Ashtanga Yoga is Better than Bikram Yoga

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ashtang vs bikram yoga
Bikram Choudhury (at left) and Krishna Pattabhi Jois (right)

This article is contributed by Guest author and is entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of YogaCurious

Whoa! Calm down, I know the title seems smug but let me explain.

I began practicing Bikram yoga about 4 years ago. Ridding myself of toxins by sweating like crazy and obtaining enormous gains in flexibility really really appealed to me, or uh, my ego actually, so I signed up and practiced regularly. After the first few classes, even with many various instructors, a continuous theme started revealing itself to me. The no bull shit, no excuses, no hesitating attitude began to envelope me and I fell in love with Bikram yoga, even though I barely made it through the first class without bolting from the 42 degree room. In fact, I barely made it through my first two weeks. Dizziness and nausea followed me everywhere, but yet I kept going, falling deeper and deeper in love. Weird? I know. To be that excited about something that was making me ill, it seems silly doesn’t it? But somehow I knew, I needed to continue. Bikram yoga was opening my eyes to a problem I let lay dormant for so long I nearly forgot about it. Extremely low blood pressure, difficulty balancing electrolytes and a pretty severe aversion to any extreme in temperature has been an issue of mine since early childhood. There was a sense that if I just kept going it would all work itself out. And it did. Well mostly. Until I started training again…I’m a cyclist, well I ride a mountain bike- everywhere. I ride to work, I ride to mountain biking rides, I ride to parties, I ride to the climbing gym, and I ride to yoga classes. I am an athlete and this is where the problem lies. Bikram is a beautiful, effective practice and art. So beautiful in fact, I couldn’t continue my usual activities while doing it. The 90 minutes I was spending in the studio was literally all my body could tolerate for the day, sometimes 2 or 3 days. Listening and being highly in tune with my body is a skill I developed over 25 years of dance training. My body was without a doubt saying stop. It was shutting down. There were days I couldn’t make it up the stairs without needing a break. Waking up in the hospital and learning I passed out and the ambulance came to rescue me, was my breaking point. I either had to pick Bikram yoga or mountain biking but I couldn’t do both. Bikram yoga got canned, but my body began to ache from the lack of stretching.

While researching Ashtanga yoga retreats for my website, I began to learn a little bit about this other hardcore type of yoga. Then I began to try it and experience it. Sadly there is no official Ashtanga yoga instructor in my home town or anywhere within a 3 hour commute. You see, it’s very difficult to obtain an authentic Ashtanga Yoga teaching certificate compared to other styles of yoga, so that means there are significantly less teachers. So I ordered some DVD’s and I committed myself. Ashtanga Yoga is no easy task. I was exhausted after the first few times trying it, but slowly my body became accustomed to it, so I could push a little bit harder and slowly I got a little tiny bit stronger each week- note: NOT each practice. The progress is slow and steady measured over months and years rather than days and weeks. My body has responded to this in such a way I now feel stronger and healthier physically, emotionally and mentally, and somewhat spiritually.

One of the biggest differences between Bikram yoga and Ashtanga yoga is how heat is applied. In Bikram they heat the room to a hot temperature helping the muscles to warm and reach the maximum point of flexibility faster and easier. And, oh boy does it ever feel good the first time your forehead hits your shins in a forward bend, with your knees completely locked out. Ashtanga yoga is practiced at room temperature, working to heat the body up using your own internal fire. Essentially you’re training the body to warm itself, internally. And here’s the kicker. If the body is heated externally it will not learn to heat itself up on it’s own. As an experienced dancer, I was always careful about dancing in warm temperatures because even though I felt warm, if I hadn’t gone through the proper warm up, the muscles hadn’t really increased circulation and thereby increasing risk of injury. In other words, I injured myself while dancing in warm temperatures simply because I felt warm but in fact was externally warm and not internally warm. Huge difference.

I’m a hardcore naturalist. I don’t like to use any crutches. Arch supports, cushioned runners, tensor bandages, body lotions, hair conditioner, prescribed eyeglasses just a touch over what you actually need, pain killers, anti-inflammatories, are all crutches. Just leaving the body alone and letting it do it’s thing, without running to the pharmacy to solve every little discomfort will make the body stronger and more efficient.  Anything that makes it easier for your body to do something, that eventually your body would just fix naturally is considered a crutch and will make it weaker and less efficient. And yes you guessed it, a heated yoga studio is now on that crutch list. In fact, soon my current yoga studio will be a tad bit cooler to help challenge my ability to heat itself up. An externally heated room makes it easier for you to stretch and reach maximum flexibility. But at a cost. The cost for me was it took everything out of me so that I couldn’t maintain my cycling training schedule. But more importantly, I completely lost my ability to warm up my body. Rooms that were below 22 degrees, were my nemesis. I was so bundled up in the winter, I could barely move my arms and legs. And… I live on Vancouver Island. An extremely mild climate with winter temperatures rarely dipping below 0 degrees Celsius or 32 Fahrenheit. In the summer we’re blessed with sunshine for months on end with temperatures hovering around 25 degrees Celsius or 80 degrees Fahrenheit. I was cold all the time. Until I was months into my Ashtanga yoga practice. My cold tolerance was increasing. My mental ability to overcome obstacles was increasing. The act of graciously accepting things just as they were and working within that realm without applying it as a limitation or flaw was weaving itself into my daily life, motivating me in a different, yet wonderful way.

Today people are becoming accustomed to having every little discomfort alleviated immediately, making us weak and unhappy. Ashtanga takes a different approach.

I noticed during my Ashtanga vs Bikram Yoga Retreat research is that Bikram yoga retreats were mostly high end, expensive luxury retreats. Ashtanga yoga retreats were simple and basic. Read between the lines and you’ll see  Ashtanga Yogi’s don’t need to be surrounded by luxury to be happy. They are just happy as is. This is something I deeply aspire to. Happiness is a choice, not dependent on the thread count of the bed sheets. We all have our boundaries that can seem immovable and some people will never truly understand why acceptance is really the fastest way to obtain your deepest desires. Ashtanga yoga simply makes you delve into why these boundaries exist, it might push these boundaries around a little bit and force you to decide whether it’s worth all the effort to maintain it’s existence. That in itself is worth every minute I’ve put into Ashtanga and why it’s a better more effective practice for me than Bikram. I understand there are many Bikram lovers out there who won’t share my beliefs but I’m okay with that. I do think though as human beings we need to continually question what we are told is good for us, experiment with an open mind and heart, listen to our bodies, push our boundaries. Then, upon doing so, we can discover what is truly needed in our life.

Image: http://www.wellandgoodnyc.com/2010/07/19/how-ashtanga-bikram-yoga-styles-compare/

6 thoughts on “Ashtanga Yoga is Better than Bikram Yoga

  1. What a great story! I’m so happy to read this from one who seems to have approached both yoga styles quite innocently. My own Ashtanga experience has given me the same slow, steady accumulation of strength, and I’ve always appreciated the simplicity of the practice. Namasté.

    1. Dear Sharon,
      Thank you very much for your feedback and sharing your experience about Ashtanga yoga and its effect on your strength. All yoga forms has their own benefits, it is totally depending upon one’s comfort with particular form.

      Namaste!

  2. I think there are benefits of both types. I do mostly ashtanga and vinyasa types yogas now but one reason why is because where I live, there are no bikram studios. I really miss bikram, but I really love the other types. I think personally you can benefit with practicing different types of yoga. Maybe one day you need a bikram class. The next day you may need Ashtanga. Maybe the next day you need a restorative class. Maybe one day, you need to just sit and meditate. Maybe one day you feel like flying in an aerial yoga class! One more comment on the Bikram retreats being high end. I have never been on a retreat, but, I have been to several different Bikram studios and I have to say that the attitude of the studio is reflected by whoever runs the place. My favorite Bikram studio is run by the most down to earth man and his studio is not high end. It’s normal and non pretentious. Yoga to me is non a type, it’s my personal practiced and I am blessed to have it in my life to help me find my balance. : )

  3. Great story. Just a little comment : the power of Bikram lays exactly on the fact that you need to cool down your internal body to keep going. Otherwise you will overheat internally and you will feel exhausted and you will faint. In other words, it develops a superior control over your homeostasis, which means you will be able to regulate your internal temperature and adapt to any climate cold or hot much better. Furthermore IMO, a low point of ashtanga yoga is that it forces the knees to much and can cause injuries. I have practices both style for years but I had to stop ashtanga as my left knee worsened. Bikram on the other hand promotes knee recovery. This is my experience.

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