Ashtanga vs. Bikram yoga: Which is Elitist?

Via Peter Sklivas
on Aug 16, 2011
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Why do Ashtangis depict Bikram/Hot Yoga as a practice limited to super-fit athletic bodies?

In Dan Pitko’s blog on “Excess Heat and Hot Air” he writes in a comment:

“Are you suggesting that yoga classes be limited to only well conditioned young athletes?”

Dan’s implication is that Bikram and other Hot Yoga styles are limited to elite athletes. Look, it’s Ashtanga that’s limited to naturally supple athletes! Not Bikram! Go to hundreds of Bikram & other Hot Yoga studios & you’ll find round plum-shaped bodies galore. Practically every morning in my HotCore Yoga classes I am privileged to guide men and women in his mid-50s or older who could easily lose 25 pounds.

Do this asana look something you can do every day? If yes, you possess an elite body. Especially if you’re older than 35. Goddess Bless you!

After class the other day a studio member and I talked about this very issue of Ashtanga vs. Hot Yoga.

After sampling many styles of yoga including Ashtanga, this man knew he could never make Ashtanga a regular practice without serious injury. All the Sun Salutations & Chaturangas would strain the shit out of his wrists, shoulders, neck, low back, etc.  And yet he gets tremendous benefits practicing Bikram and/or HotCore Yoga. With his humpty dumpty body! For instance this morning he arrived on his Manduka mat with a jammed-up low back after playing 27 holes of golf & hours of pulling weeds over the weekend. But he knew he needed the heat and the low-impact nature of the HotCore flow to get back his mojo. He left Yoga Passion feeling awesome!

Don’t fret if you didn’t drink coffee with your toes this morning. Hot Yoga will give you a place to get supple and strong today.

Are thousands of people leaving Ashtanga classes this morning also feeling awesome? Sure! I hope so! But I swear there’s way more genetic sorting going on with Ashtangis than Bikram yogis. Because the Bikram practice is designed for anyone who can manage to walk, limp or crawl into the studio. This is part of the legacy Bikram initiated he decided to pump heat into his yoga studio.

Now I’m not saying Bikram Yoga is for everyone. But almost everyone can do Bikram or other variations of Hot Yoga. With Bikram you can lean against the back wall if you’re unable to balance on one foot in the Standing Series. If you need more rest during the active asanas, take it. Yoga sadhana is not a competition. And in a good Bikram or Hot Yoga class, no one is looking at you but the teacher. Cuz everyone else is focusing on their practice. This morning the studio member who overextended himself on the golf course & in the garden took extra Savasana (corpse pose) during both the Standing & Floor portions of the class.

Ashtangis have some misinformed notions about Hot Yoga because extra heat in the room is outside their field of reference. But what they don’t know is that the heat is a great equalizer! For some of us! Which you can’t know unless you give it a fair chance by practicing at least 3 or 4 classes in 10-day period. A few years ago I practiced Ashtanga 2 or 3 times a week for 2 months. A girlfriend and one of my staff were both avid Ashtangis. They loved it!  And it worked well for their naturally limber bodies. But for my relatively stiff dude gym-rat body, Primary Series (which is their bread & butter practice) has way too many forward bends. To me, it’s NOT a balanced practice. When I actually tried to do all the pretzel-ie forward bending Marichyasanas, my low back always felt worse for it. Look, Primary Series asanas are beautiful. But Ashtanga did NOT work for my body.

So when it comes whose yoga is Elitist, Ashtanga has much higher hurtles to scale than Bikram or HotCore. Plain & simple. I don’t practice yoga to look pretty or impress anyone. I step on my mat to heal/strengthen/lengthen my body … release fear/stress …and awaken my consciousness. And in my universe HotCore Yoga does it! If Ashtanga does it for you, then either you possess an amazing body or you are modifying the Ashtanga form in ways beyond my experience.

PS: To Ashtangis who say, “Okay, primary series does tilt way more to forward bends. But in Second Series Pattabhi Jois put in lots of backbends.” I reply, “Look, I don’t have 3.5 hours to practice yoga. And my body can’t wait hours for those backbends. I need to juxtapose forward & back bends in close proximity. To me, this is common sense. For any Ashtangis working to contort their bodies into amazing pretzel shapes, I ask: “Is your practice strengthen/lengthening your spine? Or is it contributing to collapse along spine & overall bone structure?” And I don’t presume to know what the answer is for you. Please chime in with your vote. Which is Elitist?  Ashtanga or Bikram?



104 Responses to “Ashtanga vs. Bikram yoga: Which is Elitist?”

  1. Bryan says:

    "My yoga is awesome. Your yoga sucks."

  2. fivefootwo says:

    What. What?? Why did you write this? If something is elitist it might not even be yoga.

  3. athayoganusasanam says:

    Silly question. By the way "I step on my mat to heal/strengthen/lengthen my body … release fear/stress … & awaken my consciousness." ….Me too. But I have a different practice than you – Ashtanga actually 🙂 What's your point?

  4. petersklivas says:

    Love it, Bryan! Thanx for the comment!

  5. petersklivas says:

    Balance btwn: 1. listening to our bodies & 2. being skillfully challenged beyond comfort zones … has been key to discovering my way on the mat. Thanks for sharing yr story. I love reading yoga miracles.

  6. rachel says:

    it's funny. i was just commenting today on the fact that elephant journal is driving me nuts by posting these articles that in a nice passive aggressive way pit two things against each other. i'm kinda over it. does it really matter? god.

  7. Carol Horton says:

    I'd prefer to read about why Bikram and/or hot yoga works for those who love it than this ad hoc Ashtanga-bashing. Plus, asking "which is elitist" is not a useful question. Better to ask why people with different constitutions (including but not limited to the physical) gravitate toward different methods.

  8. stealthylemon says:

    I loved this post! For Bikram is a stepping stone to Ashtanga, in a perfect world I would rotate my practice between these 2 every other day. Just as soon as I move closer to an Ashtanga studio! Thanks for the post.

  9. Ashtanga is perfectly fine for anyone as long as the teacher understands how to modify and stresses that students listen to their bodies. I've taught the standing and seated series to kids as young as 9 and women as old as 75. We modified and they were fine.

    The real issue is the whole "purity" thing. If something has to be modified people are horrified. But is it yoga to force the body or to listen and work with it?

    I prefer Ashtanga and variations on it to anything hot. I get warm enough on my own. But if you prefer hot, so what. You are listening to what your body needs. This territorial sniping is not necessary, imo. As a teacher, you should guide ppl to where they need to be.

  10. flosheffield says:

    Being a very firey person (pitta) I can't take the heat of Bikram/hot yoga. However, I can take it in an ashtanga practice (mysore) where I build internal heat. Granted, I love vinyasa flow as well. But, ashtanga stole my heart long ago. Let me also say I am NOT in any way shape or form athletic…seriously. Never played sports, not limber in a natural state, seriously everything ashtanga is about, my body worked against. However, the primary series is the only pre-set series practice that truthfully makes me feel like a million bucks after practice. I had a 5 class card pkg for hot yoga/bikram and for me it was the external heat that worked against my natural rhythm and prevented me from truly diving into the practice. My body does not do well in that type of circumstance.
    Just my 2 cents…but everyone has their own "core" practice. Regardless of what that is…I will not judge. Because to me a yoga practice is a very personal and spiritual decision to be made on the practitioners part. Who am I to say that a hot yoga class is better suited for other vs. a led primary series class. It is not for me to discuss nor decide nor cast judgement. I think you are overlooking how personal the decision is for an individual to choose a practice/spiritual path. And may I add…in mysore there are all shapes, sizes, ages and the list goes on. We are all heading in the same direction (I hope) towards liberation from closed minded ways of living and an open and compassionate heart. Right? If it is Bikram, Ashtanga, Dharma Yoga, Vinyasa flow, Yin Yoga, Iyengar, etc… who cares? If it makes you a better person off the mat…well I truly don't care what you choose to do on the mat then. Even if it is pranayama & meditation. Whatever it takes to make us wake up and grow and help others. I do not care what you do on your mat. You could practice alongside me any day. Regardless of what style you choose. As long as you choose to be a kinder person in the world. Which path you choose is your choice. Why label such things?

  11. petersklivas says:

    By elitist I mean: a yoga practice which filters out the vast majority of people due to the steep physical difficulty. I don't mean that one practice is superior by any intrinsic yardstick. Stepping on a yoga mat to practice asana opens a tangible physical dimension of challenge. So I was simply comparing them. Sorry if the blog falls short.

  12. Jen says:

    Kundalini as taught by Yogi Bhajan. That is all.

  13. petersklivas says:

    By elitist I mean: a yoga practice which filters out the vast majority of people due to the steep physical difficulty. I don't mean that one practice is superior by any intrinsic yardstick. Sorry if the blog falls short. Thanx for ur comment. Looks like I need to grow up.

  14. petersklivas says:

    By elitist I mean: a yoga practice which filters out the vast majority of people due to the steep physical difficulty. Looks like I whiffed. Thanks 4 ur comment. I don't mean to disparage Ashtanga. But I guess I did. I'll try to raise my game next time I blog.

  15. petersklivas says:

    thanx 4 yr comment. My goal in blogging to raise questions that deepen our personal understanding of yoga & how it relates to experience on the mat for ourselves & other people.

  16. petersklivas says:

    Looks like I need to open my heart & mind to dimensions of Ashtanga beyond my personal experience. So this blog is helpful for me. Cuz at the moment I feel a little silly. But I'm learning things I didn't know before I wrote it. Thanx anniegirl!

  17. Thaddeus1 says:

    I would like to commend you on your openness, honesty and humility. While I agree that the above contribution, as you have repeatedly conceded, misses the mark, you stand heads and shoulders above many in this forum who refuse to acknowledge the insight of commentators especially when it relates to potential "shortcomings." It is very inspiring to witness your process of self-reflection. Thank you for providing an insight, albeit not the one you perhaps intended in the first place. Blessings.

  18. mlb says:

    Misspelling & improper grammar made me stop reading this article halfway through. It is also ridiculous to argue or even care which school is more elitist than the other. If your practice moves you & makes you a better person, then it is the best practice…FOR YOU. I have seen the same super-bendy students at both bikram & ashtanga classes. Being of one school or the other does not make them better students, better wives or husbands, better old people or young people, better humans. Nor does this article uplift anyone or further the spirit of yoga. End this needless arguing & proselytizing …especially you, elephantjournal.

  19. coni says:

    I would highly recommend that Peter !!! I am a 57 year old woman, with some major damage to my body, due to other sports, and to my spirit , due to some very difficult things in my life. Ashtanga, has given me a place to heal my body, and my broken spirit and heart. I take my practice to where my body tells me it is ready to go each day. Modifying, even sometimes shortening it if necessary. One of the most important things Ashtanga teaches is non-attachment. You step on your mat, you begin to breathe, and you let the practice teach you, heal you, and give you the peace it offers to those who are open. So, if you love your heated room, and your bikram practice….enjoy…but please don't bash a tradition that is a beautiful and pure path, to those who have the open hearts to allow it.

  20. ARCreated says:

    hot yoga makes me barf…literally…all yoga COULD be elitist if we focus on "doing" rather than being. Listen to your body, do your practice…that is all.

  21. Nila says:

    I am overweight and have a weak core. I have been practicing Mysore Ashtanga for a year. My shala has students of all shapes and sizes practicing at all levels side by side and with a welcoming attitude. I love to practice Bikram occasionally, I find it helps me to lengthen more in my Ashtanga practice ( and vice versa).
    Ashtanga is more than a physical yoga practice, you learn to respect the earth and its rhythm by practicing with the moon. You learn about the roots of yoga and are able to express yourself in mantra through chanting and counting. You learn to marry your breath and posture. You learn to focus mind and connect it with your bandha.
    And I am saying this as an overweight, weak, erratic minded individual- not in the LEAST bit athletic- who has embarked on a yoga journey which has brought so much joy to my life as it has to others.
    There is no need for discrimination or finger pointing when we are all just people with similar strengths and weaknesses trying to find our way with yoga.
    If you find a loving teacher you have found a beneficial practice regardless of the style.

  22. warriorsaint says:

    Flosh-as a fellow Pitta body I have got to agree. Bikram makes me crabby. My favorite style of yoga is Budokon; which some purists may argue is not yoga at all due to it's strong martial arts elements. My first yoga teacher many years ago told me all yoga is Hatha yoga-and I have a tendency to agree.

    I find the different styles exciting to try. When I moved to NYC I did what I call my "taster tour". Antigravity yoga, Vinyasa, Anusara. Call me a dilettante but I have not felt compelled to "chose" a style. Yoga is like a 12 step program: it's adherents are drawn to different teachers due to attraction not promotion.

  23. petersklivas says:

    coni, I'm all ears! Like I've written above … I got lots to learn. Thanks. Your message is inspirational.

  24. Love says:

    I am a dedicated Ashtanga practitioner and I can't really compare it to Bikram, but I agree in a sense it is elitist because it is so challenging…traditionally, in order for one to progress (a hierarchical idea even there) through the series, one must be proficient in each preceding asana, including such difficult postures as supta kurmasana which appears in the latter half of the Primary Series. Many practitioners who respect the tradition work hard to be able to attain the ability to get themselves into these asanas, in a desire to go further…it's a lot of pushing and challenging oneself physically, but still there is an element of luck involved, because some people will never be able to do it. The thought is, they could if they kept at it with enough practice and discipline, including losing any extra weight and developing enough strength. This does not in anyway diminish the spiritual aspects of Ashtanga; to the contrary, discipline, devotion, and a spirited practice over a long time are crucial to true yoga sadhana.

  25. petersklivas says:

    Thank You, Love! Your words speak to my point. It's not that I believe Ashtanga is inferior to any other style. Or that it's superior. Just that on a physical level … most of us will never get there … but I guess there are yogis modifying the form so they can do it. But I thought Ashtanga was a fairly orthodox rigid form. Guess Ashtanga comes in different flavors. RE: the spiritual aspects, well, I have some much respect for anyone brings devotion into their sadhana. Thanks again!

  26. Mary Grace says:

    ahhhhhh Peter, all i can say, is different strokes for different folks. Ive been practicing Boring Bikram for 11 years now along with my Ashtanga. I studied in India with Pattabhi Jois & I trained in LA with the author of this article. I love ashtanga. I love it all. Its all good. Why are you creating waves? Why judge any bodies yoga? I did my primary series of ashtanga today & then flowed into my Maui Hot Yoga practice. I think its all good. Lets allow the yogis to GET A LITTLE MORE FLEXIBLE, HUH???
    check me out at see videos of the new hot yoga system that is going to spread all over the world, its not Bikram, its not Ashtanga, its simply a fun, playful, adaptable system for every BODY. Hey Peter, ITS ALL GOOD!!!

  27. Stephan says:

    Strange text but I am too much of a novice to judge whether there is any truth to this or just your personal perception, Peter. I guess the main reason why more "beginners" are attracted to Bikram instead of Ashtanga is due to the spiritual overhead you get with Ashtanga. Anyways, this was the reason for me to chose Ashtanga over Bikram but I am definitely not limber and only stumble through my Primary but I love the overall concept. I do not expect to be able to do all Asanas today – heck maybe even never in my lifetime – but I know practicing it will already do good to my body and soul.

  28. Full throttle Bikramites are like the annoying 'look at me' kids that I told my sons to ignore and hopefully they go away.

  29. Esther says:

    Wow, I can't believe this is even being discussed. Fanatical yogis! Om Shanti x

  30. Yogini5 says:

    Kundalini is not particularly elitist. It rocks.

  31. Yogini5 says:

    I guess as with regular food, I need to try Ashtanga Lite …
    Not that I am doing yoga to lose weight.
    For that, I mind my calories …
    But when I am thin, I get weak wrists.
    I never get that flexible. I never get that strong.

  32. Yogini5 says:

    There's spiritual overhead in many vinyasa styles—sometimes in many different flavors, Ashtanga's not the only one.

  33. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    This is certainly driving discussion!

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
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  34. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  35. DanPitkow says:

    Hi Peter! Thanks for the article. I'm a bit puzzled by your intro, however, as I made clear in my reply to you that my article had nothing to do with Hot or Bikram yoga. The article is informative about how the body cools itself. Humidity is the main factor in closed rooms, because the body cannot cool itself in high humidity environments. As I said in my reply, some Bikram / Hot yoga rooms pump in fresh air and have lower humidity than ashtanga or vinyasa flow classes. Over 40 people died in our recent heat wave, including a handful of kids in high school.

  36. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  37. petersklivas says:

    1 STYLE does NOT Fit ALL. Our bodies are amazingly unique. Sacred space comes in many forms. While I lived in Las Cruces, NM, the bikram studio had great difficulty getting the humidity up making it much harder to generate a good sweat. And I confess to cherishing a good sweat when I practice. But I adapted. If I never stepped into a hot yoga studio again, I'm sure I'd rediscover yoga as a room-temp sadhana. Sounds like you regularly rediscover your center w/ ashtanga. Thanks 4 ur comment.

  38. […] can check it out via this link. The bottom-line, according to the author, is that it is Astanga that’s elitist and too […]

  39. John says:

    Off topic, but are you Greek?

  40. stephaniefrancesca says:

    Not to be elitist, but transcending judgment is part of my yoga practice. If I were on the name-calling level, I'd say this article was ______. But I prefer simply to disagree and hold my own space (practice and otherwise).

  41. Where does Tim teach? Is he out in Santa Monica? Love to take his class & broaden my exposure. I've heard great things about him. Thanx for ur comment

  42. My ignorance is/was in thinking of Ashtanga as a rigid form w/o variations. I'm learning here. Thanx for yr comment

  43. My dad is in Greece right now probably swimming in Med. I was born in Lynn, MA. But, yes, my family blood line is 100% greek. As far as anyone will admit.

  44. Christine says:

    I choose both as elitist. Have you ever read what Bikram has said about his own students or even about himself? Horrendous. And coming from a yogi.
    I’ve tried it but I’d rather not practice while feeling naseous just so I can pretend that outside of the heat I can touch my nose to my toes.

    As for Ashtanga, it makes yoga students think that there’s some mystical practice passed down for centuries and that we have to do it that way. All of that wrenching of your joints can only lead to pain and injury in old age.

    So, I guess I choose to do a practice that honestly let’s me connect with my body while challenging it in a loving way. Not force myself to withstand heat or dislocate a hip over it. It’s just asanas- theres so much more to yoga!

  45. Christine says:

    Also, Peter, I’ve never been to an Ashtanga class where the teacher knew modifications or a Bikram class that wasn’t extremely strict. I am going to go to a well known Ashtanga teacher in the near future to see if she offers modifications and ask what she thinks about the stress Ashtanga puts on people’s joints.

  46. theconfluencecountdown says:

    He's down in Encinitas (well, now, Carlsbad). Or… better yet: Sign up for the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence. That should do the trick. 🙂

  47. stephaniefrancesca says:

    Discussion was stimulated. But the question seems inherently divisive. Yoga is union, right?

  48. Bruno Ragi says:

    Mary Grace or Mary Blaise whatever you want to call yourself, you should stay out of any conversation to do with yoga! You rip off Bikram and talk down about his class!?!? You steal from your students by certifying them to teach that class as well as all other forms of yoga and continue your shameless self promotion. WOW! Get over yourself you sick narcissistic crazy woman. Your actions alone speak volumes to your hybris. Your an insult to the art of yoga. And Peter, while your very articulate and wise, your another self promoter of your Bikram spin off class. At least Bikram and Ashtanga are real classes, not a style devised off another in the interest of feeding your ego or making money.

  49. Bruno Ragi says:

    PS Bikram has lived this way from the to time he was born, he is a Yogi, not some self professed ‘Yogi’. You may not like the man but you cannot question that fact. What makes the class or style “eliteist” is the attitude of the instructor, not the practice itself. Unfortunately for many students, some instructors try too hard to be Bikram, or they get caught up in the heat or whatever unimportant nuance they.feel is important. Bottom line is you should find for you and stop throwing stones at what you don’t understand or if you don’t like Bikram, stop teaching/taking/ripping off his yoga. Any of you born in India? Anyone here grow up that way? … didn’t think so. PPS Bikram is not trying to make yoga competative, the practice is and has always been a competition with yourself, to go beyond what you ‘think’ your capable of and challenge yourself to go beyond! The main purpose behind him attempting to bring yoga into the olympics is bringing more awareness to the practice and its benefits. … with what’s going on with ‘yoga’ nowadays since people like scary mary have twisted own warped philosophy, then your right, maybe he.shouldn’t.