Bikram Choudhury has been accused of rape by five women as well as sexual assault and false imprisonment (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/10498946/Yoga-guru-Bikram-Choudhury-raped-students-in-cult-like-training.html )
These allegations have not been proven, and we should not assume guilt. Bikram's generally reprehensible behaviour as a Yoga teacher inclines many of us to believe the accusations, but the principle of innocent until proven guilty should remain uppermost in our minds.
That said, I have to admit that after I read of the allegations I found myself thinking, "Well, if these are true perhaps it will weaken or end the Bikram empire." Just to be clear- I very much hope the allegations are not true. But I would be happy to see the end of Bikram as a Yoga teacher, and the dissolution of his empire.
I think that the spread of Bikram's style of Yoga, under his or any other name, is one of the worst things to happen to Western Yoga. For those not familiar, Bikram's
"Hot Yoga" involves practicing a difficult set of asanas in an artificially heated room, usually in front of a wall of mirrors. The heat in the room makes dressing skimpily mandatory, so this usually results in groups of sweating people doing Yoga in their underwear in front of a wall of mirrors. In our body image obsessed culture this is hardly a recipe for transcendence.
Students in the classes skirt the edge of dehydration, and sometimes go over the edge. People are known to faint, become nauseaous, and even pass out- even the young and fit. The classes are dangerous for anyone, especially for the overweight, elderly, or underweight, all of which I commonly saw in class when I tried a trial month of Hot Yoga about a year ago.
My first reason for wishing Hot Yoga would disappear is that it is medically dangerous. This danger is often reinforced by teachers who are trained to encourage people to practice through pain- terrible, terrible advice.
My second reason is that practicing strenuous Yoga in intense heat is against Ayurvedic principles. According to Ayurveda physical exertion should be to the point of breaking a light sweat, no more. Intense heat is sometimes used in the form of a sauna as a cleanse, but this is certainly not a daily practice! According to Ayurveda heat ages the body, and excess exposure to it will shorten your life. Now you may not agree with that, but I still object to a practice with bills itself as "Yoga" and flies in the face of the Ayurvedic principles traditionally used to inform medical uses of Yoga postures.
Third, one of the goals of Hot Yoga is "cleansing", defined as removing impurities from the body through sweating. I don't see how deep breathing for over an hour in a room whose air is thick with other's people's sweat can be imagined to be cleansing. Sure, you yourself sweat, and that can feel great, but I would bet that your immune system is getting a heady workout from breathing in the evaporated bodily fluids of 40 other people. And wait a second, aren't they suposed to be sweating out impurities? So that would mean you're breathing in........?
Fourth, what about the environmental crisis? If Yoga is a spiritual practice, mustn't that include caring about our destruction of the environment and the beings that depend on it, both human and animal? And isn't our currrent culture of ecocide intimately connected to waste and misuse of our energy resources? How can we feel comfortable about artificially heating a room (beyond what is necesary for health) to practice Yoga in? For the last 3,000 years Yoga has just done fine without artificial heating. The irony of all this, of course, is that at the rate we are burning up our fossil fuels, we may soon not need to artificially heat rooms to practice in. We'll just need to go outside and enjoy the cleansing benefits of global warming.
Yoga is not about sweat, heat and intensity. In fact one of the oldest metaphors for the goal of Yoga, spiritual freedom, is "nirvana" a which literally means "putting out the fire". The Buddha defined the goal of his practice as putting out the "three fires" of greed, hatred, and delusion, and often referred to saints as people who were "cooled".
This "coolness" sought by the Buddha does not, of course, mean being "cold". It is the coolness of calm, gentility, compassion and tenderness. It is the cool of clarity, humility, and non-attachment. That coolness, by one name or another, is the traditional goal of Yoga.
What I most bemoan about Bikram's Yoga is its place in the general "heating up" of our Yoga practice here in the West. Our classes are faster, harder, and more stimulating to the senses every day. We are getting further and further away from any sense of "pratyahara", the calming of sense stimulation Patanjali said was necessary for Yoga.
I recently met a Yoga teacher on her way to teach a class in a black lingerie slip and armed with Barry White CDs. "Its sexy evening Yoga", she told me. It would be hard to imagine anything more foreign to the traditional techniques and goals of Yoga. I was going to write "What's next, twerking?" but sadly I imagine somewhere it's already been done.
If Yoga is a practice of union, our Yoga at times seems to be drawing us into an ever tighter embrace of our own greed, competitiveness, addiction to stimulation, and body-obsessiveness.
All is not lost, of course. There are many good Yoga classes being taught out there, and many studios and teachers with integrity. I still hear about people who have taken up a Yoga practice and found increased freedom from pain and stress and greater access to calm and perspective- greater coolness. So, for those of you who are still practicing cool Yoga- more power to you, keep the dream alive.