My introduction to Bikram yoga was at the Funky Door Studio in San Fransico. I arrived with my friend and was warmly welcomed by the teacher, who called me by my first name - via a microphone headset - from the front of the class throughout the practice. The class was full of young scantily-clad yoga students, who all appeared to know the 26 poses in the Bikram series.
Before the yoga session starts a towel is placed on your yoga mat. The reason why becomes apparent very soon as the room is heated to sauna temperature and the sequence is commenced with a breathing practice (prananyama). In that first class my friend and I must have hit the floor at least five times to escape the heat. I found it amazing that anyone could stay on their feet for the duration of the class; the heat was so intense that I started to feel quite dizzy. As I looked around the classroom from my new position on the floor, I could see people standing in pools of sweat (hence the towels on the mat). It is, therefore, no surprise that you are encouraged to drink water throughout after the initial warm up poses.
As a yoga teacher I did not find the 26 poses used in this series particularly demanding, as I had come across most of them previously. What I did find difficult, and still do, is the intense heat in which the yoga is practised. I left the studio looking like a beetroot; a look that stayed with me for quite some time, much to the amusement of several of my fellow students.
Since then, I have attended Bikram yoga sessions here in London on a number of occasions. My yoga students often ask me what I think of this style and I always suggest that they give it a go. Bikram yoga does appeal to a lot of people and the only way to find a practice that suits your needs, is to try different styles.
From a personal point of view, the heat is a huge distraction from the yoga. Teachers often encourage students to push back and go deeper into poses, which – for inexperienced yoga students – can be quite daunting, and may unintentionally give the class a quite competitive feel. I think that lack of inversions (having the head lower than the hear) does not make this a very well-balanced yoga practice. The use of mirrors in the studio and the encouragement to look at your poses in the mirrors is, once again, something that I find quite difficult about Bikram. My understanding is that yoga is a “journey within”, by which I mean that you should feel your poses from the inside, rather than worry excessively about what you or your poses look like; something that I transmit to students when teaching.
All in all, people turn to yoga for a wide variety of reasons. Bikram may be suitable for some people's needs, but it is very - perhaps excessively - physical and there is less emphasis on the spiritual aspects of yoga as well. Ashtanga yoga can be physically demanding but, in my opinion, it is a more complete form of yoga.