Tough-Love Lessons of Bikram Yoga

“We students (and future teachers) needed to learn how to be “unknowing,” to embrace beginner’s mind, become skilled followers; we were being asked to suspend our authoritarian ways of thinking to become humble, open, and flexible enough to learn about yoga postures and anatomy and mostly ourselves. How can you understand others or help them (as a teacher) if you don’t understand or help yourself?”


I love the idea of less.  Less isn’t so much about ridding oneself of problematic hoarding of cars, jewelry, furniture, houses, companies.  To me, it’s more about how I use my energy and channel the good and evil within. It’s about temperance: self-restraint and discipline, with a generous dose of compassion. You might also think about it as moderation or balance. Sometimes gaining more balance in life requires less– less resistance, less control, fewer expectations and lies, and less rigidity.

The idea of less occurred to me, as ideas so often do, when I was teaching yoga. In this particular class, three people practiced: One giant man who I hadn’t seen in class in a long while, one “regular” practitioner, and one other slightly crazy woman who always practices with sunglasses on in the back corner of the room and does everything but the postures I am teaching. As usual, an interesting combination of fellow humans from whom I learned four lessons.

Lesson 1: About Assumptions and Expectations…  

Expectations suck more than usual when they are based on unwarranted assumptions. It appeared to me that the students seem to believe that I expected them to go above and beyond in their practice because I had them in clear view. I believe they felt like they were “center stage” or “on the spot” because it was just the three of them and me. This was a not a class where they could feel comfortable “hiding” in the back, out of their teacher’s view. When people think they are being watched, judged, or held accountable for their actions, they seem to step up their “honest” effort.  (Yes, I made this assumption based on experience and instinct.)

However, I did not place any expectations on these people whatsoever. I assumed they would come into the room, set up their mats, and do their yoga. I assumed they would not try to kill me or charge the podium or tackle me or anything else irrational or uncharacteristic within that particular environment. (Again, assumptions based on a pattern of typical experience.)

Whatever perceived expectations they thought I had of them are the ones they came up with on their own. They likely made assumptions based on the conditions that evening, in that location, and made their own decisions to act according to the expectations they then set for themselves. (Does anyone else think about these things, or is it just me?) But, if I was a betting girl, I would put my money on the fact that none of these people even thought consciously about the expectations they put on themselves. I bet it happened out of habit.  And, let it be noted that I have absolutely no proof whatsoever that any of them had the expectations of themselves that I am ASSUMING they created and tried to meet. (Are you sufficiently confused?) But this, I think, is usual human interaction, eh? Each of us continually making assumptions, some warranted and some perhaps not, and setting expectations, usually unrealistic or unnecessary ones. (See The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz) When I observe, I learn.


Lesson 2: About the Ego…

Excessive demands of the ego cause unnecessary suffering.  This is home grown suffering. It differs from suffering caused by unexpected, external events. We create our own suffering—unnecessarily, ALL. THE. TIME. I cannot speak beyond my own limited realm of experience and observation, but the problems we cause usually seem to be “first-world problems” that are completely irrelevant and unimportant in the global scheme of life.

Self-talk that literally causes unnecessary stress in your body (not the “good stress” of moving muscles and exertion) goes something like this:

I am so disappointed in myself/angry with myself/hate myself because I couldn’t kick my leg forward in Standing Head to Knee pose. When will my fat fucking ass ever be able to do this? My mother always told me I’d never amount to anything. And while I am on the subject, I hate my mother for never encouraging me or loving me unconditionally. I should just leave/quit/give up, because nobody will love me since I am so negative and I have abandonment issues. Nice attitude! God, I am so selfish! There are people with real problems in the world and here I am complaining in a yoga room. But the world sucks too and I didn’t cause poverty or violence or anything else, so why should I even care? I have my own problems, and everyone will die anyway, so what is the point?

Seem exaggerated? It’s not. It’s irrational, sure, but this is an example of real, internal dialogue for MANY PEOPLE. Negative. Judgmental. Critical. Cynical. Tyrannical!

Because we have been conditioned to shoot for MORE than perhaps we are capable of, and because we run up against limits and our ego doesn’t like that, we suffer. We, or the ego, always want more and more and more rather than valuing, loving, appreciating, and being grateful for what it already has or is. Chill the fuck out; you’re doing fine with all your limitations and you are loved whether you kick your leg our or not. If you didn’t have limits, you’d be God. You’re human, stop whining, and deal with it.


Lesson 3: About Being a Follower…

Is it such a bad thing to be a follower? And why don’t people just do what they are told? When I went to yoga training, Bikram told us to shut off our minds and just do what we were told. Some people reacted with fright to the thought of not being in control. Not being in charge. Not being the authority. Not trying to figure everything out. Not questioning nor analyzing.  Not drawing conclusions and/or critically judging or evaluating. Can you imagine? Aren’t these the things we naturally do by default? Or are they so conditioned within us that they seem natural? The people who could not do what they were told, who couldn’t be a good follower to learn, struggled through the entire 9 week training because they couldn’t turn themselves over or “trust the process.” Some people left training. Some railed and wailed and blamed Bikram for being an asshole. They struggled with letting go of control. The “shutting off the mind” was meant to be a reprieve (and relief) from always having to be in charge; it was time off from thinking, and planning, and plotting, and reminiscing, and worrying. 

We students (and future teachers) needed to learn how to be “unknowing” students, embrace beginner’s mind, become skilled followers; we were being asked to suspend our authoritarian ways of thinking to become humble, open, and flexible enough to learn some things about yoga postures and anatomy and mostly learn about ourselves. How can you understand others or help them (as a teacher) if you don’t understand or help yourself? Try the right way, the hard way, and get 100% benefit. 

The dialogue we learn to deliver in class commands students to, very precisely, do what they are told, yet they often refuse. Sometimes it may be the result of confusion, poor listening skills, or lack of concentration, but often times it’s about flat-out unwillingness and resistance; not letting go of control out of fear. The woman wearing sunglasses in the back of the room in my class wants to do what she wants to do– not the postures. They make her feel uncomfortable; she doesn’t like being uncomfortable (or for whatever other reasons) and she refuses to compromise. It feels better to her to leave her foot on the inside of her thigh rather than up on her hip. She bends her upper body in a circular motion rather than up to the ceiling and side to side as she is told. Perhaps she is closed, inflexible, ideological, and arrogant. She is rigid and clings to her own safety. She refuses to let go or to trust. She is afraid to lose control. She won’t bloom like a flower petal, and she is missing out on finding her truth. This is where tough love comes in (and what many critics of the Bikram method reject).


Perhaps the yoga teachers who refuse to say the dialogue as Bikram intended it do the same thing as that woman in the back of the room. They don’t like being told what to do or how to do. They think they know better. It’s more comfortable doing it their way rather than doing as they are told. Why is it so difficult for people to be honest and to trust? 

I know all of this seems slightly ironic: we inculcate students in school when they are children to do as they are told. Then we unschool them by teaching them to question authority and think for themselves. Don’t follow blindly, but blindly is the distinction. People should not follow without some understanding of what they are following or whom and why. I intended to learn how to teach yoga with the authority of that particular yoga system, Bikram Choudhury. I made a conscious, well-considered decision and choice to turn myself over to his direction. When you sign up for a Bikram yoga class as a student, you make the decision to do BIKRAM yoga- not some other form! You come into the room with a yoga mat and towel and you do as you are told. You follow the very precise commands given. You trust the process. If you don’t, you aren’t doing the yoga. Then, when you insist on doing things your way, maybe you hurt yourself and blame Bikram yoga and call it bullshit yoga.

As one of my favorite, seasoned teachers likes to say, “Bikram yoga is like a robbery. Do what I say and nobody gets hurt!”

AND THAT IS THE YOGA: doing what you are told. Sorry, but that’s tough love. Your teachers are here to make you better, not make you worse– to make you stronger and more flexible, not just in the body, but also in the mind.

Your ego wants you to be comfortable. You want the fans on. You want to avoid suffering. Welcome to the club. But you don’t always get what you want, and as a continually maturing human being—- you need to accept that truth and learn more effectively how to deal with it. (The Rolling Stones really did have it right, after all.) 


If you are brave enough to struggle with all of this, one day you will discover that your ego went from being invisible to you, to visible. You see its existence and the power it holds; then you learn how to manage it– find out how, and when, and why it is useful and positive, and in alignment with your spirit and when it is not; when it is counterproductive, causes suffering, pain, and when it is the culprit of your misery and  discontent. You don’t ignore your ego– you identify it’s desires and you manage it in ways that don’t add additional suffering to your life or the life of others. That’s another reason we tell you to look at yourself in the mirror. Don’t move. Don’t even blink your eyes.

Lesson 4: About Flexibility….

Flexibility is a valuable commodity and something our world desperately needs right now.  A flexible rather than fixed mindset is helpful in preventing you from becoming so entrenched in your own perspective that you risk becoming a dangerous ideologue who is willing to destroy others to defend your views. A flexible mindset helps you listen with genuine attention and interest in learning more than what you think you already know. (There’s always more to learn). Oh, and here you were thinking this was about your body. Well, yes –when you regain full range of motion in your joints, or maintain the full range you already have, your body is more flexible too. People are not separately minds or bodies; these aspects of ourselves are intricately fused; they are inseparable. Yoga is becoming more flexible, in body and in mind. So stop fighting and start stretching.

now or later discipline

Yoga is an interesting state of being because the objective of the practice really isn’t about the posture– the object is you, and you are also the subject. Think about how simple this is: you move your body into a pose to the degree that you are honestly able (and only to that degree) and you hold still and breathe. That’s all. You come face to face with your limitations and you breathe. Simple, yet people love to make it (yoga and life) complicated. Why?  Because everything I have written here about the ego and the unwillingness to do as one is directed, flexible mindset, and assumptions and expectations are inherent in the human condition. Clearly, we wrestle with these things because the three people I taught in class the other night exhibited some sort of conflict with every single one of them.

Yoga is hard. Being a human being is a challenge, but what’s the alternative? Run away? Lay on the couch and cry, or blame life itself, the universe, for being unfair? Drown your sorrows and suffering in fleeting, unhealthy pleasures? Eat candy and play video games? Watch porn, hang out with others who do the same to justify your own degenerate and weak behavior? Or show up with an open mind and heart (and ears to listen), do exactly what your told, the best you are able– to your limits whatever they may be, and breathe within a loving environment among others who are trying to be the best they can be too.  Have faith that you will be better, stronger, more flexible, and good by honest effort, trying the right way, and not giving up– that’s the ultimate destination. 


Observing those three students was my yoga, my opportunity to learn some great lessons that evening, and these students were excellent teachers. That’s why we, in Bikram yoga, refer to our instructions as a “dialogue.” It’s not just about the asanas, after all.


Published by mbakis

Sharing my love for learning and resources for a healthy living. Pleas also Visit sister sites: and for Daily Mental Health Training Programs that seamlessly integrate into the fitness space for owners and individuals.

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