This post happened in a Facebook message thread between myself and an old friend I haven’t seen in a while.
I confess that I am a little leery to include this post, because this blog is not about yoga, and it is not addressing the yoga community, as it were, though it is also not NOT addressing that community, but I am aware that some of what’s here might even offend certain of the more delicate or specifically-oriented sensibilities of that community, or at least invite snarky and opinionated judgement on me for my obviously engorged third chakra, or my undying love of being in my head, or the fact that I have a mental illness that means sometimes I cannot bear to leave the house, or that I sometimes pour negativity into the stream from which we all must drink. For example. I might apologize for that, except that I find it hilarious. Which makes me glad. So I am just not sorry. But, you know, namaste. The light within me truly does salute the light within you. Obviously. Also, I half-heartedly toy with the notion of anonymity here, even though some of those among you know exactly who I am, and I know you understand. And I love you. All.
I decided to include this because I enjoyed writing it, maybe in part because it comes on the heels of eight hours or so of working on my paperpaperpaper. (GADS, WILL IT EVER END.) And also because I do rely on this yoga, both practicing and teaching it, for many things from well-being to community to entertainment, and especially for the intimacy of compassion, for myself, and for the other students. That is an unbelievably powerful experience. And, I do indeed consider the practice of yoga congruent with the utopian impulse.
So, in the spirit of generosity, here is my answer to the above question.
I forgot to answer your question about Bikram yoga incorporating meditation in the sessions. The answer is this: the whole class is a meditation.
Bikram’s philosophy derives from the philosophy of traditional yoga he began learning at age 3, in Kolkata. His guru was Bishnu Ghosh, brother of Paramahansa Yogananda, who wrote Autobiography of a Yogi, in which that guru lineage is further explained.
The core principles of the philosophy revolve around the observation that in order to sit very still and meditate quietly until achieving self-realisation, one must have a disciplined connection between the mind and the body. If not, it is simply far too painful to sit still for that long. Especially in lotus pose. Plus it is really, really, really distracting, due to the dramatic performances of the mind that monkeys around trying desperately to get your attention. Which it is super excellent at doing. And presumably self-realisation takes a pretty long time to achieve. If ever.
So the story goes that the practice of hatha yoga (the practice of postures, or if you prefer the Sanskrit, “asana,” which loosely translates to “posture holding stillness, breathing always normal”) developed to limber up the body and prepare the mind in preparation for meditation. In lotus. For a really, really, really long time. Maybe even forever.
Bikram yoga, like all posture yoga, is hatha yoga, which means the yoking of the body and the mind, creating what Bikram likes to call “a perfect marriage.”
When he tells the story of agreeing to his guru’s request that he bring traditional Indian yoga to the west, Bikram emphasises the directive to not change it in order to make it more accessible to westerners (that is, easier with the help of blocks, straps, chanting, dim lights, music, pastel walls, sleeping, etc.). Instead, he was meant to give them the real deal: a physically, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually challenging practice that enables practitioners to strengthen the five aspects of mind: concentration, determination, self-control or willpower, faith, and patience, in that order. Improvement in one facilitates improvement in the next. Eventually. Or in the future.
Bishnu Ghosh was involved with yoga therapy as well, a therapy that functioned in accordance with Ayurveda to address health issues. In other words, a treatment involving the prescription of yoga postures, similar to physiotherapy or the like.
Bikram’s sequence of 26 postures (including two breathing exercises) was developed to address the common ailments and complaints of the western individual. The sequence works the whole body through compression and release to improve the blood and move it systematically through every part until every system is addressed. Bikram speaks of five main systems of the body: respiratory, circulatory, digestive, skeletal, and nervous. Together, they sustain the sixth and overarching system that governs homeostasis: the immune system. The Bikram series addresses each system, with some extra focus on backward bending, considered to be the healer of the spine. And of course the spine houses the central nervous system, which refers to the entirety of one’s physically mitigated material experience, and so! a happy spine means a happy life.
For Bikram, the body is the house of the spirit. If you have no body, how can you deal with the spirit? But if you improve your body, with help of your mind, you create a perfect marriage–the body and the mind can move out of the ugly apartment and into a nice beautiful condo in Beverly Hills. Which is where Bikram lives. He likes the bathrooms in the US, even if he finds that country’s spiritual philosophical practices to be rather defunct; that is what he is there for.
So, in Bikram yoga, you have one and a half hours in a hot and humid room that is brightly lit and lined with floor-to-ceiling mirrors. You are wearing not much, and neither is your neighbour. All are sweating. Maybe some crying. Maybe you. You are requested and repeatedly reminded to regard your own self in the mirror. For very very very very very many people, this is extremely hard to do. But everyone who keeps trying starts to get used to it. Maybe even–a little bit–they start to enjoy it. And everyone gets benefit: everyone together. Bikram says the darkest place is underneath the lamp, and the hot room offers the experience of stepping into that bright place so you can see what monsters lurk there, and eventually stop running away.
What really reached me was when at my teacher training I heard Bikram lecture about self-love. He said, “The problem with human being is you think you are that bad. How can you love each other when you fucking hate yourself?”
With practice, you begin to learn concentration, determination, self-control, faith, and eventually, if you’re very very, very very very very lucky, patience. You learn to try the right way, to try again and again, to try harder, and to not give up. And you have to remove yourself from your complaints that try to stop you from doing all of this: it’s too hot, it’s too hard, I can’t do it, I’m soooo bad, I’m toooooo sick, I’m toooooooooo special, nobody loves me. With practice, you learn a little objectivity that requires putting that stuff aside for the moment and just doing your yoga. So: your body improves, your mind improves, and you start to have a relationship with yourself that is founded on the moving meditation of your body, with your breath, according to your mind. Posture by posture, class by class, by trying the right way, trying harder, and trying again and again, you start to heal your relationship with yourself.
So, yes, the class incorporates meditation. And you might even learn to love yourself.
*Photo of Owl in bow pose, dhanurasana. Photo credit to maman, heavily edited by moi.