Bikram Yoga In A Nutshell
Bikram yoga is the official name given to a yoga system created by a man called Bikram Choudhury. It is a form of hot yoga, performed in a room where the temperature is turned up to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, and the humidity is 40%. These conditions are intended to recreate the conditions in India and are said to have amazing health benefits.
Each Bikram yoga session lasts 90 minutes and consists of 26 individual yoga poses. The poses are always performed in the same order, and are static, therefore do not flow into each other. All Bikram yoga teachers have to have completed a specialist Bikram yoga training course in order to teach the classes and use the official Bikram name.
The focus of this yoga system is physical and mental strength, stamina and flexibility, and a reenergizing of the body and soul.
The Origins Of Bikram Yoga
Bikram Choudhury was born in Calcutta, India in 1944, and first started studying yoga at the age of 25. Only a couple of years after first learning, he moved to America and began teaching free classes to artists and friends in the Hollywood area.
His teaching style was energetic, charismatic and intense and his classes quickly grew in popularity and notoriety. Eventually, with the help of two pupils, Shirley MacLaine and Ann Marie Bennstrom, Choudhury opened his own LA yoga studio in 1974.
He came up with his famous 26 pose sequence sometime in the late 1970s, which he based on the teachings of the revered Indian yogi B.C. Ghosh. Choudhury claimed to have been taught by Ghosh from an early age as a kind of child prodigy, but this turned out not to be true.
The Bikram Sequence
The Bikram sequence consists of 26 yoga postures, which are performed in a specific order over the course of a 90 minute class. Each of the poses is held and maintained, requiring focus, determination and stamina.
There are 24 asanas in the sequence. Asanas are yoga poses that are steady and comfortable, and they can be performed sitting, standing, reclining, twisting, reaching or balancing. Most still yoga poses that you can think of are in fact asanas.
The sequence also involves 2 pranayamas. These are breathing exercises rather than poses and they come at the very start and end of the sequence. Most yoga styles begin with a seated pranayama, but the Bikram sequence begins with a standing breathing exercise instead.
This is to prepare the body for a rigorous and intense physical activity rather than to relax it for a meditative sequence. The final pranayama is a kneeling shatkarma, which is a purification pose. It is intended to allow the body to take a moment to absorb all the benefits of the last hour and a half of physical activity.
The Bikram sequence is famously intense and physically challenging. The first 45 minutes are spent standing as there are a total of 12 standing poses to complete before you can lower to the floor. The second half of the sequence involves 13 floor poses in lying, sitting and kneeling positions.
The Health Benefits Of Bikram Yoga
Many people swear by the benefits of Bikram yoga, and claim that it changed their health and well being immeasurably. Researchers have established that it does indeed have lots of positive effects including increasing your lower body strength, improving upper and lower body mobility and flexibility, and helping your balance.
The benefits of the heated studio are hotly debated. For many, the high temperature and humidity in the Bikram class enables them to achieve greater flexibility as their muscles warm up faster.
For others, the process of sweating during the class is cleansing and helps to get rid of unwanted toxins. Pupils have experienced increased energy levels, glucose tolerance, improved skin and hair condition and increased physical stamina.
The mental health benefits of Bikram have been said to include lessening anxiety, improved sleeping patterns, greater levels of positivity and energy and greater self confidence. But of course, these things are hard to quantify and are different for each individual.
It has since been proven that Choudhury’s own teaching methods had hugely detrimental effects on many of his student’s mental health, but more on that in a moment.
The Health Problems Related To Bikram Yoga
For many people, the Bikram yoga system caused more harm than good. As it is physically taxing and mentally challenging to hold those poses for 90 minutes some pupils feel sick, dizzy and overwhelmed.
There have been cases of the heat causing rosacea of the skin, breakouts of acne and low blood salt levels. However, both the health benefits and issues related to Bikram can actually be applied to most other ‘hot yoga’ styles, of which there are now many.
Bikram Yoga Training
Although Bikram Choudhury did not invent the idea of ‘hot yoga’, he certainly made it famous, and as his success and popularity grew and grew in the Los Angeles area, he opened an official Bikram school in order to train his pupils to become teachers themselves.
His teaching style was very charismatic and heightened, but it was also very forceful and intimidating, with Choudhury forcing his pupils to work through pain and fatigue. He conducted intensive training camps which would last a number of weeks and cost a great deal of money to complete.
On the camps, student teachers would be taught by Choudhury himself in a large studio, and they would learn a specific dialogue which they should stick to when teaching their own classes in order to mimic Choudhury’s style exactly. However, teachers were encouraged to make the dialogue their own and add their individual flair to it as they grew in confidence.
After completing the intensive training camp, teachers were qualified to use the official Bikram name in relation to their own classes. The popularity of the training and the system itself grew and grew throughout the 90s and early 00s. In 2006 there were as many as 1,650 Bikram yoga studios all around the world.
Studios could be found in Africa, Morocco, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, and in 39 U.S. states and Canada. In Asia they were found in China, Japan, Indonesia, India, the Philippines,Israel, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
In Europe Bikram studios opened in Austria, Denmark, Belgium, Norway, Hungary, Spain,Czech Republic, France, Turkey, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Italy, Netherlands, Russia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. And there were even Bikram studios in Australia and New Zealand.
This made Choudhury an incredibly rich and famous man. However, according to the official Bikram website, there are now only 40 official studios in operation. This decline was a result of the scandals surrounding Choudhury’s personal conduct.
Ownership And Copyright
Choudhury filed for copyright of his infamous sequence, and anyone who attempted to ‘plagiarize’ or ‘rip-off’ the sequence was taken to court. This also meant that only people who he had officially authorized could teach using the Bikram name.
The lessons and training became increasingly expensive, which led many to feel like Choudhury had lost sight of his original ethos – afterall, he began by preaching that yoga should be free to everyone.
However, he ran into legal issues when he tried to take the New York based yoga studio ‘Yoga to the People’ to court in 2011. Yoga to the People was owned and run by two of Choudhury’s former students who did not advertise as using the Bikram system but offered hot yoga classes which involved some of the same asanas that are in the Bikram sequence.
Choudhury argued that they had breached copyright law, but the judge decreed that the yoga poses under contention were not Choudhury’s property and could not be copyrighted. From that moment on, less and less students bothered to undergo the gruelling, expensive, and often unpleasant training camps, and began to set up their studios without using the Bikram name.
The Abuse Scandal
Things went from bad to worse for Choudhury when multiple abuse claims began to surface, include child abuse claims.
His conduct during the intensive training camps began to be exposed, and many women came forward reporting sexually intimidating and inappropriate behavior, whilst other pupils accused Choudhury of bullying, homophobia and controlling behavior. In 2016, CHoudhury fled to India (where he still teaches yoga) after his many lawsuits resulted in $7 million of legal damages.