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.
I’ve never tried Bikram. But as one of my spiritually-minded yoga teachers Bryan Kest (who makes the teachers he trains attend a vipassana course as part of the curriculum– a 10-day vow of silence that involves 12+ hours of seated meditation a day– which I can tell you from personal experience is CHALLENGING) often says, “All we’re doing here in yoga class is Indian calisthenics. Don’t make such a big deal out it.” And although he himself clearly knows there’s a little more going with these movements, I believe his statement is essentially accurate.
As many of my favored teachers (Thich Nhat Hahn, etc.) teach their version of “Off the mat/Out of the pagoda/Off the cushion… and into the world,” I think yoga is just one more place where intention is everything. But I would offer this slightly different perspective to what you’re saying: just as many people, if not more, attend “spiritually oriented” yoga classes and training– “spiritual” in most of these situations ostensibly being the relaxing and releasing of attachment to ego and identity to more readily allow– not with the actual goal of releasing ego or identity at all. But instead, to use the label or notion of “spiritual intention” as another piece of their ego or identity. It’s quite a sneaky game the ego plays, to pretend to let go of itself by portraying itself as spiritual and therefore good and worthy. It’s easier to learn in places like Los Angeles where I have literally heard people say, straight-faced, “I am very, very, very spiritual.”
Letting go of ego would seem to instead be allowing whatever is to come and go as it will. And that’s just a conversation, then, about intention- period. So perhaps you’re now shining a light on the need for a conversation about “off the mat, into the world and back to the mat again…” and don’t forget why you came in the first place. Whether it’s at bikram yoga or anywhere in your life. Stay with the breath. Stay with the intention.
Hmm, I’ve often wondered if modern postural Yogi’s such as Bryan Kest “de-emphasize” the physical component of Yoga practice by saying all were doing is “Indian Callisthenics” and emphasize the importance of mindfulness and non-movement meditation practice because they have intuited that the physical practice is problematic for the health of their or their student’s bodies and they don’t know how to make it otherwise.
Westerners mainly know only the Southern Indian Yoga traditions and don’t realize that it represents only a thin slice of the Yoga traditions available, particularly from the Tibetan Plateau. I think it is pertinent to understand that Krishnamacharya traveled to Tibet to learn from a Guru, Rammohan Brahmacari, he had never met. It took him over three and half months to walk there and he trained with him for seven and half years. To my knowledge, Patabhi Jois, B.K.S Iyengar, and Bishnu Ghosh (teacher of Bikram Choudri) never undertook such a journey or education. They worked with what they understood, but their is no substitute for working with true “Maha Guru” steeped in an ancient lineage of powerful body technology.
In my opinion some of the powerful healing, life prolonging, and spiritual enlightening body technologies were watered down further, or frankly never appreciated, by Westerners began learning from the Southern Indian Yoga teachers. Indeed some of the practises taken for granted in modern postural yoga, such as deep back bends, or end of joint range of motion hip opening positions are overemphasized to the point of causing harm.
Some of the teachers who do actually come from authentic powerful body technology traditions may not call what they do “Yoga”. Some might call it Nei Gong, Chi Gung, Daoist Yoga, or Tàijíquán. Regardless of what they call it some of the main features will be an emphasis on relaxing unnecessary tension, particularly in the abdomen, and “servicing” the internal organs.
I am in no way downplaying the value of mindfulness and non-movement meditation, but I am suggesting that many people would do well to continue investigating styles of Yoga and Eastern body technology more generally and consider the continuity of lineage of the teachers they find. If you find a teacher who actually knows what they are talking about, that is understands how the body can be preserved and it’s health enhanced, then a moving meditation can be used so that the body can last longer and become more of active part of spiritual endeavour.
Yoga Chi Gung Pilates
Hi Ben, I don’t know as much about the yoga tradition as you do but I have a lot more experience with martial arts and many of the same arguments apply in that field as well, especially the potential of undereducated teachers harming their students. And of course, the more education about a physical tradition one has, the more one gets out of it. I think “yoga” for westerners has become a really broad concept that encompasses physicality never intended by the original yogis and thus has become a completely different physical tradition in the West than it is in the East. That’s part of my point in this essay about Bikram. I love Bikram yoga and think it’s a great physical endeavor but I don’t think that’s it’s yoga or even an Eastern body technology in the traditional Eastern sense because he has intentionally specifically separated it from its spiritual roots. To my knowledge, the Eastern yogis, no matter what their practice and no matter what they called it, used physical practice to enhance their mental spiritual practices and vice versa. The two were inseparable.