My Yoga Journey Began with Bikram Yoga

As a stressed out and traumatized police officer, I attended my first few yoga classes sometime in 2005.  I was very uncomfortable with the spiritual talk, the chanting, and with instructors calling out names of postures which I wasn’t familiar with and did not know how to do;  I did not stick with it.  Then one day I was in Costco, and this Costco was allowing local small businesses to advertise on their entry wall. There were black and white photos, sort of mystical and provocative, of sweaty body parts promoting “Bikram Yoga.”  A little research online revealed testimonials claiming that this yoga cured everything from gout, to anxiety, depression, cancer, and paralysis.  It sounded a bit far-fetched, but I was intrigued.  It took me one whole year before I would finally get the courage to attend my first Bikram Yoga class.  The studio was a hole in a wall with foul-smelling carpet, a tiny changing closet, and no showers.  Yet the poorly ventilated, forced-air-heated “torture chamber” was routinely packed with dedicated practitioners.  There was no overt mention of anything spiritual, but I had a spiritual experience at some point on the floor during my very first class. Despite that, my mind experienced the class itself as such an absurd and uncomfortable experience, I vowed never to return.  Yet the following day, I felt a strong pull to go back…something inside me, beyond my mind, understood that I needed to explore further.  I ended up buying a year’s membership!  As my practice slowly transformed from awkward, fidgety, and clumsy to more graceful, controlled and focused, the instructors and the other sweaty people I looked forward to seeing several times per week, became like family.

In Spring, 2008 I attended Bikram’s 9 week Teacher Training, held in Acapulco, Mexico that year.  A typical entry-level Yoga Teacher Training is 200 hours and may or may not be intensive.  The Bikram YTT was 850+ hours, intensive, with only a moderate amount of time allotted for eating and sleeping.  It was like being in a pressure cooker.  Literally being in the fire for 9 straight weeks was a transformative experience.  Even prior to the training, my steady practice of only 1.5 years by then had already facilitated me letting go of the career which had become toxic for me.  Time after time, laying in a pool of my own sweat while being guided to observe my breath and quiet my mind, I realized my ego had become attached to my job title and status, and all that came with it. Through the yoga process, I realized that I was more than my job, and I discovered the faith to renounce my salary, benefits, and pension…I even sold my home.  I knew that I wanted to share the yoga which was helping me heal my mind, body, and soul.  I trusted that the universe would reciprocate and take care of me.  The first week of training was a confusing period of disillusionment as I, and almost 300 other trainees became acquainted with our teacher – Bikram Choudhury.  He sometimes made offensive, obnoxious statements, evoking anger and disgust from the group.  Seconds later, he won over the crowd with his child-like, playful demeanor.  He displayed an endearing, charismatic side, as well as a dark, shadow side. There were some in the training who always sat as close as possible to Bikram, loudly laughing at all his jokes. Some vied for his attention and for the chance to brush his hair and be invited into his inner circle.  There were rumours that even with his wife, Rajashree, present at the training, he may have been having intimate relations with some young women on his staff and/or within the trainee group.  With only whispers, speculation, and no way of understanding what was actually going on, amidst the confusion and emotion, I became close to, and bonded with a fellow trainee.  Together, we did the grueling work, tried to avoid any attention from Bikram, and survived the training.

Immediately upon completion of the training, I began teaching Bikram Yoga.  At that time, there was a culture of “tough love” – you may be belittled, poked fun at, even sworn at in a class.  You were not allowed to leave the hot room and drinking water was permitted only at designated breaks.  Your practice could be so micro-managed that even scratching your nose was likely to get you called out in class.  Coming from my policing background, the paramilitary training environment of the RCMP in which I experienced strict drill corporals, I accepted and even felt at home within this sub-culture of yoga.  It was exactly what I needed at the time. If it had not been so controlled, so demanding of self-discipline, and so challenging, I would not have stuck with it.  My voice as a teacher however was less like a drill corporal, and more like an encouraging mother.  I observed that many of the Bikram yogis were “Type A personalities” and liked the strict mood and even enjoyed when others were chastised in class…however I also sensed that underneath this, most of us were working through physical and/or emotional trauma, and needed to feel safe and supported throughout the healing process.

As an instructor and practitioner, Bikram Yoga remained my thing for several solid years.  In the community, I was discouraged from practicing other styles.  I had started practicing Bhakti Yoga…I adopted a daily sadhana, was attending a temple regularly at 4:30am, chanting japa and studying ancient scriptures.  I was also sneaking off to Kundalini classes.  When certain studio owners, for whom I taught, got wind of these things, I sometimes experienced shunning and a loss of classes.  Shortly after this, several women spoke publicly about Bikram exploiting and even sexually assaulting them.  Tensions heightened, and the community was becoming divided.  Some studios changed their names and started offering abbreviated classes and other styles of yoga.  Other studio directors wished to remain true
to the request Bikram had made of them to only offer his style, under his name, and with his specifications.  Despite the controversy and confusion, I chose to continue my teaching and practice.  I had never been a cult follower of Bikram the man; I had been threatened by studio owners that if I did not attend the recertifications with Bikram then I would not be permitted to teach.  I believed that these recertifications were a money grab by Bikram and listening to him rant incoherently was a waste of time, so I never went to one.  I kept my distance from our teacher, but I valued and appreciated the yoga practice he propagated.  As he lost his lawsuit for copyright of his series, and as the disturbing allegations came out against him, studio owners and teachers experienced being on shaky ground, and the controls slackened within the community. I continue to teach some traditional, 90 minute Bikram classes to this day, differentiating the man from the yoga practice.  I cannot deny the healing and transformative effects that the practice had on me, and what I have witnessed in thousands of practitioners over the past 14 years.  All styles of yoga practice offer healing and an opportunity for self-realization, and I now prefer to teach and practice a variety of styles.  Still, Bikram Yoga has undeniably been a most accessible foundational practice for a massive number of people, and despite everything, is still a favorite today for so many. 

In 2015 I was invited by my dear trainee friend, Cindy Lunsford, to attend a basic Vinyasa training which she was helping Jimmy Barkan to facilitate in Costa Rica.  Jimmy is a very kind and gentle soul, who had been one of Bikram’s first senior teachers.  He had branched out to do his own thing and created a couple of nice yoga series rooted in the Ghosh Lineage (from which Bikram came).  With this training, I began to explore teaching Vinyasa/Flow style yoga. 

In 2017, I was inspired by teacher Anna Oldfield to attend an Advanced Vinyasa Teacher Training offered by Clara Roberts-Oss and Nico Luce.  This training helped me gain a better understanding of how to intelligently sequence postures, in terms of anatomy.  Since this training, I am always considering how I want to prepare the body for where I would like the practice to go.  In my classes, I focus on linking movement with breath, while balancing flexibility with strength and stability.  As I appreciate attending classes from teachers who offer a well-rounded practice, I strive to offer
that to my students.  Due to a demanding teaching schedule, my practice most often occurs at home in solitude and silence.  When my schedule allows me to make it to one, I can be found in a Flow or Kundalini class, or in a workshop continuing my education and upgrading my skills, where I enjoy being lead by one of the many skilled teachers the Vancouver area is blessed to offer.  I still occasionally attend a hot 90 minute Bikram class, if I know the instructor leading it is respectful.

Sharing various yoga practices with a widely diverse population, with widely diverse needs and interests, is an ongoing practice and journey which I deeply cherish.  Whether you are looking to improve your health and fitness, work through an injury, find more peace of mind, learn about yoga philosophy, tap into the experience of spirit, or all of the aforementioned, I am pleased and honoured to meet you, on or off the mat, to support you in your yoga journey.    

16 thoughts on “My Yoga Journey Began with Bikram Yoga”

  1. Michael van Slee

    Congratulations on your new site! Thank you for sharing your story and inspiring vision. I look forward to doing a tour in India and possibly yoga retreat

    Namaste

  2. Congratulations, Leslie! I just love your site, so informative and relaxing. I have to admit to having never been to a yoga class but I really have enjoyed reading about your yoga journey. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. I will be a regular visitor to your expanding site and am extremely interested to learn more of your experiences, particularly about your proposed spiritual retreat to India! I couldn’t happier that you have found your passion and are sharing with those who want to learn more. I know you to be a very compassionate and caring person, with a great deal to give to others. Wishing you great success in the future. Looking forward to reading about your experiences here. You most certainly deserve the recognition you are receiving. May your good works spread around the globe and may many others come to experience your special gifts as they work towards their personal goals and success. Well done!

    1. Leslie MacPherson

      Thank you very much, Bhavani! I don’t have a sufficient reply to your generous comments, but I am very grateful for your kind and heartfelt blessings!

  3. Hi Leslie it was very inspiring to hear about your many yoga teachings and techniques
    You have done very intensive training.
    I actually watched the movie about the Bikram method and the problems that complicated his practice
    In the end the good outweighed the bad as people like yourself were transformed.
    I identified with your comments that your earlier work with the police was how you defined yourself. As I am off work right now I have so much to learn and questions as to how I can go forward with a kind of passion that you exude every day.
    I wish you every success and hope I can come to a class soon in Vancouver.
    I am enjoying my 8 week mini class in Hatha yoga now
    Thank you for your blog and I look forward to sharing your journey.

    You are truly a shining light that shines brighter through your past struggles.
    Namaste

    1. Leslie MacPherson

      Thank you, Barbara, for reading and commenting. It means a lot to me to have your support and blessings. It would be nice to practice some hatha yoga together some time! Namaste xo

  4. Thank you for sharing your journey. It is interesting that we can be from such diverse backgrounds, and end up with the same goals. I look forward to reading more about your story.

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