Tag Archives: Bikram Yoga College of India

Slam Dunk

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A commonplace of most yoga advice is the advice to let go of expectation, judgment, and competition when stepping on the mat. The importance placed on themes of tolerance, acceptance, and non-competition is round-the-clock, streamed from beginner classes to advanced asana practice.

On the web sites of many studios, under headings like Yoga Etiquette, is the injunction: “Leave your ego at the door. The yoga mat has no space for your ego, competitiveness, or judgment.” The community class teacher at our local big box studio is fond of saying, “It’s your practice, not anyone else’s.” It’s likely every yoga teacher in America reworks this refrain day in and day out.

Whether the no competition no judgment message is a viable message in our world, driven as it is by ego and judgment, and an everyday workaday world of going for the dollar peso euro yen gold, is between sixes and sevens.

Themes such as moving forward, continual progress, and goals are the modern mantra, not non-competition and non-judgment. The way we live today is nothing if not teleological, so that we are always looking for the cause and purpose of all we make happen, of all we do.

It seems naïve to posit the physical exercise yoga has become as a special case non-competitive activity in the western world, the font of the rat race. Western culture is defined by strife and competition, from our classical past to the way we live now. Everybody gets nervous before a competition, whether it’s a Spelling Bee or the Olympics. They get competitive, too.

Doing warrior pose in the middle of your brain in the middle of the yoga room in the middle of the after work A-Team crowd ain’t any different. Nobody wants to be slam-dunked on.

We are judged and graded from the time we step into school, from tykes in kindergarten through college. The better we do in school the higher the status we carve out for ourselves, until finally carving out a better job when we go out into the working world.

Our marketplace economy is predicated on struggle and competition. We are either making more money than the next man, and so are successful, or we are making less, and so unsuccessful. How much money we make determines how and where we live, our luxury brands, to the better schools we send our children to.

Materialism and its many benefits is a deeply ingrained point-of-view in the western world.

Today’s cultural icons and heroes are businessmen, politicians, and athletes. Follow the money, follow the front page, follow the parade.

“The business of America is business,” said Calvin Coolidge almost 100 years ago. The New Gilded Age has brought President Coolidge’s maxim to life. The ethics involved in the business of making money are subservient to the making of money itself, because losing money is a failure that puts right and wrong to shame.

Politics is only occasionally about doing the right thing. It is necessarily about winning and losing, from debating and campaigning to making your ideology the ideology that matters. The upper hand trumps conscience and scruples among thousand dollar suits without a drop of human kindness in them.

Sports are arguably the passion of our times, from children’s CYO leagues to pro teams playing in stadiums seating tens of thousands. Up to 16 million people may practice yoga in America, but Division 1 college basketball and football attract 70 million paying fans between them, while the four major pro sports draw more than 140 million through the turnstiles every year.

Sports on TV are ubiquitous. More than 127,000 hours of sports programming were available on broadcast and cable TV in 2015. Americans spent more than 31 billion hours watching balls bounce in all directions, sometimes through the net or over the goal, more often not if their home team was hapless.

The average American watches a total of 5 hours of TV a day. The average American never sets foot on a yoga mat. They pay an arm and a leg to watch other people pretend to be super heroes. The mainstream culture isn’t interested in his or her own unified state of mind.

“What the hell does that mean? What does it cost? What’s in it for me?” they ask.

It has been estimated that yoga is a 6 billion dollar business, but that pales in comparison to the college and professional sports team industry, comprising more than 800 organizations with a combined net worth and annual revenues in the hundreds of billions.

Many Americans are intimately bound up in the winning and losing of their home teams. Late in the 2007 season, when the luckless Cleveland Browns were having some success and threatening to go to the NFL playoffs, a large local studio full of men and women at the end of a weekend yoga class unabashedly chanted OM three times for the team, hoping for God’s sake some psychic energy would rub off on the players for that night’s big game.

In the event, the yoga gods played their own private little joke on the fans. Even though the Cleveland Browns won the game, they lost in a statistical tie-breaker to another team and failed to make the playoffs.

How did yoga become a supposed  non-competitive activity in our world, a world defined and bound by competition, especially since in its birthplace many define it as a sport? In the sub-continent where it all got started yoga has had a competitive aspect to it for more than millennia.

“Yoga sport has been a traditional sport in India since more than 1,200 years,” said Yogasiromani Gopali, executive director of the World Yoga Council.

“Yoga sport is holy sport in our holy land with our holy yoga. All the yoga ashrams have yoga competition,” said Swami Shankarananda, a supporter of the World Yoga Foundation.

“Yoga competition is an old Indian tradition,” said Bikram Choudbury. “It’s a tremendous discipline – a hundred times harder than any other competition.”

Three for three is the trifecta, the original recipe, extra crispy, and Colonel Choudhury’s special.

The European Yoga Alliance organizes an annual European Yoga Championship and the International Yoga Sports Federation hosts an Annual World Yoga Championship. In the United States yoga tournaments have sprung up nationwide, from the Annual Texas Yoga Asana Championships to the New York Regional Yoga Championships.

Writing in Vanity Fair about the New York event, Anna Kavaliunas observed. “I learned you can win at yoga, a practice that is traditionally considered to be more spiritual than competitive.”

Some variations of yoga seem competitive by nature of the practice itself.

“Since its inception in the mid-twentieth century some of Ashtanga’s great masters pitted the most gifted students against one another to see who would perform the absolutely most difficult poses,” said Marcia Camino, a teacher of Amrit Yoga and a studio owner in Lakewood, Ohio.

“Iyengar Yoga demands so much mental attention to the alignment of the body that built into these classes there seems to be a drive for perfection,” she said. “Some systems like Power Yoga are overtly muscle-focused and it makes sense that one could easily engage the spirit of competitive sports when practicing them.”

At Bikram Choudbury’s Yoga College of India in Los Angeles, classes often come to a dead stop as everyone breaks out into applause for a pose executed especially well. “Bikram Yoga is not only challenging, it’s also gratifying to the ego,” said Loraine Despres, who has written about the once-copyrighted practice.

Maybe Bikram Choudbury has his finger on the pulse of what yoga is really all about. The 2014 World Championship of Yoga Sports was held in London, attracting contestants from more than 25 countries. The 2016 event was staged in Italy.

The Choudbury’s, Bikram and Rajashree, his wife, themselves both former all-India yoga champions, believe yoga should qualify as an Olympic sport for the 2020 summer games in Tokyo.

“I strongly believe that yoga has what it takes to become an Olympic sport,” said Joseph Encida, a former international champion. “The skill required is strongly comparable to that of an elite gymnast.”

“There is so much strategy, mental power, physical precision, and control that goes into the sport that I don’t see it any different than curling, skiing, or diving,” said Gianna Purcell, who placed fourth internationally in 2012-13.

It is uncertain how far gung ho yoga will get with its hopes ambitions dreams.

“The Olympics are looking for events that play well on television. If you had combat yoga, maybe that would have a better chance of making it, ”said David Wallechinsky, an author and Olympic expert, in a BBC interview.

Not everyone agrees that competition is good for the practice.

“I don’t think it should be competitive,” said Tara Fraser, of London’s Yoga Junction. “Competing is not embedded in yoga’s philosophical framework and makes no sense if you want to achieve self-realization.”

Michael Alba, a teacher in Boston who also instructs at the Brookline Ballet School, said competition limits and stereotypes the practice. “It perpetuates the idea that yoga is for the lithe-bodied contortionists. One of the challenges of yoga is to be less competitive.”

Competition and its complications are apparently one of the reasons more women than men engage yoga on even a physical level. According to Yoga Journal women make up 72% and men only 28% of the people who practiced in 2016. The two most important reasons men cite for not taking up yoga are a lack of interest in the quiet, non-competitive aspects of the practice and a fear of embarrassment or failure.

Which begs the question, is yoga competitive, or not, and do men want to compete, or not?

Competition problematizes yoga at its most accessible level, which is what goes on on the mat. A goal-oriented approach contradicts what even tournament competitors like Luke Strandquist, a Bikram Yoga instructor in New York City, seem to believe. “As a teacher, it’s the opposite of what I’m always telling my students, that you’re here to practice your yoga, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing.”

Setting one’s sights on doing what the man you see in the perfectly balanced headstand on the mat next to you is doing, or your sights on becoming the mediated image of the slim and strong young woman you’ve always wanted to be, turns the practice away from its focus on the values of self-acceptance and inner growth and turns it into monkey see monkey do.

“Competition exists in the yoga classroom when we see students trying to outdo each other,” said Marcia Camino.

“It’s also there when students struggle to best themselves, their latest efforts, on the road to yoga advancement. That said, there are many systems that balk at the notion of competition, because the focus of real yoga, claim these systems, is inward.”

Separating yoga exercise from the rest of yoga is like separating chaff from wheat and taking the chaff home.

“Unfortunately, yoga has been conflated with asana, which is a huge misapprehension,” says Richard Rosen, director of the Piedmont Yoga Studio in Oakland, California. As integral to yoga as exercises on the mat are, they are only part of the picture, in the same way that bridges are more than the sum of their piers, beams, and decks. Focusing on exercise and competition is mistaking the nuts and bolts of the craft for the art of the craft.

Competition is ultimately driven by the ego and is based on a zero-sum game of loss and gain. Competitors seek to satisfy their own personal ends. Applause and prizes animate the fear and desire of the ego in accomplishment. Winners and losers are inevitably segregated, so that winners are enthroned and losers forgotten. Who remembers last year’s second-place finisher?

Nobody does, because losers don’t get the headlines.

Contests are defined from without, not from within, since referees, audiences, and media analysts are what validate the competitors, not their own efforts. Vince Lombardi, the legendary NFL coach who is a symbol of single-minded determination to win at all costs, once said, “If winning isn’t everything, why do they keep score?”

The answer might be because without a scoreboard the contest would be meaningless.

Prime time competitors often say they are their own competition, their own worst enemy. My biggest competition is myself. I’m always trying to top myself. I don’t worry about what other people are doing. I’m not in competition with them. I’m only in competition with me.

Competing with yourself is a slippery game when the ego competes against the sub-conscious even though the ego rarely knows what the sub-conscious is up to. Not only that, they are not best friends. It’s not necessarily in our own best interest to compete with our past, in the belief that progress is the measure of all things, and the asana we do today must necessarily be better than yesterday’s pose.

One Sunday afternoon, at the end of a crowded community class, a tall lanky older man on the mat next to me said, “I shouldn’t have even come today. I couldn’t do anything right.” He hadn’t fallen out of any balancing poses on top of me, but when I pointed that out to him, he said, “I’ll do better next time.”

The next time I saw him at the yoga studio his practice was constrained by a bad wing. “I hurt it here,” he said. “I think I was trying too hard.”

Self-consciousness and arbitrary reference to past standards compromises the here and now of yoga. The immediacy of the practice becomes a mishmash of then, now, and whenever.

Competition and progress take the man and woman out of himself and herself and out of the moment, positing a judge as the ultimate arbiter of their efforts. Even Rajashree Choudbury admits, “If you think you are competing against others, you won’t win.” Winning is freighted in terms of dollars and cents so that it makes commercial sense when applied to sports, but ultimately makes no sense when applied to the fabric of yoga practice.

“In the course of time asana or yoga postures gained more popularity in the physically-minded West, and the Vedantic aspects of the teachings fell to the sidelines,” David Frawley wrote in ‘Vedantic Meditation’.

Vedanta, or the philosophy of self-realization, underpins the concept of yoga as a spiritual system with a physical component, not a physical system with a spiritual component. Competition turns yoga on its head so that physical practice and fitness are conflated with yoga success, while spiritual discipline and self-realization are shunted to the sideline.

The prevailing modern view of yoga is that the means and end are the same. Yoga means exercise and exercise means yoga. Fitness is the means and fitness success is the goal. Articulated like that competition and tournaments make sense.

Most physical activities, such as throwing a ball, kicking a ball, or hitting a ball with a stick, can and probably will end up as grist for the mill. Most contemporary yoga flies in the face of its past, in which yoga exercise becomes both a means to an end and an end in itself.

While it is true practicing asana is practicing asana, moment to moment sweating on the mat, there’s no reason one’s sweat should just go down the drain. At the same time that you’re sweating up a storm in warrior pose, for example, you can be expanding into other aspects of yoga life and death, such as breath control, symmetry, and stillness. In this more traditional way of practice, competition is beside the point. In modern terms competition posits the ‘Other’ as superior to the self. In pre-modern practice the ‘Self’ is the center, not some imaginary logos.

Hatha Yoga, which is the physical branch of Raja Yoga – itself the meditative school of yoga – is simply a system of bodily postures meant to teach stillness under duress, breath control, and ultimately the strength to sit in meditation without squirming. As such it is folded into the other three traditional schools, which have to do with karma, self-enquiry, and surrender to the divine.

“The main objective of hatha yoga is to create an absolute balance of the interacting activities and processes of the physical body, mind, and energy. If hatha yoga is not used for this purpose, its true objective is lost,” says Swami Satyananda Saraswati, the founder of the Bihar School of Yoga. Separating asana from the rest of yoga, and mixing it up with competition as though it were a circus act or a sport, is to confuse the part with the whole, or the steps on the path with the pilgrimage.

“Yoga is a mess in the west. And you can quote me on that,” said Georg Feuerstein, a yoga scholar and teacher. “People shortchange themselves when they strip yoga of its spiritual side.”

The stuff of body sense mind are the means to achieve union with knowledge, whether it is self-knowledge or knowledge of a universal spirit. Commingling asana and competition trivializes yoga practice. When the breath, mind, and spirit are separated from the body, the gaze of the man or woman on the mat is lowered to the near horizon.

Sometimes during especially difficult asana classes at her Inner Bliss studio Tammy Lyons reminds everyone, “It’s a practice, not a performance. Connect through the breath, and remember you are more than your accomplishments.”

Handstand may be athletic and acrobatic, but yoga is not athletics in search of handstand. Although yoga studios are being redefined as gyms in our performance-driven world, it is a problematic change. Rather than reducing yoga to Hobbesian metaphysics, it might be better to restructure it back into its traditional guise as a spiritual practice with a physical component.

Yoga postures are ultimately meant to lead to the breath, which hopefully leads to Kundalini, and maybe somewhere down the long bendy road to a last second slam dunk on the podium of Samadhi, where there are no cash prizes no first place last place no jazzed up trophies no trips to the Dream of Winner Takes All.

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26 Not Copyrighted Bikram Yoga Jokes

Walk into a bar

There are 26 poses in the 90-minute Bikram Yoga sequence practiced in a room called the Hot Room. It is no laughing matter. Or is it?

1) A man walks into a bar and announces he’s got a terrific Bikram joke to tell. But, before he can start the bartender says, “Hold it right there, buddy, I practice Bikram Yoga.”

And the man says, “Okay, I’ll tell it very, very slowly.”

2) One evening after dinner a seven-year-old boy asked his father, “Where did Mommy go?”

His father told him. “Mommy is at a Bikram Yoga class.”

The explanation satisfied the boy only for a moment, but then he asked, “What’s a Bikram Yoga class, Dad?”

His father figured a simple explanation would be the best approach. “Well, son.” he said. “That’s where people squeeze all their muscles with all their might standing half-naked on one leg while someone tells them over and over to try harder in a room lit up like Wal-Mart in front of big mirrors in 105 degree heat and steam like that Jungle Cruise at the Magic Kingdom – so that they can be healthy.”

The boy burst out laughing. “Come on, Dad! What is it really?”

3) A Bikram Yogi walks into a bar with a large green and yellow parrot on his shoulder. The bartender asks, “Where did you get that?”

“In California,” the parrot says, “there are a million of them.”

4) The lookout on the Battleship Bikram spies a light ahead off the starboard bow. Captain Bikram tells him to signal the other vessel. “Advise you change course twenty degrees immediately!”

The answer comes back, “Advise you change course twenty degrees immediately!”

Captain Bikram is furious. He signals, “I am a captain. We are on a collision course. Alter your course twenty degrees now!

The answer comes back. “I am a seaman second class, and I strongly urge you to alter your course twenty degrees.”

Now Captain Bikram is beside himself with rage. He signals, “I am a battleship!”

The answer comes back, “I am a lighthouse.”

5) Why don’t Bikram Yogis drink?

It interferes with their suffering.

6) Bikram is praying to Krishna. “Krishna,” he says, “I would like to ask you a question.”

Krishna responds, “No problem. Go ahead.”

“Krishna, is it true that a million years to you is but a second?”

“Yes, that is true.”

“Well, then, what is a million dollars to you?”

“A million dollars to me is but a penny”

“Ah, then, Krishna,” says Bikram, “may I have a penny?

“Sure,” says Krishna. “Just a second.”

7) For the final exam the philosophy professor plopped a chair on his desk and wrote on the blackboard: “Using everything we have learned this semester, prove that this chair does not exist.” Fingers flew, erasers erased, and notebooks were filled in furious fashion. Some students wrote over 30 pages in one hour, sweating up a storm, attempting to refute the existence of the chair. One member of the class, Bikram, was up and finished in less than a minute.

Weeks later when the grades were posted the rest of the class wondered how he could have gotten an A when he had barely written anything at all.

His answer consisted of two words: “What chair?”

8) “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” said the Bikram Yoga teacher on the podium.

“Until the hammer comes down,” muttered the Bikram Yogi in the back row.

9) Her doctor tells a woman she has a fatal illness and only six months to live.

“Is there anything I can do?” she asks.

“Yes, there is,” the doctor replies. “You could take Bikram Yoga every day for the next six months.”

“How will that help my illness?” the woman asks.

“Oh, it won’t help your illness,” says the doctor, “but it will make that six months seem like an eternity.”

10) What’s the difference between Bikram Choudhury and a philosopher?

About $7 million a year.

11) When Morty hit fifty, he decided to change his lifestyle completely so that he could live longer. He quit smoking, went on a diet, and went suntanning. A friend suggested the 30-day Bikram Challenge, which Morty enthusiastically made into a 90-day challenge, amazing his friends.

In just three months he lost thirty pounds, reduced his waist by six inches, and expanded his chest by five inches. Svelte and tan, he decided to top it all off with a sporty new haircut. Afterward, while stepping out of the barbershop, he was hit by a bus.

As he lay dying, he cried out, “God, how could you do this to me?”

And a voice from the heavens responded, “To tell you the truth, Morty, I didn’t recognize you.”

12) Standing on one leg in Bikram Yoga doesn’t make you a yogi anymore than standing in a garage makes you a car.

13) Bikram, the famous yoga master, who was known for his miraculous cures for arthritis, had a long line of students waiting outside the door of his studio when a little old lady, completely bent over, shuffled in slowly, leaning on her cane.

Bikram gently approached her and led her into the back room of the studio and, amazingly, she emerged within half an hour, walking completely erect with her head held high.

A woman waiting at the door of the studio said, “It’s a miracle! You walked in bent in half and now you’re walking erect. What did Bikram do?”

She answered, “He gave me a longer cane.”

14) What do Bikram Yoga and an apple peeler have in common?

They both take you to the core.

15) One day Bill complained to his friend that his elbow really hurt. His friend suggested that he visit Bikram who lived nearby. “Simply leave a sample of your sweat outside his door, and he will meditate on it, miraculously diagnose your problem, and tell you what to do about it. It only costs eighteen dollars.”

Bill figured he had little to lose, so he filled a small jar with sweat and left it outside Bikram’s door. The next day when he came back, there was a note waiting for him that said, “You have tennis elbow. Soak your arm in warm water Avoid heavy lifting. It will be better in two weeks.”

Later that evening, Bill started to think that Bikram’s “miracle” was a put-up job by his friend, who could have written the note himself and left it outside the door. So Bill decided to get back at his friend. He mixed together some tap water, a yard sample from his dog, and urine samples from his wife and son. To top it off, he included another bodily fluid of his own, and left the concoction outside Bikram’s door with eighteen dollars. He then called his friend and told him that he was having some other health problems and that he had left another sample for Bikram.

The next day he returned and found another note that said, “Your tap water is too hard. Get a water softener. Your dog has worms. Get him vitamins. Your son is hooked on cocaine. Get him into rehab. Your wife is pregnant with twins. They aren’t yours. Get a lawyer. And if you don’t stop playing with yourself, your tennis elbow will never get better.”

16) A woman reports her husband’s disappearance to the police. They ask for a description and she says, “He takes a Bikram Yoga class every day, he’s toned, tall, amazingly energetic, with thick curly hair.”

Her friend says, “What are you talking about? Your husband is five-feet-four, bald, lazy, and has a huge belly.”

The woman says, “Who wants that one back?”

17) Three friends are killed in a car accident and meet up at an orientation session in Heaven. The celestial facilitator asks them what they would most like to hear said about themselves as their friends and relatives view them in the casket.

The first man says, “I hope people will say that I was a wonderful doctor and a good family man.”

The second man says, “I would like to hear people say that as a schoolteacher I made a big difference in the lives of kids.”

The third man, a Bikram Yogi, says. “I’d like to hear someone say, ‘Look, he’s moving!’”

18) Bikram walks into a bank and says he wants to borrow $200 for six months. The loan officer asks him what kind of collateral he has. Bikram says, “I have a Rolls Royce. Here are the keys. Keep it until the loan is paid off.”

Six months later Bikram returns to the bank, repays the $200 plus $10 interest and takes back his Rolls, The loan officer says, “Sir, if I may ask, why would a man who drives a Rolls Royce need to borrow $200?”

Bikram replies, “I had to go to Europe for six months, and where else could I store a Rolls that long for $10?”

19) A dinner guest at Bikram’s house asks, “How do you prepare your chickens?”

Bikram says, “Nothing special, I just tell them they are going to die.”

20) At a staff meetting at Bikram’s Yoga College of India an angel suddenly appears and tells Bikram, “I will grant you whichever of three blessings you choose: Wisdom, Beauty – or ten million dollars.”

Immediately, Bikram chooses Wisdom.

There is a flash of lightning, and Bikram appears transformed, but he just sits there, staring at the table. One of the staff people whispers, “Say something.”

Bikram says, “I should have taken the money.”

21) Bikram Yoga can’t buy happiness, but it sure makes misery easier to live with.

22) A man arrives at the gates of heaven. St. Peter asks, “Religion?”

The man says, “Methodist.” St Peter looks down his list, and says, “Go to room twenty-eight, but be very quiet as you pass room eight.”

Another man arrives at the gates of heaven. “Religion?” “Baptist.”

“Go to room eighteen, but be very quiet as you pass room eight.”

A third man arrives at the gates. “Religion?” “Jewish.”

“Go to room eleven, but be very quiet as you pass room eight.”

The man says, “I can understand there being different rooms for different religions, but why must I be quiet when I pass room eight?”

St. Peter says, “The Bikram Yogis are in room eight, and they think they are the only ones here.”

23) A man asks a Bikram Yoga teacher, “Can you teach me to do the splits?”

“How flexible are you,” the teacher asks.

“I can’t make Tuesdays,” the man says.

24) Bikram is sitting next to lawyer on an airplane. The lawyer keeps bugging him to play a game by which they will see who has more general knowledge. Finally, the lawyer says he will offer Bikram ten-to-one odds. Every time Bikram doesn’t know the answer to one of his questions, Bikram will pay the lawyer five dollars. Every time the lawyer doesn’t know the answer to one of Bikram’s questions, he will pay him fifty dollars.

Bikram agrees to play, and the lawyer asks, “What is the distance from the earth to the tenth nearest star?”

Bikram says nothing, just hands the lawyer a five-dollar bill.

Bikram asks the lawyer, “What goes up a hill with three legs and comes back down with five legs?”

The lawyer thinks for a long time, but in the end has to concede that he has no idea. He hands Bikram fifty dollars. Bikram puts the money in his wallet without comment.

The lawyer says, “Wait a minute. What’s the answer to your question?”

Without a word Bikram hands him five dollars.

25) On a transatlantic flight, a plane passes through a severe storm. The turbulence is awful, and things go from bad to worse when one wing is struck by lightning.

One woman in particular loses it. She stands up in the front of the plane screaming, “I’m too young to die!” Then she yells, “Well, if I’m going to die, I’m want my last minutes on earth to be memorable! No one has ever made me really feel like a woman! Well, I’ve had it! Is there anyone on this plane who can make me feel like a woman?”

For a moment there is silence. Everyone has forgotten his own peril, and they all stare, riveted at the desperate woman in the front of the plane. Then a man stands up in the rear. It’s Bikram. He starts to walk slowly up the aisle, unbuttoning his shirt. “I can make you feel like a woman,” he says.

No one moves. As Bikram approaches, the woman begins to get excited. He removes his shirt. Muscles ripple across his chest as he reaches her, extends the arm holding his shirt to the trembling woman, and says, “Iron this.”

26) A good yogi dies and goes to heaven. He asks St. Peter if they have a yoga studio.

“What kind?”

“Bikram Yoga.”

St. Peter shows him the most beautiful Bikram Yoga studio imaginable, sparkling mirrors, completely microbe-free carpets, and color-corrected fluorescent lighting.

One older man in particular is practicing with impeccable grace and form, blending strength and balance.

The yogi says, “ I’ve only seen one man practice like that, but I thought Bikram was still alive – what’s he doing up here?”

St. Peter replies, “Oh, that’s God. He just thinks he’s Bikram.”

Welcome to the Torture Chamber

bikram-yoga-shorts

“There’s gotta be a Heaven ’cause I’ve already done my time in Hell.”  Social Distortion

Bikram Yoga was not entirely a black hole when I stepped across the threshold into my first class, but I was still surprised by the Wal-Mart-like brightness of the big room, the seven-foot high mirrors spanning the front, and the wall-to-wall water-stained brown carpeted floor.

None of it looked or felt or smelled like any of the yoga studios I had ever been to.

As I made my way past a sea of unfamiliar faces to the back of the room, unrolled my mat, and curled into several cat cows, I noticed it was infernally hot. Looking up at the ceiling I saw manhole-size ductwork perforated with thousands of pebble-sized holes crossing from one end of the front of the room to the other and continuing on to the rear wall. Heat pulsed rhythmically over the back of my neck, arms, and legs.

Later I discovered that an Infinity Plus high-efficiency furnace generated the heat while a hellish three-phase 220-volt steam humidifier vaporized water and fast-tracked it into the room through the small holes in the ductwork.

By the time I had finished a short round of warm-up down dogs I was sweating through my Under Armour shirt and decided it was best to settle into child’s pose. The class had not even started, yet, and I was already taking a break. Most of the people on their mats were laying prone, eyes shut. I began to understand why.

When I started practicing yoga, well into middle age, I spent two years getting my feet wet at once-a-week beginner classes, then moved on to slow flow classes on a more consistent basis, and finally gravitated to “Hot Powerful Flow” three times a week at a popular studio just across the river from our neighborhood.

It took some time and effort to acclimate myself to the 90 degrees the hot yoga studio advocated, and the fast pace of the classes, but after a year I was reasonably accustomed to it, even with the alarming disappearance of cartilage in my left hip and never-ending arthritis in my lower back. Now I was more than thirty miles from home, the closest Bikram class I could find, and it felt like I had stepped into the middle of a Louisiana summer strangling in the grip of global warming.

The Bikram regimen claims to change the construction of the body from the inside out, from tip to toe, from internal organ to skin, using heat as a tool, reshaping the body as it warms and becomes flexible. Its professed aim is to restore the life to the lives of its adherents.

“What is the worth of one human life? It’s priceless,” says Bikram Choudhury. “I give that life to people. I fix the human chassis.”

The community-class teacher at the yoga studio where I practiced sun salutations, warrior poses, and headstands described it as ‘therapeutic’ and recommended I try it.

“I don’t practice it myself,” she said, “and I have problems with Bikram the man, but it might be good for you.”

“OK,” I said.

I should have asked for details.

Back in the class while in my child’s pose it was 105 degrees and the humidity was at 40 percent, but both values were creeping relentlessly upward, pushing the heat index of the room into the 130-plus zone. Heat index is a measure of how hot really hot weather feels. The scale correlates relative humidity and air temperature to produce the apparent temperature the body experiences. A heat index of 130 is the point at which human beings become susceptible to heat cramps and heat exhaustion as a result of physical activity.

Why 105 degrees?  The Bikram take on hot yoga is that the room needs to be at 105 degrees and 40% to 50% humidity to make for a better aerobic experience, protect muscles while allowing for deep stretching, detox the glands and organs by flushing waste products, and through enhanced respiration deliver nourishment to every cell of the body.

Bikram Choudhury, who in the 1970s popularized the series of 26 asanas or poses and breathing exercises synthesized from traditional exercise yoga, claims that contrary to popular misconceptions the blistering heat he recommends keeps the body from overheating, and teaches you to keep your cool.

He and his legions believe they can work bodies like a blacksmith.

When our instructor, a trim wide-shouldered young man carrying a clear plastic half-gallon jug of water walked in, he adjusted the track lighting brighter even than it had been, strode to the front of the class, and asked:

“Anybody new?”

Several hands went up, including mine.

“Make sure you can see yourselves in the mirror. Move your mats if you have to. If you feel sick take a knee or lay down. Don’t leave the room. Watch the first few breaths and then join in. Set your intention.”

‘Feel sick’?

I had never gotten sick in a yoga class, nor had I ever given the possibility any consideration. I had experienced fatigue practicing asanas, sometimes even becoming bedraggled, during vinyasa classes on summer afternoons when I didn’t think I could do another chaturanga to up dog to down dog, but it was more on the order of boot camp crash. I discovered it is not unusual to feel sick and nauseous in Bikram classes, especially among beginners.

“The worse you feel,” says Bikram Choudhury, “the more you need my yoga.”

Then there was the other exhortation.

‘Don’t leave the room’?

What did that mean? Why would leaving the room be an issue? Should I be planning an exit strategy?

“OK, let’s get started.”

And just like that we were all standing and the class began. There was no opening homily, or reading from an appropriate text, whether sacred or new age, nor was there an iPod play list in evidence. Among other things, Bikram Yoga eschews tunes. The beat goes on, but it’s not the beat of MC Yogi.

I might as well strike while the iron is hot, I thought. One of the mantras of yoga is to live in the moment, and the expanded mantra of yoga like the Boy Scout motto is to expect the unexpected.  Even though I thought I knew by way of youtube what was on the agenda, Bikram Yoga surprised me from the outset.

Along with everyone else now on their feet I got going, my hands clasped underneath my chin, breathing in deeply as I pulled my elbows up, and breathing out forcefully as I brought my forearms together, keeping my spine straight and pushing my chin and head back. After the first round I wondered if my neck was going to hurt the next day, since this breathing exercise wasn’t something I had done before. After the second round I was sure there would be repercussions.

The next day my neck was sore. And that was only the tip of the iceberg.

“Try to be still between poses,” the instructor said when we were done.

I stopped rolling my head and flexing my fingers.

Bikram Yoga claims to work every muscle, tendon, joint, internal organ, and gland, if not every nerve ending. It also claims to detoxify the body through the legendary amounts of sweat released during the practice, while systematically refreshing the body with oxygenated blood. The poses are held for up to 60 seconds, creating a tourniquet effect on some or several parts of the body.

During vasoconstriction the blood supply is cut off so creating pressure. Upon release of the pose vasodilation occurs when blood rushes back into the veins and arteries flushing out toxins and bracing the body.

The idea that there might be benefits to oxygenated blood flooding a local part of the body after it has been momentarily compressed is controversial in the medical establishment. Bikram Choudhury is unperturbed by the naysayers.

”It is beyond medical science. I prove this every single day,” he says.

The second posture was a prolonged sideways bend – punctuated by repeated commands to push, push, push – followed by a backbend with clasped hands and up-stretched arms, and finally followed by grabbing under our heels, straightening our legs, and folding over in a forward bend.

“Look like a Japanese ham sandwich,” the instructor said, describing the pose.

I had no idea what a Japanese ham sandwich looked like, and besides, I was vegetarian.

While we were bent over, pulling with our arms to intensify the stretch, the teacher exhorted us to lock our knees.

“Lock the knee, lock the knee, lock the knee!”

Lock the knee?

Whenever I had heard any other yoga teacher say anything about locking your knees, it was to make sure we did not do it.. Anytime I had read something about it, such as the advice of Drs. Georg Feuerstein and Larry Payne, authors of Yoga for Dummies, it was to avoid locking your knees as you tried to keep your legs straight in standing poses.

As I straightened my legs, attempting to fully extend my knees, the instructor who had been at the front of the class suddenly swooped down next to me, and pointing at my legs with his riding crop – I mean his finger – said:

“Tighten the quad muscle and pull the kneecap up.”

What he meant was to squeeze the front thigh muscle so that the kneecap would lift up, but not hyperextend the knee. Squeezing holds the knee in a supportive position. The emphasis was on protecting the knee, focusing on placement of the feet, knees aligned over ankles, and stressing the muscle and not just the joint with the full load of the body.

The next asana was awkward pose, more commonly called chair pose, done three different ways, first traditionally but with arms held up, forward and parallel to the ground, ‘triceps tight, tight, tight’, then high up on the toes, arms still forward but flagging, and lastly slightly up on the toes and in a squat, knees and thighs pressing together, and arms finally very, very heavy and on fire.

“Fall back, way back, go back, more back,” our instructor said, demanding that we straighten and lean back.

As soon as we were done we did it again.

Bikram poses are performed twice. The first time the pose is held forever and the second time they are held for slightly less than forever. Entering every second set the instructor encouraged us to immediately go to where we had left off in the first set so as to gain the maximum benefit.

The awkward poses were followed by two sets of eagle pose, another balancing act, followed by the official water break. Those in the know reached for their insulated water bottles while I stared at myself in the mirror, dazed.

“Welcome to the torture chamber,” I heard the instructor say.

“What have I gotten into,” I asked myself.

“Break time is over. Time to concentrate,” the instructor said.

Break time had lasted less than thirty seconds.

The 26 poses begin and end with breathing exercises, and the 90-minute class progresses from standing postures to backbends to forward bends and twists. The first half of the class is practiced upright, many of the poses featuring balancing on one leg, and the second half down on the mat. The first half of the class is known as the warm-up and the second half as getting down to serious business.

The next three poses were standing head-to-knee, standing bow, and balancing stick. All the while the instructor urged us to lock our standing leg like CONCRETE! Try as I might I wasn’t able to get my head anywhere near my knee, my bow pose amounted to trying to stay upright at whatever cost more than anything else, and by the time I got to balancing stick there was very little balance left in me, my legs wobbling like JELLY!

At the end of the three postures I was sweating like Shaquille O’Neal at the foul line, my breath sounded more like the snorting of Godzilla than the measure of a yogi, and most worryingly the warm-up half of the class was not over, yet.

“It takes courage and intelligence to do the stages of yoga right, and to start with this hatha yoga,” says Bikram Choudhury. “It’s just you and nothing but you, standing in one spot frozen like a statue with no place to go for help or excuse or scapegoat except inward.”

After a standing stretching pose, during which I finally caught my breath and my heartbeat slowed to thrash metal speed, we stepped into triangle pose. It was like stepping into the next circle of hell.

“It’s the most difficult posture we do in the sequence,” says Bikram Choudhury.

The Bikram variation of the pose is a blend of traditional triangle and extended side angle, but without the pleasures of bending the torso sideways or resting the forearm on the thigh of the lunged front leg. It is the ninth pose in the sequence, and is what I later described to my wife as the Love Potion Number 9 pose.

‘It smelled like turpentine/It looked like Indian ink/I held my nose, I closed my eyes/I took a drink.’

With my eyes wide open, front leg bent, back leg diagonal, both arms extended out, tilting them at the same time like a windmill turning, I reached down with one arm while simultaneously reaching up with the other. Our instructor said to turn our heads and look up, trying to touch our chins to shoulder. I stared at a brown water stain on the white ceiling tile.

“Don’t forget to breathe,” the instructor said.

The ‘I think’ of the western world is the ‘I breathe’ of yoga.

The pose was hell on my hips, but it was an epiphany at the same time. This is what Bikram is all about, I thought. It was the therapeutic torture machine come to life. With the effort my breathing slowed down, becoming less labored, and time stretched out like taffy. I felt like I wasn’t just in the moment, but in an unending minute.

If God is the tangential point between zero and infinity, and if yoga is about connecting with the divine, as we repeated the triangle pose on both sides another time I began to either see the light at the end of the tunnel or got light-headed from the effort, but before the white light became too intense we were doing a standing compression pose, then another balancing pose, and finally we went down onto our mats for two minutes of R & R.

We lay on the floor at the fulcrum of the standing series and spine strengthening series, the room suddenly grown quiet. Savasana, also known as corpse or dead body pose, is considered the most important posture in the series. It is designed to focus the mind and breathe new life into the body by maintaining total stillness

The two minutes on my back were more like try-to-stop-fidgeting pose. I was unnerved and restless. No sooner had I finally taken a reasonably real life breath and grown still than the instructor was at it again.

“Time for the sit-up,” he said.

The Bikram L-sit-up is performed after every floor pose, starting flat on the back, flexing the toes, bringing both arms overhead, crossing the thumbs, sucking in a lungful of air, and double exhaling, once on the sit-up, reaching for the sky, and a second time reaching for the toes, bending elbows to the ground.

“Try your best,” the instructor said. “Bend your knees if you have to.”

“99% right,” Bikram Choudhury says, “is still 100% wrong.”

As much as our instructor was pressing us to work hard, it would be a vast understatement to say that I would not want to practice under the tutelage of the boss himself.

The spine-strengthening series starts with Pavanamuktasana, a follow-the-bouncing-ball Sanskrit word meaning wind-removing pose, and each posture done twice ends in dead body pose for about 20 seconds, concluding by stretching the arms and on a loud exhale reaching for the ceiling and then the toes.

We did the L-sit-up after every pose in the series, so that after awhile it was like suffering from amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. Pose, corpse, sit-up, pose, corpse, sit-up…

The meat and potatoes of the floor sequence are the next four poses: cobra, locust, full locust, and bow. Each of them works a specific part of the back: lower, middle, and upper. Overall the series is designed to open, compress, flush, strengthen, and heal the spine from top to bottom.

But, it’s no four-course meal.

“Look out of the mirror, see the back wall,” the instructor optimistically urged us during cobra, insisting we pull our elbows backwards and down, keeping them close to the body as we pressed into the floor with our hips and feet, tried to lift our knees, and pushed forward with the chest, looking up, up, and over.

“If I see any elbows I might have to kick them,” he cautioned everyone during locust pose, striding through the ranks.

The ingredients of the following pose, full locust, are made up of squeezing the legs and feet together, spread-eagling ones arms, and then raising arms, legs, and torso upwards, so that only the hips are contacting the ground.

“Up, up, up like a 747, fly like an F16,” the instructor said. “Look up out of the mirror.”

I didn’t feel like an F-16. I felt like a slow, shaky, rusty biplane with Baron Manfred von Richthofen swooping down on me. I could hear the thunder of his twin synchronized 8mm Spandau machine guns, smoke was pouring out of my tail, I was going down…

“I have got to take a break,” I thought.

And then God did me a favor.

As the class went to the pose again, and I thought about resting on my heels to cool off, the power suddenly cut out, the room went dark, a pair of emergency floodlights blinked on, and there was a low clap of thunder outside. I sat back seiza style, breathed deliberately in and out for the duration, and thanked my lucky charms.

While in dead body pose after the asana the power came back on, and we swept into bow pose, although my version was more like crossbow pose, and then it was on to the menagerie of alternate back and forward bends: fixed firm, half-tortoise, camel, and rabbit.

In half-tortoise, trying to keep my butt on my heels and stretching my arms forward, pressing my pinkies into the mat, sweat fauceted in a steady stream from my chin and through my shirt from the middle of me, forming a spreading Rorschach blot beneath my nose.

“Make sure to breath, surrender to the pose,” the instructor said. “You can either go upstream or downstream with this yoga.”

I was in a whirlpool of hot weather, a low-pressure vortex of heat and humidity stalled just above me in my corner of the room, the air stagnant and heavy.

By the time we got to camel I was beginning to wonder if there was any end in sight. Were there really just 26 poses? Or were there really pi poses, and the instructor had forgotten to tell us we were going to be in the hot room forever? Was the 90 minutes just a mirage on the horizon?

The original Bikran practice had 84 poses in its entirety, and required more than two hours of determined hustle and bustle to get through. It is now the advanced series, rarely seen, and the popular practice culled from it is known as the beginner series. All the poses in the beginner series, which is considered the healing practice, come from the original classical postures.

Unlike many other styles of yoga, almost anyone coming to Bikram Yoga from the rat race can do the beginner series in some fashion, but at the same time it also attracts athletes, even professional athletes, who along with everyone else practice the same poses in the same order under the same conditions. The series is designed to work in proportion to the effort and sincerity one puts into it.

“Never too late, never too old, never too bad, never too sick to start from scratch once again,” says Bikram Choudhury

When we curled into rabbit pose, a kneeling forward bend accomplished by pulling on the heels, my forehead tucked into my kneecaps, pushing down with my shins and up with my legs, I became aware of a malodorous smell. It was coming from my rubber Jade mat soaked to its core from the epic amounts of sweat pouring out of me, but it was me, too. I was radiating stifling waves of heat and body odor.

I was dizzy and slightly nauseous lifting up out of the pose.

We practiced three leg stretches, twice, then a spinal twist, and after a last sit-up it was all very suddenly over. The instructor congratulated the first-timers, and the class concluded with everyone sitting back on their heels for blowing-in-firm pose. Bikram Yoga begins with a breathing exercise and finishes by bringing the focus back to the breath, although the beginning focuses on filling the lungs and the ending on strong exhales.

If sweating is the Bikram method to regenerate the body on a cellular level, breathing is the Bikram key to a healthier, longer life. Other than the pranayama exercises, during the practice it is repeatedly stressed to breath as normally as possible, so that the breath is neither controlling the practitioner nor the practitioner controlling the breath.

Easier said than done, I thought, recalling the huffing and puffing I had done all class long.

The first set of exhales we did was at a measured pace, like blowing out sixty birthday candles one at a time, but the second set was done at ramming speed. It was like the movie Ben-Hur, during the sea battle, when the galley captain commands the slaves to row their fastest, and when he does the galley drummer increases the tempo.

The instructor kept us in sync by clapping rapidly.

Bikram Choudhury describes the last breathing exercise as the “final flush of the toilet,” releasing the last of the toxins from the lungs.

When we were done and I was completely out of breath and toxins the class was finally beyond any doubt over.

“Good job, everyone,” the instructor said. “Please try to stay in Savasana for a few minutes. It’s the most important pose. Thanks for coming.”

And with that he dimmed the lights and left the hot room.

Traditionally, for every hour of hatha practice one is expected to spend a minimum of five minutes in dead body pose. That turned out to not be a problem. I was the second-to-last person to roll up my sodden mat and stumble out of the Bikram hot room.

Postscript: From Here to Eternity

Six months later I remember my first class like I would remember escaping from a burning building. Imagination is often mistaken for memory, but there is no mistaking the memory of plunging into the hellfire of Bikram Yoga.

In the beginning I could only bear to practice it once a week, otherwise continuing to attend vinyasa classes. After several months I was able to endure the steamroller twice a week, and recently I have upped the ante to three times a week. The heat and humidity are still a challenge, and probably always will be, but I have learned to start hydrating the minute I wake up two days before class.

I maintain a daily personal practice, a basic slow flow yin smorgasbord with a bit of meditation mixed in, but six months later the only yoga exercise I engage in outside of my home, squeezing and pulling and flexing, is in the hot room.

Three times a week I drive forty minutes to get to the 90-minute class, stayed by neither rain nor snow nor darkness, although snarled traffic is always a threat. I sing in the car along with the Searchers on the radio, changing the lyrics to mirror the method.

‘I took my troubles down to Bikram crew/You know that guru with the gold-capped tooth/He’s got a pad down on Hollywood and Vine/Sellin’ little bottles of Love Potion Number Nine.’

My made-for-vinyasa rubber mat has been put away and I have gotten a basic black one as well as a fancy Manduka towel. The beach-size terry absorbs bucketfuls of sweat and keeps my mat and immediate surroundings free of saltwater pools infested by bacteria. I never wear a non-synthetic shirt, always making sure it is sleeveless, and sometimes even peel it off when the room is abnormally humid because of the Lake Erie weather.

I no longer try to snag a spot near one of the doors at the beginning of class, hoping that the instructor will crack them open for a few seconds at some point to improve the ratio of students actually practicing to those catching their breath or otherwise completely gassed out on their mats.

I don’t think I will ever be able, however, to graduate to the Speedo suit favored and recommended by Bikram Choudhury. The image of my Eastern European body clad only in a Speedo staring back at me from the mirror is both daunting and disturbing. It is a sacrifice I am unwilling to make.

After every class I drag my gym bag gobbed full of wet smelly clothes and towels home, heave it all into the washing machine, and later hang it up to dry. It has become a routine, like the poses, but the poses are different, because no matter that it’s always punch the time clock and get to work all over again. Even though every class is the same, no class is ever the same. They are never easy, but that is all they have in common.

I have lived through six months of the practice, and even survived a fire alarm. We were in one of the balancing poses, the instructor reminding us to meditate in the mirror as I vainly tried to will myself from toppling over, when the wall alarms began to clang throughout the yoga studio.

“Don’t worry, stay in the class,” the instructor quickly interjected. “We have a very capable fire department. If we need to leave the building they will let us know.”

When the firemen in their heavy coats poked their heads into the hot room they peered curiously in all directions, gave us a thumbs up, one of them said all was ok, and just as promptly as they had come they backed out and closed the door. It was a false alarm. I could have used a good long squirt from their hoses, but I doubt our instructor would have approved.

It was a compelling testament that we all stayed put. I wondered what it was a testament to, and later thought it was testament to everything the practice espouses, such as patience and discipline and concentration.

Besides, the boss insists everyone must stay in the room, notwithstanding that we have all come to the hot yoga class of our own free will.

I have learned to accept the horrible inescapable challenge of the heat exactly because I don’t like it, nor am I congenitally suited to stand it, and because six months later I have begun to sense the therapy in the design of the practice. I go and once there I try to do the best I can, as much as I can, with as close to 100% effort as I can, and no cheating, or as little as possible. I still can’t get my other leg wrapped around and off the floor in eagle pose.

“Try the right way and eventually you will make it,” says Bikram Choudhury.

“You have nothing to lose. You had nothing to begin with. Just get in the hot room and kill yourself! You will understand the benefits for yourself!”

After class the instructor mingles, talks shop, and lastly mops up the hot room and the outside hallways of sweaty footprints tracked back and forth from the shower rooms. One night I bumped into him manipulating his Swifter Wet Jet forward and backward, cleaning up.

I had at first planned on taking a few classes now-and–then, then maybe a few months of it, then had decided to commit to it for year, just to be fair, and finally had concluded it would most likely be two years, given that I was a slow learner. The devil in Bikram is in the details, not just the effort.

One of the goals of Bikram Yoga is the 30-day challenge: 30 classes in 30 days. I have managed classes on consecutive days on several occasions. I am not brave enough to imagine three or four in a row, yet, much less an endless month of them.

“I know this class is good for me,” a woman lean like a runner, rolling up her mat next to me, said one night. “But, I would rather run twelve miles in the middle of the day in the middle of summer than do this.”

“This blarney of Bikram’s better work.” I said as the instructor finished mopping up that night’s trail of blood, toil, and tears. It had been an especially grueling class.

“Don’t try so hard,” he said.

“The class is a 90-minute open-eyed guided meditation, not just a sequence of asanas in a hot room. It works, you’ll see, but it’s not really about the exercise. It’s hatha yoga, sure, but about breathing and meditation even more than that.”

Meditation?

Bikram Yoga is considered by legions as an excellent system of physical exercise, and in the same breath often condemned because yoga is not just a system of physical exercise. The persistent Bikram emphasis on bodily fitness is seen as obviating the other arms of yoga, especially the mindful and spiritual aspects of the practice.  Bikram Choudhury has even been accused of being materialistic and spiritually bankrupt.

But, at the core of the Bikram practice is prolonged concentration, focusing into and through the mirror, controlling the mind so that it is committed only to the asana and nothing else, and breathing to connect the body and mind, with patience and faith. It is hatha yoga as the yellow brick road to get to raja yoga and all the rest of it. There is no overt meditation, but the practice itself is fundamentally and ultimately meditative.

That is the method to the madness.

“I teach spirituality. I use the body as a medium,” says Bikran Choudhury. “I use the body to control your mind, to make your spirit happy. I wish that every human being should do yoga.”

It is the body, the mind, and the spirit yoked together – the yoga gravy train sans the trimmings.

It is old-school yoga practice in the hot room. Thank God, I thought while driving home, bolstered back into the seat cushion of the driver’s seat and finishing off a quart of water as I got onto the highway, I don’t have to go back until the day after tomorrow.