Anyone who has a soft spot for personal trainers with the mantra "no pain, no gain" will appreciate Bikram Choudhury's outspoken tough love in Bikram Yoga (Collins), his first book in nearly seven years. The 290-page tome is more than a how-to guide promoting his fast-growing namesake style of hatha yoga (which consists of a set of 26 asanas practiced in sweat-inducing classes). It's a snapshot of Choudhury's all-encompassing yogic philosophy for achieving health and happiness throughout life.
In his introduction, Choudhury fondly refers to the roughly 700 studios officially given license to teach his style of yoga as "torture chambers," and he berates Westerners for their coddled lives and lack of self-control when it comes to money, sex, food, and so on. In typical bombastic fashion, he kicks out such edicts as "If I became president, I would make tattoos illegal!"
Yet, despite Choudhury's often outrageous pronouncements and numerous car analogies (yes, the body is like a car—it needs maintenance and fuel), much of his message will resonate with readers. After all, who would debate the notion that materialism is a serious problem in the United States or that it's at odds with the spirituality that so many work to attain?
As the reigning bad boy of the American yoga community, Choudhury has become notorious for pushing people to extremes, requiring teachers to adhere to his scripts in class and suing yoga studios for copyright infringement of his patented series of poses. He addresses all of this in his book early on and then offers plenty of contrarian advice—certainly enough to make the principles surrounding his proprietary brand of hatha seem all his own.
For instance, he writes, "Contrary to popular belief, pain often means that you are doing something right. Be grateful and be patient. Nobody's telling you to be a martyr or a masochist; I'm just talking about going one small step beyond discomfort." Another interesting notion from the controversial guru: "It's just your fear that makes you rigid and unable to bend more deeply."
Choudhury's book is part autobiography, part instruction, and part personal philosophy. In it he presents his 26-pose sequence and a four-step plan for living your yoga. His prescription touches on learning your purpose in life, finding love, fulfilling karma yoga (service to others) and practicing nonattachment, and finally, reaching higher consciousness.
And it is here that Choudhury gives readers a few mantras worth repeating: "Train yourself to see the positive" and "There are no limitations." These notions may not ring new, but they do strike a universal chord that yogis of every tradition will appreciate.
Fans of Swami Satchidananda, Vishnu Devananda, and B.K.S. Iyengar may be put off by many of Choudhury's views—in particular, his dismissiveness of the approaches of those well-known teachers. "Unfortunately, these yogis and others felt that the American people and their bodies were just not made to practice real hatha yoga," he writes, maintaining that only his yoga, in the lineage of Bishnu Ghosh, is the true hatha yoga. "They responded by changing the true yoga they'd been taught into something they thought Americans could more readily accomplish and understand."
He goes on to say that these teachers have failed in their sacred duties by bastardizing traditional hatha yoga, and that their practices have failed to push Americans out of an overly safe, often shortsighted space.
At times, Choudhury comes off as a self-realized car salesman, but throughout the book his bombastic charm challenges you to contemplate your yoga and life practices so that you, too, might venture out of your comfort zone.
Laura Moorhead is a senior editor at Wired in San Francisco. She practices Bikram Yoga.