Bikram Yoga is a style of hatha yoga that was developed by Bikram Choudhury (Frey 1). Hatha Yoga emphasizes the outcome of yoga’s “…physical effects [such as] weight loss, physical stress reduction, muscle toning, and flexibility” (Fish 191). Additionally, it does not focus on the meditative aspects of yoga. These characteristics of the Hatha style of yoga are pronounced in Bikram Yoga and heightened. The purpose of Bikram Yoga is for the transformation of adults to improve health, rejuvenate the body, become fit, and therefore be “healthy”. These words are put in quotations as the controversy behind this style is vast. Varying research, which will be discussed further on, has been conducted and provides both negative and positive results from individuals that have performed this style of yoga. Moreover, beyond the controversy that has been publicized about the style, Bikram Choudhury himself has received negative public awareness, specifically in North America. This is owing to his methods of teaching, claims for Intellectual Property Rights (IPR’s) on the yoga style, and sexual assault and rape allegations that have been brought forth by previous students. While Bikram Yoga is still widely debated and its reputation has fluctuated, the popularity of this style cannot be questioned.
Bikram Choudhury was born in Kolkata/Calcutta, India in 1946 (Frey 1). Before Yoga encapsulated Choudhury’s life, he was well known for his weightlifting until a knee injury prevented him from continuing with his passion (Fish 194). It was then, when Choudhury was desperate for healing, that he met his yoga guru, Bishnu Charan Ghosh, who promised Choudhury he could fix his injury through yoga (Singleton 2010). He trained Choudhury at his College of Physical Education in Calcutta, which focussed on the modern and upcoming popular Hatha Yoga (Singleton 134). This style focussed on postures (asanas), muscle manipulation, and the physical culture of Yoga. Ghosh claimed that this style was a “weights-free method of physical training through will-power…” (Singleton 133). Miraculously, Choudhury’s injury healed. From this, there are claims that he participated in the National India Yoga Championship in which he won gold consecutively for several years (Frey 2012) and became a world champion yogi by the age of seventeen. This began the journey of Choudhury’s entrepreneurial yoga empire, which lead to the claim of a special invitation from President Richard Nixon in the 1970s for Choudhury to visit the United States of America (Fish 194). From this visit, Choudhury states to have helped Nixon with his injuries, as well as Shirley MacLaine, who was a famous actress, and obtained a green card as a thank you from the President.
From Choudhury’s acceptance into the U.S. began the creation of transnational commercial yoga, which as Fish (2006) states, is the yoga franchisee equivalent to McDonald’s. In 1974, Choudhury founded the Bikram Yoga College of India (BYCI) in Beverley Hills, California. Choudhury soon coined the name “Bikram Yoga” as he taught a very specific form that included 26 different postures (asanas) and 2 different breathing exercises (pranayamas), which were taught in ninety-minute durations (Fish 194). Additionally, Bikram Yoga is synonymous with Hot Yoga (Pizer 2018). This is due to the yoga practices being taught in studios that are heated at a temperature of 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40.5 degrees Celsius), which is above the normal temperature of the human body. Heat was said to be used because it was believed that the “inner heat” (tapas) produced through a physical activity could purify an individual and destroy imperfections of mental and sensorial faculties (Singleton, 175). Therefore, Choudhury believed that increasing the heat an individual was exposed to would produce more sweating, therefore leading to better physical health by cleansing one’s body and enhancing performance through the loosening of muscles (Pizer 2018). In 2006, Fish (194) reported that there was approximately 800 franchises of Official Bikram Studios, which operated in 33 different countries.
With the creation of this college and the popularity that exploded in the west of this particular style, he soon began to exploit North American’s for their wealth and became a multi-millionaire as a result (Pizer 2018). The new modern yoga that Bikram popularized was vastly different from traditional yoga practices. As stated previously, it “[did] not emphasize lineage or the rootedness of the tradition in the religious context, [but] [focussed] instead on the physical benefits of the practice with respects to fitness, beautification, and the like” (Singleton and Byme 173), which was exactly in-line with North American trends of being slimmer and fit during this era. His infamous teacher training classes cost individuals approximately ten-thousand dollars each for a nine-week course. Choudhury’s way of teaching, style of yoga, and exploitation of students (sisya) abandoned the rules of traditional yoga, which was primarily focused on “… dealing with aims, celibacy, scriptural study, and retreat from society or social norms” (Jain 10). Furthermore, the benefits from Bikram yoga began to reflect the dominant self-development desires of Choudhury. He transformed the teaching of yoga from “… the traditional guru-disciple relationship, usually in the isolated context of an ashram, [instead] to [marketing] yoga to mass audiences” (Jain 7) to obtain wealth.
In 2002, Bikram Choudhury attempted to obtain Intellectual Property Rights for his 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises (Fish 192). This took fruition after Choudhury became irate that studios were taking profits away from him by using his style of yoga, and in non-certified Bikram studios (Fish 195). Beyond the substantial profit he obtained from holding mass studios offering teacher training, Choudhury began franchising Bikram Yoga. Individuals that successfully passed, and paid, for the BYCI teacher training were allowed to open up Bikram Yoga studios by paying continuous franchisee and royalty fees to Choudhury (Fish 2006). Although groups such as the Open Source Yoga Unity (OSYU) initially fought Choudhury, claiming that yoga was knowledge of the public and not the private domain, Choudhury was able to settle these claims outside of court with a non-disclosure agreement between the parties (Fish 2006). Furthermore, in the present day, the Indian government is creating a digital library of all yoga mechanisms and yogic knowledge to preserve the public domain of yoga. This act has been described by Fish (2006) as a “reverse patent”, as it aims to preserve yoga for all people (i.e. the public) and to eliminate the possibility of yoga to become possessed by a singular individual or entity (Fish 2006).
As Bikram Yoga became increasingly famous, sexual assault and rape allegations, as well as the harmful dynamics from the classes, began to proliferate from former students and former legal representatives of Choudhury (Pizer 2). A quote from a student that attended a Bikram class publicly stated to a recognised U.S. magazine that Choudhury would introduce the class as follows: “Welcome to Bikram’s torture chamber, where you’ll kill yourself for the next ninety minutes”. Furthermore, students disclosed the intensity of the classes describing how Choudhury would make fun of students for their weight and appearance and did not allow bathroom breaks during lessons Additionally, students claimed that the physical expectations and heat conditions caused several participants to faint or vomit in class and feel severe pain during and after lessons. Bikram Yoga did not have beginner, intermediary, or expert classes and the students that failed were humiliated publicly in front of everyone in the mass studio. The sexual assault and rape claims came from six of Choudhury’s previous students and his previous lawyer. Choudhury denies all claims. The accumulating costly allegations eventually led Bikram Choudury Yoga Inc. to file for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy, listing more than $16 million in legal judgments (Yerak 1). In 2017, an arrest warrant was issued for Choudhury in California, but Choudhury successfully fled the United States and has yet to pay Jafa-Bodden (Pizer 2018).
The controversy surrounding Bikram Yoga and Bikram Choudhury himself is exponential, but perhaps even more thought-provoking is the mixed results researchers have produced in verifying if this extreme style of yoga does in fact have the positive effects on the human body it claims to generate. Hewett (355) conducted a randomized experiment using an experimental and control group to compare the effects of Bikram Yoga on perceived stress, self-efficacy, and health-related quality of life in adults. Results were in favour of Bikram Yoga and concluded that individuals experienced improved perceived stress, general self-efficacy, and had an increase in overall health. Moreover, Abel’s (37) study on the physiological effects of Bikram Yoga continued the positive regard with findings that concluded participants had lower heart rate and blood pressure. However, negative results from research have also been provided. Cramer’s (3) study indicated significant adverse effects on the human body due to postures performed in Bikram Yoga such as the headstand, shoulder stand, and the lotus position. Cramer (3) claimed that these positions have “… adverse [affects] [on] the musculoskeletal system and included fractures, ligament tears, joint injuries, fibrocartilaginous injuries, …” etc., as well as produced glaucoma and osteopenia in some cases. Cramer (6) continued to state that “Bikram yoga [was] the yoga [practice] that [was] most often associated with adverse events”. This study concludes by warning individuals to avoid forceful yoga practices such as Bikram Yoga, especially if they are beginners, are elderly, or have medical conditions (7).
Abel, Lloyd, Williams, and Miller, K. Brian (2012) “Physiological Characteristics of Long-Term Bikram Yoga Practitioners.” Journal of Exercise Physiology 32:39-15. Accessed January 31, 2020. ISSN:1097-9751
Cramer, H., Krucoff, C., and Dobos, Gustav (2013) “Adverse Events Associated with Yoga: A Systematic Review of Published Case Reports and Case Series.” PLoS ONE 1:8-10. Accessed January 31, 2020. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075515
Fish, Allison (2006) “The Commodification and Exchange of Knowledge in the Case of Transnational Commercial Yoga.” International Journal of Cultural Property 189:206-13. Accessed January 31, 2020. doi: 10.1017/S0940739106060127
Frey, Rebecca, J. (2012) “Bikram Yoga.” The Gale encyclopedia of fitness. 1:5-249. Accessed February 22, 2020.
Hewett, Pumpa, Smith, Fahey, and Birinder, S. Cheema (2018) “Effect of a 16-week Bikram yoga program on perceived stress, self-efficacy and health-related quality of life in stressed and sedentary adults: A randomised controlled trial.” Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 352:357-21. Accessed January 31, 2020. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsams.2017.08.006
Jain, Andrea (2016) “Modern Yoga.” Oxford Research Encyclopedias. Accessed February 22, 2020. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.013.163
Pizer, Ann (2018) The Difference Between Bikram and Hot Yoga. New York: Dotdash
Singleton, Mark (2010) Yoga body: The origins of modern posture practice. New York: Oxford University Press USA – OSO.
Singleton, Mark, and Jean Byrne (2008) Yoga in the Modern World: Contemporary Perspectives. London: Routledge.
Yerak, Becky (2017) “Bikram Choudhury’s Yoga Business Files for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy; Hot Yoga Pioneer Bikram Choudhury Is Facing Millions in Legal Judgments.” Wall Street Journal. Accessed January 31, 2020.
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Bishnu Charan Ghosh
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Article written by: Leila Methot (Spring, 2020) who is entirely responsible for its content.