Netflix’s exposé of Bikram inspired me to look beyond the predator and find a great yoga practice

Bikram Choudhury teaching
Underpanted peacock: Bikram Choudhury guides the faithful from his teaching throne (Photo: Netflix)

The Netflix documentary Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator served to confirm all my biases about Bikram Choudhury, the peacocking, underpanted father of Bikram Yoga, or “hot yoga” as it’s known when not done under his trademark.

You don’t have to see too many clips of him in full flow to note that he’s almost a parody of arrogance, and allegations by a handful of his former students that he raped them suggest a much more malevolent character (he no longer dares show his face in his adopted home country the US, presumably for fear of having to face these allegations, and now plies his trade in Mexico or Spain).

So yes, this documentary confirmed my long-held belief, based on what I’d read and heard over the years, that Chouhury is a nasty piece of work. What I did not expect was to end up inspired to start practising and teaching the series of yoga postures he popularised.

There’s a moment towards the end of the film when it’s revealed that the basic sequence that earned Choudhury his millions was in fact devised by his teacher in his native India, Bishnu Charan Ghosh. It’s made up of standard hatha yoga postures with which just about anyone who’s done any yoga would be familiar. But as I watched the documentary, it struck me that the way they were ordered looked interesting, so I decided to try it out.

I don’t buy into the hot component of the Bikram approach – overheating and over-humidifying your space for such supposed benefits as a flexibility boost, raising the heart rate and, er, “strengthening of willpower, self control and determination through the challenging environment”, to quote one official Bikram affiliate. None of this stuff is necessary to do yoga.

So no artificial heating or humidifying for me, but after only one session working through the full basic sequence of 26 postures and two breathing exercises – often referred to as the 26+2 – it was clear that it is indeed a superbly structured practice.

You start on your feet with an invigorating blast of pranayama, or breathwork, that centres you, then move through a sequence of standing postures that help to build strength and flexibility, as well as develop balance. You then come down to the ground for a set of prone, supine and seated postures – again, much strength and flexibility work, though less balance is required here – interspersed with restful periods of simply lying on your back and breathing.

The practice ends with another pranayama exercise, before a final rest. It is an engaging journey, from upright to flat on the floor, sandwiched between the breathwork. While the work can be hard, by the time you get to the end, you’re usually deeply relaxed.

I soon found myself doing the 26+2 at least once or twice a week, alongside my other regular practices, and loved it. The fact that it’s a set sequence allows you over time to measure your progress closely, and each posture can be done on a scale from quite relaxed to pretty damn intense, which means you can tailor the practice to however you feel on any given day and that you’re unlikely ever to run out of stuff to work on.

I decided to start introducing the sequence occasionally to my general hatha yoga classes. I was nervous at first, as the practice can superficially appear intimidating, particularly when done the Bikram way, which to my eye looks a little aggressive and is, like a lot of yoga, fixated on the “correct” textbook way to do a posture. This frequently involves trying to get people to adapt their bodies to the posture rather than learning how to make the posture fit the body.

The latter approach – in which the way a posture looks is of no consequence compared with how it feels – is very much the one I take, and I have been pleasantly surprised to find my students consistently love doing the 26+2 from time to time, adapting the work as necessary.

Adaptation: Three variations of standing head to knee pose – note that even in the trickiest postion, my head is nowhere near my knee

A lot gets fitted into a reasonably short period – sometimes an hour, sometimes an hour and a half – and this keeps you fully involved; there’s little room here for zoning out – it’s proper hatha yoga using the body to develop deep presence. The fact that the practice can serve the extremely wide range of people I work with – from children to those in their 70s – is a measure of its quality, and I have since introduced a regular session of it alongside my other yoga classes.

It’s all about adapting. If you go on online and search for videos of Bikram or hot yoga classes, you’ll generally see the postures being offered in a very dogmatic way, with scant attention to adapting them for individual interpretation or expression. This is not surprising, as Choudhury insists that the yoga is done his way; in fact, to become an official Bikram teacher, using that name, you have stick religiously to his rendition of a class via a script known as “The Dialogue”. This can make it very limiting indeed.

The minute you encourage people to adapt the postures to suit their own bodies, though, it opens up into the magnificent practice it truly is and which, I believe, is probably more in tune with its roots in traditional hatha yoga.

My experience with the 26+2 has also been a good lesson in separating practice from teacher. For the longest time, I was narrow-mindedly unwilling to consider Bikram, or even hot, yoga because of Choudhury’s reputation as a dodgy character. How weird that a documentary that confirmed my biases about the man should be the thing that led me towards the practice – or at least my interpretation of it – that he popularised.

  • Martin Yelverton is a yoga teacher based in East London, currently offering classes (including one featuring the 26+2) online. Details at yogayelvy.com

Published by Martin Yelverton

I'm a plant-powered yoga teacher, Pilates instructor and freelance journalist.

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