Friday, February 12, 2010


If I were to tell you this was the weekend of the Seventh Annual Yoga Asana Championship, who would you guess was behind it? Bikram Choudhury, of course. Oh, where do I begin?

I just wasted too much of my Friday watching a live feed from L.A., where the competition is underway. Even on the grainy video feed, you can tell it's Bikram, by the skanky grey floor covering on the stage. When I think of Bikram the yoga, I think of synthetic, staph-infected carpet.

If you're a Bikram addict, stop reading.

In brief, the Yoga Championship is a tournament. One competes in state contests, then regionals, nationals, and finally, internationals. A poser has three minutes to complete seven asanas. Five are compulsory. Two are yogi's choice. It's really boring. I mean, maybe if somebody fell down or farted, but, just like a Bikram yoga class, it was stultifyingly predictable, right down to the men's Speedos and jangling bits.

There are points, judges, rules, trophies, a federation, and cheesy music, just like figure skating. What there isn't is body fat.

The Choudhurys want yoga to become an Olympic sport. Dudes, it's not an athletic endeavor! There's enough catty competition in yoga classes as it is, with all the designer yogawear and the fight for a good spot in the room. Enough, already! Go tend to your empire and leave us yogis alone.

How does one score asana anyway? With an x-ray machine? My perfection is not yours. And what is my best effort today may be impossible for me tomorrow. Yoga is personal. And frankly, what is easy for you, Mr. Stretchy-Stretch Finger-Balancing Flyweight, may be an Olympian effort for me. Personally, I can't stand mirrors in the studio, much less judges.

One Bikram acolyte justifies a yoga asana competition by comparing it to skiing. The bullshit was not easy to interpret. Some super-spinny nonsense likening shushing down the slopes for fun to yoga class, as opposed to ski racers, who are like yoga competitors? It made no sense for so many reasons, not the least of which is that there is no "timing" in yoga (although competitors can earn points for good timing in the contest. Whatever.) Oh, and... it's difficult to die in an asana, even though I tend to forget that whenever I attempt an inversion. But I digress.

I loathe Bikram yoga. I've tried to like it. I've taken a dozen or so classes. I've lasted all the way through every one. But five minutes in I inevitably wonder what the hell I am doing there, and it's not just the heat. It's the bitches who beg for more heat. When I practice, I create my own heat, and I sweat like a waterfall. It's gross, but I always know when I'm working. In a Bikram class, I just know that I showed up and paid.

Another thing I can't abide is the stupid script! The verbal cues are standardized. But my practice isn't. And it's not just the idea of the script that I despise. The script itself is frickin' dangerous! In what circumstance would a drill sergeant-like bark of "Lock Your Knees" be appropriate? None. Nowhere. Nada. Never in life do you lock your knees. Not if you want to avoid surgery. I happen to be a hyper-extender. If I lock out my knee, my leg is no longer straight. Knees are not built to lock. (Perhaps Choudhury gets kickbacks from the orthopedic community.) "Lock your knee" is a horrible instruction. No wonder you have to sign a waiver at the front desk.

There is little talk of breath in a Bikram class after the first exercises. Maybe that's because there is a dearth of oxygen and a plethora of unearned b.o.

It seems to me that this particular twenty-six asana series, plus the heat and script, encourages mental tune-out, especially in a word junkie like me. The only thing that gets my attention under such circumstances is a stumble, an errant phrase, or a dollop of real yoga wisdom tossed in to spice things up. Otherwise, the script becomes white noise and the asanas rote.

I am anything but opposed to a set series. In fact, astanga is my practice of choice. But within each asana in the astanga series, there are infinite permutations, countless discoveries, unending challenges. There's always more breath, more grounding, more bandha. I don't know that a bikrami would know a bandha if it smacked them in the kisser. And one just might with all that overstretching.

I find Bikram's particular asanas relatively unchallenging. It's clearly about surviving the class and losing the body fat. I've heard it described as "yoga for the type A personality." Sigh.

Don't let me forget to mention the umpteen instances of throwing oneself into savasana as if one is a hooked fish flopping around on deck, ready for gutting.

Yet I always leave a bikram class feeling good. Righteous indignation is so satisfying.

Occasionally, when feeling fat, I am tempted to sign up for the Bikram 30 day challenge, 30 classes in thirty days. It would be an act of defiance. See, Bik! I can do it. But to achieve that sweet moment of high Nellie Oleson would require going to a Bikram studio. Nevermore.

In my opinion, Bikram is the fast food of yoga. It fills you up but is in no way nutritionally sound.

Finally, let me mention a few of the teachers I've practiced with. The first one wore a concert mike into which she hollered the English names of various asanas, and not all of them correctly. She stayed on her little stage platform for the full ninety minutes. I suspect she was wary of contracting athlete's foot fungus. Next there was G, a tiny gray-haired woman with a manner so cloying it's like snorting saccharine. She was highly recommended to me by others at the studio, but when I took my place in the room (away from the heater, near the door), I realized this was the same woman who put me off yoga for five years after I wandered into her class at Manhattan Plaza Health Club back in the Nineties. I soon remembered why. This woman not only strayed off script, she would not shut up! Attention: Bikram Choudhury! She's improvising! Before we began, she found out I had ten years of yoga practice, but only ten Bikram classes under my belt, with a condescending look, she encouraged me to try my best to remain in the room, that would be a victory in itself. For whom? A polar bear? Once we got to the asanas and she realized I knew what I was doing -- she aggressively ignored me. As if I'd offended her. Perhaps I had. The woman worships Bikram, the man. She waxed on and on about his genius, and then pulled out a copy of Iyengar's Light on Yoga. She read a quote from the book -- a famous quotation, although I am blocking it at the moment -- and then she marveled that she had heard Bikram spout this same philosophy a few years before. "Even Iyengar is quoting Bikram!" she gushed. I couldn't help but laugh. Dear G: Light on Yoga was first published in English in 1965.

There was, however, a bright spot: a funky older African-American teacher who filled in one afternoon -- and I was nuts about her. A newly minted instructor, she'd had a life before yoga. She was on a journey, and because she was present and real, she took me on one, as well. (To the Gobi Desert.) Here's her secret: she didn't bother with the script.

Several friends of mine swear by Bikram. I wish I could get them to another studio to try something else. Anything else. Yoga class is not the stage. One cannot properly be in the moment when spouting a script. Besides, there is so much more to yoga than booty shorts. And you can always have both.

But then again, maybe I could be the Dara Torres of Suryanamaskar B! Me in my yoga swimsuit and my contact dermatitis. My chaturanga is better than your chaturanga. And utkatasana? Nailed it. It would give "victorious breath" a whole new meaning.

I'd sooner do the ski jump. Eddie the Eagle's got nothing on me.

(PLEASE DO NOT SUE ME, BIKRAM CHOUDHURY. There's nothing to take.)


Quilty said...

Wow! Never thought of yoga as competition! I guess this is what capitalism does to eastern philosophies...

Anonymous said...

Leslie, this is hilarious, and I could not agree with you more. Bikram in general, and yoga competition in particular, are so diametrically opposed to the philosophy behind yoga that it is shocking. And PS, you are sweating cause it's F-ing hot, not cause you are working hard. I sweat in the summer at the yankee game, does not mean i'm working out!!!