“An Introduction to Physical Yoga Practice”

by Craig Villani

Making the practice of hatha yoga accessible to six billion people worldwide is the primary philosophy underlying the development and growth of Bikram Yoga. Created by Yogi Raj Bikram Choudhury as a practical distillation of the classical eighty-four postures as set forth by oral transmission and recorded by the Vedic sage Patanjali, Bikram’s method of Hatha Yoga stands as a structured and foundational approach towards balancing the modern bodymind.

The ninety minute, twenty-six posture sequence is specifically designed to stimulate each organ, gland, muscle and system of the human body, forming a comprehensive system of practical health-maintenance and disease prevention. The proper application of Bikram Yoga has been shown to consistently reverse the effects of aging, regulate metabolism, reduce the effects of stress and strain, and substantially aid in the cure of chronic disease for many practitioners. Each posture in the Bikram Method sequentially prepares the practitioner for the next, with the overall effectiveness of the series relating directly to this scientifically-comprehensive and systematic approach.

Trained from a very early age in the practice of the traditional eighty-four asanas from which many modern styles have derived, Bikram won the prestigious All-India Hatha Yoga Asana Championship for three consecutive years under the continuous guidance of his Guru, Bishnu Charan Ghosh. Youngest brother and life-long disciple of Self-Realization Fellowship founder Paramahansa Yogananda, Bishnu Ghosh instructed Bikram in the therapeutic applications of yoga asanas as a time-honored and effective form of natural healing. In Ghosh’s words, “Yoga maintains youth. It keeps the body full of vitality, immune to diseases, even at old, old age. Where medical science stops, there the science of yoga begins.” Professionally teaching hatha yoga from the age of six, Bikram developed his unique sequence for the widespread promotion of overall health, expressing what he believed to be the most essential combination of postures from the extensive eighty-four.

Classical yoga asanas were originally developed with the intention of holistic integration, affecting positive change in all bodily systems by addressing their energetic roots. Hatha yoga, when practiced properly, should not damage the body. The primary focus of true hatha yoga is to heal and maintain the physical body through balancing the latent potential for strength and flexibility, ultimately leading to the experience of a happier, healthier life. After all, the motivation underlying the practice of asana is for the aspirant to receive the unique physical, mental and emotional benefits associated with the expression of each posture. Those who insist upon seeing the posture as the object of their practice may needlessly continue to injure their bodies for the sake of performance. In Bikram Yoga, the emphasis is placed upon the healing benefits attained through maintaining depth of expression relative to proper application of form.  Thus, the posture is never seen as the object –  the body is the object.

Using the physical body as the template for unlocking the secrets of the more subtle anatomy, the Bikram Method supports the conscious integration of raja yoga, the yoga of mind, into the physical practice. Outlining a continuous process for regaining control of the mind, the following five steps are woven into the fabric of the classroom experience:

  1. Faith
  2. Self-control or moral discipline
  3. Determination or will-power
  4. Concentration
  5. Patience

When practicing Bikram Yoga under ideal conditions, the room should be evenly heated up to 105° Fahrenheit. Those questioning the role that external heat plays in the practice may concede that yoga was developed in India, a country that sustains relatively high temperatures year-round. In order to mimic that intended environment for beginners who have quite possibly never touched their toes or attempted a single backward bend, adequate external heat can be viewed as essential. The heated room initially serves to prevent injury until the practitioners learn to generate their own internal heat and gradually come to welcome the warm environment as a tool for enhancing flexibility and deepening an awareness of breath. Beyond the obvious physical implications, environmental heat acts as a powerful and tangible psychological force that compels students of all levels to overcome attachment to external distractions. This enhances the practice of meditation, considered the primary vehicle for Self-realization when properly supported by the science of hatha yoga as described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

While conducting a proper Bikram Yoga class, qualified instructors continuously utilize a complex, comprehensive and distinct set of verbal instructions to guide students through the complete series of twenty-six postures and two breathing exercises. This Bikram Yoga Teaching Dialogue serves to effectively describe and relate essential elements of the physical practice within the series, including what to do, how to do it, and the effect of what you are doing on the body. Through The Dialogue, the instructor verbally engages the rational and operational mind of the students, better enabling them to direct their attention inward for much of the rigorous ninety-minute meditation. Concentration, meditation and awareness of breath – these are the fundamental skills that are to be continuously evolved and applied through the mindful practice of Bikram Yoga. Although designed primarily for beginners, many advanced practitioners rely on the ninety-minute class as a challenging foundation upon which they continue to support and build many aspects of their Self-development. As Bikram is fond of saying, “In this class, we’re all beginners – it’s never too late, it’s never too bad, you’re never too old and never too sick to start from scratch once again.” For those aspirants seeking additional challenges, Bikram teaches the original eighty-four posture series as an advanced class to his qualified instructors and a few select students.