October 4, 2011

Is the Bikram series a victim of yoga snobbery?

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?

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