How Bikram Unintentionally Inspired the Evolution of Hot Yoga.

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There have been rumblings recently in the world of hot yoga.

As Bikram Choudhury comes face-to-face with the fallout of his personal conduct in the form of several lawsuits (including alleged rape), an increasing number of Bikram studios are choosing to rebrand, disassociating themselves from the Bikram empire.

Facilitating this shift is the court ruling that his famous 26-posture sequence cannot be copyrighted and, therefore, may be taught freely.

Originally from Calcutta, Bikram Choudhury trained with Bishnu Ghosh (Paramanhansa Yogananda’s brother and a yoga guru in his own right) winning three asana championships in his teens. He moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s where his charismatic persona and revolutionary hot yoga practice quickly became a sensation. He became known as the “Guru to the Stars,” with a long list of famous clients. In the 1980s, at the urging of his wife, Rajashree, he expanded his empire and began training teachers so that they could open their own studios and reach a greater number of students with the Bikram method.

Over the last decade and a half, the Bikram method saw explosive growth—there are now approximately 650 Bikram studios worldwide. During this time, Bikram also started to stir up controversy with his unsuccessful attempt to copyright his 26-posture sequence (an appeal is still pending), and his hyperbolic statements about the exclusive efficacy of his own method.

His intentionally public attitude is counter to what is commonly considered to be in the spirit of yoga as described by Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and is a reflection of the way he teaches. Bikram Yoga is a method of fitness, not a spiritual practice. The man is the embodiment of the method (or perhaps, vice versa.) As his teacher trainings grew, his teaching methods became more extreme and his behavior more erratic.

Mark Drost spent six years as a senior member of the Bikram training staff, from 2002-2008, before he left to start evolation, which he now runs with his wife Zefea Samson. Drost says during the time he worked closely with Choudhury, he saw a steady decline in the quality of the teacher training.

“The training is good. It’s a boot camp for yoga. But it does not teach you how to teach. It does not give you the specifics of the postures. You get physically very strong because you are in the hottest room you’ve ever practiced in. And then you learn the script. That’s all you do for nine weeks. When people come out of that training, they have not taught more than one posture at a time. There are a lot of complaints from studio owners that they have to retrain the teachers coming out of the teacher training. It’s ridiculous to believe that you can train hundreds of teachers at the same time, quality teaching.”

Tiffany Friedman, owner of Haute Yogi Manhattan Beach (formerly Bikram Yoga Manhattan Beach) just recently rebranded her studio, severing all ties with the Bikram brand. She says there were three things missing from her Bikram teacher training experience: knowledge, spirituality, respect. “I spent nine weeks away from my family and I really expected to come back with so much knowledge about yoga and anatomy. I wanted to know more about healing injuries, modifications, and wanted to see the medical studies relating to hot yoga. I came back with a book of the dialogue and lots of time spent memorizing the dialogue word for word.”

Rebranding an established business and reorienting a loyal customer base is big undertaking and carries with it considerable risk. So why do it?

Friedman says,

“This change has been coming for quite some time. Probably since 2010, I just found that I wanted more. I began attending the Advanced class at headquarters with Emmy Cleaves and loved the challenge, and began leading advanced classes at my studio so I could make more progress. A little over a year ago, I added an Express (75 instead of 90 minute) class at my studio. It became popular.

Bikram called me and wanted me to stop teaching it, immediately. I told him I would make a decision based on what was best for my customers and my business. I began listening intently to my students. I listened to what they liked and didn’t like and most importantly, what they wanted. I rebranded to expand my business to encompass the wants and needs of my students. I outgrew the confines of Bikram Yoga. I believe my students have to.

We love the heat and the benefits of yoga but we want more. More variety, more passion, and ultimately, more spirituality.”

The separation of asana from philosophy has been a source of division in the yoga community. With an increasing number of studios choosing to rebrand, Mark Drost sees the potential of this expansion to heal some of the division in the community.

“At evolation, we simply take Bikram and his guru, and Yogananda and take it to the next level. One of the things that inspired us from the beginning was to put the lineage together. One thing that is rarely even spoken about in the Bikram world is Yogananda and that part of the lineage. We asked ourselves, How can we bring these different elements together? The first healing in the community is to put the pieces together. It has manifested at our school in our teacher trainings. Meditation and philosophy is in everything we do. You may not see it on the surface, but the goal of the teacher and the studio is to take the student to a meditative practice. And that’s the original goal of a hatha yoga class. We have a very similar foundation as Bikram in terms of a class or a teacher training. But there is so much more behind it and ahead of it.”

For some, what is missing from Bikram is a sense of yoga as a way of life—on and off the mat. Annie Ory, founder of Yoga Riot in Downtown Los Angeles, practiced and taught in the Bikram community for over 10 years. Because of lifelong chronic joint injuries, she needs to practice in a hot room. She too was thirsty for more than Bikram was offering and discovered Baron Baptiste.

She says about Baptiste, “It is a yoga system that is run by people who use yoga to light up their communities and make meaningful changes in the world. It isn’t a top down leadership system, it is inclusive and calls every practitioner to DO something with what they learn on their mat.

People come back and integrate themselves into Baptiste communities because it feels holistic, fun, passionate and bigger than just a great workout, which it totally is. I notice that the community is more diverse, the majority of Bikram practitioners are younger, and in Baptiste I see broad spectrum of colors, ages, and even a larger segment of men. For years I stayed in Bikram rooms because I couldn’t imagine finding another place that would serve my body the way Bikram yoga did. Now I still get to keep that fitness, and I get to integrate my yoga into my life, my community and my leadership.”

sweat yoga healthIt’s true with anything, change brings a certain degree of uncertainty. It can be uncomfortable to let go of current systems and foundations as we make room for new pathways.

The world of hot yoga is no different. Friedman says, “Some of my students were really scared about the changes. People like knowing what they are getting into. People love Bikram Yoga because they know what they are going to get each and every time. There are no surprises.”

She goes on to say, “My students thank me everyday for the new schedule, new classes, and for giving them the opportunity to try new things if they want to go beyond the traditional hot yoga series. They know the studio and trust the teachers to provide them with a yoga experience that gives them inner peace.”

Bikram practitioners are used to going beyond their comfort zones.

Anyone who has practiced in a 105° room has had to jump this hurdle, both on a physical and psychological level.

It is commonly said that it takes about ten classes to acclimate to the heat. It takes working with both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems to learn to relax and not panic. As more studios choose to rebrand and expand their curriculum, practitioners will have to lean into these skills they have honed on their mat.

As far as advice for studio owners who are considering rebranding, Friedman speaks from her own experience, “I honestly think that the way to handle the transition is slowly and very carefully, otherwise students tend to make a mass exit. We love the yoga series and the heat. It’s the foundation of our practice, and should continue to be.”

Having been sued by Choudhury and won, Drost speaks to the legal concerns of studio owners who are considering rebranding, “The reality of Bikram Choudhury is that he’s been ruling in a system of fear for over a decade. 99.9% of their fears are unfounded. I really wish I could pull down the curtain and let people see what is behind it so we can just get on with it.

His lawsuit has thrown the door right open.

This man has an awesome power to influence, but no matter how powerful the messenger is, the message is still the story. We want for people to wake up to the fact that there are other options. It’s in our students’ and our community’s best interest that we take a leap forward. Bikram’s grip on the yoga world is over; it’s been over. Now it’s just about the legal wranglings catching up.”

As the popularity of Bikram Yoga and controversy over Bikram Choudhury simultaneously heightened, it became common to hear members of the community say, “You have to separate the man from the practice.” With the changing landscape, that may no longer be necessary. A broader, more integrative practice, taught by better-educated teachers means students will have access to more variety, a deeper experience, better alignment and potentially fewer injuries.

“Asana is a tiny fraction of what yoga is. Any training that is worth anything will give you some of the essentials of philosophy and meditation, along with anatomy and the mechanics of the postures to start you on that path. You want the depth of what yoga teaching is,” evolation’s Zefea Samson says, “The Bikram class is one of the best doorways into yoga, but we want people to know that once you are through that door, there is a mansion to explore.”

Drost quickly follows, “We are grateful for Bikram Choudhury, and while we cannot give credit to his training, we give him credit for introducing a hot room, a solid series and for producing thousands of people who want more.”

 

Relephant:  

In Defense of Bikram Yoga 

Hot or Not? Possible Benefits & Precautions of Hot Yoga

Twenty Tips for Your first Bikram Yoga Class  

 

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Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photos: elephant archives

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Zoë Kors

Zoë Kors is a writer, speaker, coach, and founder of The Big Libido, and other programs for women. She is committed to shifting the way we hold our sexuality, both individually and culturally, and to cultivating a sisterhood of wildly-expressed women. She lives in Los Angeles with her daughter, son, and dog. She can be found at ZoeKors.com, on Facebook and Twitter

Comments

16 Responses to “How Bikram Unintentionally Inspired the Evolution of Hot Yoga.”

  1. Ana fernanda says:

    Great article. I love bikram series as it has many benefits and is a great way to approach to yoga for the fist time in these days when is difficult to stop the mind. Im a certified yoga teacher, and was planning to get bikrams certification, so i began to get deep research about the TT and realized is just an intensive 2 months classes, with lots of socializing, sleeping late, pushing your bodies and latest the dialogue. I cannot say all teachers certified with bikram are yoga teachers as most dont know adaptations, corrections, and all the aspects of yoga which are a lot.
    I found evolation yoga and I did the same research, and im doing the TT with them, they get deep into the postures, is very personalized, and gets deep into meditation and all yoga aspects. Mark is doing a great job sharing this knowledge with the world.

  2. laportama says:

    Eh.
    Have you heard Bikram speak? He knows his Patanjali cold.
    And anyone can get off path — even far — can't we?
    And the idea of separating asana from understanding is not new.
    Keep up the good work.

  3. Joe Sparks says:

    In my perspective the heat is what makes it possible to perform his poses. If you heat steel hot enough, it will bend, but does it make sense to do that to our bodies? Try the poses without heat, especially extreme forward bends, and locking of the knees. What in real life movement does this benefit? Why would you want to push your body that hard. I enjoy the heat but not the poses. What is the benefit of pulling your body apart at the seams? Taking your joints, spine past it's end range is anatomically questionable. After 1 month of Bikram, I stopped, because it is not sustainable in my body and the risks out weighed the rewards. In my experience their was very little enjoyment pushing myself performing his poses. To me, it is not very healing, when it hurts. I teach running, over-striding , heel striking seeing how far you can stride is damaging to the body,.pushing past the pain, is not going to have positive outcomes. Seeing how far you can stretch is doing the same. It will only damage the body. Good luck!

    • Oakdene says:

      As a Bikram teacher I tell my classes that there should never be any pain in any posture, discomfort yes, as the muscles lengthen and joints open up, and in every class always acknowledge your bodies limitations. But, unfortunately there are some BY Teachers who think their job is " to kill people", avoid them like the plague.
      And please do not generalise and think all teachers are the same.

  4. karen katz says:

    never practiced Bikram before, even less inclined to try it now.

    besides everything else going against it in my mind, I thought most Yoga people were inclined to respect the environment-here you are artificially heating a room…. doesn't that waste a lot of energy? and then in regular studios, you have to cool the room down again for the next, non-hot class…. how is that a mindful practice-we are supposed to be connected to and care about the world, not just our own yoga practice.

  5. Tom Funk says:

    One of the main ingredients of success is organization. Bikram's Beginning Yoga Class is a very organized and wonderful series that came through Bikram from the Gosh lineage. The series is the result of countless hours of practice and observation, thousands of participating yogis and years of refinement. Unfortunately, it all fell into the hands a of a guy that has some very questionable personality traits and sexual habits. But don't throw the baby out with the bath water, keep the yoga. Integrate it into your own practice and enjoy the fruits of hard work.

  6. Gabe says:

    Finally an online article that addresses the fact that it was Bikram who brought Hot Yoga to the west, as well as looking at all the figures who are riding on what he has built.
    It is kind of sad though, that people who have been around him for years, simply leave and COPY the same exact thing he did….come on, that is 'stealing' – ASTEYA – is non stealing – why not tweak his sequence? why are so many companies (Haute Yoga, COREYoga, and many others) simply teach the hot 26 without either giving credit to Bikram, and pretending like it was their evolution?
    I honor that these people are trying to give Bikram graduates a rounder experience, but again, you are just stealing his students, because you have been in his brand for years, his students know you….so sad…
    I believe in honor and respect for all, and I have come across a word that reflects just that – the evolution is really in hot flow, where people want the heat, music and the proven benefits of the Bishnu Gosh series (which Bikram brought to the US).
    Since hot flows are basically a combination of Bikram andVinyasa, it stands that Bik-Yasa should be a term that applies to anyone who is using a hot flow sequence.
    And for all those teaching Hot Hatha, or Hot 26 – why not tweak it a little? more so, why not just give credit where credit is due, Bikram and Bishnu Gosh – Bikram the man may have become a little over egocentric, but so do all rock stars and politicians, he is not doing anything new in the American Media hype.
    Just my two cents….
    Great article…

  7. Andy Jacobs says:

    Thank you for this article Zoe! I am so grateful to teach at Haute Yogi and to be a part of Tiffany's transforming studio.

    Of course I am glad we still teach the traditional series because that is what won me over into the yoga world. I think people don't realize that dropping the name Bikram is not stealing. Ashtanga and Iyengar classes are taught at studios around the world that are free to be called whatever they choose, without paying royalties to Pattabi Jois or BKS Iyengar (though I wouldn't doubt that they honorably donate to those foundations).

    Being trained as a yoga instructor is a gift which you take into the world and spread, bringing to the studio what you have to offer as well. Thoroughly trained instructors should help with or lead their own trainings so that new teachers are properly prepared instead of mass quantity-no quality trainings.

    Thanks again.

  8. Northern Harrier says:

    I am not a hot yogini myself but respect that others are. One of the largest divides between Bikramites and the rest of the yoga community has been the question: is hot yoga good or bad. I think its neither, rather depends on your constitution. I am surprised by how little conversation there has been about Bikram's abusive behavior. Perhaps because there has also been so little conversation amongst Bikram teachers in general, they don't know quite how to talk about it? I believe there needs to be more conversation to deeply understand the patterns and tendencies that allowed all of this abuse to unfold. In watching this interview with Mark Drost and Zefea Samson (http://www.evolationyoga.com/about-evolation/), I am concerned by some of the comments made, that this systematic abuse has not yet been fully understood and some of the behavior now continues. Comments about still believing the 26 posture system is the best the world has ever seen…..and also Drost's minimal apology for being by Bikram's side, watching the abuse and doing very little about it. These are very concerning behaviors and comments. To trust Drost more, I will need to see more of a Hanuman's fall from the sun to believe he is truly now in service of others and has moved past his own need to be the big man. One aspect of the Bikramite character, as mentioned in this article, is the desire to know what is coming and feeling safe with that. I believe this is limiting to the conversation and ability to understand the unknown. Bikramites, if they really want to evolve to the next level of teaching and practicing, need to delve into these scary unknowns. Completely dissect Bikram, your past, the 26 postures and see a whole system that led to abuse, that you participated even though you tried to separate the man from the practice. The abuse was not just 1 man, it was systematic to the community. And then Evolation and other offshoots of Bikram can turn into something healthy, not just partially healthy.

  9. Eric Jennings says:

    My response to this article was long enough that the kind people at elephant have published it on it's own page. http://www.elephantjournal.com/2014/04/reports-of

  10. Kristiane Bryn says:

    Nice article! Nice that we start addressing that change is needed in any evolution.

    I would like to address the sentence: "Bikram Yoga is a method of fitness, not a spiritual practice". I am a bikram yoga teacher, I also have certification and practise in Vinyasa, pranayama, meditation, plus much more and I am also getting my certification in Yin Yoga. On top of that I am working on crystallising my consciousness and my path in this life is awakening.

    This sentence actually addresses something really important in the whole spiritual community and is also in fact touching upon spiritual arrogance. The action of looking out, depending on learnt knowledge, systems, teachers, gurus +++ as to what is and what is not defined to be spiritual practise.

    I started my yoga practise when I was 17 years old and started with Asthanga, I knew it was something good, but my development went slow. Then I found Bikram Yoga and my journey towards self discovery really began. The intensity and the perpetualness of the series really makes you (almost forces you) to journey within.

    Patanjali wrote in his Yoga Sutras: "Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuation of the mind". The intensity in Bikram yoga makes you to quickly learn to silence the mind (Or else your mind won't survive the room), without having to read the yoga sutras of Patanjali. This is the thing: In Bikram I learnt all my spiritual knowledge from my mat, by my self and from teaching others and observing. Later I studied deeper in the old knowledge and the new knowledge and I keep finding the same truths that I found by myself on the mat.

    The key is to stay present, which brings me to my next point. Again this is something you have to learn quite quickly in the Bikram class. It is much tougher in that room to spend your time thinking about the time than in any other yoga room I have found. And that is the magic I see over and over again in the Bikram class. People practising being present and slowly evolving to become aware beings. Aware of themselves, their minds, their bodies and the surroundings. Then what starts is the ability to become enough present and aware that we start do do our own shadow work. Everything from the continuos repetition to the alignment to the environment of the class is a helper in finding our conditionings, our traumas, our deceptions and perceptions. Finding out whats my self and whats my not-self.

    People question the dangers of the heat or the repetition of the same postures. What I find is that with the heat, you have to learn to know yourself and stay with the breath. The moment you ran away from the breath, you ran away from the yoga. If you injured yourself, don't blame the yoga. An injury is an excellent tool for self inquiry. If pains are coming up, your body is telling you something and giving you a chance to fix deeper structural or psychological issues.

    I love to learn and expand, so I learn new postures, styles, technique and so on. But with the repetition of the same postures in the Bikram series I have learnt more than any other place the importance of alignment. When you practise the same posture again and again, micro dis-alignment is gonna come up in much bigger scale. In for instance varied vinyasa, alignment down to that micro scale is much harder to detect and to hold. I find in many types of flow yoga alignment is much harder to keep.

    That points out another spiritual aspect of Bikram. With the awareness mentioned earlier and the ability to find the micro- dis-alignments by the regular practise and the way the postures are being held, we get a great chance to work towards structural integrity of our skeleton and our muscles. We release traumas, physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. In any ancient practise of developing the energy body/spirit body, structural integrity is an extremely essential key in spiritual growth. If there is a stagnation, a dis-alignment, a block and so on, the energies will be obstructed and they will not flow.

    Every time we practise yoga it function as a kind of checking station as to what is our conditioning for the day, the week and even the year. The way a Bikram class is set up the practise will quickly show you whats going on in your body, mind and even soul. The spiritual knowledge is not in the books, it is on the mat and within ourselves. It is the knowledge of our spirits and remembering who we are. I have learned and relearned continuously on the path. As I am always evolving I completely understand the need for change and evolution, but with me I have some amazing tools gained from my Bikram practise: Ability to be present and aware, nothing is more spiritual than that.

  11. Kristiane Bryn says:

    I would like to post my reply again, i had to change some thoughts. Feel free to remove the other one.

    I appreciate the actions of people like Tiffany Amelia Rhodes-Friedman who is paving new paths in our journey as yoga teachers and showing us there is many paths to Rome. Fear comes from a belief of separation. When we practise yoga we are on the path towards yoga, here meaning union. In this dualistic world on the journey towards oneness, one needs to begin with separation, but as we evolve we should move away from being controlled by fear.

    I need to address the sentence: "Bikram Yoga is a method of fitness, not a spiritual practice".
    This sentence actually addresses something really important in the whole spiritual community and is also in fact touching upon spiritual arrogance. The action of looking out, depending on learnt knowledge, systems, teachers, gurus +++ as to what is and what is not defined to be spiritual practise.

    I am a bikram yoga teacher, I also have certification and practise in vinyasa, pranayama, meditation, plus much more and I am also getting my certification in Yin Yoga. Other things I am working on is crystallising my consciousness and my path in this life is awakening. I started my own yoga practise when I was 17 years old and started with Asthanga, I knew it was something good, but my development went slow. Then I found Bikram Yoga and my journey towards self discovery really began. The intensity and the perpetualness of the series really made me (it almost forces you) to journey within.

    Patanjali wrote in his Yoga Sutras: "Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuation of the mind". The intensity in Bikram yoga makes you quickly learn to silence the mind (or else your mind won't survive the room), without having to read the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali or any other books. This is the thing: In Bikram I learnt all my spiritual knowledge from my mat, by my self and from teaching others and observing. Later I studied deeper in the old knowledge and the new knowledge and I keep finding the same truths that I found by myself on the mat.

    The key is to stay present, which brings me to my next point. Again this is something you have to learn quite quickly in the Bikram class. It is much tougher in that room to spend your time thinking about the time than in any other yoga room I have found. And that is the magic I see over and over again in the Bikram class. People practising being present and slowly evolving to become aware beings. Aware of themselves, their minds, their bodies and the surroundings. Then what starts is the ability to become enough present and aware that we start to do our own shadow work. Everything from the continuos repetition to the alignment to the environment of the class is a helper in finding our conditionings, our traumas, our deceptions and perceptions. Finding out whats our self and whats our not-self.

    People question things like dangers of the heat or the repetition of the same postures. What I find is that with the heat, you have to learn to know yourself and stay with the breath. The moment you ran away from the breath, you ran away from the yoga. If you injured yourself, don't blame the yoga. An injury is an excellent tool for self inquiry. If pains are coming up, your body is telling you something and giving you a chance to fix deeper structural or psychological issues.
    I love to learn and expand, so I learn new postures, styles, technique and so on. But with the repetition of the same postures in the Bikram series I have learnt more than any other place the importance of alignment. When you practise the same posture again and again, micro dis-alignment is gonna come up in much bigger scale. In for instance varied vinyasa, alignment down to that micro scale is much harder to detect and to hold. I find in many types of flow yoga alignment is much harder to keep.

    That points out another spiritual aspect of Bikram. With the presence mentioned earlier and the ability to find the micro- dis-alignments by the regular practise and the way the postures are being held, we get a great chance to work towards structural integrity of our skeleton and our muscles. We release traumas, physical, emotional, mental and spiritual and I believe this is actually working on accumulated "karma" aswell. In any ancient practise of developing the energy body/spirit body, structural integrity is an extremely essential key in spiritual growth. If there is a stagnation, a dis-alignment, a block and so on, the energies will be obstructed. If you have no flow, you have stagnation which is the opposite to growth. No matter if you read the Yoga Sutras or not.

    Every time we practise yoga it function as a kind of checking station as to what is our conditioning for the day, the week and our past. The way a Bikram class is set up, the practise will quickly show you whats going on in your body, mind and even soul.The spiritual knowledge is not in the books, it is on the mat and within ourselves. It is the knowledge of our spirits, remembering who we are and working away what we not are. I have learned and relearned continuously on the path. As I am always evolving I completely understand the need for change and evolution, but with me I have some amazing tools gained from my Bikram practise: Ability to be present and aware, nothing is more spiritual than that!

  12. Boodiba says:

    I always thought the Bikram series was poorly designed, clunky & inelegant. This is probably because I have an Ashtanga background. To each their own! I think it'd benefit all the people with hot studios to start designing better routines though, with strengthening as well as stretching. I don't think it'd be too difficult to improve on Bikram's 26.

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