Hot Yoga: Evolve or Die

I remember the first time I stepped into Paul McQuillian’s class at his Bikram Yoga studio in downtown Toronto.

It was 2009 and I was dating his best friend. At that time I had a strong hot yoga practice and a zero tolerance for stillness, and that’s the way I liked it. I wanted to be told what to do and didn’t want time in between to think–I was the perfect Bikram student.

Bikram Choudhury, founder of the Bikram Yoga system, was doing something nobody had done before; he had successfully appropriated, branded and commercialized something that never belonged to him and sold it as his own. And people bought it.

Paul was (and still is) a tall drink of water. With piercing clear eyes, a beaming smile and a gentle yet commanding presence, he lights up every room he enters. I became instantly addicted and it wasn’t hard to commit myself to class 6 days a week. The sequence of 26 postures, done exactly the same way, with the same dialogue, in the same temperature, every single time… I didn’t have to think. I didn’t have to worry about what was coming next. Each day was about pushing myself further, getting that leg straighter, bending myself just a little deeper.

Eventually I broke up with the guy, moved away from Toronto and with it, away from the practice of hot yoga. I allowed myself to ease into that stillness and moved towards practices like Hatha, Vinyasa and Kundalini. Being so immersed in the yoga world, it was impossible to ignore the not-so-spiritual yoga scandals that were spreading like wildfire about Bikram and John Friend, the creator of Anusara Yoga. Both were being accused of inappropriate relations with female students, as well as experiencing publicized money drama. People immediately began to distance and separate themselves from the men behind the techniques they practiced. While Anusara seems to have all but disappeared, hot yoga (albeit branded ‘Bikram style’) is still going strong.

Once the namesake had been dethroned, what did that mean for all of the followers and teachers? What did that mean for Paul? I saw that he had written and published a book: I Hate Yoga: And Why You’ll Hate to Love it Too. He renamed his studio Be Hot Yoga and business is currently booming so much that he is about to add a second room where he will offer non-hot options and shorter classes. I caught up with him in Toronto to pick his brain about how hot yoga has managed to survive–and even thrive–despite the scandal.

We spoke about the challenge of finding authenticity in the business of spirituality in an urban world. My impression was that Toronto was always this giant, soulless city that loved a good brand. However, I realized it was the contrary as Paul told me it was actually the smaller boutique studios that were now thriving despite all the big yoga studios that had moved in to capitalize. “The whole ‘spiritual brand’ is built on word of mouth. People hear about your studio and they come and check it out,” he explains. In other words, integrity of personal experience is overtaking brand name marketing and recognition. After a retreat with a business mentor Paul was told survival advice: “Don’t go back and change everything; take it really slow because it will kill your business.”  

Slowly he started to integrate changes that never would have been allowed under Bikram’s strict rules. Paul wanted to adapt the practice towards the needs and interests of his students, both current and future. “Modifying the Bikram method so you have 60, 75 and 90 minute classes, that’s what people want,” he says. His main demographic are now ages 25-34. “They look at a schedule and see 90 minutes and they’re daunted by that. Then they see 60 minutes and say ‘I can do anything for 60 minutes!’”

As he saw his attendance increase, he wondered what else he could change. “To me it was about evolving. What do people want? How can I get more people doing yoga? They want instant gratification, they have less attention span. The yoga market has had to evolve or die based on the clientele… like McDonalds–now they have to have salads.”

The yoga world is a product and so it becomes a question of legitimacy and authenticity. This can be solved by having great teachers who provide legitimacy by connecting with students and helping them in their journey. People want intimacy and connection.

At the end of the day it is Paul who is having the last laugh. Taking me back to the old studio, he showed me where the expansion was going to go and how he was planning to integrate other types of yoga and even meditation–slowly, of course.

I hardly think Bikram would approve… and that’s exactly why it’ll work.

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