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. petersklivas says:

    The balance btwn form & freedom is a necessary conundrum of unfoldment in my sadhana. That's what I hear you elaborating on. Thanks 4 expanding my knowledge!

  2. petersklivas says:

    BTW: Bruno, it is the sort of rigid orthodoxy that I hear in your words that gives Bikram Yoga a bad name. Back in the day Bikram allowed all kinds of modifications for injured individuals. Stuff you can't teach from a script. Stuff that requires actually creating authentic rapport with individual people within a group setting. Bikram had a ballet bar along his back wall for those folks who needed to something to hold onto for balance. He probably inherited the bar from the previous tenant & was smart enough to let balance-challenged studio members use it.
    So whatever you think this form of Bikram Yoga is … it has evolved over the years … or de-evolved … there are hundreds of yogis (women & men who practice on their mats regularly … not just teach) who have left Bikram over the years & continued their practices. Yoga will always seeks evolution. If you find in the form of Bikram Yoga as you know it, I'm happy for you. Can you be happy for me to discover the form of hot yoga that works?

  3. Yogini5 says:

    Ashtanga as presented here, seems more sincere of a practice than power vinyasa is … sincere in the sense that all are welcome to an All Level class … there is that traditional, inclusive take on yoga–that seems to be missing from the modernized forms. To feel that you can be in a class and not be goaded or feel forced to keep up with the pace of the class. And, likewise, there don't seem to be "empty promises" of achieving an exact pose that may be beyond your reach for a very long time, perhaps even forever, like there is in vinyasa.

  4. petersklivas says:

    Yogis cannot be manufactured to meet a burgeoning public demand. To improve the teaching of yoga … i.e. having teachers who understand body mechanics for all different sorts of body shapes & levels of flexibility & strength requires an intense yearning to grow in observation skills, knowledge & insatiable curiosity. It's sad that you haven't found teachers in either style who understand how to guide people into modifications. For example in Bikram many people cannot get anywhere near the proper hand grip. Bodies too stiff or arms too short. What to do? Well, if a teacher is observant enough to notice & nimble enough to show the studio member who to grab one end of a hand towel or double-knotted strap & grab the other end, the studio member can then do Eagle & get really get the benefits of the posture. It's so simple. Within the Bikram form there are many other opportunities for teachers to assist people who need the modification. If teachers would care more about helping people than their fears about crossing the line of conformity within the Bikram orthodoxy, they could improve their service. How bright is the fire to serve & rediscover the meaning of yoga?

  5. As a teacher, it took me a few years to respect studio members who choose to move at their own pace. At 1st I was wondering: 1. if I was failing to articulate the instructions clearly enough, 2. whether other studio members would all start doing their own thing resulting in complete anarchy 3. how will help this person while maintaining the flow for the rest of the class. When everyone is practicing asanas together, there is a beauty & grace that can emerge. And that's a seductive expectation. It takes some maturity/self-confidence to recognize that reality might NOT be interested in my expectations. And then be poised as a teacher to serve people where they are. Of course it helps when teachers have a strong itch to become extraordinary in their service. Not settle the ho-hum in themselves. Thanks 4 ur comment.

  6. Jason Gan says:

    I have tried Hot Yoga and the heat and the extreme sweating are good for the muscles. I get the feeling that little by little my stiffness is diminishing. Without the heat it would not have been possible; the muscles would create tension and soreness.

  7. Sarah says:

    words like "elitist" and crass language like "strain the shit out of my wrists" and discussing other people's physical body type? i think this writer is missing something here. and then it says the writer has 30+ years of yoga experience. how can someone with 30+ years not know how to protect their wrists in a vinyasa class? how can someone with this many hours of yoga experience and advanced trainings miss the point that it is not about body type, or what is better or what is elitist or whose body shapes are doing what? this article doesn't seem to be worthy of elephant in my opinion. it is just a strange rant of some kind.

  8. Shanti says:

    who would actually seek this writer out as a teacher? after overhearing the conversation he had with a patron at his studio, i would walk out and never return. elitist, humpty dumpty, these words are insulting and crude and should not be used in a studio space where people are coming in for healing and positivity

  9. annieory says:

    So you base the entirety of your opinion on one class and one teacher? Try it again, or don't, but please don't act as if you know something about a practice based on this single experience. I have known some crappy Bikram teachers and some great Bikram teachers and I am certain the same is true in the Ashtanga world.

  10. annieory says:

    You can't write a blog post about the effects of heat on the body in a yoga community and then pretend it has "nothing to do with" Bikram or hot yoga. Seriously. I read your article and it was very clear what your opinion is of heated yoga classes.

  11. alyssa says:

    I agree with your reduction of the article to this phrase! isn't the point of the practice to awaken to our unity no matter what expression/style we follow? creating unnecessary hierarchy and divisions just further illustrates why the practice of yoga is so necessary – to reach the boundlessness of acceptance and ease. let us speak in as many languages as their are tongues!

  12. chrisa says:

    Not one single word of this shameful article or any of the comments are yogic. I'm going to practice on my mat now. Namaste all.

  13. DanPitkow says:

    I encourage you to re-read it carefully. HUMIDITY, not heat, is the key factor in thermoregulation. I sweat more in 82 degrees with high humidity than in 110 degrees with low humidity. The title says "excess heat and humidity" not "Bikram" or "Hot Yoga." Excess heat and humidity are relative – that is why there is a heat index. Heat and humidity are also relative to a person's genetics, body type and athletic (or not) history, as we have different heat reactions. As such, we should avoid dogmatic and blanket statements: what works for one person, does not mean that it is objectively "Right" for everyone else. My goal is to educate people so that people can practice smartly instead of blindly following someone else's dogma under the guise of conclusory statements regarding "benefits."

  14. petersklivas says:

    Thank you for sharing. Enjoy the bliss!

  15. petersklivas says:

    Guess you won't be taking my class any time soon. No worries. There are lots of great yoga teachers out there. Maybe you are one of them. But take a chill pill, Shanti!

  16. Shanti says:

    don't worry i am very relaxed while i say that your usage of crude language is strong and intense, it kinda harshes my mallow if you know what i mean. why are you suggesting i take a pill? i don't think any pill can match what a pose like uttana padasana can do for me.

  17. happysmallthings says:

    I love Ashtanga Mysore-style. There are many different types of people in the room with me: young, old, modifying, not modifying. People are moving at their own pace with their breath. I've heard plusses and minuses about all types of yoga and everyone thinks theirs is the best. And it is the best, for them.

  18. Isaac says:

    A Sri K. Pattabhi Jois has said, “old man, weak man, sick man, they can all take practice but only a lazy man can’t take practice.”

  19. Sarah says:

    but you called someone's body shape humpty dumpty. that's just not nice. some may even call that elitist

  20. Sarah says:

    yeah and by growing don't use "humpty dumpty" and name calling. momma always says be careful what you write people might just read it.

  21. petersklivas says:

    Touche! Back in the early 90's Kripalu Yoga was the center of my universe. It's true. That what works for me can cloud my ability to see what works for the broad spectrum of individuals within the larger field. These days I see hot yoga moving away from Bikram. Certainly I have. While the heat works for my body, I need a practice with more asana variations especially on the floor & greater expression of the big yoga (spiritual elements) which Bikram shuns.

  22. Nick Brewer says:

    Ashtanga Yoga or any Yoga for that matter does not have anything to do with elitist, athletic, super fit, young and bendy bodies, or does it have anything to do with standing in extreme heat sweating excessively whilst your muscles dilate giving you a false sense of how flexible you are not!! surely we all know by now that yoga is about the union of the body mind and spirit carried out through the 8 limbs of yoga. Ashtanga Yoga is a moving meditation and with the use of Ujjayi pranayama creating the vinyasa flow, movement of body with the flow of breath, meditating on the impermanence of the body being as most asanas are transitional and those that are not are 5 breaths. Ujjayi pranyama creates internal heat which will create heat in the body and a big sweat, be it in the cold with the windows open. anyone who stands in a sauna long enough is obviously going to sweat, its just the bodies defences trying to cool the body down, it doesnt mean to say that you are detoxing, excessive sweating just depletes all the vital minerals, yoga is about balance and union, not the excesses! it has nothing to do with how strong you are or whether you can touch your toes or stand on your head. Please forget comparisons and elitists, yoga doesnt belong to either.

  23. Nick Brewer says:

    couldnt have put it better myself

  24. […] Are you clinically insane? Or at least all-the-way Type A? Do Bikram yoga. It’s a hot mess. When you’re done with class you’ll be clad shorts so soaked with sweat that when you wring them out in your bathtub you’ll release two and half cups of perspiration (all yours!). What with every Bikram, class being the same hell—90 minutes, 105 degrees, humidity enough to swim in, fluorescent lights, mirrors and a teacher that barks at you for every single one of those 90 minutes—every time you exit the studio you’ll be astonished that you’re still alive. And then (this here’s the crazy part) you’ll straightaway be itching to go back tomorrow. At the beginning of each class, Bikram teachers command you to try to kill yourself. And you do as you’re told. Masochistic nutjobs unite! […]

  25. Andy says:

    Yeah but there are commonalities found in every Bikram class, from the metaphors they use, to their insistance you don't leave the room. There really isn't that much of a difference. You can tell they were all trained the same way and tend to stick to that way.

  26. iloveginger says:

    michelle thanks for the book recommendation. where do you teach? i am feeling overwhelmed with primary series and i long for an empowering teacher- i like your style 🙂 thanks for posting

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  30. Rachel says:

    lol. " 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." Ok, I guess that's why Bikram yoga has a competition!

    I don't have a super amazing body……but because I practice Ashtanga…but thanks for the compliment!

  31. Cindy says:

    I have to admit I was a little taken aback by the…fierceness of this article, and the condemnation from a lover of – any form of yoga – of another form of yoga. I have tried lots of different kinds of yoga, and my two true yoga-loves are Bikram and Ashtanga. However, I find that they all feed my body and soul something different, but equally nourishing. (Also, let me interject that while I am very flexible, I also suffer from fibromyalgia, so I'm not coming from the perspective of one of these "perfect" bodies.)

    I have read through some of the comments, and your responses to them. I applaud your openness and willingness to learn, and view things from different perspectives. I also appreciate your thoughtful, polite responses to some pretty harsh criticism. That, to me, is waaay much more in the spirit of yoga than this divisive article. Congratulations, you've won yourself a fan.

  32. Aleisha Rioseco says:

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  33. scott says:

    Which "brand" of yoga is BEST…..LOL

  34. Heath Souto says:

    There is obviously a bundle to identify about this. I suppose you made certain good points in features also.

  35. 10dolphins says:

    It is interesting that Ashtanga (Mysore) tends to want you to leave before getting to the end of the primary (if you are not that good) whereas Bikram wants you to stay until the very end…

    Also, I just watched a video about Yoga called "Enlighten Up" and in the special features there is an interview with Iyengar where he is asked about Ashtanga. He says that he was at the Mysore palace, but he really can't say much about it. However, he does infer that the Mysore palace was very martial (as in martial arts) oriented and as such he believes that his guru made up Ashtanga with all its jumps and such to go along with the tone of the palace. So, it looks like Ashtanga does not have the 5000 year lineage that it claims, but is instead a made up yoga for war like people. Iyengar then says that this Yoga may be okay for people under 40, but after that the body just doesn't want to do it.

  36. 10dolphins says:

    Hmmm… I think discourse is good to get at the truth of the situation. To not comment is I believe part of the wimpy and false yoga that is more and more prevalent everywhere.

    With regard to Ashtanga, it is fun to do it once you are actually doing it, but it gives me great dread to think of doing it 6 days a week with all the vinyasas. My body just resists it.

    Bikram on the other hand (at least when I practice at home) seems to entice my body to do it.

    So, I would have to say my body likes Bikram better. As well, when I wake up in the morning, I feel better after having done Bikram the night before as compared to Ashtanga.

  37. 10dolphins says:

    I have just practiced Ashtanga for 3 weeks and I have a new appreciation for it now. I found that if I focus mainly on my breath, a sort of magic takes place in that my body starts feeling really great. Frankly, I'm not sure if I want to go back to Bikram now. As well, by breathing fulling and moving slowly, I am frankly enjoying Sun Salutations. They are my favourite poses. It is strange … but magical.

  38. 10dolphins says:

    I don't know what to say… I have switched back to Bikram — though I practice it at home. My first practice was a bit rough after doing Ashtanga and no Bikram for so long. However, with my second practice I was hooked again. The thing is that Bikram feels so good and I still have my lingering doubts as to whether Ashtanga is a made-up practice or if it a real ancient yoga. When I read the ancient Yoga books, they mention the 84 asanas that Bikram mentions. Even when I read the book "Be here now, be now here" it mentions that there are 84 asanas. As well, I just love the liberal use of Savasana in Bikram and I notice that they do this in Sivananda as well. I still like Ashtanga, I just can't see to get myself to practice it again … for now.

  39. Peregrin says:

    Bryan… sage words of advice. My yoga makes your yoga look like Pilates.

  40. Helen says:

    I'm a 40 plus wee sturdy lass who started Ashtanga a few years ago; I'm not super anything, don't possess an elite body of any description and had bad back pain when I began. I respect your opinion on how you found Ashtanga for you but since I neither possess an amazing body or am modifying the Ashtanga form (unless you mean learning it) I'd wholeheartedly disagree with you on who Ashtanga is for, how they are doing it or what they are getting out of it; that's a private journey we all hopefully get to take, no matter how we may seem to the outside world.

    I agree of course that Ashtanga isn't for everyone, each person has to find their own style.

    Ashtanga is wonderful, the people I've met from all over the world encouraging, loving, funny and kind. I'm pretty positive people who practice Bikram will be the same because it isn't about the style, it's about the purpose behind it all. I can only tell you how lovely the girl next to me is by how she chats to me before practice, I wouldn't be able to tell you if she is super elite fit bendy or otherwise because I'm too busy soaking up the yoga and focussing inwardly. It is a huge assumption to make that all those Ashtanga folk you've (never) met are trying to "look pretty" or "impress". If that had been my goal, I'd have looked for a dark yoga class….. ;O) And for me, Ashtanga yoga found me, awakening my unconsciousness and working it's magic.

    I will say, I need to go find me a Bikram class now, it sounds great. I'd love to give it a go, any suggestions on classes in Glasgow, Scotland much appreciated. xx

  41. Paula says:

    Neither is elitist. People on the other hand can be elitist. I practice Ashtanga. It works for me, both physically and mentally. My brother is an avid Bikram practitioner. It works for him. We have each gone to the others respective studios. I enjoyed Bikram but found discomfort with the mirrored room. I understood it was there for self correcting and alignment but it was distracting from the meditative state that I can easily get into in Ashtanga. The asana sequencing of a set series and structure of each are similarities, but the heat coming from the external versus internal lost me. I enjoy building my own heat, but I certainly respect that Bikram works for many other yogis. There is no one particular journey for for everybody, different on every body.

  42. Hey Peter,
    Just read your article from Elephant Jounal and comment about Ashtanga at the end. Do you even know anything about the Ashtanga practice? You’re obviously a novice so I would stick to writing about Bikram Yoga or your canned “hot core yoga”! Primary series of Ashtanga Yoga has more backbends than any other practice out there. Do you realize that it has Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (upward dog) throughout the whole practice? Granted some students and teachers don’t have a clue how to teach or practice this method correctly but to say we don’t have any backbends is ridiculous. Along with your comment about does Ashtanga lengthen or strengthen your spine. Of course it does! Just like you said about Bikram you can’t get in there 2-3 times a week and get the benefits of Ashtanga. You never gave it a true test. Again maybe you had the misfortune of going to a class where the teacher is inexperienced with how to modify the method to suit the individual. I’m taking the time to write you because some students of mine asked me my opinion about your article. I’ve been practicing and teaching Ashtanga since 1978. I know this practice inside and out. So please don’t boast about something you know nothing about! I know you’r trying to promote yourself and your “new” form of “Hot Core Yoga”. You’re not inventing anything! It’s not yours to market since you’re simple taking bits and pieces of many different styles without really knowing what your talking about. I thought Elephant Journal was more reputable but I guess they’ll let just about anybody write whatever they want!

  43. James says:

    you re a cunt

  44. Jscc says:

    I disagree from sentence one and ran far away from this article and the elephant journal.

  45. Nugi says:

    Peter should have studied yoga the proper way before he decided to write this misleading article.

  46. Josehp says:

    Yes, that´s what this is all about… boring

  47. Josehp says:

    Well, i find so interesting to see a tendency to attack (always in a subtle, would even say hipocrite way) ashtanga from the hot-yoga comunity… i wonder why….. You google ashtanga and the Bikram advertise show up: "ashtanga? Try Bikram yoga! You see the oppening of a Bikram Shalla and the teachers goes "I tried Ashtanga but didn´t work, didn´t heal me the way Bikram does….." I would recomend you to make sure your sistem is good enougth and work on your insecurities…. because is really so obvious what this is all about. And writing an article about "My yoga is better than yours" Is about everthing… except yoga

  48. Gretchen says:

    With your immature attempt to portray yoga as a battle for bragging rights, it sounds more like you have a chip on your shoulder about Ashtanga. It is not a competition.

    Let your tantrum run its course, then perhaps you could learn something about Ashtanga before you blog about it. Otherwise, put a sock in it and grow up.

    Have a great day.

  49. iissy says:

    I am sure if Peter is totally right from his knowledge on this article.

    I do both practices, Ashtanga and Bikram for over 5 years. I used to do a lot of hot yoga and Bikram before I started Ashtanga 2 years ago. One thing Peter is right about body types of yogis between these two. My body changed after I switched to Ashtanga after 2 years. It is more firm and strong.

    I am not totally ignore hot yoga or Bikram. I do sneak in to do hot yoga during the cold weather. I do Bikram a few times a month on moon days and Sat that Ashtangis need to take days off. OK, I got back from Bikram this weekend, my experience is the heat…heat…heat….. yes, I sweat from outside heat. Even, I did Ujai breathing to keep myself calm and try to combat with the temperature outside in Bikram room. After the class, If you asked, what do I feel inside my muscles? No, i don't feel anything that stretch too much or clean after like what I feel after doing Ashtanga. When I do Ashtanga correcty, all Banda engaged and breathing, my sweat pouring like crazy. I feel balance from inside out. Not pushing the heat to my body like in hot yoga.

    Backbending… Peter's knowleage is not correct at this point… it is ashamed that he wrote this article that give wrong information to the public. He did not count how many Ashtangi doing upward dog during Sun Salutation A and B, and between seated poses switching between left and right., then back bend 3 times. To be honest, I never count how many updog I do…plush chaturanga… I just keep going between seated poses but I knew it is a lots….

    It is your choice what you want. If you want deep connection to your body and your soul — Calming, cleaning from inside out Ashtanga is the choice. If you want heat push from outside in, go to hot yoga…..

    Compare these two…. I love benefit of Ashtanga after exploring between these two.

  50. Josh says:

    One word: Modifications