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The Birth of Bikram Yoga
July 9th, 2010 was the 40th anniversary of the passing of Bishnu Ghosh, Bikram Choudhury’s guru. We say the word guru means teacher, though a more thorough translation is “one who removes darkness.” Bishnu was the youngest brother of Paramahansa Yogananda, the founder of the Self-Realization Fellowships in the United States and author of the book Autobiography of a Yogi who spread the teachings of Kriya Yoga throughout the West.
Bishnu was initiated into yoga by his brother and was the first to scientifically document yoga’s ability to cure chronic physical ailments and heal the body. He opened Ghosh’s Yoga College and College of Physical Education in 1923 in Calcutta and became one of the most renowned physical culturalists of the 20th century. He wrote the book Muscle Control in 1930 and later, along with others, founded the Mr. Universe bodybuilding competition. He visited the United States in 1939, lectured at Columbia University, and gave yoga demonstrations.
Bikram Choudhury began studying yoga at age 5 with Bishnu Ghosh. Bikram was a yoga champion for 3 consecutive years beginning at age 11 until Bishnu asked him to stop competing. He then took up bodybuilding and toured with Bishnu (along with others) all over India performing demonstrations of amazing physical feats and even competed in the Olympics as a champion weightlifter for India. After a debilitating weightlifting accident from which western doctors said he would never walk again, he returned to yoga to heal himself and, with a newfound personal appreciation for the healing power of hatha yoga, became Ghosh’s leading teacher at his yoga college responsible for training all the other teachers.
In India, people consult yoga teachers for all kinds of health issues. Clients would come to Ghosh’s Yoga College to meet personally with Bishnu and explain to him all their ailments. While they spoke he would listen, read the energy blockages in their aura and body and write out a detailed prescription of yoga postures necessary to heal that person. A man would be sent off with a male teacher and a female with a female teacher and each would be given one on one instruction on how to perform the specified postures. The clients were then responsible for doing these postures on their own and would check back in for follow-up appointments.
After receiving numerous requests from the Bollywood crowd in Bombay for a knowledgeable yoga teacher, Bishnu sent Bikram to work with these clients. In a short period of time Bikram’s services were in such great demand that he was forced to bring those with similar ailments together for group instruction. While this was a break from the traditional way that yoga was taught, he found that the students often had better results when doing the yoga in the group environment. This was the very beginning of the development of the sequence of postures that is now Bikram Yoga.
In 1968, Bishnu went to Japan with his troupe of yogis and toured all over the country lecturing and doing yoga demonstrations. Upon returning to India, the Japanese requested that he send a teacher over to open a yoga college in Japan. He once again turned to Bikram to fulfill this request. The level of trust and respect between the two were such that Bikram never questioned or hesitated whatsoever with regards to doing anything Bishnu asked of him. He promptly moved to Japan and opened a yoga college.
It was in Japan that Bikram refined and formalized the sequence that we call Bikram’s Beginning Hatha Yoga Class. With Bishnu’s focus on bodybuilding, the mirrors were a natural addition to the classroom setting and are an important tool for the students to be able to see what they are doing with their bodies and fine tune the postures. It was the students who requested the heat and several began to bring in their own personal space heaters for use during the class. This brilliant formula of heat, mirrors, sequence of postures that works all the major systems of the body while sculpting incredible physiques, and the group environment has been unchanged for decades and is now taught worldwide.
But don’t think that this break from tradition came without dissention. It was years of dispute before Bishnu finally gave his blessings to Bikram’s innovative class and teaching method. Bikram believed without a doubt that the entire world deserved access to the benefits of yoga and knew that that would not be possible were he to continue with the traditional one-on-one approach. The last words Bishnu ever spoke to Bikram were, “You must continue to teach this yoga.”
Each step in the development of the formula that is now Bikram Yoga came about as a result of supply and demand and followed a natural, logical progression. Bikram would never dream of going against his guru’s wishes but, when Bishnu was opposed to Bikram’s one class for everyone approach, Bikram would not budge. He held firm to his belief with 100% conviction that his class, designed to benefit the entire populace, was what the world needed.
Breaking free from a tradition that has been firmly in place for centuries, going to war to overturn an oppressive government, or taking on any great challenge requires an independent spirit and tremendous courage. The vision of the successful completion and final result must be inspiring enough to overcome all the obstacles and potential pitfalls along the way.
Paramahansa Yogananda’s teachings were passed from Bishnu to Bikram and are interwoven throughout Bikram’s class in a very subtle yet practical manner. Bikram speaks of developing patience, concentration, determination, self-discipline and faith as the five biggest gifts that his yoga delivers. These mental attributes are at the core of all truly successful lives.
Yogananda said, “Tune yourself with the creative power of Spirit. You will be in contact with the Infinite Intelligence that is able to guide you and to solve all problems. Power from the dynamic Source of your being will flow uninterruptedly so that you will be able to perform creatively in any sphere of activity.”
True success is measured by happiness. We all deserve to be happy.