Monday, March 15, 2010

I Went to Bikram™ Yoga

I didn't make it to that Bikram class in the morning, but coz I finished early today, I thought I'd take their evening class. It was cold and raining all afternoon... just the perfect kind of weather to get toasted.

Man, did I get toasted.

The last Bikram class I took was probably oh say... about 2 years ago. The first time I did it, I probably had to stop about 10,000 times coz the heat and humidity were making me so light-headed I felt like I was gonna throw up, then pass out. Tonight, I did a little better and stopped about... oh say, 5,000 times instead? I still felt like I was gonna throw up, then pass out.

A Bikram class is thus a very good lesson in humility. HAHAHA.

I'm not in my top physical state coz my asana sessions have been patchy in the past few weeks (you know this)... and even though his copyrighted 26-pose sequence is a really easy Hatha yoga sequence, that bloody humidity just nails you. I was floored sooooo many times. But I figured stopping every single time I needed to would be much more elegant than keeling over and passing out if I just pushed on.

The first thing that struck me about this place were the 3 HUGE photos on top of the wall. So any time you had to look up for drishti, you got distracted by:

And there was a third picture flanking Bikram's right of a chubby dude... whom I thought was Bishnu Gosh at first (Bikram's teacher), but now that I've googled it, it seems like the picture on his left is actually of Bishnu Gosh. So... sorry folks, all I can say is the chubby dude had long flowing locks, sat in an almost lady-like sideways pose and was the only one who wasn't sitting on a tiger.

So... what do you do when you've already decided you want to go to this yoga class, paid the money for the yoga class and brought all your gear into the studio to set yourself up for said yoga class only to be confronted with such DISTURBING IMAGES?!? ...I guess it's supposed to come across as "fierce" but all I could think of was "What about Ahimsa?" (I mean... HELLO McFLY? Those dudes are sitting on SKINNED TIGERS?!?!???)

I did the only yogic thing I could think of doing in such an ironic situation: PASS NO JUDGMENT.

And then the next thing I thought: Liz would piss herself laughing if I could get a picture of this. HAHAHAHA. Sadly, no cameras in class of course. Thank goodness the internet raked up 2 of those 3 pictures.

Here's where I feel I need to interject with my personal opinion of Bikram. He's not exactly the most "yogic" of teachers... everything from his flashy lifestyle (100 Bentleys. Or is that Rolls Royces. OK, I'm hyping up the figure too, but you get the idea.), to his use of language ("Because I have balls like atom bombs, two of them, 100 megatons each. Nobody fucks with me.") SERIOUSLY. his copyrighting of his asana sequence and suing any unlicensed studio for using the name Bikram™... Yeah, it's all kind of vulgar and un-yogic.

BUT... is it? On the other hand, kudos to him for telling it like it is. He is honest and unapologetic for who he is, what he does and how he lives. I mean, who said yoga teachers were GOD, right? (By "GOD", I mean: Perfect.)

Crazy as anyone is for practicing yoga in what is pretty much a steam room-sauna, there is some benefit to it. I like to call it "gateway yoga". I know lots of people who've come to know yoga precisely coz of a hot yoga class, and from there delve into other aspects of it. So I'm not gonna knock this style of yoga coz god forbid people get into a "My guru is better than your guru" debate. Which would be completely WRONG and beside the point (Thanks Marinus, for that quote. I will forever remember it was you who reminded me of this!).

And the fact is, it is nice to finally be in a warm room in the dead of winter and be able to feel your muscles expand and open up, just like they should. (OK, maybe 40 degrees Celsius is kinda pushing the warm-factor, but hey... I'll take what I can get).

Oh, and the teacher-chatter I was so afraid of? ...It helped that the class was half in Dutch, half in English. HAHAHA. Each pose is repeated twice during the 1.5hr class, so the first round of asanas were taught in Dutch, and the second round were explained in English. This worked very well for me coz I didn't understand half the chatter that was going on, anyway! It was like having BBC World radio on in the background when the foreign correspondent is blabbering on. You just kinda zone out. And coz I was watching what other people were doing to figure out which pose came next, I was glad for his English translation by the time he got to it.

Impressions of Bikram as a form of yoga, after coming back to it 2 years later? (and after practicing Ashtanga Mysore style monogamously during this period). They're such different forms of yoga, like on opposite ends of the scale... the most obvious is the decibel-level of course. There's barely a sound made except for Ujjayi breathing in a Mysore class... this, versus the Bikram script.

The other thing that really struck me was how externalized a Bikram class is. I never noticed this before, only this time round. I mean... you're staring into a mirror in front of you, watching to pull this up, push that down. As opposed to internalizing the process in a Mysore environment - feeling where in the body you ought to be working. Also, with Mysore it's so internalized that everyone's doing their own thing, at their own pace... no one really cares where in the series you're at.

With Bikram, because everyone's looking into the same mirror, it also felt like there's a bit of competition going on (he's bending more than I am, she's getting her leg higher in Nataraja, etc.) I caught myself comparing at times, only because you're all staring into the same bloody mirror so it's right there in front of you! (OK, here's where you say "Then engage Pratyahara to the max!") I can so totally understand why he of all people is pushing for yoga competitions and for it to be part of the Olympics (Sorry folks, this is where I draw the line. Yoga is NOT competition). I don't agree with it, but now I understand a bit better WHY he's all for competition. The use of mirrors in class encourages this.

And finally, while I got to crack my back open in that delicious heat and with all those lovely backbends, I have to say that only practising those 26-postures is extremely limiting (if this the only asana practice one does). No arm-strengtheners! Not much core-building! Listen to me, I'm such an Ashtangi!

Dammit, at least with Ashtanga there's a progression to the practice... you keep adding on more poses that will help you strengthen/ open this-and-that part. So even within the "fixed" series, you're still adding on and growing stronger and more flexible. There's a progression. I'm not sure how this would work within Bikram's series... but I'm also unsure if there are "advanced variations" to the poses. Any Bikramites care to share? I mean - I'd think you'd hit a plateau at some point, no? Or am I missing something?

I'm glad I went. I was craving heat, but by the end of it my head was bursting with "WHAT WAS I THINKING?" as I stopped for the 5,000th time before I threw up or passed out... It would probably be a while before my next Bikram class, I think I've had my fill for a while. It's just nice to shake things up a bit, once in a New Moon. (Haha, bad Ashtanga moon day joke) (Which is today, by the way. Which is why I went for the Bikram class in the first place. The joke is so bad I had to explain it in such detail).

Those 3 photos are still burned into my memory. Arghhh!


  1. Bahaha!!!!!! I would have LOVED a photo of you in the mirror with the three creepy photos!! I loved your description of the lady-like pose!!

    I watched Yoga Inc and was seriously disturbed. I had no idea Bikram was such a creep. Sorry, I make no excuses. He's a CREEP. Sure, hot yoga probably has some benefits, but he's a little too Jim Jones for me.

    Gateway yoga is the perfect way to describe it- I know many people who started with Bikram, so putting it that way makes me want to hurl a little bit less.

  2. It looks like those dudes are humping tigers.

    That IS disturbing! :-D

  3. Tiger skins were de rigeur it seems, the manduka of their day.Krishnamacharya writes in Yoga Makaranda
    'spread a seat of grass on the ground in a clean space not facing the frount door. Over that spread a tiger skin or deer skin and over that put a white blanket or a clean white cloth'.

    This is after cleaning the space with cow dung.

    I notice with Bikram he calls it Yoga asana championships rather than yoga championships. Hell,l if it gets people interested....

  4. Hey J, loved your bikram review. I find Bikram stories a bit fascinating (eg. Bikram won't teach students that wear green!) Can't imagine why people think yogi's are odd!!

    Did '10 days of free bikram classes' last year at Darlo - mainly because I was broke and I knew it would be the only kind of yoga my flattie would be able to get into and I wanted to be supportive (her GP told her she has to stretch more). Found that Bikram stretched other bits that don't get touched in my mysore practice (I'm only half way through First Series) and so it helped my Ashtanga. It noticably improved my cardio fitness (something that Ashtanga doesn't) and my skin absolutely loved it.

    With you on the downsides: it's noisy, or meditative for me, yoga + bikini can be visually confronting, there's not enough core and the upperbody/shoulder stuff is seriously lacking. (My shoulders ACHED when I finally got back to my beloved ashtanga. I'll disagree on the lack of advancement/development point. I think people say the same thing about Ashtanga and I can see that the postures can almost always be taken/developed further - though it seems that you're less likely to get the teaching/guidance that would enable that in a led class.

    I also find the 'body' differences really fascinating. You can see the difference between a bikram yogi (very defined waist from all of the upward stretching and often quite curvy) and an ashtangi yogi (slim ankles, elongated calves, stronger shoulders and the upper arms have a particular type of definition too - probably from all that downward dog.)

    Bottom line? I think, it would be really good for me to go once a week...but I don't.

  5. hello,

    just 3 points in case you really wanted to know:

    1. the chubby dude is Paramahansa Yogananda, brother of Bishnu Ghosh. you can learn more about him from his book, "Autobiography of a Yogi".
    2. yoga asana competition has been around in India for many years.
    3. the advanced series includes 84 classic asanas. only teachers and invited students practice it because teachers, as of now, are only trained to teach the basic 26.


  6. Hey Liz - I haven't watched Yoga Inc yet and still really wanna see it. Different strokes for different folks I guess... if it works for some people, then why not. ;p

    Kai - Yeah, I was trying not to look up as much as I could. Or if I looked up, I'd focus my gaze a little closer, almost like a nose drishti while looking up... so those 3 dudes were fuzzed out in the background!

    Grim- you make a good point. Maybe tigerskins WERE the Manduka of that time. But Bikram is of our current time, and it's not PC to own a tiger skin now! I've not read the Yoga Makaranda, but the Hatha Yoga Pradipika mentions a similar thing about cleaning your space with cow dung (amongst other dubious cleansing practices). Hehe. I don't remember if they mentioned deer and tiger skins too. And yes, I suppose if it's referred to as yoga ASANA competition, then I suppose it would be like a gymnastics competition, coz that would be its point entirely. I suppose it would be sad if that's the only thing people associated yoga with - circus contortionists. But if this leads the way to deeper self-realization in time to come, then I suppose that would be OK. It still makes me uncomfortable though.

    Kat - you're right about the bikini distractions! The website of this place actually said you can wear your swimsuit (!) ...and er... this being Europe, there were plenty of men in their... er... budgie smugglers. I think there was even a dude with stars & stripes on his Speedos. I'm not sure, I couldn't bring myself to look down THERE. find Bikram better for cardio? I find it the other way around... Ashtanga improves my cardio fitness.

    Pye! Finally! A Bikramite's point-of-view! Thanks for your feedback. Yes, of course the dude is Paramahansa Yogananda. Unfortunately I couldn't find the exact shot of him in this particular studio on the internet. Yoga competitions - even if they've been around in India for many years doesn't mean it's a good thing. Or that there hasn't been debate about its fundamental difference to what the intention of yoga is. Also, some schools of thought say it was the British colonial masters who brought the idea of asana competition to India, and it wasn't something started by the local Indians themselves. And finally - that's good to know the series goes further, I've not heard of this before. I wonder what's in the advanced series? :)

  7. fascinating discussion! For me, a big part of what distinguishes Ashtanga is that it comes through a lineage. It's not just one person's idea of how to do yoga, which I believe, I hope, makes it less personal in the sense that there is less of one ego coming through it. Bikram obviously doesn't even try to keep his ego out of it and some of the approach, like mirrors and skimpy clothes, (competition?) sure seems to invite practitioner ego in as well. But yeah, there are days when a heated studio would sure seem appealing!

  8. Thank you for the recount Skippetty you had me cracking up... I suppose it might be good for us to keep a Bikram class on the schedule once in a while just to keep the sense of humor up... :-)

  9. The last time I went to bikram was in January when my boiler was broken and the shala was shut. Totally hit the spot!

    I've done the advanced series about a dozen times. It has everything in it that's not in the first series! Those postures are touched on briefly, sometimes with advanced variations... and you have deep backbending including dropbacks, a bunch of lotus stuff, leg behind head including dwi pada and durvasasana, a bunch of arm balances (they like to do them on fingertips, which I HATE!) and all the inversions.. basically you do what you can, so if you wanted to tictoc in the appropriate place or whatever, I'm sure that rather than stopping you everyone would stop and gape in awe. The teachers perform the series with you, and a lot of them can't do half of it either.. and the poor students who get selected out of the normal class are obviously in for a shock at first!! In some ways it's easier than a regular class though, mainly due to a lot of explaining and consequent lack of pace, and I must say any 2nd or 3rd series ashtangi will be very well equipped to cope. I think I can do everything except those damn fingertip balances (I have 'double-jointed' fingers) and one-handed mayurasana :) I have to say the advanced bikram series is a lot of fun! Oh, and it takes over two hours :)

  10. you don't think it's Babaji? the inmortal yogi Paramahansa Yogananda talked about? he has been alive 800 years. haha. i'm coming back to read your post more carefully tomorrow.
    word verif: prozo, i'm not on it

  11. I googled Babaji, and no he doesn't look familiar. That picture looked more like Paramahansa Yogananda. Although I've never seen that picture of him in that pose before (he had a blue tint to him too).

    ANYWAYS... one of my good friends who's also a Bikram teacher emailed me about this post and with his permission, coz I think it's good info... these are his comments on this post, lock stock and barrel:

    Soo long winded! LOL!!!

    I think the 3rd "girly boy" was probably Paramahansa Yogananda (from Autobiography of a Yogi - fame), the older brother of Bishnu Gosh. Terrible place to have it in the studio, most studios have them in the entrance as a homage. Also the drishti in Bikram is your own eyes in the mirror throughout.

    On the Tiger Skins:

    You'll see in images of Lord Shiva, that he sits on a Tiger Skin, it symbolizes the mastery over our own lower animal-nature, through the practice of yoga and spiritual training. Since Shiva is the father of all yogis, in India yogis will often sit on Tiger Skins to honour him.

    On Bikram's 2000 Rolls Royces, what people don't know is that he bought all of them in terrible conditions and restored them with his own hands. He says working on old cars at night is his form of meditation.
    He's always saying: "I work on junk bodies and junk cars." :-)

    I agree that the Bikram Sequence is completely limited, and I think as teacher and practitioner I've come to the end of my road with it, I'm enjoying both my Ashtanga teaching and practice much more these days, also really enjoy the fresh air and being able to breathe!

    I think the heat is a complete beginner's tool, and works well for people that are stiff, both to loosen them up, but also to make them so tired that ego falls away and they don't get to over-work and over-stretch. So that they can get stronger and fitter first before they get to go very deep into the postures. But I think you get to a point where you graduate (at the risk of sounding superior) from the heat.

  12. hi Skippety
    (now that i've come back to read- ah, interesting discussion). Cody Pomeray hasn't been leaving comments but for a while in his blog, before he stopped blogging, he was writing about what he liked about Bikrams. he was doing ashtanga before. now i don't think he's doing yoga at all. bummer. in any case, the Bikram routine was good to his knees, which which he had problems. i've only done one class here. it seemed to purify my body of a lot of toxins from the sweat and the heat. i paid too much for the class, though because i went as a drop in and dropins are expensive here in many shalas.

    you've given me an idea. i need to go to San Fran next Thursday and i read that a good cure for jetlag for a Shanghai-San Fran trip is to go do running or exercise when you arrive. so i may go to a Bikram's class the evening i arrive so i'll be refreshed in the morning. there's one in a studio called funky door yoga near where i plan to stay the first night.


  13. Just remember to hydrate on the flight, otherwise you'll dehydrate even more in the hot class! Have a good trip back! :)


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