February 9, 2013

Naked Emperors: Is Bikram Just a Bunch of Hot Air? ~ Norman Blair

Part 2 of 2. For Part 1, go here.

Heart and Honesty

Kino MacGregor, author of Sacred Fire: My Journey into Ashtanga Yoga, is more open about herself than Benjamin Lorr, who wrote Hell-Bent. To me, there feels greater heart in what she has written. She describes eating issues and fears of falling in love, insecurities and neuroses. There are far fewer laughs but a greater exposing of herself as, like all of us, a wounded human being:“I am absolutely terrified of looking like a fool,” she writes.

There can be the danger of that too-exposed an approach, of the self-disclosure culture. One view is that in the land of Oprah, such confessional heart-on-sleeve habits are perhaps more about marketing and rituals of authenticity rather than a radical honesty.

With radical honesty, we can come into alignment with who we actually are, and grow our ability to authentically connect with each other and see the beauty in all of our imperfections.

In the sincerity and sweetness of her devotion to Pattabhi Jois, she buys into the yoga orthodoxy which has been significantly disproved. She writes: “lineage in yoga… goes in an unbroken line from teacher to student back nearly 5000 years through Indian history.” As Lorr points out in his book, such a perspective “would be laughable if it didn’t point to a deeper, more desperate insecurity: the need to cling to false roots in the face of incredible recency of innovation”. Rather than relying on dubious statements of the “perfect pedigree,” why does Kino not simply trust her own perceptions: “yoga led me from abusive relationships to happy ones”?

Indeed, she asks Pattabhi Jois that golden question that expresses a theme in all of our lives: “Guruji, where can I find inner peace?”

Her journey leads from rapid progress through three series of the Ashtanga sequence (she comes up from drop-backs within two years; it took me more than ten years to achieve this and then after a few years, I retired from doing it) to this: “the presence of God filled the room… everywhere I looked was new, fresh and alive… a resounding joy that echoed in the mountains of infinity.”

She describes her first Vipassana retreat as “perhaps the best ten days of my life.” When I did a similar retreat, it was more like one of the hardest ten days of my life. Then, towards the end of her book, there is this lovely description: “human beings are tender creatures, full of love”. After nearly ten years of intense practice, some of the deeper shells begin breaking: “I realized that I was motivated not always out of selfless service or pure intention, but instead by a conflict at a very deep level”. Of course this is true for nearly all of us; in her case, Kino talks of being “a scared little girl”.

Sugar and Steroids

These are lines that you would struggle to find in Hell-Bent; that is a shame. But Lorr does incisively critique the Bikram experience. He compares the actual practice to a sugar rush: it produces a great blast of energy, and a quick high that is quite addictive. In a recent interview, he said:

“physically, for some people there is an enormous rush that comes after class, like a runner’s high on steroids… it is the feeling of relief after being completely wiped out, the rebuilding after burning yourself to the ground.”

In such description, I wonder where you find the ethical pillars of yoga philosophy: compassion and truthfulness. In the Bikram system, there is remarkably little mention of meditation or pranayama or liberation. Instead, there is a revealing of Bikram’s ability to cut out virtually everyone who gets close to him.

Chad Clark was employed by him for several years as a heating consultant, clearly a very important position. Speaking of Bikram, he said, “Once you get sucked into that world, it’s all madness… his personal studio was a death trap… I went through this slow realization that he really and truly does not give a shit about other people… Bikram sees his yoga students as vessels like toilets and trash cans for him to treat as he wishes.”

The first words from Bikram at the training that Lorr attended were: “I want to make you rich,” a statement that leaves one wondering about the role of renunciation within this practice.

He claimed that his last breakfast was May 1964, and prior to that meal, he taught Pope Paul VI yoga for a month. Lorr writes of other Bikram claims: he “invented the disco ball,” he wrote the script for Superman, he was “responsible for launching Michael Jackson’s career.” At one of his yoga championships (which he dreams will one day make yoga an Olympic sport), Bikram stated, “I control 98.5% of yoga in this world”. Whatever happened to the other 1.5%?

A peak experience of Lorr’s training was in his second week, with Bikram in a bad mood and the temperature thrust even higher. “The woman lies motionless and then twitches… I realize from the way the smell won’t go away that there is a very real chance that the lean tattooed woman near me has shit her leotard… My body feels hot and blurry. I can hear muffled sobbing on all sides of me.”

And where Bikram goes, unfortunately he is followed by many of his instructors. “The beatings will continue until morale improves” was a common declaration at one training camp that Lorr attended, a statement made without satire or any trace of humor. This attitude is also reflected in some of the language in the imposed dialogue (instructors have to learn a specified script and then rigidly stick to those lines).


It is clear from Hell-Bent that Bikram cannot bear to be alone, that he requires sycophants and audience. He is terrified of solitude. This is ironic, considering that many spiritual practices require a certain level of solitary existence. Lorr succinctly describes him as “both mesmerisingly effective and completely imbalanced.”

And there are the dark shadows: the bullying, the isolating of anyone who questions Bikram’s control, the cruelty behind angry interactions with those who have supposedly crossed him, the financial meanness, the requesting of sexual favors.

In the words of Lorr, “the magnetic exterior of the professional charismatic can be stripped away to reveal a desperate need for attention, a cold core of narcissism.”

Clearly Bikram has an amazing ability for commercializing and marketing his brand. This humble and highly dedicated yoga practitioner who arrived in California with very little is now running a multi-million dollar operation. In his rise from rags to riches, his trainings now cost $11,400 (or $15,500 if you want your own room) and upwards of 400 people attend each one. That is a gross of about $4,000,000—plus of course the merchandising and franchise costs that are paid by studios.

This could be another sign of the importance of peer groups. When Bikram first arrived in America, he was described as “a wonderful person.” He was determined to spread the gospel of yoga and willing to make considerable personal sacrifices for that spreading.

But within a few years the story changed as he became more isolated at the top; he began choosing materialism and power, and to be surrounded by needy people who would rarely confront his authority. His obsessive control contrasts sharply with Kino’s honesty: “even when I was at my thinnest I was still unhappy because I never addressed the voice inside my head that told me that I was not good enough.”


Bikram cannot bear being challenged. As a result, his teaching structure is rigidly hierarchical. This is unlike Ashtanga, where there is more openhearted devotion to the guru. Despite a systemized approach, there is greater freedom, with practitioners not tied so tightly to the structure.

One consequence of this is greater sustainability of long-term practitioners.

Tony Sanchez was considered to be Bikram’s foremost student until he was confronted by a situation in which he refused to compromise his integrity. Following the break with Bikram, he continued the voyage of inquiring. Now he says, “if yoga is going to evolve… I want to encourage free thinking and individuality, but that comes with debate, it requires rigor and well thought-out decisions.”

A barrier to evolving can be more about those around the guru rather than the guru themselves. One person practicing in Mysore, the home of Ashtanga yoga, wrote of “the endless angelical looks, straight backs, picture perfect bodies, the constant question of ‘how many times have you been to Mysore’, the assumption that this is the only way can somewhat feel disturbing… there is something eerie about the belief that I must like this place and that I will come back.”

This ability to evolve is important in a world where there is increasing obesity, growing individualistic atomization and higher levels of depression. By 2007, 10% of Americans over the age of 6 were regularly taking an antidepressant. About a quarter of Britons are classified as obese (“so overweight as to be at risk from several serious illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease if action is not taken to control the weight”). Certainly we Westerners require exercise.

Whether it is because of sedentary lifestyles or howling gales of emotional loneliness or gaping wounds of self-esteem, there is a need to move which the Bikram system can to some extent meet. The question is, at what cost?

And just because the snake oil might work for some people does not mean that we let its salesmen off the hook of ethical and accountable behavior.

Under this umbrella called yoga, there are many different formulas. There are crooks and charismatics, there are wonderfully compassionate human beings all operating inside this four-letter description. With Bikram, there is definitely some beauty in the being. Like all charismatics, there is charm. But the longer this legend lives on, the thinner and more tattered it becomes.

Bikram appears to be more desperate, flailing around for the oxygen of publicity, craving attention. It is a shame that the journey that began in Calcutta is ending in such a sad way.

Lorr comes to the conclusion that Bikram ticks every box in the formal criteria for diagnosing narcissistic personality disorder. For example, “preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, ideal love.” There is brilliance in Bikram but there is plenty that is barking and bonkers—and some that is plainly dangerous.

Lorr suggests that it is time to kill the guru: “in an open, thorough and probably horribly difficult process”.

There are many possibilities within this practice of yoga that are reflected in both of these books. It is important to acknowledge that there are different paths towards this place, a place that Kino describes as becoming able to say yes to life. An essential element of saying yes to life is challenging our teachers—as are stoking the fires of devotion and polishing the windows of perception.


Thanks to Mark (for Hell-Bent), thanks to Heather (for Sacred Fire) and thanks to Ben (for The Economist). Thanks to Maitripushpa for her wonderful way with words. Collaboration and sharing are important elements on these paths of practice. Having examined these two books, a legitimate question is: why did I decide to write this piece? The answers are multiple (as answers nearly always are): partly as a hobby, partly as a process to deepen understanding which can help fuel transformation, partly as a good friend once said: “my highest spiritual moments can come at the keyboard.” Partly because an aspect of my dharma practice is perhaps spreading ideas and encouraging thought (a thread throughout my adult life). And because as much as I enjoy the stillness of sitting and the strength of stretching, I love making words play across a page. Thank you for getting so far—thank you for the story so far.


Norman Blair has been practicing yoga for 20 years and teaching since 2001. His practice and teaching embrace both Ashtanga yoga and yin yoga as well as mindfulness meditation. He believes that yoga is accessible to all of us and through regular practice we can experience profound changes in our mind and body. His own experience has taught him that yoga is an enjoyable way to release and make available energetic potential to enhance our lives. He is becoming happier where he actually is. For details of classes/workshops in London and other writings, go to www.yogawithnorman.co.uk.


Assistant Ed. Caroline Scherer


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