Yoga is for everyone…but only if you lock your knee first

Via on Apr 12, 2011

At a Thursday afternoon yoga class at Zen Spot Lifestyle Center and Yoga Studio in Eugene, participants attempted one of yoga’s most ancient poses.

With left legs standing tall, knee slightly bent to support the body and avoid hyper extension, men and women, all different ages, shapes and sizes, slowly lifted their right leg from multicolored yoga mats and pressed their foot into the left thigh or calve. Gaining their balance, they completed the pose by joining their palms together in the center of their chests in prayer.

For a moment the room was temporarily unified, but soon the posture started to change—every member of the class morphing it into something different, doing as the instructor suggested, “making it their own.”

Some chose to reach their arms above their heads, bringing their gaze to follow. Others reached their hand behind their back, holding opposite elbows. The rest kept hands pressed together at the chest—keeping eyes focused on their own reflection in the wall of mirrors in front of them.

The room is kept hot, 100 plus degrees, to honor the environment of yoga’s origins in India. As sweat drips from pores, the skin’s surface supporting the foot begins to get slippery.

The pose is Vrikshasana or tree pose and is one of the most commonly practiced and ancient yoga poses in the world.

But the next day, in another 100 plus degree room at a studio less than a mile away the same pose looked a bit different.

“Lock your knee,” the instructor’s said from a microphone while standing from a high pedestal in the front of the room. “The pose doesn’t even start until you can lock your knee.”

With left knees locked in place the students brought their right foot high onto the left thigh, adjusting it to turn up toward the ceiling before bringing their hands to the chest in prayer. From there the class of 25 men and women remained in synch. There was no instruction to play with hands position, only to press the palms together as firmly as they could.

Faces remained intently focused on their reflection.

“Don’t even blink,” the instructor said.

The studio is one of an estimated 650 Bikram’s yoga studios in the United States. The pose is part of a 26 Asana or posture series copyrighted by self-titled yoga master Bikram Choudhury—meaning that even if students wanted to they couldn’t ever really “make it their own.”

To an outsider the differences between the two studios approach to teaching the same position seem trivial. But practicing yoga off and on for a few years has shown me that in yoga even the subtlest differences are important.

There is a notion it seems in a lot of the yoga community that deviating from tradition taints the practice. While this may not be the intended message, what this translates to for new people is that if you aren’t a master, you aren’t welcome. Undoubtedly yoga’s history should be honored—it’s beauty and value is in its roots. But this focus on its antiquity seems to have negated yoga’s spiritual intent of unity by discouraging instructors from letting new people in.

According to the Bikram website, Bikram Choudhury is the “most respected living yoga Guru in the world.”

This attitude shone through at his Eugene studio, where the instructor, standing on a pedestal, barked orders at the students, never suggesting any alternative poses to support new people or appearing willing to deviate at all from the structured sequence. I have had similar experiences at the Boulder studio as well.

And for those who practice Bikram yoga the structure and challenge is part of the appeal. I’ve heard Bikram’s instructors often say that yoga is supposed to be painful —  it’s supposed to be hard.

Bikram says on his site that “If you follow my instruction and do my yoga postures sequence to the best of your ability, you will live a better, healthier and more peaceful life.” And follows this up with, “you will not get the intended benefits until it is done hundred percent correct.”

Challenging is good, but this attitude that yoga can only be done one specific way seems to encourage a rift between teacher and the students who do not fit the yogi mold.

At Zen Spot, Kelli Harrington who created the studio with her husband Michael Bittner, insisted, “We are not your gurus.”

They do not intend to be idolized by their students, but to connect with them.

Unlike studios I’ve been to before, the couple has made a noticeable effort to make their vinyasa practice open to everyone and encourage all different types of people to take part in it.

“If you want people to make this a lifestyle you have to give them a space to make it a lifestyle,” Harrington said.

With Bittner’s background in feng shui, they have created a studio that is clean and pleasant to be in. But more importantly, they are welcoming to everyone, not just veteran yogis, who comes in to practice. And it seems to work. Rather than the cookie cutter, perfect yoga bodies that fill the studios I’ve been to in Boulder, Zen Spot is filled with men and women of all different ages, shapes and sizes.

“This  (yoga) is an opportunity for everyone to get in touch with their body and be themselves,” Bittner says. “I want people to have that opportunity.”

This does not seem like the attitude of a lot of instructors, especially at Bikram’s studios. Most might think they are encouraging people to practice, but their approach says the opposite.

And it’s more than just a difference in an instructor’s approach to teaching yoga. It seems there is difference in opinion in the community on yoga’s intent.

“My ultimate goal would be to have everyone in the room look in the mirror and love themselves,” Bittner said of what he hopes his students get out of a class.

Though she refused an interview after class the instructor at the Bikram’s studio agreed to address the same question, but had a decidedly different answer and one that is reflective of the yoga experience there.

“In a word,” she said, “transformation.”

So, what happens if we don’t?

About Adeline Bash

Adeline Bash is a Boulder native currently studying journalism at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Like all journalists, she hopes to make a difference through her writing by advocating for those who cannot do so themselves. Along with writing, she plans to spend her life climbing mountains, learning everything she can, traveling the world, and spending time with as many of its living beings as possible. You can see more of her ideas and writing at Trekking Through It.

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17 Responses to “Yoga is for everyone…but only if you lock your knee first”

  1. AMO says:

    Seriously Elephant, WHEN are you going to start editing for your writers? "Choudhury Bikram"?!?!?!?! There are a lot of half truths, typos and mistakes in this piece, but you couldn't even bother to figure out you were writing the mans name backward?
    How embarrassed you must be…

    • Waylon Lewis says:

      When we have an editor. Which takes money.

    • Adeline Bash addiebash says:

      I did not mean for this post to be offensive. And I do not claim to be an expert, maybe I should have made that more clear. But I have been the new person several times at several different yoga studios and almost every time at least one of the instructors made me feel unwelcome. And this has happened more at Bikram studios than others. I do not think that this is true of all Bikram instructors—I should have made that clear as well. This post was sloppy on my part and too much of a rant and I apologize for that, but I do think it is a valid topic for instructors to consider their attitude toward new people. Yoga is good for you and people should be encouraged to do it. And could you please give me the source that says that the order of the name is not Bikram Choudhury as I had it in my post?

  2. Waylon Lewis says:

    Stephanie Sack I don't relate to this at all. I am technically obese and have taken hundreds of Bikram classes at my own pace without feeling as if I had to "in synch" with my neighbor, while in basic Hatha classes the instructor had no idea how to modify for my big butt and chunky thighs, and in fact urged me to go deeper into postures that were painful at best and dangerous at worst. Bikram gets a bad rap but it is the only yoga modality I have attended with such a diverse range of age, shape, and ability.

  3. LLG says:

    I own a Bikram studio. Going to two studios does not give you a full picture of how all Bikram studios are.

    I am sorry for your negative experience, but not all are like that. We have a podium for several reasons, but none of them are what you imply.

    Our teachers do not bark. It is our job to have faith in you and encourage you to do the best job you can. You have to decide how far your body can go in the moment.

    We teach our students that you modify depth not form. Postures are used to help change the body, so if you modify the posture to fit the body the body will not change. There are exceptions with surgeries, joint replacements, and other permanent conditions.

    A good teacher should make you feel welcome and included regardless of style. No teacher should make you feel as if they are “better.”

    With regards to “locking the knee” I suggest you read pages 207-209 of Anatomy of Hatha Yoga by H. David Coulter.

    • Ungaska says:

      Since you own a studio, are you just trying to protect your business by posting a comment???

  4. Mat Hill says:

    I would have said that neither looking in the mirror and loving yourself, nor “transformation” are particularly valid in themselves or relevant to either asana or bhakti (or even Bhakti).

    But then, nor would this:
    “Bikram says on his site that “If you follow my instruction and do my yoga postures sequence to the best of your ability, you will live a better, healthier and more peaceful life.” And follows this up with, “you will not get the intended benefits until it is done hundred percent correct.” ” in implication by the first statement or explicitly by the second.

    Vague phrases like “yoga’s intent” don’t help either. Yoga is by definition the practice; it has no intent. And as for what the students hope to get: I can hope to win the lottery…! :-)

    Yoga is practice. Even on a site which has to promote discussion to continue, sometimes there’s just too much chat! ;-)

  5. Mat Hill says:

    I don’t like these cheeky little faces! My smile is a lot kinder!!

  6. Andrea says:

    Anti-Bikram posts are boring. Aren't we over this yet?

  7. Kelli says:

    Excellent job Addie!

  8. Kim says:

    I have tried Hatha yoga and I have been verry lucky to find the Bikram method .
    Everyone is entitled to there opinion and to bash is out of good charactor no matter what the method or style is . I studied Ed Parkers Kempo for nearly 11 years and found it to fit my needs where other styles didnt .
    I have visited other Bikram studios and I will be very honest and true to make this statement :
    The perception of the instructor and the style relies 100 percent on how the body feels before during and after .
    Bikram as many have said is not your" grandmothers yoga "
    This is Hard as hell and as close to it as you will ever get when your first starting out .
    The benefits are incredible to some and repulsive to others .
    I will say one thing .To be an instructor in this method takes many many hours of instruction and certification .
    Every teacher has there own style but the diologe NEVER EVER deviates.
    Some hate this and find it boring .I for one find it a wonderful feeling to know that anyone certified to teach Bikram will be teaching me the same in Ct. as they will be In Japan .
    I havent met one instructor that I dont have total admiration for .
    Each one has there own twist on things just like a professor has in studies on a college campus.
    Some are Miestroes conducting the Karma and others find it harder to dive into the room .
    I read and study many other methods and I trust that those with negative comments might breath before infusing such a wonderful format with negative energy .

  9. Meredith says:

    I love the description of your Zen Spot studio because it is so much like mine! Open and inviting, with supportive and nurturing teachers, practitioners of all shapes, sizes and levels, a real feeling of being a part of something wonderful and yes, transformative…
    The only difference is that mine is a Bikram Yoga studio.
    Wishing you love & light in your yoga practice :-)

  10. I savor, cause I discovered exactly what I used to be taking a look for. You’ve ended my four day long hunt! God Bless you man. Have a nice day. Bye

  11. I really liked your post. I stumbled upon it while doing my own research for my own Bikram post. I feel very similar to you. I always like exploring options in my yoga practice, challenging myself with what I can do, but also being able to stop where I need to. My normal yoga studio doesn't have mirrors because the owner wants us to focus on what is going on internally, not externally. Contrast this with the Bikram studios which don't want you to take your eyes of your reflection. I think, at least for me, it can fuel that western mindset of competition and appearance as opposed to being mindful.

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