Is bikram yoga: Part 2

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.

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.