In Defense of Bikram Yoga

Full disclosure: I am both a Bikram yoga instructor and an active participant in yoga competition. That doesn’t make me a fanatic, and that doesn’t make me an automatic asshole, as some would have you believe. But it does mean I love Bikram yoga in spite of all the baggage that comes along with it – of which there is sometimes a lot. There is a great deal of controversy surrounding Bikram the man, the yoga, and the competition, otherwise this post wouldn’t be worth writing. Perhaps a post on my experiences with Bikram the man is a good thing for another day, but suffice to say he is a brilliant yet divisive yoga teacher who creates haters and lovers wherever he goes. Today I’m going to focus on the yoga and why it is the way it is.

If you’ve never done Bikram yoga before, I will tell you what I tell all my first time students. It’s hot, sometimes really hot, and you might get dizzy or feel overwhelmed. Take a knee if you need, first class you’re just feeling it out. But stay inside the room. Why? Because once you leave you will always know that you can leave. That’s not how life works, at least not any life that I’ve seen – sometimes you have to stick it out. However, if you have diarrhea you can totally leave, nobody needs to shit their pants at yoga.

Now I understand that not all Bikram teachers are going to have that same attitude. (I’ve heard of a Bikram teacher being fired for yelling at a student for yawning too much. True story.) Some are arrogant and lack compassion. This isn’t a product of Bikram yoga, this is a personal problem. I have seen this attitude in teachers of other yogas, just as I have seen brilliant, compassionate teachers of other yogas. Same goes for university professors. And bosses. And parents. You’d almost think it’s part of being human. And yoga teachers, alas, are painfully human. Part of the reason I even went to teacher training was because I hoped being a yoga teacher was a one-way ticket out of humanville into some sweet sweet divine realm of blissed-out spirituality. I was naïve. And wrong. Here’s the thing, Bikram yoga is recognizable and it’s practically everywhere. It’s identifiable. There is more opportunity to be exposed to a greater variety of teachers. And let’s be honest, the bad ones are always at least as memorable as the good ones, in any given situation.

As for the level of competitiveness in the room. Absolutely a good teacher will seek to create a safe, positive space for his or her students to practice in. But as someone who believes in the unlimited capacity of each and every human being to overcome perceived personal limitations and exceed their own expectations, I will always encourage you to push harder, to stay in it longer, to never never give up on yourself. I have had teachers do this for me, and it has amazed me to begin to see what I am capable of. This doesn’t mean that what you do isn’t enough, or is better or worse than your neighbour. You are perfect the way you are and you always will be. But this life is short – let’s see what we can do with it. Here’s the catch, if the yoga didn’t challenge you, you might never know. All of this is based on the understanding that your practice is a micro of the macro. Who you are in the room (or any practice you do for that matter) is who you are in life. Cosmic mirror. Scary. But wow, the potential. Change your habits in the room, learn to look yourself in the mirror and see who you honestly are and holy shit! Look at that brilliant, beautiful, strong person!

Finally, I would also add that it doesn’t matter what other people are doing in the room, most people are so wrapped up in their own misery/joy/life that they don’t really notice anybody else. And if they do, it has nothing to do with you. If Bikram has taught me anything it’s that nobody can steal your peace, unless you let them. Doing Bikram yoga is to practice equanimity in the face of challenging circumstances, be it an obnoxious teacher in hot pink pants who talks too fast or too loud, half naked yogis sweating all over everybody else’s space, the godforsaken heat, or locking your knee.

Next time I’ll post on yoga competition. If you have any questions feel free to ask in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer and explain.

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dellbot

Shamelessly enjoys ramen noodles. And romangst.

14 thoughts on “In Defense of Bikram Yoga”

  1. Hello! So interesting to hear from someone who teaches Bikram. It sounds incredibly intense and somewhat terrifying. What I would like to know is, with all this emphasis on pushing oneself, doesn’t it encourage people into more of a shaming/self-hating loop than a listen-to-your-body one? And also, where do people with physical disabilities fit in? Do you have to be cleared by a doctor, or does Bikram assume we can overcome anything?

  2. This is fantastic! I have spent so much time defending Bikram yoga and I would have to agree. Showing up in that studio and looking at myself in the mirror is a constant balancing act (no pun intended) between my body, my feelings about my body, and working to accept myself. I’ve been practicing for nearly 5 years and I still mutter under my breath sometimes when I fall out of standing bow; or I get discouraged if I can’t kick as high as I did in the last class. It is such a lesson in life to be able to meet yourself where you’re at; sometimes you just have to smile at yourself and do the best you can. Yoga has taught me so much about myself it’s amazing; I’m always surprised when people are unwilling to even try a class. I guess the heat, the sweat, the racing heart beat, and the occasional dizzy spell could make it kind of hard to sell.

    I have a friend from India who told me that the yoga postures are all about recreating the cycle of life; it’s about rebirth, a chance to realearn how to use you limbs, and a chance to experience death. Thinking about it this way kind of helps the class seem more meaningful than it already does. I hope that Rajashree succeeds in bringing yoga to the youth; I think there would be a wealth of positive changes if that were to happen.

  3. Bikram is my favorite form of yoga! While I admit varied levels of enjoyment with different teachers, I always feel like it’s a great workout. In addition, it’s pretty much the ONLY form of exercise (other than boring PT) I’ve been able to do with some pretty major back issues. When I reinjured myself, I could barely sit to drive, but I made it to Bikram class, because it was the only 90 minutes in the day without radiating pain. My one issue is just that it’s a large time commitment, and dadly, with work and saving money right now, I haven’t been able to fit it in, but perhaps this post will inspire me to go back. I’m interested to hear more about the competitions!

    1. It’s pretty amazing the things I’ve seen people heal themselves of. A lot of the students I know turned to Bikram yoga when they were at the end of their ropes or the only option was surgery and saw great turnaround through the practice. It’s pretty amazing when someone responds to it that way and avoids surgery or gains mobility that they thought was permanently gone. For me personally it helped me deal with some anxiety issues that I had and continues to help me develop discipline.

      That said, it’s a helluva time commitment, especially if you have to commute to get there, but the way I look at it is that if you want to work your whole body bones to skin on a cellular level, it probably takes a while.

  4. Please excuse the possible derailment here:

    I need help/advice/sympathy. I used to go to a Yoga class twice a week for about eight months about two years ago. Since my instructor left, I have mostly practised at home but not really regularly until a couple of months ago. I practised at home twice a week. For a complete picture, I should add that I do weights at my gym three times a week and run long-distance twice a week as well.

    THEN…last Wednesday, I went to a Yoga class with a new instructor in town. I’ve always been careful with positions that involve back bending, so I do the “lite” version of positions such as Cobra. Last Wednesday I was feeling really good and I was already warmed up well from doing a bit of cardio before the class. So, I did the full Cobra during our sun salutations… That was the only difference that I can put my finger on. But it didn’t hurt or feel even uncomfortable.

    About 24 hours later, Thursday evening, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I had a sharp, burning pain in my lower back and a strong feeling of pressure. Pain killers helped for a bit but I finally went to the hospital on Sunday. The doctor determined that my lower back muscles were inflamed and that I should take 400 mg of ibuprofen every four hours for a couple of days and just take it easy.

    I should note that I haven’t excised or even walked long distances since Thursday. Today I felt only a few twinges throughout the day, so I figured I would start up slow again with some simple yoga moves. Ten minutes in, that burning pain came back so I stopped.

    I am feeling SO dejected and sad about the whole thing. Exercising is my way of dealing with stress and makes me feel happy and good about myself. Now it looks like I will have to be sidelined for a good long while…

    Does anyone have any suggestions for how to deal with this (emotionally/physically)? Also, recommendations for a slow return to exercising would be greatly appreciated. I would ask my doctor to refer me to a physio therapist, but the waiting list here is over a year long (live in the Arctic).

    Thanks for letting me rant :)

    1. As someone who has had a lower-back injury (sprained both SI joints), I am going to tell you something you don’t want to hear:

      REST!

      Lie flat on your back for a while if you can. If you need to stretch the area a bit, put a little cat tilt in your hips so that your spine lays flat (I, personally, love this stretch).

      Apply heat for no longer than 20 minutes at a time. If you can, do 20 minutes heat, 20 minutes nothing, 20 minutes ice, 20 minutes of nothing, then 20 minutes of heat once a day or so.

      Do NOT let anyone rub your lower back… even if it feels good at the time, massage on inflammation is bad news.

      As things are starting to heal up (it may take a few weeks), exercise moderately. Walking is great. Very gentle stretches (Child’s pose, mountain, etc.) can be good. If you feel the slightest twinge, stop. It’s not worth it.

      How do I know it’s not worth it? Because when I sprained my back, I did everything you’re not supposed to do, and still have problems years later.

      If it makes you feel better, studies have shown that taking one full week of workout rest every 12 weeks or so actually improves overall performance, since it allows your body time to heal from those nagging little things.

      1. You’re right; it wasn’t what I wanted to hear, heh. But thank you very much nonetheless! It is tough to accept that I have to stop cold turkey. I am terrified of turning this into a chronic problem, though, and it has been keeping me still so far, besides the ten minutes of gentle stretches today.

        I will put away my exercise clothes, tread mill, and yoga mat for now and try to figure out what to do with all this new free time.

        I really appreciate all of the specific advice of do’s and don’t’s. This has to heal properly. When I am in a better mood, I will do some research online to find out more about back injuries and such.

        1. I definitely know how tough it is to accept that you have to quit exercising for a while.

          One other thing I just thought of is that some people see improvement when going on a low-carb diet… apparently, carbs are bad for inflammation. I know that some foods (especially fish and fatty vegetables/fruits like avocados and coconut) are good for reducing inflammation. Not sure how much they help, but they are also all delicious.

    2. I have to agree with Lisa M.’s advice too. If you are in that much pain, some rest is a good call. If it is inflammation, taking arnica or Traumeel (a miracle cure) can help as well, particularly if you take it internally (pills). Traumeel is magic for aches and pains. Some drugstores carry it but it’s definitely available at Whole Foods.

      The one thing I would also add is that you don’t want to rest for too too long (like not months!), but be specific about what physical activities you do. If you have access to a Bikram studio I would say start there. Some people might find that counterintuitive because of the intensity of the practice, but it’s so therapeutic, particularly for backs and knees. My next suggestion would be to check out an Inyengar studio or find Inyengar-certified teachers. Inyengar teachers go through a lengthy and rigorous training period with lots of mentorship and are among the most qualified and educated yoga teachers. When you do go to class again, explain your injury to your teacher beforehand so they know how to work with you. Good luck and take care of yourself!

      Oh, and drink lots of water!

      1. Hi Dellbot, thanks for your reply. Unfortunately, living in a small Arctic town which can only be accessed by plane presents some difficulties in attending those types of classes :) The new yoga instructor in town is actually leaving for after next Wednesday’s class, and so we will be without a certified instructor again.

  5. I did Bikram Yoga once and enjoyed it, for the most part (except that I was the fattest one there and it made me self-conscious). I would go more if it was at my gym and not a separate place where you have to pay $10. I am really looking forward to this yoga competition post though. I did not know they had yoga competitions. I can hold downward dog like a champ. I bet I’d win.

    1. Ha! I’m terrible at downward dog. I have those weird elbows that hyper bend into weird U shapes. Whenever I do an ashtanga class the teacher is like, ‘Do something with those things. Rotate them in!’ Still haven’t quite figured out how to do that.

      I don’t know what it’s like to be in anybody else’s body, so take it for what it’s worth, but like I said in the original post, everybody is so focussed on themselves in class that it doesn’t matter what you do/look like (unless you wear a rain coat to class, which I’ve heard of), so my advice is to not worry about it! If you enjoyed it and are curious about it try not to let anything stop you living your life.

  6. I’ve tried Bikram yoga (several times) and never had a good experience, though I’ve done other classes that were challenging, and other bad teachers, and so on. Still, I have friends who love it, YMMV, etc. etc.

    I’m intrigued/confused by yoga competitions. How are they scored: flexibility, strength, length of time holding the pose…? And how does the idea of a competition fit in with a personal yoga practice?

    1. Good questions and I will elaborate on those things in my next post on yoga. Competition is such a sticky subject when it comes to yoga, but basically what it boils down to is that Rajashree Choudury (Bikram’s wife) wants to get as many people as possible doing yoga. The goal with the competitions is to get it at a level where it can become an Olympic sport. Should that happen, the popularity of yoga across the world will explode. Her vision is to see children from all over the world doing yoga.

      And as for Bikram yoga in particular, as you say, maybe it’s just not for you. It’s not a one fits all kind of thing, and fortunately there are a huge variety of yogas and practices that can work for every individual. This one just happens to be my favourite!

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