Why I Practice Bikram Yoga (Again)

Ten minutes into my first Bikram Yoga class I hated it. The heat was overwhelming and I discovered that my body had an unnatural and obscene capacity to sweat. My eyes were burning, my clothes were heavy with sweat and I could barely breathe. I spent much of the class lying down and promising myself to never come back.

But back I went. Why? Because the next day I felt fantastic. My mood was elevated and I was physically invigorated, energized and buoyant. Of course I went back for more of that. And of course I hated it again. And so it went for about six months during which I became more tolerant of the heat and began enjoying the practice. After about a year I decided to go all in and attend the Bikram Yoga Teacher Training in L.A. I wasn’t so much attracted to the idea of teaching yoga as I was of having a sixty day yoga ‘boot camp’ experience. I have no recollection why.

I entered the program with trepidation because I had met Bikram Choudhury at a workshop and I didn’t like him. He was flamboyant and arrogant and showed signs of burgeoning narcissism. But he also spoke to me with kindness and compassion. I knew that some people seemed to regard him as guru-like but the majority of Bikram practitioners I met were drawn to the yoga not the man.

My experience with Bikram during his training program was mixed. In some ways he was clearly a petty tyrant, a raging sexist and a bully. In others, he was considerate, tolerant, irreverent and funny. I never got too close to him but I returned home with a kind of apprehensive affection for him. I also discovered a passion for teaching, which I did for a year before opening my own studio, Bikram Yoga Decatur, in November, 2002.

I’m presuming that most of you know that Bikram’s story eventually took a nasty turn. He is now widely known as a serial sexual abuser/rapist and a malignant narcissist. Fortunately, he has fled the country into exile and we don’t have to see or hear much of him any more. But the yoga he introduced us to lives on. It’s most assuredly not his yoga but his name will forever be associated with it.

This is how Bikram Yoga changed my life: When I began my practice I was struggling with two major difficulties, one physical and the other emotional. I had been experiencing extreme back pain for a couple years and I was just beginning to acknowledge that I had been sexually abused as a child.

The back pain was so bad at times that it was debilitating. I remember having to crawl to the bathroom because I couldn’t stand up. I was taking pain medication and often washing it down with alcohol. I was diagnosed with severe degenerative disk disease and advised that steroid injections and surgery were the only available medical treatments. I was lucky to have had an honest doctor because he also told me those treatments were not permanent and that I should consider physical therapy and yoga. Since I was already practicing Bikram Yoga I signed up for a ten week program with a physical therapist.

During those ten weeks my PT evaluated me performing every one of the twenty-six postures in the Bikram series and offered insights and suggestions about how to maximize the benefits and minimize the risk of injury in each posture. I continued practicing with a renewed focus and within a couple years I was living pain free. Those PT sessions not only improved my personal practice, they informed my teaching later.

For the next few years I enetered into psychotherapy with a focus on healing from the childhood sexual abuse that I had kept secret for more than thirty years. I had a lot of trauma stored in my body and the physical challenges of hot yoga came with a lot of triggers. You don’t keep that kind of secret for that long without dissociating from your body as a matter of routine. Spending ninety minutes, several times a week, half naked in front of floor to ceiling mirrors turns out to be a powerful opportunity to learn how to re-inhabit a body that had never felt like my own.

In 2012 I attended my first of what would be several Weekends of Recovery (healing workshops for men in recovery from sexual abuse and rape). I also continued working with a personal therapist to reconnect with the wounded child I had been hiding from the world. Throughout this emotionally turbulent process Bikram Yoga kept me grounded and safe. The hot yoga room became a sanctuary where I could simultaneously escape the stressors of life and connect with my self in a deeply personal way.

Then, in 2013, Sara Baughn accused Bikram Choudhury of sexual assault. I had already grown distant from Bikram and those members of the Bikram Community who were beginning to seem cult-like. I had seen discomforting behavior and heard rumors of inappropriate relationships with his students but I was not expecting or prepared to hear Bikram accused of sexual assault and rape. After Baughn, the floodgates opened. As more and more women spoke out with their own accusations the Bikram community, such as it was, began disintegrating.

That same year I spent a week studying with Tony Sanchez, who was one of Bikram’s earliest protégés. After breaking with Bikram years ago he went to the source, Ghosh Yoga College in Calcutta, and developed his own yoga method based on the same foundation that underlies Bikram yoga, what is now being referred to as Ghosh Yoga.

The revelations about Bikram deeply troubled me, personally as well as professionally. As a survivor I was triggered and began experiencing fresh bouts of the anxiety and depression that I had long struggled with. As a studio owner I was concerned about the effect on my business and my clientele. One of my missions with the studio was to provide a space where all who enter would feel seen, safe and supported. The thought of being linked, however tenuously, with a sexual predator was horrifying.

To address the combined issues of safety and risk of association with Bikram I changed my studio’s name from Bikram Yoga Decatur to Still Hot Yoga. I spoke out in support of Bikram’s accusers in public forums, on social media and in interviews with a few local and national news publications. Exacerbating this challenge was the widespread belief in the national yoga community that Bikram Yoga was a franchise which came with the assumption that supporting any Bikram Yoga studio was financially supporting Bikram himself. Few people knew there was never a franchise despite Bikram’s one aborted attempt to create one in 2010.

When I opened my studio in 2002 I had a one year licensing agreement with Bikram Yoga, Inc. which included a small monthly fee for the use of Bikram’s trademarks. That contract was never renewed and, while I did continue paying the fees in good faith for a few more years, I stopped them during Bikram’s disastrous attempt at creating a franchise. His proposed terms were so draconian that they were rejected by virtually all Bikram studios in the country.

By that time it had become apparent to many of us that Bikram had become a narcissistic megalomaniac. I wrote a letter to headquarters renouncing any further contact or relationship with Bikram and his company. I became involved in a movement towards creating an alternative network of Bikram Yoga studios that were cutting all ties to Bikram. Most of us changed our studio names and some began using alternative names for the Bikram Yoga sequence.

Throughout all of the above I was continuing a somewhat steady personal practice of attending four to five classes per week. I was also continuing to think I needed to further distance myself from the Bikram name and brand. One of the ways I explored doing that was by modifying the Bikram posture sequence. My experiences with Sanchez were profound and he inspired me to create an expanded Bikram Yoga practice by including different postures, as well as creating a shorter posture sequence, something Bikram was always adamantly opposed to.

My teachers and I had a lot of fun creating a Hot Fix class (60 minutes) and a Bikram Plus (90 minutes) intermediate class to add to our schedule. There was some resistance by our die-hard Bikram Yoga addicted students but the new classes were moderately successful. As someone who has always loved variety in all things it was exciting for me to have these new classes and I found myself attending them a lot more than the original Bikram Yoga classes.

I mentioned earlier that I discovered in myself an unusually high sweating capability. That not only continued but it worsened. After years of being in the hot room my body became so susceptible to sweating that I would begin just opening the studio in preparation for class. I also found it increasingly difficult to turn the sweating off after class. Living in Atlanta exacerbated the problem and during the summers I felt like there was no escape from it. I had to keep extra clothes in my car. I struggled to stay hydrated, drinking so much water that I often felt bloated. I began to think that hot yoga was no longer a good fit for me. So what did I do next? I went deeper.

Inspired by Sanchez, and thanks to the entrepreneurial efforts of Ida Jo and Scott Lamps, I signed up to attend a yoga certification program at Ghosh Yoga College in Calcutta in early 2016. It was illuminating. It was a yoga experience that did not at all resemble Bikram Yoga. There the practice of yoga is considered more a medical treatment than an exercise system (while noting that the two are intrinsically linked).

Ghosh Yoga is derived from a Physical Culture tradition that celebrated body-building and feats of strength and deprivation but those were driven by the passions of founder Bishnu Ghosh. The College walls are plastered with photographs of strong men, former Mr. Universe winners, competition winners and revered yogis. But since his granddaughter, Muktamala Mitra, assumed control the focus has shifted primarily to yoga s medicine.

While there are some general fitness group classes, almost everyone who comes to the College receives a personalized yoga prescription by either Mitra or Principal Physician Dr. Prem Das. The yoga instructors primarily act as monitors and timekeepers. After ensuring the clients know how to safely perform their prescribed routine the instructor’s job is to watch over them while counting out loud the number of repetitions for each exercise or asana. The women’s yoga room is a cacophony of counting.

The men’s yoga room was at once less chaotic and less organized. I rarely saw instructors in the room. Most of the male clients simply arrive and do their routines, counting quietly to themselves.

Upon return, my personal practice continued to evolve away from traditional Bikram Yoga. At the studio I mostly attended the 60 minute Hot Fix classes. I began a home practice to avoid the heat. I attended a Yin Yoga workshop and incorporated new principals and approaches to my practice that were distinctly different to the Bikram method.

Finally, in 2017 I sold my studio. I stayed on as a part-time instructor and dropped in to an occasional class but by Fall of 2018 I moved to Oakland, CA and abandoned all pretense of practicing or teaching Bikram Yoga.

My wife, Pam, never lost her passion for Bikram Yoga. She quickly found a local studio, Oakland Yoga, whose vibe and culture closely matched our former studio and she became a regular there. I dropped in a couple times and enjoyed the experience but had found enough discipline in my home practice to feel mostly satisfied with it. For our first year here I was feeling pretty satisfied with my home yoga. Until I wasn’t.

I’m not entirely sure what changed. Partly it was that I missed teaching. I became friends with Tony Carr, the owner of Oakland Yoga, and the possibility of teaching for him was floated a couple times. But when I was a studio owner I had always required people who taught for me to maintain their practice. It felt hypocritical of me to consider teaching while not practicing. So I kept demurring. And then, one day, while on my mat at home, I simply had the thought, I want to go back. And so I did.

I am teaching twice a week and practicing at the studio three times a week. It feels great. It’s taken about a dozen classes to find my old hot yoga rhythm. I’m enjoying the heat again (it helps that the humidity here is half what it was in Atlanta). I didn’t realize how much I missed teaching and practicing until I started doing it again. Being back in that room is a fantastic feeling whether I’m on my mat or standing in front of a class. Despite all the things that pushed me away, Bikram Yoga still makes sense to me. It’s unique. It’s accessible. It’s casual. It’s consistent. It’s therapeutic. It’s meditative. It just works.

I’m sorry that Bikram Choudhury changed from being an eccentric yoga instructor into a psychological monster. I’m sorry about all the pain and damage he caused. I’m sorry that there were so many enablers to his abusive behavior. I’m sorry that so many more of us in that community failed to see what was happening early enough to try to stop it. I hate that his name will likely continue to tarnish the reputation of the yoga method he introduced us to. But I am not sorry for learning, practicing and teaching Bikram Yoga. I’m sticking with it.

Just a couple weeks after writing this Covid-19 hit and I am back to practicing room temperature yoga in my living room.