fanning the flames

activism, devotion & the politics of hot yoga

Ted Grand is no stranger to struggling against established systems. Much of his life has been spent actively campaigning for environmental and social change, and whether engaging in direct action protests or community organizing, Ted has touched the heart of many controversial battles.

Not surprisingly, even his yoga practice is tinged with struggle. A devoted yogi and co-director of three studios in Toronto and Vancouver, Ted is an avid student and teacher of Bikram Yoga, a style of Hatha Yoga that faces much criticism from the broader yoga community. Increasingly well known as "hot yoga," Bikram Yoga was developed by Bikram Choudhoury, an Indian yogi who established a unique and precise series of asanas meant to be practised in a room heated to 38 - 41C (100 - 105F). Also garnering attention is Choudhoury's controversial approach and the emerging picture of a man who is greedy, aggressive, intimidating, arrogant and driven. None of these claims are denied by Ted, who continues to teach Bikram Yoga despite the increasing disconnect between his yogic beliefs and the actions exhibited by his teacher.

LMN Bikram's methods are controversial in the world of Hatha Yoga, as is the man himself. How do you reconcile some of the issues surrounding the man behind the method?

TG First off, I want to emphasize that I have great love for Bikram. He is not my guru, but rather one of several teachers I have been blessed to study with. However, my opinion is that on one level he is misdirected and slightly abusive of the power he has been entrusted with. Within the Bikram community, for example, if you don't do exactly as he says and fall in line, then you risk alienation and judgement from the rest of the community.

But the bottom line is that Bikram has offered a yoga system that has touched thousands upon thousands of people's lives. And if that can be the entry level for further growth, as it was for me, then that's brilliant. The effects are so profound. There are people who have been healed from immune system disorders, diabetes, heart problems, and some people use it as a detoxification for hepatitis B. That's the greatest entry door in the world because when people start to realize those benefits, then it's almost an impetus to study and learn more about yoga.

LMN If Bikram Yoga has so many benefits, what has happened to generate so much controversy around it?

TG In a lot of cases, Bikram himself causes the controversy. He's a performer and he really likes to poke people, show them their weaknesses, show them their anger and their reactionary nature. And on another level he knows controversy sells product, and he is very much a marketer. So it's hard to reconcile, because this is a man who taught me so much and made me realize so much about myself. On the other hand, it's really, really hard to hear some of the things that he says. I don't have a lot of peace with it sometimes. It's just not cool to violate people's personal philosophy all the time. It's just not right. There are already too many differences in the world that create misunderstandings, and I think Bikram sometimes perpetuates that.

LMN How does the controversy over Bikram affect you as a teacher in the yoga world? Have you faced much judgement personally?

TG A good example is my recent experience at the traditional yoga teacher training course I'm doing right now, with Georg Feuerstein at the Yoga Research and Education Center. It was really hard when we first got there. There were about fifty people and we came from all different backgrounds – Iyengar, Ashtanga, Viniyoga, even people who are only Raja yogis, who don't do any asana practice. There were about five of us from Bikram's and at first there was such animosity and judgement about Bikram Yoga itself. But it actually changed a lot when we stood up and explained what Bikram Yoga offers. We dispelled a lot of the myths about it being all forceful and powerful and such, and we taught classes. Some people who had been practising for thirty years absolutely loved it.

Georg Feuerstein gave a talk about tolerance of different styles and how we can apply compassion or understanding or knowledge to what we practise. It's been amazing. There's a lot more acceptance and a lot more openness.

The judgement within the yoga community about which "style" of yoga is good, bad, spiritual, real and so on saddens me deeply, and it is observable at all levels of practice and instruction. Georg Feuerstein has gone out of his way to instill a sense of family in the Western world and I hope that we can recognize that even though our flowers have different shapes and colours and functions, we all live in the same yogic garden. We have a firm policy at my studios to never dismiss or insult another yoga system and, perhaps more importantly in the politically charged Bikram community, a firm policy to never speak poorly of the other Bikram studios or teachers, although we have received a lot of negative energy from other studios and teachers in the Bikram community.

LMN Yet clearly the benefits you have in your personal practice outweigh the problems you have with Bikram.

TG Exactly. It's the message and messenger that have to be separated. The message is it's a scientifically based yoga system. Bikram studied for some time at Tokyo University with the leading doctors there to see which glands were stimulated in which posture, and how one posture would feed into the next one, and that's one of the ways the series was developed. In that regard, with the heat, with proper, safe instruction, it's a brilliant series. But the messenger has gotten caught up in the whirlwind of consumeristic materialistic culture. He came to Beverly Hills. Those are the people he knows. So when he criticizes "people in the West," which he often does, his perspective is pretty small. And when a lot of us go down there and he says we're fat, we're lazy, we're stupid, we're self-indulgent babies and on and on, it's not entirely appropriate, I don't think.

LMN How did your practice come to expand beyond Bikram's?

TG I realized that twenty-six postures and two pranayams can only bring you so far. So I went to a hospital in Pune, India that offers yoga therapy teacher training. Ten yoga rooms operate all day, each room devoted at any given time to, say, heart disease patients, or diabetics or people who have birth deformities. All the teachers are former students, in the sense that the heart disease patients will teach the heart disease people. It's a brilliant place, and that's where things started to really deepen for me. I learned about subtle anatomy, deep pranayama practice, the history and the tradition of yoga.

When I came back, instead of rejecting the Bikram's series outright, I started to apply what I had learned to how I was teaching. And then I wanted to deepen my practice even further, so I got into the traditional yoga teacher training at the Yoga Research and Education Center. Now I'm getting into deeper meditation, yoga history and philosophy, even pujas, fire ceremonies and cleansing exercises. My practice has progressed to the point where it's become almost a political issue on some level. My devotion comes from wanting to honour the practice and where it came from, and not have it be a consumer item.

Lesley Marian Neilson was the managing editor of ascent until February 2003, when she left to give birth to twins.

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