I took my first Bikram Yoga class in San Francisco in 2005, after being referred to the practice by my friend and respected instructor, Laine D’Souza. Throughout the past decade, this practice has changed my life – in so many ways. As is the case with most worthwhile physical modalities, it’s the subject of much scrutiny and debate. As a physical practice innovator myself, a fitness leader, educator, and a mentor of instructors around the world, I want to address some of these concerns.
HISTORY: Bikram Yoga is a series of postures developed by Bikram Choudry in the mid 20th century. The 90-minute sequence is comprised of 26 different exercises and breath work; each exercise repeated twice. Mr. Choudry was the first to franchise a yogic sequence, dubbed “McYoga”by his opposition, and therefore it continues to be controversial.
One of the greatest complaints is the intense temperature: a hot room set to 104 degrees F, with humidity at 40%. Traditional yogis also argue against the disciplined, regimented sequence which remains absolutely 100% the same in every session, as does the instructors’ script.
As of 2014 Mr. Choudry claimed to have over 11,000 licensed Bikram instructors throughout the world.
In my opinion: It’s a great series. There is much more focus on sagittal movements than frontal and rotational – but the movements are quite balanced. I stretch and tone virtually every muscle in the body and move through all the joints. In terms of a physical practice – I give it my stamp of approval.
In October 2014, I posted on my Facebook wall and had nearly 300 fitness professionals and students comment. Below are some of their gripes and concerns and my responses.
It depends on the instructor. If I’m being yelled at, forced to lock my knee or scolded not to drink water – I hate it.”
The school is incredibly disciplined, with little grey area. Most studios allow one water break, but traditional Bikram does not allow water. I drink water. Sometimes I get yelled at. Yep – they yell. I can’t stand it.
“Locking the leg” has been banned by the fitness community in order to protect a knee joint that hyper-extends. Cues such as “lift the quadriceps” actually might be a better way to communicate the same message. Unfortunately, the Bikram cues are negative: “Don’t round your spine, don’t mix up your arms.” So, I completely disagree with the cueing technique. However, is Cross-Fit or Boot Camp any different?
I currently have a membership at Mile High Yoga in Denver, CO. The entire staff here actively uses a mixture of voice tone, inflection and volume to keep the cues interested and punctuated when needed. My favorite instructors, Dawn and (studio owner) Samantha literally smile while they teach! It keeps even the strictest cues enjoyable.
The instructors who are mass produced with a script – are horrible.”
Hmmm – ok – how is this different than Les-Mills, Zumba or even YogaFit? Even my own willPower Method® education was created for the masses. There is a growing need for movement/ exercise instructors, and this is one method, one school. Step back and take a look: the content is well balanced and well paced, and the script is clear and very descriptive: with hundreds of alignment cues. I would take this over a Yogi who thinks he’s a guru, and wastes my time time while he rants about his personal accolades and demonstrating “party-tricks” any day. Of course – we can debate each position. There are some very good instructors and some not-so good ones.
Starbucks is mass-produced, but it works as a business model. The reality is that I can go anywhere in the world and take a licensed Bikram class and be sure that 97% of the class is exactly what I’m expecting; just like my quad-grande Americano. I don’t like admitting that I’m hooked – but they have my business because I can depend on it.
The most excellent instructors have developed their script so that it flows with both disciplined energy and nurturing spirit.
I hate the repetitive sequence. Yoga should be an individual journey. There’s nothing organic and does not leave room for interpretation.”
I did some research, and found that yoga has been interpreted, literally hundreds of different ways. It’s almost like interpreting the bible! I like these simple two:
Yoga is a simple process of reversing the ordinary outward flow of energy and consciousness so that the mind becomes a dynamic center of direct perception no longer dependent upon the fallible senses but capable of actually experiencing Truth.
Yoga is a physical, mental, and spiritual practice or discipline, that aims to transform body and mind. The term denotes a variety of schools, practices and goals
In interviewing a few of my favorite yogis, some instructors claim that yoga is a creative journey while others discuss the physical practice. Most instructors claim that the process is individual… but isn’t there a “right” way to articulate each exercise?
I’ve always borrowed a phrase from the brilliant Joseph Pilates “repetition produces results”. In this manner – the student can practice a repertoire of exercises over and over, allowing her to refine, adjust and move closer to “perfectly correct.”
In my opinion, the responsibility of continued learning is on the student. I learn something new in EVERY class – either intellectually or physically. I enjoy hearing the benefits of each exercise (this exercise compresses all 14 of your major joints), and I LOVE seeing and feeling my body get smarter in each class. If a student wants to zone out or get lazy – well – that’s no different from the rest of life, is it?
Though repetition of movements, the student also has the freedom and option to journey inwardly, (meditate) as opposed to spending conscious effort on the physical practice. I have some of my most profound epiphanies in class.
Think of how you feel when you go for a run (the same movement for miles) or cycle. You have time for inward reflection. Some people say that’s their “zone”.
Of course, the repetition eventually develops stronger instructors as well – after seeing hundreds or thousands of bodies repeating the same exercises, instructors develop a sharp eye for corrections, a flow for their script and perhaps bring in additional cues which will assist the students in their leaning process.
The excessive heat creates a false sense of flexibility.”
What’s false? Muscles and joints should be warm when you stretch – but if the range of motion does not exist, the ROM will not happen unless you bounce, force or press yourself into a posture that hurts (which can happen in any stretch class or yoga class). My rule of thumb with stretching is: “Listen to your body. Find the fine line between discomfort and pain. Theres no need for pain.”
I agree – the room gets super HOT. The gauge in yesterdays’ class read 108 F since the room was full of people. However, this is a physical challenge. A challenge that will increase a student’s tolerance, and can enhance their pranayama (exploration of breath).
I suggest limited guidelines for special populations. Pre and post-natal clients may have a false sense of flexibility as a result of the increased levels of estrogen and relaxin in their system (allowing hips, ribcage and foot ligaments to widen / stretch). Prenatal should also be aware of the dangers that exist with an elevation of core temperature. Prenatal exercise specialist Sara Haley comments: My main concern about becoming overheated when pregnant is DEHYDRATION, and you lose a lot of water in hot yoga. If you become too dehydrated during pregnancy, the possibility arises of preterm labor or birth defects, due to lack of water and nutrients to your baby. So, my recommendation is to wait until you have the baby to go back to your hot yoga. Postpartum you still have to make sure you hydrate like crazy if you’re nursing. Dehydration can lead to a decrease in milk.
Other groups (obese, older adults) should consider the increase of blood pressure in the heat and some postures in particular.
There are competitions? That’s the antithesis of yoga! I hate the super aggressive teaching style.”
Regarding competitions: shouldn’t the best in class in any practice, sport or discipline be allowed to compete? Is this much different than getting chosen to perform your excellent Natarajasana (King Dancer Pose) for the cover of Yoga Journal magazine? Is it different than an excellent instructor being chosen to teach at the most exclusive venues in the world? Shouldn’t the best in class have a chance to “win”? This being said – competitions / challenges are never suggested in class.
Perhaps this reader is referring to the 30-class in 30-day challenge, which encourages participants to commit to the Bikram practice every single day. Is it a revenue tactic? I used to think so, until I tried it.
In late 2014, the break-up from my 7-year relationship had left me completely broken and utterly depressed. For 3 months, I stopped taking care of my body; barely worked out and ate everything. I gained 14 pounds. In desperation for an easy-to-access, healthy and productive “hobby”, I committed to the controversial 30-day “challenge” because the plan spoke to me. Committing to 30-days resulted in refreshed self-discipline, self-esteem, gratitude. I learned to breathe again. I found my smile again. (I even wrote about it!) I restored my relationship with myself: the most profound blessing of all.
I hate giving money to a business whose founder has so many lawsuits and sexual harassment charges!”
Oh you’ve got me there, my friend! It’s a sad world when we look to someone as a leader, a guru or a hero … and then they fall from grace. The extreme scandals are far too numerous mention: Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Whitney Houston, Mike Tyson, Pete Rose, Anthony Weiner, Mark Sanford, Mel Gibson, Michael Jackson, Pete Rose, Michael Vick… We’ve applauded these icons, bought their gear, their jerseys their albums, we cast our votes… and then they disgraced the life they’ve been blessed with. Yes, I agree with you, and Bikram Choudry has been charged with a number of nasty and unforgiveable acts.
But, also remember, there are other types of disgrace: so many of our beloved brands that are produced in China – sweatshops staffed by 8-year old children. Will we stop buying Nike gear? Not soon.
That filet mingon that you ordered last Saturday night – consider the painful, depressing and tortured life that the animal endured so that you can indulge on a meal that will last you 9 minutes? Some readers may deny these temptations, and I applaud you. (!!)
In general – we reach for what will work for our lifestyle, for our fashion, our enjoyment.
Truth told, I never want to meet Bikram Choudry, and I will never pay $11K to become an instructor. I am comfortable paying $150 for an unlimited class card at a clean studio with a solid staff – since the majority of my dollars will fund the studio owner and instructor. I’ve tried to practice on my own. I cannot reproduce the heat, the energy or the discipline within myself. I love being part of a group of people moving together and supporting one another.
In the end, it feels important to me to share my views. Bikram Yoga is a method I believe in as a practice. Is it perfect? Nope. I’m not sure that perfection (of any sort) can be achieved here on earth.
Find your path. Be good, be honest, be true. Work with determination and conviction. Be the best you can be through the modalities that work for you. Always have gratitude. That’s willPower.