According to his official biography, Bikram began studying yoga with Bishnu Ghosh when he was only 5 years old. Ghosh trained his young students to become champions. At the age of 11, Bikram became the youngest contestant ever to win the National India Yoga Competition and was undefeated for the next three years. After that he traveled with Ghosh giving weight lifting demonstrations. His competitive background may explain Bikram’s style of teaching. He’s like a weight lifting or track coach, always exhorting his students to push beyond their limits. Students with special physical problems are supposed to have the sense to take care of themselves, skipping movements that would endanger them. A couple of older students and one who is extremely overweight are allowed to stand against a wall for support, but there are no other props—no blocks, straps, or bolsters. Bikram derides the use of such aids as “furniture yoga.”
Bikram tells me he developed his method of teaching yoga while he was a student of Bishnu Ghosh. At that time, he says, yoga was taught one-on-one. Someone with a medical problem would go to Ghosh, who would prescribe the series of poses that would best treat the ailment. Then an assistant would work with the client privately in a separate room.
When Bikram opened a school of his own, he realized that working one-on-one was too limiting. He wanted to reach the largest number of students possible. So he devised a standardized series of poses that would address the most common health problems and still be easy enough for beginners in the West.
Bikram freely admits that yogis from other hatha traditions know the same poses he teaches. What makes his system unique, he says, is the sequence in which the poses are done. According to Bikram, each posture in his series forms the perfect basis for the next, warming and stretching the appropriate muscles, ligaments, and tendons. He compares creating his series to creating a song. Everyone knows the same notes, but putting them together in a melodic way is what distinguishes the great composer. According to Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class, “the twenty-six exercises systematically move fresh, oxygenated blood to 100 percent of your body, to each organ and fiber, restoring all systems to healthy working order.” Bikram believes his unique system not only restores any afflicted organ, but also maintains general health throughout the body.
Although Bikram’s series is rigorous, aerobic—and, I have to admit, fun—it contains no inverted poses, such as Salamba Sirsasana (Headstand) or Salamba Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand). Bikram feels these poses are too hard for beginners. He doesn’t teach the Sun Salutation for the same reason, considering even Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog) too difficult. The only pose in his series that works upper body strength is the Cobra.
“When Bikram speaks of curing chronic diseases…he is saying that if you will faithfully follow his directions, you will be relieved of your symptoms of discomfort.” The difference between Bikram and most other yoga teachers is the tone of his claims. While others speak of the healing effects of yoga, Bikram boasts of his cures—and contends he is currently pursuing medical research grants (one with the National Institutes of Health) to prove them. Bikram’s method might lend itself well to scientific study, because it is taught uniformly by all his teachers, and the availability of instruction is growing as more and more newly certified teachers open schools all over the world.
Excerpt from Yoga Journal Article Yoga’s Bad Boy: Bikram Choudhury by Loraine Despres