Bikram Visits Chicago 2008
Holds Seminar at Soldier Field
By Sharon Steffensen
A drumbeat played softly in the background, revving up the crowd as they took their seats in the large open space curtained off in the United Club at Chicago’s Soldier Field. A few minutes later, Bikram Choudhury entered stage left, dressed to the nines in black silk--suit, shirt, tie with rhinestones down the middle--patent leather shoes, godfather hat and a red handkerchief in his jacket pocket. The crowd cheered.
Last week, in Washington, DC, he wore all white. For Chicago, known for Al Capone and other gangsters, black was more appropriate, he joked, making references to movies such as Scarface. “Where I come from is Beverly Hills,” said Bikram. “I have to look like a Hollywood production.”
Bikram gave an all-day workshop Saturday, August 2, for more than 200 local and out-of-town devotees, some of who traveled from Canada, Colorado, Boston and other places. This was his first workshop in Chicago.
Bikram first became known in India in his teens when he won four consecutive National India Yoga Championships in Calcutta, where yoga competitions are popular. In the U.S. in the early 1970s, he opened his first school near Hollywood, California, and in the early 1990s, he began offering nine-week teacher certification courses. Certified instructors now number in the thousands, and there are more than 1,700 franchised (“Yoga College of India”) studios in 40 states and 30 countries (including five in the Chicago area, with more planned to open in the near future). Bikram yoga is the original “hot yoga.” Its 26 postures and two breathing techniques are performed in 90 minutes in rooms heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. The postures are designed and sequenced to bring ultimate health to the body, revitalizing the internal organs, glands, nerves, skin and bones (“everything, from the hair to the toes”) to keep the body vital even in old age.
The Bikram System
The 26 postures are ones Bikram selected from the 84 postures he learned from his guru, Bishnu Ghosh (who was Paramahansa Yogananda’s younger brother). Ghosh had sent him to Bombay where he gave one-on-one instruction to people in hospitals and clinics. Eventually, to serve more people, Bikram chose 26 postures that he felt addressed most people’s ailments, including back problems, heart disease, high blood pressure, arthritis, diabetes, thyroid problems and neurological diseases. Instead of teaching only 15 people a day, he taught large classes. Later he implemented the heat, which warms and softens the body, making it easier to bend. His system is copyrighted and taught only at Bikram franchises by teachers who have been certified by him.
The postures are not especially advanced, and each one is held for only ten to twenty seconds. Although beginning students will not find most of the poses to be too difficult, they are challenged to push beyond their comfort level, albeit in small increments. At Soldier Field, the room was not heated, although the air conditioning had been turned off, and the room was comfortable. I was surprised to see experienced Bikram yogis around me sweating profusely after performing half moon (standing, hands clasped over the head, bend to the side) and standing backbend, whereas I was not the slightest bit damp. I realized they were working much harder than I was.
Bikram encourages students to work very hard--until it hurts. “There is no side effect to yoga,” he explained. “It’s painful, but is it better to suffer for ten seconds or for ten years? Is it better to suffer for 90 minutes in ‘Bikram’s Torture Chamber’ or for 90 years?” That’s where the healing comes, which is the purpose of Hatha yoga, he says. When you bend one way and hold it for 20 seconds, the blood flow is cut off temporarily from the organs on that side of the body. When you release and bend to the other side, the blood goes rushing back to that area, revitalizing and rejuvenating the organs. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, the mind is fully engaged. Bikram considers the entire class to be a meditation. The students are focusing intently on each posture for ten or twenty seconds. He says they get more out of that than sitting motionless on a cushion with their minds wandering.
The ultimate goal is God-realization, cosmic consciousness or realizing one’s own divinity, and for Bikram it begins with the body. “By doing the postures, you learn how to use the organs to a higher extent, and when you put two organs together, you open your chakric system, which is called kundalini,” explained Bikram in an interview the week before his workshop. “With kundalini power, if you can use it, you can live without food, walk on water, walk on fire and it won’t burn you; you can live 500 years. You are bullet-proof, fire-proof, water-proof, wind-proof, sex-proof, money-proof, emotion-proof, stain-proof because you live one step above this world. You go to a different consciousness. It’s called cosmic consciousness. The human body is a powerhouse, but you cannot use this power until you realize it. Before you realize it, you have to learn how to use the organs.”
One of his mottos is: “Having doesn’t mean anything if you don’t know how to use it.” He says that over 100 years of life, we don’t use even three percent of our body’s capabilities.
However, continued Bikram, “It doesn’t matter how healthy you are if your mind is not under control. Your mind can make you Buddha, Hitler, Mother Teresa, Osama Bin Ladin. Your mind is supposed to be your best friend, but in most cases it is your number one enemy. The hardest thing in life is to keep your mind in your brain for 10 seconds.”
Another reason to keep the body healthy is that the body is the home for our spirit. He says, “When too much of the body is destroyed physically, the heart says goodbye to the lungs, and everybody stops doing their job. The body is broken, the spirit leaves the body. Your Karma yoga is to keep your atman [spirit] in your body as long as possible.”
What’s wrong with Americans
Bikram says, “You are the most genius people in the world. You don’t know how to use it. You have the most beautiful country in the world. You don’t enjoy it. People are wonderful people. At the end of the day, it is all lost, because people don’t like each other.”
The problem begins within. Bikram expains, “We hate each other because all our internal organs, tissues, nerves, tendons, cells and atoms hate each other” because they are not working together. For example, our heart hates our lungs because our lungs aren’t giving the blood enough oxygen to do its job, because the lungs are not working to their capacity, because we don’t give it the proper exercise. So we live for only 90 years, and a lot of that time we are sick.
Also, as Americans, we have everything, but we have nothing because we don’t have peace of mind. Our karma is to give rather than to get, but since we are always trying to get, at the end of the day we are “losers.” Another problem is we have no problem. “You have it too good here,” said Bikram. “You are bored.” Regarding anxiety, “You are anxious because you are too fat.” Also, said Bikram, “Your soul is always unhappy. Your God does not like you.” The solution is yoga. “Yoga shows you the truth of life. When you do yoga, you learn to do the right thing. You stop chasing your tail, pissing into the wind or ‘spitting into the sky,’ as we say in India.”
One thing you have to admire about Bikram is his honesty. He tells it like he sees it in a humorous way that is not insulting or offending. He never lies (or cheats). Bikram says his job is not to criticize what we don’t have, but to make us see what we do have, to help us recognize our divinity and attain God-consciousness.
More about Bikram
What does he do in his spare time? “My hobby is polishing cars,” he says. “I’m very good at it. From 12 o’clock to 4 o’clock, in the middle of the night, I polish only two fenders of my car. That’s my meditation.” That’s a lot of time to spend on two fenders. “Oh, if you see my car, the way I do the job, you will not believe it. That’s my meditation. Physically I work, I sweat and I forget the whole world.” He also enjoys watching movies and listening to music.
What does he eat? Bikram eats very little and hardly sleeps. “The best food is no food,” he says, but when he does eat, it’s meat, fish, eggs or chicken (although, according to his book, his favorite is blueberry cheesecake). Bikram drinks no alcohol or caffeine (not even chai). He stays up most nights talking on the phone to clients around the world. He lies down around sunrise and rests for awhile. “The number one reason [yogis in the caves] live longer is they don’t eat and they don’t sleep,” says Bikram. “They meditate.”
Can we become enlightened by practicing yoga? Bikram replied, “First you have to medically take care of your body, you have to control your mind, and when you put your body and mind together, then you can go to the next step: create a telecommunication system between your body, mind and spirit. Then your real life starts. People are born; they die at 90, and still they are babies. People know nothing about their life. So when people make a connection happen, then their real spiritual life starts.
“So the root of spiritual life is that first you have to learn how to like yourself. Then you learn how to take care of yourself. If you know how to take care of yourself, then you create the bridge connecting body, mind and spirit. But with junk bodies, screw-loose minds and lost souls, people are not happy. There is no satisfaction of living, no goal. But if you do yoga, it’s a complete cycle--cyclic order. That’s the reason it is the only way. First you have to understand the body and how to treat the body.”
Bikram says spirituality can be attained by observing three truths: kindness, relationship with the divine and forgiveness. “That’s called humanity,” he says. “When you lie or cheat, your spirit feels it first. Learn to give and not to get--and also to turn the other cheek. When you connect with another spirit through forgiveness, you feel sorry for their ignorance.”
Describing himself as a Karma yogi, Bikram’s purpose is to fulfill his promise to his guru, which is to bring yoga to the West, break down the barriers between people (men and women, East and West) and relieve suffering. In Calcutta, he used to teach an advanced class of 84 postures. “And after all these years,” says Bikram--“50 years--I am teaching kindergarten. Why? Because people are all in kindergarten. If you don’t finish kindergarten, you don’t go to junior school. If you don’t finish junior school, you don’t go to middle school. If you don’t finish middle school, you don’t go to high school. So that’s the job I am doing so far. People need to learn the foundation. That’s the job I am doing. But most of the time people waste time.”
Bikram has taught the advanced class of 84 postures to his senior teachers at his headquarters in Beverly Hills. When he’s not traveling, he practices with them three times a week: Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. When he’s out of town, he misses it. “The body is like a gas tank,” he says. “When the tank is empty, you fill it up.”
You can find a local Bikram-style yoga class at www.yogachicago .com/classes. Bikram Choudhury’s book, Bikram Yoga, can be purchased at bookstores and online. It’s highly entertaining as well as enlightening. For more information, visit www.bikramyoga.com.