Someone commented on my Why bikram isn’t yoga post and as I replied, I realized I wanted to clarify a few things about my response.
I realize that picking on bikram yoga for it’s lack of spiritual drive seems kind of disingenuous because there are yoga classes with a reduced dose of spirituality all over the world. By the logic of my post, they also wouldn’t be yoga. Plus I’ve come to really appreciate bikram and I find it very meditative, so writing about its lack of intrinsic spirituality seems like a weird point to make that counteracts my own experience.
Perhaps I can say it better this way: Many physical practices are meditative and most of them are highly repetitive and unvaried in nature, like swimming, long distance running and mountain climbing. However, the intent of these practices isn’t spiritual and meditation is a byproduct that only some people acknowledge or care about. By contrast, certain practices like yoga and tai chi are intended to be spiritual and meditative. The physicality of the practice is specifically structured as a path to enter a meditative/spiritual state. Stripping yoga and tai chi of their spiritual intent reduces the practice. Without meditation, some of the reason for the practice is lost and the practitioner doesn’t gain the benefits.
Yoga practitioners don’t have to commune with God/the gods/spirituality in yoga in the same way that they can attend any church/temple/holy place of their choice and never open their spirits. But when they do either of these things, they’re just getting part of the practice because focusing on the only the physical rituals reduces the whole experience.
Bikram Choudhury should get credit for revamping and focusing 26 yoga asanas and creating a difficult physical practice with a lot of health benefits. Because he used a long-standing spiritual practice as a base, people assume there’s a spiritual nature to the bikram practice; and as with so many things, they’ll find what they’re looking for. But by removing spirituality from his dialogue, Bikram Choudhury potentially reduced the benefits for his practitioners because he’s taken away their teacher’s ability to guide and mentor them and allowed his students to practice with no spiritual intent.
Bikram practitioners have to bring their own spiritual questing to bikram yoga classes where they are likely to find all manner of meditative paths to explore but Bikram Choudhury should get no credit for their efforts.