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Bad-guy Bikram

There was a time when I put Bikram Choudhury on a pedestal. I felt like he saved my life–and maybe he did. All I know for sure is that the sweaty hell he propagates forced me to confront my emotions in a way I’d never experienced, and the feelings I discovered were alarming enough to prompt some major insights and life changes.

I believe all asana encourages the balancing of energy and the emergence and release of emotion, but the particular conditions that Bikram requires made it impossible for me to repress my feelings: When all of my attention was going toward surviving the present moment, I wasn’t able to simultaneously keep my emotions in check. Feelings just bubbled up and overflowed, sometimes showing up as joy, but more often as anger or anguish.

More than once I was grateful that my red and dripping face was camouflaged by perspiration; more than once I had weighty revelations about my situation in life–I honestly hadn’t known I was unhappy until I was stripped of my ability to pretend otherwise.

So, yeah, I appreciate Bikram’s contribution to the yoga community. I really do. Even though I’ve since traveled a path that takes me farther and farther from his rigid sequence and aggressive approach, I carry with me the lessons I’ve learned and I don’t judge people who swear by his methods. I’ve been there. I get it.

But Bikram’s behaving like a greedy liar, and I’m getting sick of the commotion he’s causing. I don’t like to call names, but c’mon–the guy has millions of dollars and is still increasing the fees for his affiliates, and some of what he preaches is outright untrue. Though the money stuff disgusts me, I don’t pretend to understand–deriving profit from yoga is an equation I haven’t yet solved. But the lying thing is offensive.

I practiced for years at a Bikram-sanctioned studio that faithfully parroted his official dialogue, and I ate up every word. I blame myself for accepting without question many of Bikram’s claims, and I credit myself for eventually doing some research and learning how the body works. But Bikram nonetheless told me by proxy again and again that thirty seconds of balancing stick is the equivalent of forty-five minutes on a treadmill. Not. True. In fact, as William J. Broad’s upcoming The Science of Yoga explains, even the most rigorous yoga does not qualify as aerobic activity.

I wish I had the time and energy to go through Bikram’s entire dialogue and point out every instance of untruth or exaggeration, but since I don’t, you’ll have to do your own homework to conclude that his assertions are at least a little suspect. Which is why I don’t understand his greed. Given the mixed bag the man is offering–real benefits and false promises–I don’t understand why he isn’t satisfied with the success he’s already secured, and why he isn’t content to let others share and expand upon the groundwork he has laid.

I don’t understand why he’s suing studios that teach something similar but don’t use his name. I know there are legal complications with trademarks and the like. As with the money stuff, I don’t have a great grasp on the nuances. (But if you do, I would love to learn about them–I hereby offer a guest post to anyone who wants to explain!) I can see why Bikram wants, and is entitled to, control over his name and image. And to a point he does deserve credit for what he’s created–assuming he can prove he’s the sole creator.

But, seriously, suing studios that make yoga affordable and accessible to everyone? Demanding that he retain authority over an entire style of yoga, and that his followers cough up more and more cash to stay in his good graces? What are his intentions? And how do they align with yogic values?

There’s an interesting website that’s recently sprung up to explore such questions and the topic of yoga ownership in general. I think these are important conversations to have, regardless of where you stand on the issues, and I’m genuinely interested in understanding all angles. But even though the website says it’s not taking sides, I can’t help having an opinion: Something about the way Bikram is handling himself just reeks of wrong.

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Love > fear