Bikram Choudhury, founder of the popular Bikram Yoga, is currently facing six civil lawsuits from female former-students alleging rape or sexual assault. Bikram Yoga is famous for its 90 minute classes carried out in 41 °C (105 °F) heat at 40% humidity. First introduced in the 1970s, Bikram Yoga has made its namesake a wealthy man with a net worth reportedly in the billions. With several dozen Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, an 8,000 square foot Beverley Hills mansion, and devoted students spending thousands of dollars just to train with their hero for a week: the swearing, name-dropping, speedo-wearing guru hardly fits the popular image of what a master Yogi should be.
Yet Yoga in its many, varied forms has become so popular in the West that – along with meditation – it has even made its way into corporate environments, promoting physical and mental health in the workplace. But the mainstream adoption of these ancient religious practices is not without its critics. Buddhist psychotherapist Dr Miles Neale coined the terms “McMindfulness and Frozen Yoga” to describe the denaturing and secularisation of these practices, stripped of their important ethical content for the sake of mainstream palatability:
“What we see in America today, in both the yoga boom and mindfulness fad, is an overemphasis on training in meditation (samadhi) to the exclusion of the trainings in wisdom (prajna) and ethics (shila)…
American culture is fascinated by quick fixes, glamorous fads and celebrity teachers: yoga and mindfulness are no exception to this trend. What’s next? Drive-through yoga? Meditation on demand? We are experiencing a feeding frenzy of spiritual practices that provide immediate nutrition but no long-term sustenance.”
Even the overtly irreligious expressions of the Bikram Yoga founder can’t take the spiritual shine off the mysterious Indian practice. According to Choudhury “Religion is the biggest piece of **** created in all time!”, yet civil lawsuits describe:
“a cult-like atmosphere where the charismatic Mr Choudhury would tell young women training to be instructors they had been “touched by God” before forcing himself upon them.”
In fact what most Westerners know as “Yoga” is more accurately described simply as “asanas” or postures. Traditional Yoga (from Sanskrit yoga, think “yoke”) is a spiritual discipline aimed at union with the divine. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, compiled around 400 AD, include eight aspects or “limbs” of this spiritual discipline:
Yama – abstaining from violence, deceit, covetousness, sexual activity, and possessiveness.
Niyama – observing cleanliness of body and mind, contentment, austerity, scriptural study, and worship of God.
Asana – the postures required to maintain physical health as a support to the Yogic discipline.
Pranayama – breathing exercises.
Pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses from the external world.
Dharana – mental concentration.
Dhyana – steadfast meditation.
Samadhi – the final blissful goal of meditation.
It’s hard to imagine Yoga being quite so popular in the West if the first two limbs were emphasised over and above the promise of a “taught and toned Yoga body” with intimations of feel-good meditative bliss. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine Choudhury having as much cachet in a society where ethics extends Yogic discipline beyond the merely physical.
But in our self-consciously secular environment it’s hard to give credence to the idea that mysterious-looking postures might be less effective than onerous moral injunctions, let alone religious observances. Without a trace of irony, many Westerners would rather twist themselves into the most difficult and unlikely contortions if only to avoid the conclusion that self-denial, moral rectitude, and religious observance might be the genuine path to a better way of life.
Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. He also blogs at zacalstin.com