Bikram’s Take on Spirituality

Yoga and Life

Bikram’s favorite way to start a lecture or an interview is to ask the audience or person interviewing him, “What is spirituality?” Most everyone is caught off guard by the question and freezes temporarily.

To Bikram, spirituality is Self realization, God realization. It’s simple and complicated all at once. Acknowledgement of spirit is personal and private and there are some who have no interest whatsoever in exploring this concept. Ideas and situations that challenge the status quo can be threatening until we know more about it.

Bikram knows this. That’s why his yoga class is plain and simple hatha yoga. There’s no chanting, no incense, no dim lights, just mirrors, intense heat and an instructor telling you to do seemingly impossible things with your body. The challenges are intentionally relentless and designed to help us expand our horizons and learn to overcome all the excuses that we use to hold ourselves back from living the life that we’d like to live.

“Your mind is your worst enemy,” Bikram says to all who will listen. He tells us we suffer as we do because we have not learned how to control our thoughts and harness the power of our minds. We dwell on the negatives in life instead of focusing on positives and directing our thoughts towards what we want to experience. Through the discipline of the class, by being forced to listen and follow along just focusing on doing our best, we are ever so subtly reining in the mind.

My Bikram Yoga Teacher Training began on September 30th, 2001, just 19 days after 9/11. I remember watching as Bikram pulled up to headquarters in his Bentley with an American flag flying from the window. For the entire country and much of the world, it was an intense time with very raw emotions; grief, fear, revenge, anger, insecurity and confusion the most prevalent. I personally can recall nothing pleasant about that time except that I took comfort in knowing that I was about to escape into what would be a cocoon of transformation through yoga. On the first night of training, Rajashree shared with us that, at the height of the fear, they had considered canceling or postponing the training. But almost as soon as that thought arose, the realization set in that the world needed this yoga more than ever before.

As a country and as individuals, we somehow made it through those dark days and now every September 11th we are reminded of the horror, the tragedy and the fear that that one day symbolizes. This year in the newspaper on 9/11, one comic strip showed two characters standing next to each other looking upon their shadows which formed the two towers. There were only four words used in the strip, “never forgive, never forget.”

This was not the first time I’ve seen this sentiment expressed and it was, once again, very unsettling to me. Unquestionably, 9/11 was horrible, so many precious lives were lost and our world was changed forever. But to cling to that horror without ever forgiving will keep us trapped in the pain and suffering fed by that fear and grief.

September 11th fell this year in the midst of the Jewish High Holidays which start with Rosh Hashanah and end with Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. Atonement is a concept that is often misunderstood and underappreciated these days. Break the word down, at-one-ment, and you can see more clearly what it is about, realigning with spirit. The peace and sense of wholeness that comes with true alignment with spirit is what we are all searching for in life.

How do we fall out of alignment in the first place? Sin. If you eliminate all the particular religions’ moral codes and take the word down to its most basic definition, sin can be anything, a thought, an action or a non-action, that is not in alignment with who you are as spirit. Our sins may affect others or they may not. In essence, simply not honoring your own self worth, something many of us are guilty of, is a sin. To truly rectify sin and restore alignment requires change from within. Punishment does not achieve this.

I was at once both saddened and frustrated by the comic strip. The sentiment expressed showed a complete lack of understanding of the nature of forgiveness and who it ultimately serves. Spirit is 100% pure positive energy and only sees the good. To not be willing or able to forgive either yourself or another, will keep you out of alignment with the positive vibration of spirit. When you forgive, you set yourself free from the anger and other negative emotions that cause you to suffer. The process of forgiveness is like releasing the anchor that dragged you down to the depths and effortlessly floating back to the surface.
Creating union between body, mind and spirit is the ultimate purpose of yoga. Bikram’s methodology is very simple: “Use the body as a medium to bring the mind back to the brain. Create a perfect marriage between body and mind and then you can reach the spirit.” He is adamant that this is the path to Self realization.

Many of us teachers have heard Bikram say that loyalty is the highest expression of spiritualism. While teaching, I rarely, if ever, speak to this teaching of his nor have I heard any other teachers refer to this. Just like his signature phrase “lock the knee” frequently gets confused with hyper-extending the knee, much is lost in translation. He is not referring to loyalty, blind or otherwise, to something outside of you. He is referring to loyalty to your higher self–to you the spirit.

It is not always easy to be true to yourself. Our parents, children, schools, society, religions, etc. set rules and have expectations for us all to live up to. What do we do when our spirit is calling us to do something that is in conflict with these? If you are at all like me and strive to please others and make them happy, this can be a very difficult hurdle to overcome.

My parents wanted the best for me and my five siblings as we were growing up. We are all unique individuals and the right path for one was not necessarily the right path for all. My parents were certain that I should get a degree in mathematics or a science of some sort. They were looking for security in knowing that I would have the best chance to succeed in life. I wanted to make them happy and tried to accommodate their desires but I was miserable. The last thing I wanted was to be a scientist. We argued for well over a year before I finally found the courage to face my biggest fears and do what I needed to do to be happy. They could have stopped loving me, they might have never talked with me ever again, I may have never received another penny or other measure of support from them, but I had to do something different with my life. Fortunately, our fears were ungrounded. They still loved and supported me and I turned out all right after all, despite consistently choosing paths unlike anyone else’s in my family.

Only you can know what is right for you. Your spirit is calling you towards your dreams and visions and ultimately it’s only the extent to which you are willing to suffer that will determine how long it takes you to break free of your limitations.

As with 9/11, some suffering is inflicted upon us from outside. For whatever reason, people will do things that hurt us. Natural disasters will occur. These trying moments are best used to clarify our desires. By knowing more clearly what we don’t want to experience, we know more clearly what we do want. Jesus taught to turn the other cheek, to shift focus and look the other way. Others will do what they will. We only have control over our own actions and reactions. This is where our responsibility lies.

We will occasionally fall out of a posture. That is how life works. But each time we do, Bikram teaches us to return our focus to the perfect execution of the posture and get back in and try again. Most importantly, be true to yourself and never give up on your dreams.