Is the Bikram series a victim of yoga snobbery?

Via Kara-Leah Grant
on Oct 3, 2011
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Yoga is yoga is yoga.

There’s a subtle judgment that I’ve perceived in the world of yoga against Bikram Yoga.

Amongst some yogis there’s this idea that Bikram yoga is not real yoga. Or not good yoga. Or not good for you. Or something.

(See the conversation unfolding on Why the Government needs to make Bikram yoga compulsory for a snippet of this.)

There’s suspicion about Bikram himself, about the yoga competitions that he and his wife run, about the concept of getting yoga into the Olympics (yep, that’s one of their goals – yoga in the Olympics).

About Bikram being McYoga. That is, Bikram Yoga has all of the appearance of Yoga with none of the goodness.

This is all garbage.

Yoga is yoga is yoga.

There is no difference between Astanga Yoga, Bikram Yoga or Iyengar Yoga. Except maybe your state of being when you practice, and your relationship to that practice. The yoga – whatever it’s called – is still yoga.

I can’t remember when I first started doing Bikram. Maybe 2001? I’ve never been a dedicated practitioner, often due to there being no studio in my town, or teaching so much that I didn’t have time to go to classes, and do a home practice. But I’ve done quite a bit of Bikram over the years.

Enough to know that if yoga were just about the physical, that I should be nice and bendy by now.  I mean, how long does it take to lengthen a hamstring? Or release the hips?

A year or so ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a Bikram workshop by Paul and Jaylee Balch called Anatomy of a Yogi.

Paul is a trained Bikram teacher, but he’s been studying all manner of spiritual ways, paths, texts and teachings for something like three decades, much of it with masters of various stripes. In this workshop, he and Jaylee go indepth into each Bikram posture and what’s really going on when we practice Bikram from a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual perspective. (They no longer have any association with Bikram by the way.)

Because while Bikram Yoga may be primarily taught as a physical style of yoga stripped and devoid of all spiritual and philosophic undertones, you can’t strip out it’s energetic effect no matter how you teach it.

Whether people realise it or not, practicing Bikram is going to affect them emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

Which made me wonder… maybe Mr. Bikram is just far more evolved than he’s given credit for.

He’s smart enough to know that most people in the West are heavily identified with their bodies and leery of the spiritual.

He’s designed a series of yoga asana that hook the ego, ensare the type A personality, taunt the ego, and get people into the room.

In every town I’ve ever down yoga in, the Bikram classes were full. All the time. While the other yoga classes struggled to get people attending regularly.

Yep – Bikram gets people doing yoga.

And people doing yoga start to transform, whether they like it or not. Physically, mentally, emotionally and even spiritually.

But sometimes we don’t transform physically as fast we as think we should.

I’ve been practicing yoga of all stripes pretty damn steadily for ten years or more yet still struggle to straighten my legs, and I wanted to know…

What the hell am I holding on to so tightly that’s preventing my hamstrings from softening and releasing like well-chewed gum?

I found out during The Anatomy of a Yogi workshop.

See, according the the way Paul and Jaylee see the world, we haven’t just got one body. We’ve got four. There’s the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual (yogic philosphy refers to five bodies, or sheaths, called the koshas, physical, energy, mental, wisdom and bliss .)

And emotions?

Think of them like energy in motion, felt sensations in the body that move.

Except when we repress them, ignore them, or deny them. Which is pretty much all of the time in today’s world. So that energy in motion gets stuck in the physical body because it has to go somewhere…

Same kind of thing with thoughts, beliefs, ideas, our concept of self, identity, the way things should be… this also gets stuck in the mental body. All of this – things stuck in the emotional and mental body – eventually show up in the physical body. In the way we manifest ourselves, in the ways we move, where we’re tight, where we’re weak.

I’ve known this for a long time, simply because when I practiced yoga the movement of asana made me feel things.

Bikram Yoga in particular would trigger oceans of tears that would start in Dancer’s Pose and continue for the whole damn series.

For a long time I wondered, Why Dancer’s? What was it about that posture that made me feel all these tears? During that workshop, I found out, and boy did it make sense.

I also found out why my hamstrings have been tight, why my cobra has sucked lately and what’s been up with everything from Toe-Stand to Floor Bow.

Each day of the workshop, Paul and Jaylee took us through the postures in detail and looked at which chakras were affected and what type of emotional and mental holding patterns had the opportunity to be released.

Things like self-sabotage (who knew?), self-pity, forgiveness, integration of public and private self, opening to giving and receiving, letting go of resentment towards men and towards women. On and on it went… and as I’m listened I found I was developing a new appreciation for the elegance and the magic of the Bikram Yoga series.

After each afternoon of lectures, we then got a chance to apply our newly learned (or validated!) knowledge to a class.

It was such a sublime experience to be lead through the series with the usual Bikram dialogue plus a whole series of new cues reminding us of what emotional or mental patterns we could release in this pose. Just knowing what the potential blocks could be in each pose meant I could discern how to work within the pose – when to surrender, when to soften, when to strengthen, when to hold, when to be.

Poses that had felt locked for the longest time were suddenly accessible.

As a result of the the workshop, my whole relationship to Bikram Yoga changed.

Which got me thinking about the rest of the yoga world’s relationship to Bikram Yoga.

I mean, it’s just a series of 26 postures right?

Yoga poses that every other style uses like Iyengar, Astanga, Prana Flow, Vin Yoga, Anusara…

The poses are just what the poses are.

So in Bikram, the room’s hot and you do each pose twice, the same every single time.

Astanga’s the same every time too.

So why the snobbery toward Bikram?

I reckon it might be because Bikram Yoga is so focused on the physical, and ‘real’ yoga is more about the spiritual. About that journey toward self-realisation. That’s real yoga. Bikram’s more about the body right? It even aggrandises the ego and puffs up body identification. Which isn’t really real yoga.

This workshop I did blew all that out of the water as far as I’m concerned.

Bikram Yoga is as powerful a yoga practice as we make it – it’s as powerful and as spiritual as our relationship with it. If we practice with awareness of the emotional, mental and spiritual bodies – as well as the physical – than Bikram Yoga will transform us on the path of self-realisation just like any other practice.

It may not be for everyone, but it’s definitely for some of us.

I’ve never met Bikram, but I wonder sometimes if he’s pushing us in one direction just so we’ll push back and end up in the opposite place.

Hooking our egos, so he can steathily work to dismantle them. That kind of thing.

Or pushing for yoga in the Olympics because it challenges our ideas of what “yoga” should be.

Or trademarking and controlling his series because he does want to protect the integrity of the systematic effects on the body – all four of them.

What do you think? Have you done Bikram Yoga? What’s your reaction to it?


About Kara-Leah Grant

Kara-Leah Grant is an internationally renowned retreat leader, yoga teacher and writer. Along with fellow Elephant Journal writer, Ben Ralston, she runs Heart of Tribe, pouring her love into growing a world-wide tribe of courageous, committed, and empowered individuals through leading retreats in New Zealand, Mexico and Sri Lanka. Kara-Leah is also the founder of New Zealand’s own awesome yoga website, The Yoga Lunchbox, and author of Forty Days of Yoga—Breaking down the barriers to a home yoga practice and The No-More-Excuses Guide to Yoga. A born & bred Kiwi who spent her twenties wandering the world and living large, Kara-Leah has spent time in Canada, the USA, France, England, Mexico, and a handful of other luscious locations. She now lives and travels internationally with her son, a ninja-in-training. You can find Kara-Leah on her website, or on Facebook.


42 Responses to “Is the Bikram series a victim of yoga snobbery?”

  1. This is interesting. I've encountered the opposite where Bikram Yogis openly tout their way as real yoga (or at least better than…)

    I heartily agree with you: Yoga is yoga is yoga. It doesn't matter what avenue get people to yoga, just that they come to the mat.

  2. Also, in the studios I went to, I felt very little camaraderie with my fellow practitioners and the environment did feel competitive. Having said all that, I do not blame the yoga for this, nor do I blame anyone. I think the Bikram style of teaching yoga isn't for me, and I think Bikram's personal choices do not resonate for me either. Of course, the latter is just an afterthought and would not prevent me from practicing the style of yoga. I practice many different styles as well, and currently teach vinyasa flow. I do feel enriched from my Bikram experience, but do not feel that it is for me. Great article!! Thanks for making me think.

  3. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Hi Kara-Leah, thanks for sharing! I have only tried Bikram a couple of times. It was an interesting experience, but not enough to really 'know it'. I loved the heat, but have left feeling really 'puffy'.

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  4. Nat.W. says:

    I totally agree, and often wondered the same thing. Sometimes I believe that the collective energy of our Western culture begged for yoga like Bikram…..a path designed just for the Western body and mind, "hooked by the ego" and reeled in for a lifetime.

    Either way, for the record, I began my 15 year journey of yoga with a Bikram practice for 5 years, and I will be forever grateful for that practice. Interestingly enough, in the 5 years I practiced Bikram, I never sustained 1 injury….not-a-one. I cannot say that for any othe style of yoga sonce that time. The 26 poses were therapeutic, precise and a welcome retreat from the chaos of an unpredictable lifestyle during that time in my life. I was focused, present and dedicated, leaving every class with a sense of detxofication that I still seek today in my practice.

    Thanks for the post! Nothing is more 'un-yogi" to me than bashing a form of yoga- it always urked me when teachers would bash Bikram. I am happy to agree with your POV. Peace 🙂

  5. Tanya says:

    The thing with Bikram Yoga is it is very limited. Every time I have ever asked a Bikram teacher why we do something I’ve been told : because Bikram says so! I have been teaching yoga for quite a few years and find so few Bikram teachers know very much about therapy in yoga, or how to adjust a pose for different needs in students. All the Bikram teachers I know have learned what they really know about yoga from workshops and training in other styles. They all practice forms other than Bikram. As you said yourself, you didn’t get the interesting info about Bikram poses from a Bikram class but from a workshop that was taught by teachers dissociated with the style. Why isn’t that info taught to people in Bikram classes like it is in other Hatha styles? My students come away with a lot of knowledge about anatomy, therapy and energetics each time I teach them.

    Thing is, Bikram yoga makes a lot of people feel really good and in the end that’s why we do yoga. Bikram doesn’t work for me but I’m not gonna stop other people from doing what works for them. Bikram is only a very small slice of what yoga is but it gets a lot of people doing yoga. Whether it gets them being yoga is another thing entirely.

  6. iloveginger says:

    i LOVE the hot yoga! if we had a Bikram studio here in the mountains id be there every day….BUT!

    the military feel is pretty wild. Bikram was the first yoga i had ever known–then i went to Vinyasa flow stuff and i was like.."wait! no rules?? i can rest or take a sip of water whenever i want? i can keep my water bottle on the right side of the mat?? no one is going to yell at me?"
    yes, in my experience, many of the instructors are uptight/agro – its not for everybody. i love the physical workout- how i feel after a Bikram yoga class is AMAZING!!! the hatha yoga -the routine, repetition, the sweat, the japanese ham sandwich.

  7. You're so right about the teacher not being the yoga. But often the teacher is the conduit to the yoga we are learning, and that is a great responsibility. If a teacher fails in that regard, the side-effect can be disenchantment from the practice, or that style of practice. As a more experienced student now, I have found that, to be my own teacher, I have to take the offerings that work and resonate with me, and compassionately leave the rest. This is true with Bikram, Ashtanga, Anusara, Iyengar, Vinyasa Flow and anything out there. I actually appreciated Annie's thought of utilizing multiple practices.

  8. Hey Andrew,

    Yep, teachers have a lot of responsibility riding on them for that exact reason – a first-time yoga student is always going to think that way of teaching is the way YOGA is…

  9. Hey Tanya,

    I'm curious about it too – about why Bikram chooses to teach his teachers to teach the way they do with little or no reference to the energetic or emotional effects of the postures.

    Loved your last sentence too: "Bikram gets a lot of people doing yoga. Whether it gets them being yoga is another thing entirely."


  10. Manny says:

    Bikram = sweat, illusion and money. The whole scene is piggish and is the yoga of Wall St. and Hollywood. Stop the exploitation of yoga NOW! OCCUPY BIKRAM!

  11. Hey Mel,

    Something curious I noticed about practicing Bikram Yoga….

    While once upon a time, it did put me in a meditative space… more recently I found that my mind was far more agitated after practicing. I would be calmer when I came into class… Bikram had ceased to have the kind of effect on me it once had. As a result, I haven't done a class in more than a year. It felt like my time with Bikram was done, for the time being anyway… who knows when I'll next do a class.

  12. iloveginger says:

    half tortoise pose!
    so ingrained in my brain after years of bikram anytime i do certain hatha style poses i cant help but hear the dialogue..push back far back way baaaack

  13. Sam says:

    Hello Leah,

    Very interesting perspective of Bikram yoga. I’ve met him in person. Indeed very intelligent.

    I stopped temporarily? After 3 years. Currently reading Autobiographi of a Yogi I as well as currently reading an unabridged, unwatered 500 pp of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras by Edwin Bryant < highly recommend both books; these two books amongst many of Yogananda's writings have given me an interest and jumpstart last year into Kría/Kundalini yoga. I practice at home and once in a while at a house where they teach this yoga.

    My experience was good with Bikram yoga- but for ME Kría yoga is something out of this world!

    I know something happened to me that changed me 31 Aug 08. For better of worse I don't know.

    I can't describe in words the experience I get from Kría / Kundalini – it's got to be done carefully and with reverence bc it can be dangerous. It's a fascinating ineffable experience that I be believe removes imprints on the Soul and cleanses the "Stained glass window of the mind to where Purusha shines with much splendor" (words I remember from the Yoga Suturas commentaries)

    It's strange bc I also feel that I've developed such a detachment with Prakriti and maybe this is something that ppl experience close to so-called death. But still dealing with kleshas or afflictions which bind me to this Samsaric existence.

    Namaste _/|\_,

  14. udaykumar thevar says:

    i agree with you zoie

  15. udaykumar thevar says:

    good discussion..end of the u experience, u r body adapting like stiffness, weakness involves a lot of creativity also, as one learns, he or she knows how to go in flow that comes after a lot of practice..

  16. Andrew says:

    About the "rules" in Bikram yoga, it's about developing self-control and discipline. Yoga is a discipline, no? Bikram is a master Hatha and Raja (mind) yoga teacher who teaches how he was taught by his guru, Bishnu Gosh, brother of Paramahansa Yogandanda (author of Autobiography of a Yogi). He teaches that the right way is the hard way, but the only way to improve your body. And in turn, your mind. Bikram yoga is amazing and controversial and can (if you let it) empower you to improve your body and strengthen your mind. Open your mind. Iyengar says there are many ways to get up the mountain…there are many ways to get to self-realization.

    Closing your eyes, Bikram teaches, takes you away from being present. Yoga is about awareness. If your teacher tells you to keep your eyes open, he/she is teaching you the way Bikram learned from his guru and his lineage. Not everyone will love it or even like it, but it is for everyone.

    Great discussion.

  17. Sammy says:

    Yes! Bikram says you/we are responsible for our own experience – in the yoga room and outside. I've heard many Bikram teachers say, You are your own best teacher. The instructor is there to give you a clear path to yourself : )

  18. OzYogi says:

    Please remember that Yoga is a lifestyle not just an exercise regime as considered in Modern terms. Ancient terms describe yoga-exercise as one part of several to bring about change in a person totally and wholesomely.

    I did other styles of yoga and found that the techer was the one in front showing off to the rest who couldnt do it. Yet in Bikram I like hearing the specific insturctions that allows anybody to get in and try it right, there will always be different levels from person to person. My yoga practice has never been better because of this. Any yoga can have teachers you do and don't like. You need to resonate with the one that propells you to a place you like.

  19. Hey Manny,

    He he he! I love it… I get an image of all these tiny yogi figures inside Mr. Bikram – occupying him indeed!

  20. Hey Marcus,

    Yoga is a state of being we bring to the thing we are doing – whether what we are doing is Bikram Yoga, Astanga Yoga or Iyengar Yoga.

    Yoga is also a practice that helps us learn how to be Yoga.

    One person practicing Bikram might be doing Yoga. Or being Yoga.

    Another person practicing BIkram might be in a cycle of self-punishment. Or exercising.

    The Bikram Yoga itself is just Yoga. The person doing the yoga is something else.

    So yeah, it gets confusing to use this word "yoga" and know exactly what is being referred to… Hell, I get confused over it…

    Great points, thank you!

  21. osiris says:

    Bikram Yoga rocks!! Period.

  22. Andrew says:

    Agree!!! It's the real thing.

  23. Andrew says:

    Bikram teaches the whole idea of the bank account. When I read Iyengar I feel sometimes as if I'm listening to Bikram. The common idea is the same. Bikram just likes to keep it simple. Not so esoteric. So everyone can learn through their own experience. Even Iyengar says no one can teach you how to meditate. You learn through experience.

  24. Andrew says:

    I do think this discussion is good. Listen to each other even if we don't agree.

  25. mrshrose says:

    I love Bikram Yoga. I don't really care what anyone else thinks or says, I get an enormous amount out of my practice. I think it has a lot to do with what you put in to your practice. I must say that I practice at the Bikram Yoga Centre in Prahran and everyone of the instructors is brilliant. I say this without bias, they are all different and I have gleaned something different from each one of them, they have individually helped me to improve different aspects of certain poses. I recommend it to many people. After more than 10 years of intensive gym sessions (everything from boxing to personal training and weight sessions, spin classes etc) I transferred to Bikram and felt better than I ever have after just one class. I LOVE BIKRAM FOR ALL OF THE REASONS WE PRACTICE YOGA. I SEE IT AS ONLY A POSITIVE EXPERIENCE.

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  27. gratefulyogini says:

    This article and the responses are so great! I loved reading them and I am more than grateful to be reminded of the responsibility that comes with being a yoga teacher. I try to guide my Bikram students with compassion and with an emphasis upon the individual's own personal practice (no competition, no expectations, lots of love for one's own body and mind) but sometimes I think students still find me "difficult" because the yoga itself is, inherently, challenging. In all honesty, I feel like the best practices I have are the ones where you forget even WHO the teacher is, who is beside me, what outfit I wore, etc. This is a good reminder to me to, as a teacher, be helpful and encouraging but also somewhat transparent. That way students really do have their own personal practice.

  28. Where does Iyengar say that exactly?

  29. Nunu says:

    I have practiced yoga of many types for five years and have done several hundred Bikram and Hot yoga classes as well as Vinyasa,Shatki,Ying Yang, ect.

    I think the point is each person should listen to their soul and body to
    Guide them to what they need. My body, joints and focus thrive with the heated yoga but at times I go to more restorative yoga classes or more
    Spiritually oriented classes. In my 50s and as a physician practicing for
    over 50 years, each person has to find their way and be in tune with their own needs. I have had minor injuries in other classes, but NEVER
    In Bikram.

    I have met Bikram and even attended the competitions in LA that are
    So controversial. My yogini friends and I enjoyed seeing the beauty of the human form at some of it’s top flexibility and strength. It would have been better, I agree if it was more of a display of our potential.

    The bottom line is that we all have different needs at different times and
    it is listening to ourselves that we find what we need, not someone else
    telling us.

    It has been interesting having a hot flash during a heated yoga class,
    but yoga also really helps balancing menopause symptoms!

  30. Andrew says:

    Tree of Yoga

  31. Andy says:

    What does it say? Link is bad.

  32. Tam says:

    I have practiced both Ashtanga, Vinyasa and Bikram and as a lover of yoga I love them all.. HOWEVER I prefer Bikram because I don't get all the "spiritual and Hindu" influences in Bikram but I am able to enjoy the physical side and actual get in tune with my body and just enjoy that rather than all the other stuff you get in other types of Yoga. I injured a hamstring for 4 months in Ashtanga and have never hurt myself doing Bikram and I really believe it's because the heat actually helps. So if you don't like Bikram that is fine but don't knock it for the rest of us who actual do get some type of benefit from it..whatever that might be.

  33. guest says:

    Some teachers are more meditative than others. Most teachers need to ask permission to give adjustments but are so much in the flow that they forget to ask. It's important and we appreciate you bringing this up.

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  38. West says:

    Bikram Yoga is perfectly designed for a large segment of the Yoga Community. It is “McYoga”, in a sense, that you know what to expect every single time you visit a Bikram Practice. You are not at the whim of the teacher as they follow a “script to the letter”. The Asanas are the same basic Yoga Postures accentuated by the extreme temperature of the room. Without the heated room the Practice is rather simple and probably wouldn’t have the same effect or following.

    Is it Yoga? Yes, it is a version of Yoga just like all of the other versions out there. Is it here to stay? Probably, as there will always be a segment of the Yoga Population which enjoy the Practice.

  39. Jeanne says:

    I tried Bikram and it's not for me. However, I can see why Type A's love this style of practice. I love yoga, especially Ashtanga but that probably has more to do with my teacher than the discipline. My teacher taught me to accept where I am today and not compare it to where I think I should be or where I was yesterday. Just be here and focused and enjoy the journey, and that brings the most peace to me.