In Defense of Bikram Yoga. ~ Jenny Boyle

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Let’s be honest, there’s been a lot of smack-talk about Bikram Yoga going down lately.

As a Bikram teacher of eight years this month, I have to say, I get it. I really do. Racism, sexism, bigotry and allegations of sexual assault and rape are really just the beginning. I’ve seen him call students fat, ugly, gay and stupid in a tone so full of nastiness he sounds like a snake spitting poison.

I’ve seen people bow down to him; like, actually bow down on their knees. They call him ‘boss’ relentlessly, unquestioningly do as he asks – even if he calls them Fat Ass instead of their name, brush his hair, massage his feet, and a whole host of other creepy activities that anyone in their right mind would call cult-ish.

Yet still Bikram studios across the world are jam packed with students wanting to get in to sweat their asses off a few inches away from their neighbors, lock their knees, and be bossed around within the crazy framework that is Bikram Yoga.

Teachers, loving, compassionate people with a well established practice of gratitude and grace, continue to teach the series that is taking so much heat and receiving so much criticism from the other yogis of the world.

And you know what? If we didn’t, there would be hundreds of thousands of very sad students worldwide who get something…something from Bikram Yoga that they cannot find anywhere else. I know that something. I’ve practiced nearly every other form of yoga, and I enjoy most of them immensely. Give me a quiet space, a humble teacher (debatable for some Bikram teachers, I know, but also debatable for any human on the planet, really), and clear instruction on how to move my body and I, friend, will be silly putty in the palm of your yoga teaching hand.

But I still don’t feel the same elation, the same incredible glow and satisfaction I receive from 90 minutes in a hot room being told exactly what to do, how to do it and why I’m doing it.

Sometimes it’s not that elation I need. But sometimes, it’s exactly what is going to pull me out of a mind-space and put me into a hot, sweaty hell of a classroom with no way out, so I can look myself square in the face, work through my postures, and find compassion toward myself despite years of hyper-vigilance and being way too hard on myself. In some weird way, it helps me accept my weaknesses.

Safe to say, we are all very different people.

I’ve not only been teaching for eight years, but I owned and directed a studio for over four of those years, which I’ve since sold to pursue a new career. Yet I continue to teach. I’ve seen it all in my time, from guys practicing in their underwear (and yes, I’ve seen my fair share of genitalia while teaching) to girls with massive fake breasts wearing skin tight white bras and not even flinching when their thinly veiled nipples emerge through the wet material for all to drop their jaws and stare.

But I’ve seen crazy stuff in other classes too. I’ve bumped into the ego of teachers in yin class, been given improper technical instruction in a 60-minute flow, and had eyes rolled at me when I didn’t do a posture because it hurt my back while practicing what was simply called “hatha.” I have gone to a party, and when introduced as a Bikram studio owner, was glared at and told, by a yoga teacher, “I hate Bikrams.”

It’s a case of a bad experience being cast on all teachers of the same style, of all teachers being judged because the guy at the top is, let’s say…a tad volatile. But in taking a different view of Bikram Yoga through a cost/benefit analysis, the validity of this practice becomes clear. Take into account all the people who have been exposed to the practice of yoga because they consider themselves “Type A,” and aren’t into gongs and OM, all the students who love their teachers and feel that the practice of Bikram Yoga has helped them find their connection with their bodies for the first time.

There are teachers who provide technically correct ways of contracting the quadricep to stabilize the knee joint, and teachers who force students to push their knees into hyperextension. There are teachers who encourage proper breathing and listening to your body, and there are those who just yell and dance on the podium with more regard for how their ass looks in the mirror than how present their students are at any given moment. There are excellent practitioners in any sector of industry, and there are those who just suck.

A bad experience with one doctor doesn’t make them all quacks.

Bikram Yoga has grown far beyond any one man, or any one style of teaching. There are things I doubt about it all the time. I see students sinking into their lumbar spine in half moon, over-stretching their shoulders in bow, collapsing into their tendons in toe stand…and I just gently correct and allow them to do with the correction as they please. They are their own master. And everyone will find these issues in every style of yoga.

I truly believe that any yoga is better than no yoga, and that something is better than nothing.

When I finish my class and everyone comes out with their glowing, sweaty faces, it’s clear: the students don’t care about whether or not yoga competition is “right.” They don’t care about a lawsuit or 13 coming down on some dude in LA wearing a speedo. Most of them don’t even know Bikram is a dude, let alone one who wears a speedo.

They don’t care about the politics or the pragmatics. They care about how they feel when they walk out of that room. And those are some of the best parts of the job. Seeing the bodies transform and the corresponding confidence. Seeing the guy who came in grumpy leave with an awkward, goofy grin. Watching the lady who wants to lose 100 lbs come in, hell or high water, every day for 30 days, despite her kids and her job, and feel that victory when we hand her an inkjet diploma with her name on it.

I may not love Bikram; never really have, to be honest. But I love my students, and I love the yoga. For me—maybe not for everyone, but for me, the man and the yoga are completely separate.

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Assistant Editor: Andrea Charpentier / Editor: Catherine Monkman

{Photo: CBR Photography}

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anonymous Mar 27, 2014 7:56pm

Fabulous. Balanced. Word up.

anonymous Mar 25, 2014 1:20am

Just Love this conversation and the whole wild ego fueled world we find ourselves blasting through in our current yoga inspired paradigm Thank you one and all! Now lets get to the practice the breathing the stillness and the…….

anonymous Dec 30, 2013 12:23pm

Hi Jenny. You're exactly right. The man himself, and other men or women, may come and go. The series, and the principles of the hot Hatha, will never go out of style, because they work, and they are based on ancient knowledge. He was foolish to believe that his unbridled pursuit of power and ego gratification had anything to do with real Yoga.

anonymous Nov 21, 2013 3:38am


anonymous Nov 19, 2013 8:19pm

Thank you. I love my studio, my fellow yogis and the teachers who guide us in the practice. Thanks for speaking up, over the din of contoversy, for all of us.

anonymous Nov 17, 2013 10:46am

Completely agree. Yoga is about Self, and the teacher (though the teacher assists in helping us realize the folly of Self vs self) is a guidepost. We need teachers…to get over them.

anonymous Nov 17, 2013 10:33am

Of course i have a problem with the nutjob known as Bikram, but my probably has never been so much with him, as with the practice itself. It is not yoga, it’s a workout. WHere are the other 7 limbs in the practice? There are serious voids in the sequence, and , take the heat away, and it’s not a particularly challenging practice either. I equate Bikram yoga to crossfit, and hopefully it will soon become just as popular as “step Aerobics” is, right now in 2013. LOL!

    anonymous Nov 17, 2013 7:20pm

    Hi Daler. I would encourage you to go to a class with a reputable teacher and they can show you how connected you need to be to your mind, body and breath in order to function in the heat and perform the postures to the best of your ability. It is, however, not for everyone…in fact not for lots of people. You gotta do what works for you, right? Have fun in your step aerobics! 🙂

    anonymous Nov 18, 2013 2:03pm

    Hi Daler,
    As a teacher of Bikram yoga and a practitioner of over 12 years, I have to respectfully disagree – there are most definitely all aspects of the yoga philosophy (yama, niyama, pranayama, etc.) all incorporated into this style. While it might seem like just a "workout" at the beginning, more advanced practitioners understand that it most definitely isn't. And that is why we all keep coming back. And yes, I hear you that without the heat these are mainly "basic" postures, if you will, but they are definitely challenging, especially if done with proper effort and correct form. Also keep in mind that this is what we call the the "beginning" yoga class – there is also what we call the "advanced" series, the ancient series of 84, that is practiced in the hot room as well. I have never been bored with this style, as there is always so much to learn about self and the practice. That said, I do agree that it's not for everyone, just as kirtan or flow styles are not for everyone. Hopefully your practice will help you to seek more knowledge, and less judgment, about different styles of practice! Cheers,

anonymous Nov 17, 2013 10:13am

I have been a dedicated practitioner of Bikram yoga for about six years and have seen all kinds of teachers, the good, the bad and the ugly. Bikram yoga has changed my back, my attitude and my life. Bikram the yoga technique is great stuff; the postures and the heat really work together. I will never e become a teacher, though, so long as it is financially linked with Bikram the man. Bikram the man, disgusts and disturbs me. I was generally okay tolerating reports of abusive words but am now deeply disturbed by multiple allegations of rape and of the structure around him of working to facilitate his abuses, creating a culture of violence toward women. If I were a Bikram teacher or studio owner I would have serious moral qualms paying for any licensure fees or re-certification trainings that might make him richer. As a student, it is my love for my studio and the teachers, my friends who keep me coming back, otherwise adhering to ahimsa would prevent me from doing so. I would like to see the man get separated from the yoga before he corrupts it as he as already corrupted himself. It is a shame, because the yoga is wonderful. You wrote a well balanced article about there being bad eggs in every yoga discipline. While this is certainly true and great teachers and studios shouldn't be lumped in with the bad ones, my concern is that that abuses in the yoga organization I love so well are systematic.

    anonymous Nov 17, 2013 7:15pm

    Thanks Brettie. It's a valid concern, no doubt. I'm glad you've seen such great benefit from the practice. I doubt he'll be separated anytime soon, but we can all still keep practicing and teaching, and hoping that he comes to a realization about the way he treats people one of these days. Until then, we just keep sweating and smiling. 🙂

      anonymous Nov 18, 2013 7:41pm

      Really??? Waiting and "hoping he comes to a realization"? Surely there's a bigger stick for teachers and studio owners than smiling and sweating and condoning through silence?

        anonymous Nov 19, 2013 6:42pm

        I agree completely, Ewwww. I think Bikram teachers need to take a stand on this issue to demand that Bikram and the upper echelons of the organization clean up their act instead of sweating, smiling and saying nothing.

    anonymous Nov 18, 2013 2:30pm

    perfectly articulated, thank you

anonymous Nov 17, 2013 6:31am

I am essentially a pilates student now, okay?
But your article has really intrigued me so much … so now I want to try Hot Pilates. I have seasonal affective disorder that came back with a vengeance, this lack of photoperiod. Maybe something would help. [Unfortunately for this style, I chant and am into kirtans as far as any yoga …]

It is entirely possible, however, that Bikram practice is a level of mild I could get down with; despite current, popular books like "Hell-Bent" … which has done enough to intimidate people …

Kudos to you …

    anonymous Nov 17, 2013 7:11pm

    The intimidation factor of Bikram Yoga is understandable, but I have so many students who started with that fear and have gotten past it in a couple of classes. Whatever is going to bring you the benefit is what you should do, I believe! (Within reason and ethics, obviously.) 😉

anonymous Nov 17, 2013 5:58am

Very well expressed point of view and balanced argument.

I am also NOT a fan of the man. But I agree that to condemn the tool would be a great loss for so many people who first found their way to the mat – and to a connection with themselves – via this practice.

    anonymous Nov 17, 2013 7:10pm

    Thank you. It's easy to get caught up in all the drama of it as teachers, but really, the students are there for the way they feel afterward, which can segue into so many positive life changes. Thanks for commenting. 🙂

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Jenny Boyle

Jennifer Boyle is a passionate yoga teacher, holistic nutrition student and aspiring author and speaker. She is currently writing her first book, The Diet Monster – How to Stop Dieting and Love Yourself Skinny. You can find her musings and her pictures at her website