Hot yoga has become quite popular in some circles of the contemporary American yoga movement. One of the “pioneers” of hot yoga is Mr Bikram Choudhury, who has branded Bikram Yoga.
This post examines the foundations of hot yoga as well as the ways of its famed “master”. To begin, here is a recent report (1/16/13) from ABC News Nightline about Mr. Bikram:
Qualities of a True Practitioner
It is widely accepted that the 5,000 year-old practice of yoga – codified into the 8 limbs of astaunga yoga by Maharishi Patanjali 2,200 years ago – begins with following tenets of morality (yama and niyama) and culminates in supreme realization (samadhi). One of the ten tenets of yama and niyama is aparigraha, or non over-indulgence in material wealth and acquisition. That basically means living a simple, modest life in accordance with the needs of the day. This is a fundamental component of any practitioner: To find expansion (vistara) by goading the mind toward sublime ideals, not toward the extreme over-accumulation of mundane wealth.
Other well-recognized attributions of a yogi are: humility, honor, decency, benevolence, integrity, truthfulness, and respect for all people and all beings. Anyone we consider to be an aspirant – let alone a true yogi – must embody these basic qualities, as well as other higher ideals. Remember, in yoga we never separate the teacher / preacher from the practice. One does not attain supreme realization (samadhi) without exemplifying proper conduct (yama and niyama) – regardless of their name, business stature, or insistence. The two – proper conduct and realization – go hand in hand. One must personify those ideals through thought, word, and deed. Then we can say they are true, otherwise not. There is no other way – no short-cut method.
The Efficacy of “Hot Yoga”
As we all know, yoga is a mind-body practice. And the operative factor is the glandular system; that is the linking point between the physical and mental spheres.
Every thought brings about a glandular secretion, and an ensuing bodily reaction. For example, if one is nervous (a psychic condition), there will be a glandular response, and the body will perspire; and if one thinks of their favorite food, there will be a glandular reaction, and the person will salivate. These are examples of how our thoughts alone create glandular secretions which then affect our bodies. By practicing meditation (sadhana) – an inherent aspect of yoga – regularly, one’s thought process becomes more refined, creating healthy glands. And that positively affects the body.
By practicing yoga postures (asanas) we apply pressure and de-pressure to various glands to bring them in a state of balance. In turn, the mind becomes calm and steady.
By the mind-body approach of yoga, we create a very healthy, vibrant human experience. Through meditation, the mind positively affects the body; and, through yoga postures, the body steadies the mind.
Thus, the mind is an inherent aspect of yoga. Not only that, humans are primarily psychic beings. We are mind-dominated. Our overall well-being is based on the mind. If the mind is balanced, a person is happy, regardless of the physical environment. Whereas, a person can have all kinds of physical comforts, yet be quite unhappy and dissatisfied with life, even depressed. Because the mind is imbalanced. So we are psychic beings, i.e. mind-oriented beings.
Now here comes the crux: The human mind does not function well in extreme heat. That is why the yogis left the hot flatlands of India and sought refuge from the heat in the cool foothills of the mighty Himalayas to pursue their meditative practices. That is why in the dead of summer, the US Supreme Court retreats to their inner chambers – kept at 68 degrees or so – to review cases, instead of standing outside in the 100 degree heat, or heating up their own offices to 105 degrees. People think well, gain clarity, and feel fresh in a slightly cool environment – not a hot one. That is when the mind thrives.
This universal truth is even reflected in our language: Cool-minded vs hot-headed. A “cool-minded” person is rational, composed, and serene; while, a “hot-headed” person is easily angered, irritable and difficult to get along with.
Suffice to say, the mind functions far better in a cooler environment than a hot one. And the mind is a key component of any yoga practice. A cool mind is more easily goaded to deeper thinking (higher chakras), and a heated mind is more prone towards baser propensities (lower chakras).
A cool mind is alert and focused, lightened by subtle thinking; a heated mind is sleepy and dull, encumbered by crude thoughts. Any yoga practice must aim to create an environment where the mind is focused and goaded to subtle thoughts, not crude ones. Unfortunately, this end is not met in a heated yoga room. One need look no further than the verbal exchanges in the newscast of the hot yoga class as evidence.
Furthermore, in the above interview, the analogy is given that as a blacksmith applies extreme heat to steel to make it into a knife, we should do the same to our human bodies in our yoga practice: Employ extreme heat. The problem lies in that steel is an inert, physical object essentially devoid of mind, whereas human beings are dynamic, psychic beings complete with a thriving mind. The conditions appropriate for turning steel into a knife do not correlate well for refining a human being.
That said, heat is indeed a recognized therapy for the body – as is ice. On specific occasions, we apply hot and cold to heal the body. But those are limited to certain medical needs and applied to specific body parts. Such heat is not meant for a general yoga practice where one’s entire glandular system is fully doused in steamy temperatures. That adversely affects body and mind, by encouraging degrading propensities and dulling more refined ones. That runs directly contrary to our yoga practice where the aim is: To create human beings with a refined mind and sacrificing nature who have achieved real spiritual attainment and can selflessly and benevolently lead others along the path of universal welfare.
As the American yoga movement evolves and becomes more subtle, greater attention will be paid to the psychic and psycho-spiritual realms. There will also be greater interest in understanding the mind-body relation and the role of the glandular system. At that point, we will certainly need to rethink whether the terms “hot” and “yoga” really belong together – in the same room.
Mar 22, 2013 Bikram Scandal Update: This news article of 3/21/13 details a new sexual harassment case that is being filed against Bikram.