The Paradox of Bikram:
A Response to Netflix’s “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator”
by Maureen Bakis
My yoga class is that sweltering day. It’s one long, hot meditation. We put incredible pressure on you to teach you to break your attachment to external things and go within. Instead of blaming others for your own weakness, fear and depression, you will learn to take responsibility for your own life. You’ve got to face yourself in the mirror, every part you don’t like, every mistake you make, every excuse your mind creates to limit your potential liberation—there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. No escape from reality (my italics). With these kinds of demands on your abilities and attention, you will soon forget that there is anyone on the next mat in the classroom, much less notice what they are wearing. After you learn to discipline your body and mind under these conditions, you will truly be able to concentrate; no external will be able to break your powerful focus. That’s why I say the darkest place in the world is under the brightest lamp. In the Torture Chamber of my class, you will find a beautiful light, and the source of that light is within you.
Perhaps it’s never been more heated and challenging to be a Bikram yogi, and that’s exactly why I and thousands more people continue to practice Bikram’s original yoga series without stopping and without intermission.
I began practicing Bikram Choudhury’s yoga series seven years ago, a kind of practice that is defined by coming into direct, embodied, conscious contact with my own unique suffering–– mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. In Bikram’s class, I receive an education in pain, challenge, surrender, self-inquiry, conscious awareness, radical honesty, compassion, learning, distress tolerance, flexibility, humility, and better, more balanced parenting skills on my path toward becoming a more autonomous, fully actualized, healthy human person. Yes– a long sentence listing loads of benefits. Each time I practice, I learn about the value of continuously observing who I am and what I am like, positively transforming my relationship with myself on the inside and improving my relationships with others on the outside. It’s a form of social justice.
Because of Bikram’s yoga practice, both inner and outer landscapes of my life take on much higher resolution and greater salience. And my attitude toward pain, suffering, limitation, possibility, comparison, achievement, and outcomes has transformed, a radical and overwhelming shift in perspective to process-living. I am joyful in the high heat and pressure of the present moment including all of its challenges from within myself and from the uncontrollable external world to which I am always exposed, naked, and vulnerable. Sounds positive but it’s often an ugly process. Most people have been conditioned to avoid challenge, exposure, and ugliness. We just don’t go there.
When I entered Bikram’s Torture Chamber at my local studio and years later when I left home in Massachusetts to attended Bikram’s Teacher Training in Thailand for 9 weeks, I left a world in which I expended all of my precious attention and energy toward constructing a static, certain, and safe environment; the kind of approach to living that was focused on fulfilling my desires, gratifying my expectations, and meeting my “needs” that I was conditioned to believe would help me “win” at modern American life. I entered into a present-moment awareness, process-oriented, fluid and flexible space, unexplored territory beyond my comfort zone, a place of uncertainty and adventure, of risk and doubt, of unknowing (and of stink, sweat, profanity, and grit). Therein, I was encouraged to “trust the process.” I soon recognized that Bikram’s torture chamber is the same metaphorical place where heroes from the great stories of antiquity enter, so really not Bikram’s place per se, but my own and every human person’s confrontation with suffering. Again, who is encouraged to look directly at their limitations and pain?
I was a well-educated, intelligent, high school humanities teacher and single mother of four who consciously and voluntarily chose to be at Bikram’s Training, to learn directly from the source––the person in the mirror looking back at me. Bikram was merely the facilitator, one example of the best and worst of our human nature, who provided the conditions for my growth, just as we Bikram teachers do for others at our studios. I was not sent to training by my intelligent, wise, and powerful female studio owner as a pawn for Bikram to sexually exploit, as the misguided attorney so incorrectly and unfairly proposed in the Netflix documentary film about Bikram, the man and his hatha yoga series. I was sent to learn how to be a compassionate presence for myself so that I could provide that for others. As readers are already likely predisposed to interpret any language related to Bikram and his yoga as extreme, cult-like, or dangerous––and now “predatory,” the latest negative association being propagated through the media, I won’t describe my personal transformation during teacher training using cliche metaphors of “I was blind and now I can see” or “I died and went to heaven” or “I was asleep and now am awake.” However, precisely because of what I learned from Bikram, I am fully aware that I cannot control how other people interpret the meaning I am attempting to convey here, but that I can only do my very best to describe my experience.
At my Teacher Training, Bikram lectured often about birth and death where he transmitted ancient wisdom to his students that to die is to be continuously reborn; it’s to shed parts of the (small, ego) self that are no longer useful to make room for one’s human potential to actualize (and allow the higher Self to shine forth). This process of actualization is a continual loss and painful, i.e. “torture” and obviously challenging, and Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn also teaches, “no mud, no lotus” about the path to liberation and vitality. This is only one of many important aspects of Bikram’s brand of yoga that many people don’t quite understand, his “torture” chamber metaphor often criticized or interpreted inaccurately to serve more twisted purposes. Bikram’s disciplined brand of yoga is simply too distasteful, too hard, too hot, to people who don’t like the idea of being solely responsible for their individual change and growth. It’s much easier to blame, and to blame someone like Bikram is quite convenient.
Bikram did not invent the self-realization and self-actualization process, but his prescription for vitality “works” because of the Dialogue, high heat, and gestalt-like methods that occur in a mirror-based, self-relational framework that is unique and uniquely misunderstood, especially by Western-conditioned minds that are surface-concerned, outcome-obsessed, and pleasure-based. The Western egocentric mindset interprets yoga practice (and the meaning of life) narrowly, in surface, shallow, materialist ways, as the stereotypical image of the thin, hyper-feminized body, glistening with perspiration in her expensive leggings “posturing” in the mirror, and the even more sensationalized version that includes these type of women “posing” for Bikram Choudhury (and any other hyper-masculine, read “toxic,” man in the room) and inviting them to salivate over them as alluring prey, and hasn’t Bikram purposely shaped his yoginis to satisfy his personal appetite? Um, no. This picture is extreme and absurd, but undeniably convenient and effective for click-bait, attention-getting, and money-making.Labeling or creating such an exaggerated story about this healing modality of Bikram yoga using such a narrow, limited lens essentially closes its therapeutic possibilities to people, rather than opening up a future to those who might access the wisdom and wellness that comes from this practice.
Thankfully, another great aspect of Bikram’s yoga is that people don’t need to intellectually understand its intrinsic wisdom to reap its benefits; they only need show up and try the hatha practice, even for stress-reduction or physical activity, and it will work its magic on body, mind, and spirit. One only need have a slightly open mind, a crack, to allow the light to shine through. Unfortunately, our media tends to feed people’s intrinsic fear of change, vulnerability, and anxiety through its use of limited camera angles and by constructing narratives that promote dichotomous thinking and close-mindedness which causes more polarity both within individuals and among them. Ironically, a man came to the studio last week to try Bikram yoga because his interest was piqued after having watch the Netflix documentary about Bikram. I would encourage anyone who is interested in truth to come discover it, for themselves, within themselves, and in that mirror in Bikram’s “Torture Chamber.”
As one of Bikram’s yogis, I am happy for the heat of the hotroom, that is––my suffering, even the disillusionment and disappointment that results from something beyond my control in the form of a negative depiction of our yoga; Bikram taught me at training, through his intentional antics among other lessons, not to wait or waste time trying to control what I cannot or to allow anything or anyone to steal my peace. If I do, that’s lazy and that’s on me. I have learned through direct visceral experience in my yoga practice and at teacher training to welcome everything and push nothing away, whether good/pleasant or bad/unpleasant, so I can be alive in all of my life not just when it’s easy or convenient or preferable.
The purpose of the practice is to discover one’s human nature and not to deny any of it, to be fully, uniquely, wholly oneself––thus thriving, more healthy and alive. It requires discipline and honesty– two things that don’t happen immediately or as easily as say, taking a pill to feel better. We don’t get rid of stress and difficulty; we don’t build walls to keep all illness or negativity that comes from a Netflix documentary out; we don’t fix other people or reactively and blindly fight against evil; we don’t help people “get into postures” or modify them for comfort; we integrate both negative and positive energy into ourselves and transform it to become more actualized and fully alive—a responsibility and heavy burden that makes us whole, wise, and well.
I am proud and humble to say that I am a product of Bikram’s yoga, a practice and environment that at first seemed foreign to me, smelly, uncomfortable, insane, abnormal, extreme, cruel, uninviting, strange, and something to resist and run from when viewed from my previous world where mainstream conventional thinking shaped my perceptions of myself and others. I observe this same resistance––the desire to run, push-away, or lash-out-at, and/or to “fix” in the name of virtue and social justice exhibiting itself in people’s reactivity to Bikram Choudhury and his failings, his corruption, and his tragic fall.
In the beginning of my practice, I, too, had a lot of resistance and aversion; loads of neediness for comfort and security. I wasn’t sure of yoga’s purpose, my purpose. I struggled to make rational sense of this yoga practice, then the practice taught me that the mental stories I created and paradigms I’d inherited and cultivated through repeated habit over time were insufficient and inaccurately labeling reality; I noticed I was closed and resistant, clinging to what I knew (or thought I knew). I thought I was my thoughts. I thought I was my feelings. When I could see, with more honest vision, I realized my own deeply ingrained, unhelpful, and undiscerning habits and my craving for sameness and stability out of fear, and then I saw the possibilities beyond my limits and a future opened up. Remaining in the present moment, concentrating, and realizing limits, however, were the necessary and painful first steps, part of a steady dose of gradual exposure therapy for better distress tolerance and a better life.
Bikram says, 30 days for a better body, 90 days for a better life. I, like many others, went to the studio to do yoga as exercise ––for the better, more attractive body––and discovered much later that Bikram yoga changed my life. Hundreds of other people can report the same. People, most often studio owners and lovers of the Bikram series often purport to, “Separate the man from the yoga” to justify a sort of permission to practice the hatha series without unsympathetically dismissing the pain and suffering of alleged victims of Bikram, the individual, flawed man. And I get that. I’ve often said it myself. And if this rationale for continuing to teach and practice Bikram’s original series with its implicit philosophy of self-study for self-realization with its grounding in Hinduism works for sustaining a modern business model and helping more people with this specific and uniquely designed practice, then it’s a practical and pragmatic solution to the branding and other problems Bikram himself has caused.
The yoga and Bikram have taught me to become, through challenging practice, less resistant and more forgiving. To accept everything and push nothing away, even when painful, evil, uncomfortable or undesirable. Accordingly, it seems dismissive to me to reflexively rely on “separate the man from the yoga” to quickly change an uncomfortable or embarrassing or hard conversation, to retreat back into a cognitive and affective comfort zone due to one’s desire for stability, to feel “right” or “justified” or to end the painful challenge that comes with human vulnerability and the subtle complexities of being human. To me, this is the opposite of what can be learned and has been learned by so many already from Bikram’s specific practice. Therein lies the paradox of Bikram and his yoga.
Observing my own psychological, physical and spiritual transformation encourages me to continue practicing, to allow Bikram’s magic yoga medicine to flow through me to be wise, well, humble, happy. I continue to share my story, the story of Bikram and his yoga, with others on and off the podium. So, when my guru is under fire for his bad behavior, choices, and human faults, so, too, is the yoga, and so, too, am I as a dedicated Bikram yogi. This makes me sad and uncomfortable and also happy and grateful for this opportunity to learn more from its challenge. Bikram taught me that.
Bikram yoga is an environment, a practice, a mindset, a space for action and contemplation in which peak experiences, self-realization, and self-actualization are fostered consciously, systematically, deliberately, that is–– mindfully. As a Bikram yogi, I am not merely more physically flexible or strong from stretching in a hot room for 90 minutes at a go, I’m deeply in love with my own life, all of my life––its wholeness and integration–– not only when everything is as I want or hope or desire it to be; not just when it’s good, comfortable, or happy and all my needs are met; not when the conditions are some version of perfect that my mind might conjure up based on my social and educational conditioning over time–– again, the paradox of Bikram and his yoga.
I say to the documentary filmmakers and their fans, rather than criticizing Bikram’s yoga by sensationalizing it and attempting to destroy the livelihood of studio owners and their students to capitalize financially on the residual audiences of the me-too movement, I urge you to practice Bikram’s yoga so you can truly understand it and simultaneously embark on a path toward wholeness and wellness both for yourself and others as a more positive form of social justice.