Cultural appropriation – or why I stopped practising Bikram yoga

I was introduced to yoga by a friend about two and a half years ago. My only previous “experience” with yoga was maybe seven years ago – my mum had attended a couple of yoga classes in an attempt to exercise a little more. She did suggest I join her for a class or two but I wasn’t impressed by her enthusing of how flexible her instructor was nor was I excited about the idea of meditating, which was what I thought yoga was mostly about back then.

My first Bikram yoga class, though, was an entirely different story. I attended it with the above-mentioned friend and liked it so much that I kept at it for two years. For people unfamiliar with Bikram yoga, it consists of doing a set of postures in a studio heated to about 40 deg C; it’s also called hot yoga or hot Hatha yoga. Studios that call their classes Bikram yoga are studios that have instructors certified by Bikram Choudhury, the founder of this system of yoga.

Now, why did I enjoy Bikram yoga when I was previously so unimpressed by my mum’s yoga classes? I have a couple of explanations:

1. I had always rejected my mum’s religious practices because I’m an adamant agnostic and she has tried many times to convert me despite my clear refusal. Therefore, upon hearing she practiced yoga, I immediately dismissed it as one of her religious things, one that she was trying to push on to me. Before trying Bikram yoga, my friend explained that Bikram yoga focuses more on the physical aspect than the mental/spiritual/religious aspect, making it more of a workout, something you do for your physical fitness. That immediately piqued my interest because I thought Bikram yoga could perhaps complement my ballet classes as a cardio exercise since you’re pretty much out of breath for the first half of the class.

2. Seven years ago, I associated yoga with meditation and “ommm”. And practising yoga seemed like a terribly boring thing to do. Bikram yoga, however, was far from that. It was a heart-pumping, sweat-inducing 90-minute class and I was left feeling physically spent yet entirely reenergised on the inside. I attribute this to the fact that it requires so much effort to execute the asanas (postures) in class properly in that sweltering heat and humidity that your mind has to switch off and focus solely on your body. This allowed me to experience a clarity of mind after class that I had previously never felt. I guess, in a way, it was palatable meditation for me.

3. Bikram yoga consists of 26 asanas and 2 breathing exercises. The sequence is set and does not change from class to class so I was able to track my progress easily. Watching as my body became stronger and more flexible with each class felt like an achievement each time. It was an addictive feeling.

But six months ago, just when I was reading up on yoga to try to understand it better and deepen my practice, I decided to finish my 20 class card and not renew it. Why?

Firstly, after doing some research, I have a huge problem with Bikram yoga because I cannot allow myself to support Bikram Choudhury, the multimillionaire founder of Bikram yoga. He has been accused of sexual assault and rape, he wants his disciples to believe ridiculous things (e.g. he’s on the same level as Jesus and Buddha), he has tried to copyright the thousand-year-old practice of yoga, and he is a homophobe and a racist. I do not want my money going to people like him. My beliefs and his clearly do not align at all and I do not want to be associated with him in any way.

Secondly, Bikram yoga is a subset of Hatha yoga, which in turn is a subset of yoga. Hatha yoga, however, is so widespread in the western world, that many of us just call it “yoga”. We have been taught to see yoga as a bunch of girls in sports bras and tights stretching and doing yoga postures in the pursuit of fitness. But this yoga should really be called “western yoga” or “fitness yoga”, yoga that focuses mostly on the physical, fitness aspect (i.e. executing the asanas) and largely neglects the mental and spiritual aspect. In fact, yoga has to be mental and spiritual because all forms of yoga are based on a religion – Hinduism to be exact. Unsurprisingly, in a bid to commercialise yoga and make it more profitable, the western world has removed the religious aspect of yoga. What’s that act called? Right, cultural appropriation. An excellent xoJane article says the following:

While many people appear uncomfortable when it comes to talking about cultural appropriation, yoga furnishes a textbook example; westerners lift something from another tradition, brand it as “exotic,” proceed to dilute and twist it to satisfy their own desires, and then call it their own. While claiming to honor the centuries of tradition involved, what they practice is so far from the actual yoga practiced by actual Hindus that it’s really just another form of trendy fitness, covered in New Age trappings. For Indians, particularly Hindus, there’s a definite divide when it comes to the “yoga” practiced by westerners and that practiced in their own communities.

And that brings us to our third point. It goes without saying that there are practitioners of yoga who stay true to yoga being a physical, mental and spiritual practice. So perhaps I should just kick Bikram out of the picture, practice Hatha yoga including the mental and spiritual aspects, or any of the other styles of yoga (Ashtanga, Vinyasa, etc.) as long as all the aspects are included. But therein lies the problem: as an agnostic, I want to avoid practising something that’s deeply rooted in religion because it makes me uncomfortable. While I do pay respects to my ancestors in a Buddhist temple’s columbarium, I wouldn’t pray to the deities there. Why should it be any different with yoga? And just respecting the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of yoga without acknowledging and embracing its Hindu roots is not something I feel comfortable doing. Ultimately, I think it’s a very personal decision and the question for me was: convert to Hinduism and continue practicing yoga, or stay agnostic and find another way to keep fit and clear my mind?

I think it’s clear what I chose.

Further reading:

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