Why Bikram Isn’t Yoga

In the West, the word yoga has become interchangeable with asana. Asanas are the postures people do in yoga classes but true yoga comes from the Sanskrit word “yoke” or “union” and it implies an integration of body, mind and spirit.

There can be no real yoga without a spiritual practice. Spiritual meditation and reflection are basic tenants of yoga. At it’s core, yoga isn’t about stretching, pulling and flexiness. It’s indirectly about health but it’s really about spirituality and it’s deeply rooted in meditation and the Hindu religion.

As a practice, Bikram has the least amount of spiritual direction and focus of any yoga system out there. Bikram Choudhury is so specific about how he wants the Bikram practice taught that he has scripted dialogue for his classes. Once his students open a Bikram certified studio they are obligated to teach the asanas in the order he prescribes, for the length of time he prescribes and using the words he’s given them. There is no mention of spirituality in the Bikram dialogue and I don’t think that’s an oversight.

Charlie Kaufman said that politicians promote things they want by making them look like things we want. I’d argue that that’s the definition of capitalism and that Bikram has excelled in this domain.  He’s gotten rich selling us health and “yoga.” I don’t intend to demonize him particularly by saying that. Sadly, I think that’s what yoga has become everywhere. It’s become “money” couched in terms of health/strength/curative properties, etc. and the spiritual practice has been sidelined. This is definitely truer in some studios than others but it’s 100% true in Bikram studios across the country. Spirituality is not an intrinsic part of the Bikram practice and no one has to reflect or mediate for a second in order to participate.

Now, here’s the thing: Whatever. So what if Bikram isn’t yoga in the truest sense of the word? That doesn’t mean that Bikram practitioners can’t be spiritual. They can bring their own spiritual practice to Bikram and the practice of pushing through 90 minutes of the same 26 poses every day creates its own meditative qualities.

I like that Bikram focuses on the body by pushing it to extremes. I go into that hot room and there’s no room for anything in my mind except my breath, movement, stillness, focus and balance. Bikram classes push me to the limits of my ability and my endurance and sometimes they open spiritual doorways in me. But this is because of who I am, not because of the practice of Bikram.

Bikram can be a meditative practice in spite of itself but true yoga requires spiritual intent. Without a spiritual component, Bikram cannot be yoga.