The Heat Is On
Classical Yoga theory teaches us about the eight steps, or ‘limbs’. The Yamas are the first of these eight limbs, and can best be described as ethical disciplines or universal moral commandments. Under this heading of the Yamas, we find Aparigraha. Aparigraha has been explained as non-hoarding, and is often considered another aspect of Asteya or non-stealing. It suggests to the yogi that gathering things he or she doesn’t need is a form of stealing. Another way of putting this, as spoken by Mahatma Gandhi, is that being wasteful is, in fact, stealing from the poor. Certainly, this basic awareness of the interconnectedness of our existence here on earth is one of the fundamental teachings of yoga, as of most wisdom traditions. And, as yogis, we strive to act with awareness of the karmic ramifications of our actions, as defined by the Yamas, and through our actions we teach the rest of society by example.
So, in light of this, I must question the actions of a popular form of yoga. With all due respect to Mr. Choudhury and the lineage he represents, I wonder if the Bikram yoga practice—heating a yoga shala in excess of 100 degrees—is in line with Aparigraha. I am sure that this system has been profoundly beneficial for its adherents, and has done much good to its practitioners and the world at large. However, we live in a time of rapid climate change due to greenhouse gases, a time when wars are fought for oil, so I posit this question: Is it in line with the Yamas to use energy so wantonly to create this environment for yoga? Is it really necessary or is it an indulgence, the equivalent of driving a Hummer?
I fully understand that Tapas are considered a part of Niyama, the second of the eight limbs of Yoga. Tapas literally means to burn, or to purify by heating or by fire. This applies to both one’s body and one’s practice, or spiritual life. The body is regarded as a vehicle for spiritual growth, and the copious sweat of vigorous asana practice is a literal and obvious example of Tapas in action. Asana induced sweat keeps the yogi’s body clean and supple. I love to sweat with the best of them, but is it necessary to create an extreme external heat source, or can a similar effect be achieved by the use of bandhas and vinyasa? Is it worth the greenhouse gases? Of course, each studio has its challenges of heating and cooling, and with each passing year, I really appreciate warmth. But I recall, many years ago, being present when Pattabhi Jois was asked about asana practice in cold weather. His response was simple: wear more clothes.
Breath is a foundation of yoga practice, and Bikram yoga requires one to breathe super heated air in a closed environment. Certainly it does not create an abundance of negative ions. I am fortunate, I believe, that my humble little yoga studio is a couple of blocks from the Pacific Ocean. With the prevailing onshore flow of air, most days we are blessed with fresh ocean air for our practice. It almost seems criminal to alter it more than necessary. Although our old building can be drafty and austere at times, we have come to appreciate the different seasons and solar angles, what each side of the year has to offer. The steamy summer afternoons seem suited for furthering flexibility, and the cool winter classes for testing, and increasing one’s strength.
Is there a solution to this conundrum? Two are obvious: either wait until summer or move to the tropics. I also suppose that avid practitioners of the heated method could install or deploy enough photovoltaic panels (or similar renewable sources) to offset the extra CO2 emissions. A Bikram line of solar panels?
Ultimately, it is about the Yamas. We are asked, as Yogis, to embrace a profound code of ethics, and practice self-inquiry. Thus, we must all be vigilant of how our actions affect the whole of our world. I regard most yogis as the elite of the world, a noble class dedicated to self-discovery and peaceful living, but that does not give us license to use the world’s resources in a selfish way. In our modern world, embracing Aparigraha requires nothing less of us.
Bruce Stephens began his study of yoga in 1976 with Manju Jois. Ending every class with a meditation, Bruce shares the knowledge gained from such teachers as Thich Nhat Hanh, Ken Wilber, and the Dzogen lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Surfer, poet, gardener and occasional host of the Full Moon La Paloma Poetry Slams, Bruce deeply loves and cares for the community of Encinitas and the people that reside there.