Bikram is a controversial name – naming both the yoga and the man who created it. The yoga lineage, also recently called Hot Yoga or Hot 26 or 26 +2, is a relatively strict and precise practice. There is no “take whatever expression feels good today” or “this is your practice, go where you want to go.” It is a style that is very specific about the postures and the way they’re done, as well as exact stillness in between the postures. While there is ample time to rest built into the class including an official water break and the option to take a knee or sit if you feel overexerted, you are not welcome to take any old expression or variation of a posture that pleases you, nor are you allowed to fidget during or between the postures or wipe away your sweat, drink water during the first 3 postures, or leave the room (unless you are absolutely going to be sick). It’s not what you might think of based on Instagram yoga or feel-good yoga quotes. It’s a discipline.

And that’s just the yoga part. Bikram Choudhury, the man, has always been controversial in his style of teaching the yoga – both his call to “kill yourself” and his knack for seeing your weakest point physically, mentally, or emotionally and poking at that point until you grow stronger. If you have a knee injury, Bikram will see it. “Bad knee? Don’t worry Honey, I will fix it.” If you have insecurities that are expressed by seeking positive or negative attention, he will see it instantly. He will give you attention alright, but it won’t be necessarily positive or negative. It will be unlike any other forms of attention. More like a cold, completely unimpressed, exacting knife exposing your masks until you realize that you were never hiding anything from anyone and you might as well start back at the base, the only stable foundation – the real you. You eventually learn and build a new kind of confidence from honest work, baby steps, and submitting to the structure. You’re not special. But you are pretty damn strong. “Don’t let anyone steal your peace. If you do, then you’re the loser.” Bikram’s famous quote sums it all up. He develops in everyone the ability to stay composed and choose not to suffer – both through the essence of the yoga and the way it is taught. Through his direct or indirect (trained Bikram teachers) presence and influence. But he’s not going to say it gently. He’s going to say the thing that no one else will say. “You’re the loser.”

I had not experienced these characteristics of the man firsthand until I visited his Teacher Training at the end of November. For years (at least the last 8 years) I had always dreamed of going to his Teacher Training but I could never find a way to leave work and life for the required 9 weeks of intensive training – previously held in Los Angeles, now held in Mexico and Thailand. But in recent years, it was not just the time commitment that kept me away. A slew of allegations had come to light over the past few years with 6 women accusing Bikram of sexual assault and harassment. These allegations hit hard, especially during the #MeToo movement. Exposed most recently in the ESPN podcast 30 for 30, the picture is first painted of the profound value and impact of Bikram’s yoga, followed by his financial success / rise to fame and finally, the power he wielded and the eventual corruption and heartbreak that followed.  Though he was never charged with sexual assault during the court proceedings, there is a warrant for his arrest for not upholding contractual payment of past employees, and he has since left the US.

With these facts heavy on our minds, when Savannah and I received an acceptance letter to visit the 2018 Fall Bikram Teacher Training in Acapulco, we had a difficult decision to make. We had applied to attend one week of the training as Guests about 3 months prior (also prior to the airing of / listening to the 30 for 30 podcast). We had applied on a whim or a “let’s just see??” idea. This decision was made during one of our weekly runs, which are traditionally our mental- and emotional-unloading, brainstorming, pep-talking, secret-sharing, story-telling, girl-talking sessions. We each had a dream that was deep in our hearts to meet and learn from Bikram. When we received our acceptance emails, we came back together, on another run of course, to discuss. Over the course of many more runs, we went back-and-forth, back-and-forth over the decision. It seemed crazy. Hadn’t the Bikram ship sailed? Shouldn’t we write him off like everyone else and turn our focus to other teachers or just to the practice? How could we go and look him in the eye? But outweighing these questions, we couldn’t shake the feeling, could this be our last or only chance to go to the source, to see and experience for ourselves, Bikram?

We decided to go. With open eyes and guarded hearts. No expectations. We were going to take his class. Nothing more. The required expense was really only the cost of room and meals at the resort hosting the training, so it didn’t feel like we were supporting him financially. This was for us. No one else.

We set out on the journey to Acapulco quietly. We didn’t tell anyone at first. Well, besides the family members who needed to know our whereabouts. JOtherwise, we were on our own adventure that others might not understand. And boy did we get the adventure we were looking for! After our first day of classes – 4 hours sweating and dying and breaking down – we were in disbelief. How does anyone do this? We had completed one day. The other trainees were here for 9 weeks (8 weeks prior to our arrival) and they had done this each and every day plus the added time they had to spend in lectures between yoga classes, which kept them up until midnight on a good day, or 2 am if Bikram was feeling chatty or wanted everyone to watch movies with him after lecture. But the yoga was the part that visitors like us could attend, and that was more than enough! After Savannah helping me out of the room that night and both of us doing our best to regroup physically and mentally, we really couldn’t imagine doing it all over again the next morning!

The following 24 hours was Savannah’s turn to struggle, while I brought 5 glasses of ice plus a large water bottle to each class and ate every meal like it was my last! Savy caught up on the eating and drinking of protein and electrolytes, respectively, just in time to rock it on Day 3. Finally, we were finding our ground but it never got easier. Bikram’s classes are indescribably difficult. It’s the same 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises of a normal class but you’re standing in front of him, you’re holding yourself to a standard higher than you’ve ever held yourself to before. He asks, “are you going to kill yourself today?” and you decide, “Yes. Yes, I will.” Later he asks the yogis, “What do I hate?” “LAZY PEOPLE!” everyone shouts in unison. “I will not be lazy in front of Bikram” we repeat in our heads over and over. By the end of the week, our postures were better than when we’d arrived. Not by way of new knowledge but by way of someone pushing us to further limits than we previously knew. By way of us calling our own bodies and minds to give more. By Bikram calling us into our full potential.

The truth is an increasingly rare thing to find these days. “I’m the ONLY one who will tell you the truth!” Bikram shouts from the podium. “You’re too skinny! Look at him – he looks like a chicken bone! You gotta eat, Man, get some muscles! (from the little I had gathered about this young man, and perhaps drawing a bit from my own assumptions, he did seem like he was unnecessarily fixated on his body and was careful not to overeat, even after burning thousands of calories). The point is, Bikram held up the mirror, as he always does. He did it out of kindness.  These and other shocking statements were normal dialogue from Bikram throughout each class. Some were absurd. Others rang of truth. Whatever they were, they were unique, especially in the context of a yoga class!

Bikram was mostly in good moods with us. Joking and putting on his usual shows (i.e. alternately flexing his pectoralis muscles to a tune or singing to us throughout and at the end of class). By the end of the week, which was also the end of the entire training, we could see how excited and proud he was of his students. “Nowhere in the world do you see 100 people in one room doing Fixed Firm pose exactly PERFECT!” I think to myself, he’s right. Though it’s not the most complicated posture, many people, many bodies cannot do it correctly. Probably 25% to 50% of students in a normal class of students will modify this posture. While this was a group of seasoned practitioners, statistically, there would still be a handful who could not get their bodies into the shape. Here in Acapulco, 100 people were doing it exactly to the fullest expression. To me, that said more than a group of people blindly following the leader. It meant that bodies were changed, and along the way minds and lives were changed as well. A group of people in one room who were strong enough to go out and do something impactful.

Savy and I didn’t get to spend a lot of time visiting with the trainees, but when we did talk to folks, they were all very positive about their experience at the training, even gushing about their love for Boss, the affectionate name for Bikram. The teachers who were there to recertify (who hadn’t seen Bikram in a year or several years) would say that just to hug him again was like coming home, like their cups were filled, and they felt his fatherly love for them and theirs for him. Every time we talked to one of the trainees, they asked, “when are you going to come to training?” Seemed like a crazy question but to them, we were the oddballs. Why wouldn’t you change your entire life to be there? No matter what he said or what the news said about Bikram, they knew him only as Boss, and they adored him.

From the moment our plane took off in the direction of Nashville, we were ready to go back to Acapulco, to Bikram’s training. As crazy as it sounds. We had truly loved every minute of it – the hard moments, the funny moments, and the moments of self-pride. The energy, the intensity, the call to rise up, the new places we found in our minds – the strength therein to control the body, finding we were capable of more, capable of almost anything. It’s an incredible feeling. It’s an addictive feeling. You can’t buy it or get it by repeating a mantra or affirmation, or by “manifesting” it. It has to be earned, and there’s no short cuts. I think that’s exactly why Bikram Yoga works. And has always worked. Why Bikram is Bikram. I don’t condone the deviations he’s taken in his personal life or the way he used his power to exploit other people, willingly or unwillingly. I hope his heart bears a heavy burden and that justice and truth prevail. But, I still believe in the yoga, and to summarize my trip to meet Bikram, my pilgrimage to the source, I am very glad I went.