Ashtanga vs. Bikram: There’s no contest, Ashtanga wins

There’s a piece over at the venerable elephant journal titled, “Ashtanga vs. Bikram: Which is Elitist?”

You can check it out via this link. The bottom-line, according to the author, is that it is Astanga that’s elitist and too difficult for many people. He also thinks the sequence — he emphasizes the Primary — is not well-rounded and that adds to its being unsuited to “most people,” aka people who aren’t very flexible.

Well, you know if you’ve been reading us here that that strikes a chord with me.

(First, though, a quick side track: Some of the commenters have jumped on the use of the word “elitist,” which obviously is intended to incite people as it is “not yogic.” Arguing about it makes sense, except that it clearly is what the author wants his readers to do. The more compelling arguments, from my perspective, is that yoga isn’t about asana — or at least, it’s only one-eighth about asana.)

Tim Miller doing his best to make Steve's down dog part of the canine species.

Aside from all the mis-characterizations of Ashtanga (it doesn’t take 3.5 hours, for instance, and you can balance the different series in a bunch of ways, as noted here), the piece misses one key item — from my experience, at least.

I found Bikram so rigid — even militant — about how to do the poses correctly (“our way or the highway”) that I got little out of it, other than a lot of sweat. I found it very unwelcoming. As a result, I’ll admit I haven’t taken more than a few handful of Bikram classes.

By comparison, and perhaps it is thanks to the Ashtanga teachers I’ve had, I have found Ashtanga much more flexible in allowing me to modify poses — even the Marichyasanas that the author of the elephant journal piece particularly seems to dislike.

The ability to guide my own practice — certainly in a Mysore room but also during a Led class — is the key difference and what makes Ashtanga work, in my opinion. (I also think Ashtanga’s focus on dristi, bandhas and breath puts it more in line with Patangali’s eight limbs of yoga. My experience with Bikram was not a spiritual one, at all. I suppose this gets us back to the yoga vs. asana question.)

Does this mean I think Bikram is somehow worse or more elitist than Ashtanga? No, it just means that Bikram didn’t work for my body. That doesn’t mean I would generalize from my own experience. (Doing so, in my opinion, is the real problem with the elephant journal piece. “Ashtanga didn’t work for me, therefore it doesn’t work for most people” is not a very valid argument.) It does mean that I’m surprised that in a “which style is better for someone who is stiff” contest, Bikram would ever win. But, again, that’s my experience.

And I will defend Ashtanga. Especially because I’ll put my stiffness up against the elephant journal author’s “relatively stiff dude gym-rat body.” Seriously, if I can keep doing Ashtanga, truly anyone can. (For one really good reason to do so, check this earlier post.) And I think that is because the practitioner has control of the situation and not the teacher wandering around (with a microphone, no less!).

That said, Ashtanga is not without its limitations. I’m on the Primary Series and as a result, I don’t get much stretching of my quads. Solution? I am working on adding in — I know, shocker! — Virasana in certain parts of my practice and trying to sit in Virasana when I can. It’s helping a lot.

There’s also that criticism about a lack of backbends. Another easy answer: Make sure you focus on your Urdhva Mukha Svanasana. If done right, the Primary Series has as many backbends as anyone needs.

In the end, everyone who practices yoga is going to find a particular style (or styles) that suits him or her best. I say I’m proof that Ashtanga can be that style for just about anyone.

Posted by Steve