how much she and her practice meant to them. Part of the reason that folks quit yoga and quit coming to the Sports Club was because they couldn’t fathom a practice without Regina.
So between October 2003 and February 2004, how did you get to start practicing Bikram Yoga at the Tenleytown Studio?
As noted, my first “official encounter” with Bikram Yoga was with Bikram. As a result of my experiences, I had no desire whatsoever to go the Bikram Yoga studio. What happened was one of the practitioners who was fond of “Faux Bikram” and of Regina came to after class and said to that he couldn’t take the yoga that was being taught at the Rock Creek Sports Club.
I indicated to him that there was Bikram Yoga Tenleytown and there they taught the “real” Bikram Yoga. Graham mentioned that he had heard it was hot and humid. I said I hadn’t been there, but that it was a yoga practice. It was not a “cult”. You were not locked in a studio and then subjected to intense levels of heat and humidity. If he got there and didn’t like it, he could leave.
What I agreed to do was to go with him. Since Graham travelled a lot for his work, we eventually had a date where we could go together to Bikram Yoga Tenleytown.
I got hooked.
What do you mean: “You got hooked”?
I couldn’t stop going.
What happened to Graham?
I didn’t see him for two or three months. He disappeared. But once his travel schedule calmed down, he became a regular practitioner and kept at until about a year or so ago. I haven’t been in contact with him lately.
How could you be “hooked on” Bikram Yoga and “turned off” by the person who developed the yoga?
Before I answer that question, let me share another “true story”. One of my sisters lives in Los Angelos, and she independently experienced the “real” Bikram Yoga about the same time I was. She lived close to the “world headquarters” and was taking classes there. She was really enjoying the classes. And then, Bikram himself showed up to teach a class. My sister hasn’t been back since. For her, like for me, “Bikram The Person”, was a total turnoff.
Among the students at Tenleytown, I found out there were others who liked the practice, but didn’t like the developer of the practice. Among us there was a saying: “Bikram Yoga without Bikram is just fine.” We were able to separate the message from the messenger.
How widespread was this feeling that “Bikram Yoga with Bikram is just fine”?
For those who have a view, this is clearly a minority view. I don’t think it’s a widespread view at all. However, given some of the allegations against Bikram, it might become a more popular view.
Why do you say it’s a “minority view”?
Let me fast forward to late Fall last year. I’m taking a class at Bikram Yoga Laguna Beach. The teacher as part of the dialogue is telling the story of her first encounter with Bikram and how wonderful and inspiring that encounter was. From talking with people over the years, that is the majority view … a wonderful person, a wonderful practice, and a wonderful experience. And all this “wonderfulness” is genuine.
Do you think this “majority view” is going to change?
It may. Below I list some “controversies” surrounding Bikram the Yoga and Bikram the Person. Because of one or more of these “controversies”, some studio owners have dropped “Bikram Yoga” from their name.
When you think back over the 10 years you’ve been practicing “officially”, what type of things come to mind?
One thing I think about is the evolution of my practice. By that I mean, I think about how my practice has changed. In September 2012, there was a major shift in my practice. During the summer months leading up to that September, I had a minor medical challenge, and inexplicably, I could hardly get into and out of the 26 poses that I had been doing for over eight years. What that experience taught me was what it meant to “practice where I was”. I had to “let go of” all expectations and just do what I could do.
With that experience, I got a real sense of how much effort and struggle I had put into my practice. Since I couldn’t practice the way I used to, I had to learn to practice “as things were”.
How would describe how your practice use to be?
I mentioned my “unofficial” and my “official” beginnings of my Bikram Yoga practice. In retrospect, another reason in addition to Regina having been an excellent teacher, the Bikram-style was compatible with the “work out” mindset of a sports club. The practice is vigorous and intense. One’s mental and physical limits are being tested simultaneously and constantly for 90 minutes. Once I began my “official” practice, I had to master the heat, the humidity, and the poses. Mind, body, and spirit were being tested simultaneously. My goal was one of mastering the poses. My goal now is one of experiencing the poses.
Before this transformation from mastering to experiencing, I had this saying that when I mastered the “standing head to knee pose”, I was going to retire from my Bikram Yoga practice.
When I officially started my Bikram Yoga practice in 2004, I was 56 years old. I had turned 56 in December 2003. Starting in 2004, I engaged in a 30-day challenge at least once a year. When I was about to turn 60 in 2007, I stumbled upon the idea of doing a “birthday challenge”. I would do 60 classes in 60 days. Interestingly enough several folks have picked up on this idea and have done their birthday challenge. I think I did a birthday challenge for 60, 61, and 62. Life got in the way and I didn’t complete a challenge of any length until last year when I was still 65.
Have you completed “challenges” other than birthday ones?
Yes. I don’t know how many. Whenever the studio would schedule a challenge, I would try to participate. Also in the Summer of 2013, I embarked upon a personal “healing challenge”. I had fractured my left elbow and my left ring finger due to falls off of my bike. After a couple of days in a cast and sling, I decided to practice Bikram Yoga everyday until I healed. I completed 71 classes in 75 days.
Also, as part of my recognition of 10 years of practicing Bikram Yoga, I will be doing a 10-day challenge once a month for 10 months. Month one was February 2014.
Has your Bikram Yoga practice clashed with your other activities?
Before I answer that question, let me share an often-stated saying and it goes something to the effect that Hatha Yoga is good all other fitness activities, but no other fitness activity is good for practicing Hatha Yoga. For me this has been true. I really appreciate the therapeutic effects of Bikram Yoga after an intense workout.
But there is one area that I haven’t reconciled. When I go to my health practitioners at Tulsi Holistic Living and I share the symptoms that relate to the various maladies I have and have had, they typically indicate, following principles of Chinese Medicine that I have too much “heat” and too much “dampness” in by body. Then they look at me quizzically and asked: Now why are you practicing Bikram Yoga, which all about “dampness” and “heat”?
All I can say is that I still go to Tulsi and I still practice Bikram Yoga
Do you recommend Bikram Yoga for everyone?
Let me answer that question in a “round about way”.
While I think that just about anyone can benefit from Bikram Yoga, I don’t think that everyone has the temperament for the practice.
What I do recommend is that everyone have some form of “body-centered practice”.
While my reflections are on my experiences with Bikram Yoga, I use the “Integral Life Practice”. According to ILP each person should to have four “core practices” – mind, body, spirit and shadow. Bikram Yoga qualifies as a “body practice” that also contributes to the other three practices.
What I recommend is that everyone adopt a “body practice”. If someone asks me for a recommendation for the type of body practice they should adopt, I often recommend that they start and experiment Bikram Yoga.
 Harriet Beinfeld and Efrem Korngold. Between Heaven and Earth; A Guide to Chinese Medicine. Ballantine Books: NY, 1991. Also: Paul Pritchford. Healing with Whole Foods; Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition, 3rd Ed. North Atlantic Books: Berkeley, CA. 2002.
 Wilber, Ken; Patten, Terry; Leonard, Adam; and Morelli, Marco. Integral Life Practice; A 21st Century Blueprint for Physical Health, Emotional Balance, Mental Clarity and Spiritual Awakening. Boston: Integral Books, 2008.