Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Bikram Yoga: The End Logic of a Love Affair with Capitalism

This is probably old news to some in the wider yoga world, but I hadn't heard of it until stumbling on the following from an article in Yes Magazine:

Through centuries of evolution as a spiritual practice, any new yoga poses or techniques were automatically incorporated into the tradition for everyone to use. But beginning in 1978 an Indian named Bikram Choudhury, now based in Beverly Hills, copyrighted certain long-used hatha yoga poses and sequences as his own invention, Bikram Yoga, and he now threatens other yoga studios teaching these techniques with lawsuits.

Umm ... yeah... I want to offer some measured words about this, but mostly I view all this as absolutely fucked up.

The Bikram website offers more details about the specific lawsuit from seven years ago, as well as some "cautions" to students and teachers interested in Bikram practice. Here's a taste of that:

Bikram's Yoga College of India reminds yoga practitioners and aspiring yoga instructors everywhere that this litigation serves as a powerful example of why there is no benefit to learning from uncertified and unlicensed yoga instructors who claim to teach Bikram yoga or "something like it."

The simple facts are these:


No one may teach Bikram Yoga classes unless he/she is a certified and licensed Bikram Yoga teacher.

No one may teach or certify others to become Bikram Yoga teachers other than Bikram Choudhury.

No one may offer obvious, thinly disguised copies of Bikram Yoga and represent to the public that it is "their" yoga.

Yoga students should be particularly cautious of those persons who claim to offer teacher training and/or teacher "certification" in Bikram Yoga, or represent or suggest that their yoga teacher training program "is just as good as Bikram Yoga." Nobody may teach others to become Bikram Yoga teachers other than Bikram Choudhury himself.

This lawsuit is proof that the legal system will vindicate Bikram against those persons who exploit and adulterate Bikram Yoga for their own purposes.

Oh, where to start. I find lawsuits of this nature, involving attempts to control the spread of religious/spiritual practices and teachings, quite troubling. Finding the line between an individual or organization's new and original work, and the historical underpinnings of that work is rarely an easy task. In addition, the whole infusion of monetary settlements, patent rights, and proprietary controls, while seemingly a correct response in a capitalist society, creates a shift away from basic protections of religious/spiritual teachers and institutions, and towards a corporate re-culturing.

Bikram wasn't fighting unjust zoning laws, or trying to keep his school open and maintain a decent livelihood: it was all about making shit-tons of money. Consider this:

As of 2006, there were 1600 Bikram studios around the world.

Teacher training fees for each prospective teacher are $7000, much higher than the average yoga teacher training.

Bikram owns more than 40 Rolls Royces and Bentleys, as well as over 100 designer watches.

You can buy almost anything with a Bikram label on it, including a Set of Two Handmade SWAROVSKI CRYSTAL Glasses with Bikram Logo for only $75. Wine after yoga perhaps?

When asked about how much money he's making, Bikram himself responded "It's huge,' he says, 'I'm making - I don't know - millions of dollars a day, $10 million a month - who knows how much?"

Sounds like deep spiritual practice, doesn't it? Actually, Bikram doesn't really talk much about the spiritual background of yoga. There's a lot of talk about health and wellness, which is not a problem. Obviously, like Buddhist meditation, yoga has more and more slid into secular culture, appearing everywhere from corporate board rooms to Christian hospice programs. I've written about some of the downsides of this trend before, but I don't believe secular versions of spiritual practices are always a bad thing.

However, going back to Mr. Choudhury, here's a mouthful he delivered while leading a class of over 250 people:

'Bikram yoga is good for marathon sex!' he shouts. 'Once you do Bikram yoga you can't get it down for 72 hours!' Some manage to chortle, in spite of their contortions. 'The biggest problem in the Western world is divorce! Wind Removing Pose!' In response to this order, everyone lies on their backs with knees bent and pulled up into armpits. 'Why buy the cow if you don't get the milk? If a woman cannot do this posture don't think about getting married ... NO GAPS! If there is gap, instead of nice sex the man will be playing ping-pong under the bed, the husband loses his balls ... '

Nothing like a little sexism, heterosexism, and sexualizing to keep the body going, eh? Perhaps all the GLBTQ students were excused during this part of the program.

There's nothing even remotely enlightened or wise about any of this in my opinion. Bikram makes controversial Zen teachers like Richard Baker Roshi, who also had a fondness for fast money and fancy cars, or Genpo Roshi, whose Big Mind Process has made big money, look like specks of dust. However, all three of them are examples of charismatic spiritual teachers who fell for the lures of greed and power, believing that there is such a thing as a healthy merger of hyper-capitalist business practices and ancient religious/spiritual teachings.

Given the exponential increase of interest in "Eastern" religions and philosophies amongst people in predominantly capitalist nations, it is even more the case that the intersections between the two must be closely examined. It's not enough to just import these ancient teachings and practices, and then say whatever happens with money and finances isn't that important. Or that it's only a matter of not stealing and following societies laws about finances.

There are many fine, devoted communities already grappling with these challenges, including my own sangha. However, I think it's also fair to say that there is quite a dearth of lucid commentaries on the ways in which "Western" Buddhist and yoga communities are actually working with money and finances, how that effort meshes or doesn't mesh with their school's teachings, and how whatever is being learned might be truly applied to issues of Right Livelihood. Denials of, or gross ignorance of classism, for example, is still a hallmark of these institutions. Good intentions aren't enough; everything from membership dues, to class fees, to the ways in which classes are taught and what issues are focused on must be deeply examined.

When I think of working with some of my former ESL students for example, considering their struggle to stay out of deep poverty, to learn a new language and culture, and to come to terms with the violence and/or oppression they experienced in their native countries (and which some continue to experience here in the U.S.), I don't think $200 classes or discussions about whether or not children are "indoctrinated" by being introduced to Buddhism as kids are going to cut it.

I doubt the majority of teachers or organizations will ever reach the absurdity of Bikram and his "yoga school," but extreme examples are always wonderful opportunities to take a closer look at ways in which each of us and our communities are handling whatever issues are involved.

*Photo is of Bikram hanging with his homeys. Ummm, yeah...


Chong Go Sunim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chong Go Sunim said...

As something of an antidote, you might like this article about Tara Stiles in the NY Times. I'd seen her books/dvd's at Amazon, but just passed over them thinking she was just another model with a dvd. But she comes across as someone who is very grounded, and very real. (Let's see if I can get the link to work this time.)

Nathan said...

I just saw someone else writing about that article. Thanks for sharing the link; I'll go check it out.

dragonfly said...

Um... Yeah. Bikram horrifies me. :(

Max said...

Thanks for giving some background on the Bikram phenomenon. I've been thinking of trying yoga and now I'll be sure this cretin doesn't end up with a cent of my money.

I posted a few more thoughts on it over at my blog.

Martha said...

Yawn...ancient news.

Nathan said...

Hi Max,

There are plenty of great yoga teachers and programs out there. Glad you started a discussion on your blog as well.

Hi Martha,

Yes, somehow I missed the boat on this one, but old news can still be useful for examining current events.


Dya. said...

Yeah.. definitely not doing Bikram yoga now.

Anonymous said...

It is very easy to take Bikram's hyperbolic remarks out of context. Yes, he owns RR cars, but you fail to mention that he bought them as junkers and rebuilt/restored them himself, by hand, as a hobby/passion. Yes, he owns watches and often talks about sex and the genders in a sexist way, but you fail to mention that MUCH of this is said as a way of GENERATING controversy AT TRAINING. He is trying to teach people to find their peace and keep it NO MATTER WHAT. If what he says gets under your skin and steals your peace, that's data for you, not him. As for his copyright, here too you present a very warped version of what Bikram has dones; he did not copyright a spiritual practice or the postures, just his specific sequencing of 26 postures. To offer an analogy: Lennon did not copyright the notes ABCDEFG, he copyrighted the sequence of those notes in his songs. The sequence, not the building blocks of the sequence. You can't copyright words like the, or, then, small...but you surely can copyright their sequencing in the form of a book, poem, or lyric. As to a spiritual practice, Bikram never speaks ill of other yoga methods or gurus (he speaks VERY highly of Iyengar, Chopra, and others). He does not accuse them of any infringement because he understands he owns HIS creation: the sequence of 26 psotures.
It seems that if you are going to select comments and pics that present Bikram in a negative light, you should, in fairness, offer the ones that present him differently: pics of him with sweaty students and kids and ordinary practitioners; remarks about finding your peace and holding it, respecting your many teachers, choosing a path where you love people, even when you are saying hard things to them.
Bikram is not perfect, but he isn't the venal person you present either.

Anonymous said...

Wow... Bikram has totally transformed my body mind and soul.. My symptons of PCOS are now minimal after western medicine nearly killed me and gave me an Pulmonary embolism . I just couldnt get better. I was so sick, depression and pain all the time from severe skydiving injuries as well.. I now feel like a teenager and my life is joyful.. I am fit and glowing.thanks to Bikram. he deserves every penny! Studios are everywhere classes are packed. That says it all. That only happens when something is working. There is method to what you think is madness and unless you dedicate yourself to it for a 6-12 months .. you will never know.. you will just be an outsider with nothing better to do than be a one of fun police killing potential opportunities for those considering to try bikram yoga .

Anonymous said...

Bikram yoga saved my life . Classes are packed and are still growing. that says enough in its self. Why would so many go if it was BS.. I was sick and in pain all the time before I found Bikram.. now I am fit, healthy , happy and cant compare anything to it. Bikram deserves every penny for all his hard work and we are lucky to have someone around today to pass on such healing information and take control of our own health. Try it for 6 month- 12 months and see what you say then.

rammalia said...

I remember hearing somewhere that in nature you will find that poisonous plants are found in close proximity to their antidote. I absolutely love the benefits of Bikram yoga and have not an ounce of respect for the man. It seems that he is the poison and the practice is his antidote. I don't care, really, where my money is going once it leaves my hand in this case because I get so much out of what I am paying for.

Nathan said...

Interesting that this post continues to get so much reading, two years later.

The thing that I always come back to is that the practice we do isn't for our benefit alone. Not by a long shot.

How that practice impacts the rest of the world matters. In my opinion, there's a lot of negative fallout from Bikram's decisions. It's not just about making piles of money and being a sexist. In fact, I'd argue one of the biggest issues is promoting the idea that yoga practice is something that can be patented and sold as a product.

At the same time, I get it that he's offering something of benefit. Perhaps great benefit to some.

I agree that sometimes the poison and the antidote are right next to each other. I also know from my herbal medicine studies that learning how to find the antidote and use it properly isn't very easy.

Anonymous said...

I think it's funny that there is "bikram" yoga. He didn't invent the poses, the heat, or the sweat, though he did invent a brand name. Did you know bikram yoga was my yoga practice for about 3 years? My partner was an "outlaw" teacher!

Nathan said...

No doubt the guy is a slick businessman.