I used to think that Bikram Yoga had strayed too far away from yoga as practiced in India. I thought that Bikram Choudhury himself was a publicity-obsessed, money-grubbing shyster who had altered the real essence of yoga to appeal to Hollywood celebrities and lock in his monopoly on hot yoga’s 26 postures. The whole idea of yoga competition, or even yoga becoming an Olympic sport, seemed beyond the limits of yoga doctrine.
But after reading Syman and Singleton’s books (The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America and Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice), I now understand that yoga is a much bigger tent than I ever realized. Yoga competitions do take place in India, going back to the days when yoga stopped being the domain of Hindu ascetics and stuntmen/beggars and was adopted by a generation of nationalistic leaders who wanted to adapt a native practice to their mission of changing the self-image of Indians under colonial rule. Bikram’s approach is modeled after his teacher, Bishu Ghosh (brother of Paramahansa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi), and a significant figure in yoga and body building in India in the first half of the 20th century. In other words, right in the middle of yoga’s rebirth in India. Ghosh’s granddaughter, Muktamala Mitra, currently carries on the tradition at the Ghosh Yoga School, located in Kolkata and founded in 1923.
Based on that premise, Bikram Yoga is just one of many valid currents of yoga that is available to a diverse public, both in the United States and around the world. It may have more commercial backbone, but it’s not a dissident (if there could really be an orthodoxy within such a diverse phenomenon). I don’t think that Bikram Yoga should not be the first choice for starting to take yoga as a personal discipline nor am I inclined to practice it (Just read this tongue-in-check note about Bikram versus Ashtanga). But the standard narrative of yoga that funnels events through B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois and the Mysore Shala of Krishnamacharya does not encompass the broader historical and cultural influences in yoga in India. Nor does it really do justice to the history of yoga in America.
As I was checking on some links tonight, I chance upon the feature film, Yoga Inc.: A Journey Through the Big Business of Yoga (2006). About a third of the film deals with Bikram when he was in the middle of his copyright dispute with former Bikram Yoga studios. He was made out to the the embodiment of the new yoga breed in the States. Of course, this was before the Financial Meltdown. The video’s an hour long, but it’s worth watching as a snapshot of yoga at the dawn of the 21st century. It’s available online at Snag Films.