Fitness & The Infinite: Some Reflections on 10 Years of Practicing Bikram Yoga (Part 2) – August 2020

In this post…

  • Teachers and Teaching
  • Body, Mind & Spirit
  • Other Meditation Practices
  • Spiritual Practices & Warning Labels
  • Much Ado About “Nothing”
  • On “Impermanence”


Teachers and Teaching

Are there other things you think about as you look back over the last 10 years?

Another thing I reflect on from time to time is the various teaching styles. The Bikram Yoga system amplifies teaching styles because teachers teach the same thing. Part of the Bikram Yoga system is that the experience will be the same wherever you go. While the experience is the same, it varies widely. There are “The Drill Sergeants.”  There are “The  Perfectionists.” There are “The Deliverers.”


Are there other differences among teachers?

I’m fascinated by what the various teachers can fit into a script.  Within each of those categories, teachers may focus on (i) the postures, (ii) the anatomy, (iii)  the medical benefits, (iv) the energetic benefits, and (v) the philosophical system.  There are also the “storytellers.” I mentioned a class in Laguna Beach. While giving the dialogue, she shared her complete Bikram Yoga history, or at least it seemed like it was the complete history. Also, teachers will share events in their lives. 


Body, Mind & Spirit 

When you described Bikram Yoga in the words of Bikram, you highlighted that Bikram Yoga is more than just working through a series of postures; it’s more than a physical exercise.  Do the people how you know treat Bikram Yoga as a complete system for Self Realization?

I don’t know.  Ironically, there is very little discussion among my fellow practitioners about using Bikram Yoga as a path to “Self Realization.”  This is something we just don’t talk about. 


Why do you think that is the case?

While Bikram highlights that his “Sequence “is only a means to an end, we primarily focus on the means. We’re in it for the physical benefits. 

Two, I think folks find it easier to talk about the physical benefits rather than the spiritual benefits. By and large, when I first started practicing, folks were showing up in the studio to “heal their bodies.”  Another of the claims made about Bikram Yoga is that is “Therapeutic Yoga.”

Three, despite its group setting, the practice tends to be a very private one for folks.


What do you mean by “Therapeutic Yoga”?

Again, people take up Bikram Yoga to heal their bodies. Former runners. Former dancers. Former athletes. Aging Baby Boomers.  People with various maladies. And for the most part, people report success.  

Sometimes when there is a session of long-term practitioners, I marvel at our various ailments. This one returned to Bikram Yoga after a heart attack. One over there used Bikram Yoga for rehabilitation after hip surgery.  That one over there is trying to slow down the progress of a curving spine. This one over had to rehabilitate his knees due to tears in his knees. The list could go on and on.

I remember towards the end of my first 30-day challenge in 2005; I experienced what felt like the pain and discomfort from just about every physical injury I had in my life.  After of a couple of days of practice, my body released all that pain it was holding.

Last summer, after the cast and sling were taken off my left arm due to a fall and I fractured my left elbow and the ring finger on my left hand, I headed straight to the Bikram Yoga Studio.  71 sessions of Bikram Yoga in 75 days was my physical therapy. 


Do you know of your fellow practitioners attending for non-physical therapeutic reasons?

Yes. Folks have used the practice to deal with the death of a spouse. They have used the practice to get through divorces. There was one particularly interesting situation for someone who was going through a nasty divorce. That person would come to a class and cry through the whole 90 minutes. 

On a less serious matter, there is the standing joke that the only reason we practice Bikram Yoga, or any yoga, is to get the last pose of class, and that poses is Savassana. The previous 88 minutes of practice get us ready for the final two minutes of complete relaxation. No doubt there are moments of transcendence experienced in these two minutes.


Other Meditation Practices

Do you practice any other types of yoga or meditation?

Yes. I practice Yoga Nidra, and I lead Yoga Nidra sessions.

I mentioned that my unofficial practice of Bikram Yoga began in the Summer of 2002. Before that, I had taken some classes at Willow Street Yoga, but those classes didn’t become a consistent practice. 

Prior to that, I started on a meditation journey. Sometime around 1998-1999, I became interested in meditation.  Through a series of serendipitous events, I stumbled upon the Sunday night sittings of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington (IMCW) at Willow Street Yoga. I sat with that group for a couple of years. I eventually began to participate in IMCW sessions, workshops, non-residential retreats, and residential retreats. 

Somewhere in the 2006-2007 period, through IMCW practitioners, I got introduced to Yoga Nidra. I completed the Level I training in 2007 and the Level II training in 2008. I’m currently enrolled in the Level III training.  


When you started sitting with the IMCW group at Willow Street Yoga, was that your first foray into meditation?

No. My first foray into meditation was back in the mid to late 1970s. I experimented with Transcendental Meditation. But that experiment only lasted for a short while. I think a matter of a few months.


In addition to meditation, are there other activities in which you engage?

Yes. But before I explain, let me share with you a definition of “yoga” that I’m fond of.  According to this definition, “yoga” is the process of bringing the mind into stillness. Given that definition, any activity that brings the mind into stillness is yoga practice.  


Spiritual Practices & Warning Labels

 Are you aware of the controversies that surround Bikram Yoga?

I’m aware of some of them. I have read some articles over the years. There seem to be several controversies that surround Bikram Yoga:  (i) Materialism & Egoism, (ii) Exercise versus True Yoga, (iii) Copyrighting, (iv) the allegations of harassment and rape, (v) the Transformation of yoga into a competitive activity; and (vi) The validity of the claims of the practice. 


Do you have any views on these controversies? If so, what are they? 

I have views on these controversies. I may provide those in a subsequent set of reflections.


Are there controversies surrounding yoga in general?

There are lots of controversies. They focus on issues of gender, race, ethnicity, body type, and historical origins.


Do you have any views on these controversies? If so, what are they? 

Again, I have views on these controversies. Again, I may provide those in a subsequent set of reflections 


While you don’t want to provide any of your views at this time, are there any key insights you have gotten about Bikram Yoga, having practiced it for 10 years, that may guide us in understating the “controversies”?

As I noted above, my first official encounter with Bikram Yoga was with Bikram himself, and that encounter was not one that endeared me to the practice.  Based on the first “Weekend With Bikram,” I am not surprised by all the controversies.

Over the years, almost like any practice similar to Bikram Yoga, I had to do some “sorting out.”  I have come to think of Bikram Yoga in terms of the following:

  • Bikram the Person
  • Bikram the Practice
  • Bikram the Opportunities for Teaching and Jobs
  • Bikram the Product
  • Bikram the Studio Business Model
  • Bikram the Institution


 Can you elaborate on the categories you developed?

I could, but that, too would take more time than we have at this point.  However, let me share an anecdote.  

One of the major Insight Meditation teachers is Shenzen Young. In his teachings, he highlights that any so-called spiritual system – including his own — has two key components.  One is “the bait”; the other is “the hook.” For  Young, the successful practitioner is able to nibble the bait – to get the nourishment – without getting snared by “the hook” – the trap.

In the case of someone like Bikram, who is controversial, we don’t want to throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water. Using another metaphor, we want to be able to separate the “message from the medium.” We want to be able to separate the “message from the messenger.” 

Part of my Bikram Yoga practice has been to extract what is useful for me and to avoid all the other stuff that might not be beneficial.  As I noted above, I had come to a conclusion very early in my practice that “Bikram Yoga without Bikram was fine with me.


Based on your understanding of these so-called controversies, what would they be if you had to put “warning labels” on yoga?

I’ve appended a bibliography.  Based on my experiences and my reading, my warning labels would be as follows: 

  1. Beware of the hype 
  2. “Fact-check” the claims.   In the bibliography, there are some sources that “fact-check” the claims.
  3. Beware of humans
  4. Remember that “spiritual practices” are developed by “humans.”  People make great discoveries and can provide profound insights and guides.  Also, we often, and rightfully so, hold such folks in reverence.  But paraphrasing Debbie Ford, “good people” can do “bad things,” and “light chases” have “dark sides” as well.
  5. Beware of the loss of physical, psychological, and emotional moorings
  6. Learn the warning signals and work with someone to interpret and help you work with the warning signals.
  7. Follow your gut instincts. If it doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not right.
  8. Develop a shadow practice.
  9. Adopt an Integral Approach.
  10. Create a “totem.” 


Much Ado About “Nothing”

How would you sum all this up?

Much ado about “nothing.”  

Most practitioners show up to a Bikram Yoga session. They go through the Sequence. They take what they need out of the practice and go home.  They could care less about the Bikram Yoga controversies, yoga philosophy, Self Realization, or anything I have shared. They might be interested in my stories about how I got started with Bikram Yoga, and that’s about it.


Given all the time you spent recording your reflections and the 10 years you’ve spent practicing, it must be more than Seinfeld-like – an activity about nothing.

This is the beauty of a practice like Bikram Yoga. 

I read somewhere that the Ancient Japanese Zen masters were trying to figure out how to get the people who couldn’t go away on long retreats to practice Zen. If the people couldn’t come to the monastery to practice, how could they take the practice to the people?  

If I remember correctly — and if what happened was more than Zen mythmaking — the leaders developed a way for people to integrate Zen into their daily lives. Thus, was borne such things as “Zen and the Tea Ceremony,” “Zen and Flower Arranging,” and “Zen and the Martial Arts.”  Whether this is fiction or fact, the point is that “the practice” can become a part of whatever one does.

In a Bikram-like practice, we get the “felt experience” or the “embodied experience” of going beyond one’s self.  There is no need for any philosophy. No need for any esoteric thinking and practices. No mystery.  

The whole “Path” gets distilled into a 90-minute routine. The whole spiritual path can be traveled by gaining an increasing awareness of what goes on inside the studio, what goes outside the studio, and how the two are interrelated.


Now that seems to be about “something.” 

Yes and no. 

Zen-like, we can look at the practice as trying to open a wooden frame window that is stuck closed. We keep prying and prying, and eventually, we get the window open. But then we realize there was no window there in the first place. We had invested a lot of time, money, and energy in traversing a path only to realize there is nothing to do and no place to go.

On “Impermanence”

According to Shenzen Young, one of the major components of “spiritual practices” of all types is the concept of “impermanence.”  Within the context of Buddhism, the key cause of “suffering” is that we approach our daily lives as if there are “constants”, including a sense of a constant, fixed, separate self.  For Buddhism, this is not the case. Everything is constantly changing, and we suffer because we are unable or unwilling or do not know “to let go.”   

Within the Bikram Yoga paradigm, by holding the studio environment and the Sequence “constant”, we experience that our bodies/minds are in a constant state of flux, constantly unfolding and developing.  We experience that “all is flow” – that “all is change” – and we get the insight into and the experience of that the moment we “fixate”, we set ourselves up for trouble.

With this embodied realization, “The Present Moment” (The “Power of Now”) presents itself in exciting ways.  

Yes. “The Present Moment” is all we have, but in this moment, we experience all our dimensions of “time” — our past, present and future.

Using a gardening metaphor, In The Present Moment, we are reaping the fruits of the seeds we have sown, and some of those fruits might be bitter ones. However, we also recognize that In The Present Moment, we can sow new seeds. Furthermore, we realize that with proper cultivation of our newly planted seeds, we enhance our changes of realizing a tomorrow that is different than what we experienced yesterday and what we are experiencing today. 

In The Present Moment, we experience the results of our past actions.  We recognize, we can initiate new actions.  Consequently, we realize our future is now. 

So in The Present Moment there is this ongoing feedback loop where the past, present and future interact and converge and “new beginnings” unfold.

In the Buddhist paradigm, being “born again” is not a one-time event. It is an ongoing, moment-by-moment activity, and we have within us the power to influence our on-going and continuous transformations.  

In the only moment we have, This Present Moment we are “free to chose”, and our choices will influence This Present Moment.

According to various Bikram Yoga teachers, Bikram says we are never too old or never too sick to start a practice.  Regardless of what has gotten us this point today, we can, today, begin, Now!  .


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