A Hot & Heavy Subject – Bikram Yoga

Lately, I’ve been approached frequently about one topic that I’ve been somewhat vocal about: Bikram Yoga. A friend corrected me by saying that her hot yoga teacher really does give modifications to the poses, and another friend wanted to ask me more about the Bikram Choudhury and his lawsuit.

It seems that I have ruffled a few proverbial feathers.

The first thing I will make clear is this: if it makes you happy, that’s all that matters. If there is one most important thing that I have learned in my practice and teacher training, it’s to maintain a healthy sense of skepticism, and always ask, “is this (whatever it is) true for me?”

When I am asked for my opinion on hot yoga, or any other tradition of yoga for that matter, I can only offer a very limited viewpoint, one that’s heavily based on personal experience. So, I offer here a method of inquiry that I have found extremely useful from my Yoga Teacher Training

  • What? The data
  • So What? The context & interpretation
  • How? How does this apply to me, if at all?

A Few Facts About Bikram Yoga

As you may already know, the Bikram series involves a specific arrangement of 26 poses and two breathing exercises done over a 90 minute period in 105°F and about 40-60% humidity.

About 7 years ago Bikram Choudhury began officially registering copyrights and trademarks on his yoga series. In 2002 he began his first lawsuit for copyright violation against a studio owner who was his former student. This suit was settled out of court and no decision was established about the validity of Bikram’s claims.

Bikram continued to threaten legal action against other studios and the issue remained unsettled. Open Source Yoga Unity (OSYU) was formed, claiming that Bikram’s copyright and trademark actions are invalid, and that Bikram engaged in copyright misuse. In May 2005 Bikram and OSYU announced that they have settled the litigation. The lawsuit resulted in a confidential settlement agreement.

The Context – My Personal Bikram Yoga Experience

Here is where my personal story comes in for context. I started doing Bikram yoga at the end of 2001, and officially quit for good in early 2009. Except for time off traveling, I logged a good six years of doing Bikram yoga at least once a week, if not more. I was into it enough that I even took morning and evening classes on certain days.

As I got more entrenched in the world of yoga, I wanted to learn more. What are these Sanskrit names? What’s the point of the breathing exercises? What am I supposed to do in Savasana? I started to ask more questions.

The first turn-off was the Bikram lawsuit. I didn’t want to be a part of something that, quite frankly, felt slimy to me. Still, I shunned the founder, but not the style itself. I found it to be a good workout physically and emotionally grounding, something familiar during a period of a lot of changes after college.

As I started to discern and learned more about anatomy in my Yoga Teacher Training, I started to look at *all* yoga instruction with one thing in mind, “Is this safe?” Yoga pain and injuries, I’ve seen on myself, don’t come right away. They take years to surface, as my hyperextended knees can testify.

I’m not saying that doing Bikram Yoga can cause injuries. Doing *anything* at all can cause injuries, even doing nothing at all produces pain. However, when there’s an environment with high heat and humidity and the adrenaline is at full speed, our competitive nature is more likely to take over and make our body go further than it should.

The safety concern is the reason I’m not crazy about the Bikram instructions such as “go beyond your flexibility”, and “lock your knees, and push, and push, and push”. Certainly, I’ve had teachers who broke out of the Bikram scripted dialog and offered their authentic teaching voice, and to them I am grateful.

I’m also not crazy about the fact that Bikram teachers don’t allow students who are struggling with the heat to leave the room. It’s good for you, they say. The more I think about it, the more I question this. Since when is a heat stroke “good for you”? Extreme heat and humidity can increase the risk of dehydration and heart attacks, and it’s definitely not the greatest for pregnant women or people with conditions, like MS, epilepsy, and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Does This Matter To You?

After all these years of learning and unlearning Bikram yoga, I’ve gained a few lessons. These are my own lessons, and I can offer them to you only to the extent that you find them useful in your own evaluation.

Perhaps you come to Bikram for a workout, something that kicks your butt. Perhaps you are looking for a way to lose weight and relieve stress. Perhaps you are looking for a spiritual experience. It doesn’t matter why you seek it out, yoga, in the grand scheme of things, is supposed to be a practice that supports and nourishes. For the most part, it should give, not take.

Bikram yoga is not representative of all that yoga has to offer. But as long as it’s working for you, helping you feel good, and you’re not compromising your body, then your yoga practice is serving you just fine at this point in time.