The Good, the Bad and Bikram Choudhury: Coming to Terms with my Beginnings in Bikram Yoga

To anyone outside the yoga community it might seem strange to hear that in certain yogic circles admitting to your origins in Bikram Yoga will earn you nothing but scoffs and furrowed brows, which tends to be the best-case scenario. My teacher training has revealed itself to be one such place.

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This, coupled with my recent devouring of Benjamin Lorr’s ‘Hellbent’, and the ongoing court cases and accusations made against Bikram Yoga’s founder, Bikram Choudhury, made me feel some need to re-evaluate the beginnings of my own journey into yoga.

The first class I ever attended is now some 10 years behind me - during my year living in the US, getting my Art Foundation degree. I don’t remember much about that first class except that I attended unwillingly, that, by the end, I thought the whole thing was massively weird and I was certain that I would never be going back.

A year later, I was living in London and without an ocean nearby I had gained over ten kilos within the space of a year. I needed to find some kind of physical outlet that could replace my surfing practice. One of my friends suggested we try Bikram Yoga, because their introductory offer was £20 for your first thirty days.

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With that fail-proof logic in place, Bikram North (now renamed Fierce Grace Yoga) became my first regular yoga studio and I was there almost every day for the entire first month. That series of 26 postures became engrained in my mind until I could visualise myself performing it.

I do not remember a single teacher from that time, they were rarely noteworthy. I do remember that I lost the weight pretty quickly. I remember people throwing up in the middle of class regularly. Once, two elderly Indian men walked into the sweltering heat of the studio on their first day with their chests blown up like alpha male silverback gorillas. One of them ended up swaying in circular motions around the axis of his own heels while standing perfectly upright, pale as a sheet from head to toe, until the teacher caught him and lowered him to his mat. The other guy threw up in the bin outside the studio door.

I remember always trying to place my mat the furthest possible distance away from men who I suspected of sweating a lot - I’m talking actual puddles of sweat collecting in the middle of their mats within the first fifteen minutes. If this was not possible, I would spend the rest of the class in fear of having their sweat flung at me from their fingertips.

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It was also advisable to avoid placing your mat directly under one of the ceiling’s heating vents, which usually meant ninety minutes of pure agony and suffering. If a newbie happened to make this mistake it appeared to be common courtesy not to alert them, but rather to mumble some shade of “poor bastard” under your breath.

In 'Hellbent' Lorr, who underwent Choudhury’s gruelling teacher training, makes the case that Bikram has a narcissistic personality disorder. As I read it, I thought of Narcissus, who falls in love with the reflection of his own image in a pool of water and, unable to be without this beauty, loses all will to live, eventually leading to his demise. Mirrors, that ancient symbol of narcissism, line every Bikram studio around the globe. This supposedly allows students to check their own alignment. Amongst “normal” yoga studios mirrors would be considered a fairly unusual fixture.

Bikram, the man, is known for referring to students as “Miss Teeny-Weeny Bikini” and banning anyone from wearing the colour green, simply because he hated it. He attempted to trademark his sequence of postures and sued anyone who taught anything remotely different under the name Bikram Yoga. Currently, there are six separate lawsuits against him, gradually making their way through the California court system, with accusations ranging from sexual harassment to rape. Choudhury in the meantime, has fled to India and denies everything.

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When I remember all these things and the gradual trickling down of information about these assaults, I truly wonder why I kept coming back to this practice, and hot yoga in general, for three more years. As with most things however, it just wasn’t a black-and-white situation.

The daily repetition of the same 26 postures not only gave me a solid foundation in yoga, but also allowed me to observe progress quickly in my body. Within a few months my heels almost touched the mat in Downward Dog and of course, because I had not yet known such a thing as hypermobility to exist, I thought this was all down to myself and the practice.

The other thing that I still hold on to until this day is what a great equaliser Bikram is. Everyone from beginners to advanced students performs the same sequence and no matter how well-executed your postures are, due to the insane heat, you’re all suffering in the exact same way. “Normal” yoga just doesn’t have that and as a result there’s a lot of envious looking around at other peoples practice without knowing how many endless hours or years have informed it. That might be just as dangerous as Bikram’s heat is.

What made me quit in the end wasn’t injury, although I had pulled my hamstrings pretty savagely on two separate occasions in those studios. My decision was ultimately informed by two very different experiences that occurred around the same. The first, was practicing yoga in a “cold” environment for the first time since my very first class and realising that I was actually more flexible if I worked with my own internal body heat as opposed to the external heat of a Bikram studio.

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At the time, I had no explanation for this, but I now suspect that the extreme heat would often place my body under stress, making it tense up and preventing my muscles from ever relaxing completely.

The second was that I had, at this point, had a relapse in depression. In what was to be my very last hot yoga class, a teacher who I actually couldn’t stand much, because she clearly hated teaching yoga, pressed her thumb on the space between my eyebrows while I was in Savasana. This released all the tension I had been holding there, in the form of a frown, at once. It sent an electric shock wave through my body that spread from my third eye space to the tips of my fingers and toes. In Switzerland, they say that “even the blind chicken finds a piece of corn every once in a while” – well, this was hers. I walked out of that class for the first time realising that this practice could serve more than just my physical body – it might just help keep me off antidepressants for good and so I left to seek out a yoga with more depth.