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Bend it like Bikram
By Jocasta Shakespeare
From a poor village in his native India, Bikram Choudhury made his name as Hollywood’s fitness guru –– and millions from his worldwide yoga franchise. But as Jocasta Shakespeare discovers, the path to worldly enlightenment has won him as many enemies as friends
Wearing only a pair of skimpy gold spandex shorts and a diamond studded Rolex, Bikram Choudhury, 60, sits enthroned behind an enormous ivory-inlaid desk in the office of his world headquarters in Beverly Hills. “It’s huge,” he says, “I’m making –– I don’t know –– millions of dollars a day, $10 million a month –– who knows how much?”
His chair is covered with an orange and black tiger-striped towel which he sits upon as if in triumph. It reminds him of the wild animals roaming the forest around his native village in Bihar, one of India’s poorest states. He lounges now beneath the framed photographs of movie star friends (Elizabeth Taylor, Shirley MacLaine), discussing his vast wealth and many talents; his long black hair flowing over naked, muscled shoulders.
He has reason to feel astounded by his own good fortune, for although he sits here in Hollywood, at the epicentre of the brash new world that is capitalist America, Choudhury has made his millions from a 5,000 year-old Indian tradition promoting spiritual rather than worldly aspirations. He has made it in yoga.
He has 1,600 yoga studios around the world (up from 1,200 last year) from Texas to Tokyo, Bogota to Brighton and the brand name ‘Bikram Yoga’ has become the Starbucks of the yoga world. For 5,000 years, the practice of yoga has stood for a way of life involving Buddhist philosophy, a vegetarian diet and hours of meditation. Yoga has aspired to feelings of peace, well-being and ‘oneness’ with the universe. It may lead to lifestyle changes and painful self-analysis.
However, yoga has also become the fitness exercise of choice in England and America and the attempt to expand the mind and link body to spirit, with its attendant navel-gazing and lentil bakes, is now outdated. Most shocking to the yoga purists, are the new versions of ‘supermarket’ yoga breaking into the market, including hiphop yoga, disco yoga, online yoga, yoga with pets and even yoga for pets.
Choudhury was the first to spot yoga’s enormous money-making potential, and in 2001 claimed copyright to ‘his’ 26-pose sequence and two breathing exercises –– much to the fury of the wider yoga community, for whom claiming ownership of ancient asanas was tantamount to taking out intellectual property rights to verses of the Bible.
This year, he says, he has signed contracts with fitness corporations WorkOutWorld and California Fitness to franchise Bikram Yoga across the Far East, Japan and Asia. He expects to have 5,000 affiliated studios by 2008 and is in negotiations with another multinational wanting to buy franchising for China. Many fear that yoga is being hijacked as just another fitness exercise and its more esoteric elements eroded.
Halima Malik, deputy editor of the Yoga Magazine says, “If people want to look good and be fit, that’s fine, but it’s not yoga. The way yoga is being marketed, we’re getting further away from the essence of it, which is spiritual, philosophical and ethical; it’s not just about getting upside-down. But yoga is a great way of making money and everyone is cashing in on it.”
“Look at me,” Choudhury says, leaning back, with twinkling eyes. “I have a lot of money now. We are doing yoga right now, you and me, we are exchanging our philosophy of life.”
Sheer cheek, energy and absence of self-doubt are the key to Choudhury’s charisma and it is hard not to like him. He exudes happiness and is certainly enjoying himself. In fact, he likes to big it up, “There’s nothing like this in the world! Give me a pen or T-shirt and put “Bikram Yoga” on it and it will sell for $45.” He has developed a Bikram brand line in yoga clothing, jewellery, videos and even CD recordings of Choudhury singing songs he has written himself with lines like: ‘I believe in God: it is me/I believe in yoga: it is the key’ in Hindified English; accompanied by whining stringed instruments.
But his real hobby is cars; “Look here!” (He points to a framed photograph on the wall of his office.) “This is my favourite car. It is Howard Hughes’s last limousine, his Royal Daimler, the only one in the world with a toilet inside.” He also loves his Phantom Black Cherry, which used to belong to the Queen Mother and a James Bond Aston Martin from the film Thunderball.
Choudhury has worked hard to get to sit on Howard Hughes’s loo seat. His life story is a rags-to-riches drive for self-determination, reinvention and money. He was born in 1947 in Bihar. He was a weightlifting champion in Calcutta at the age of 13, and when a knee injury halted this career Choudhury turned to yoga for a cure. “By then, I looked like a baby gorilla: each leg was 26 inches wide and it took me eight months practising 20 hours a day to get my body down to size so that I could do the yoga.”
After becoming yoga champion of India at the age of 23, Choudhury decided to try his luck in America. He set up his first yoga studio in Los Angeles in 1973 and when actors began coming to his classes, he was dubbed ‘guru to the stars’. Now there may be as many as 315 people in any one of his yoga classes, each paying £12 per session.
“Yes, 315 people!” he says delightedly, “See how they love my yoga? It’s fantastic! This is getting so big: yoga is an industry now, it is a business.” For Choudhury perhaps, there can be no higher accolade. But what about yoga as the ancient Sanskrit defines it: a bridge between body, mind and spirit?
Cramming as many students as possible into a class may be economic –– but is it yoga? Bikram’s sequence of 26 ‘hot’ yoga poses and two breathing exercises –– practised in a raging 105degree temperature to mimic conditions in India –– loosens up the muscles, sweat out toxins and effect weight loss. The exercise makes bodies very sleek, very fast. Michele Pernetta who runs three Bikram Yoga studios in London says: “Bikram has tailored yoga to the western market and stripped away the dogma: the bells, incense, props, mantras and hippy beads.”
Bikram yoga is turbo-charged, egocentric and extreme. It is confrontational and without mercy. Some say it is a mirror image of its creator’s personality.
When I question Choudhury about this, he leans across his huge desk towards me and raises an index finger. “Your mind is your number one enemy. When you come to my class I guarantee you, for 90 minutes you will forget who you are, what is your name, whether you are man or woman, what you are doing here; for the first time since you were born your mind will be totally free, meditated from the rest of the world: I take you to another galaxy.”
He has written a script, which teachers of Bikram yoga have to learn verbatim, so that the words used by them during a class are his alone. Choudhury’s voice is supposed to bypass individual thinking and liberate the mind, but some resent the control he exerts. “He ’s a dictator,” says one Bikram-trained teacher who asks not to be named. “He works his employees to death and it’s all about him getting really, really rich. To him it is strictly business and he demands total subservience.”
As yoga becomes more of a money-spinning exercise, traditional values like compassion, love, kindness and a disinterest in worldly goods appear to be lost.
After living in Beverly Hills for 33 years, Choudhury’s Indian-inflected monologue is full of cash quarrels, dropped names and –– like his yoga –– fast and furious, circulating a lot of heated air. Now, Choudhury couldn’t be in finer shape: a lineless face, smooth muscled torso, strong thighs and the energy of a cobra ready to strike. And he has not held back from attacking anyone standing in his way.
In 2002, he sued Sandy McCauley when she attempted to set up her own independent school and the case was settled out of court. McCauley says: “I question his right to copyright and to franchise yoga; it should be available to everyone. Bikram yoga is like eating a McDonald’s burger; it doesn’t mean you might not want to try pure Angus beef in a five-star restaurant sometime.”
There is a lot of money at stake. In 2004, the Wall Street journal estimated the yoga industry to be worth $42 billion worldwide. Choudhury is delighted to say that this year yoga is worth $100bn. When I ask whether his yoga has sacrificed the traditional ‘spiritual’ aspirations, Choudhury frowns in irritation: “What do people mean by spiritual? In 50 years of teaching, I have not met one person in the West who understands this word. It means self-realisation, it means how to realise your own spirit and how to use your body to reach and control your mind.
“When people cannot walk and they come into my class in a wheelchair, I make them stand and walk again. They go back home with smiling faces and they bless me and say Bikram, you saved my life, God bless you –– that is the only food of my spiritual practice.”
He claims yoga can cure disease and even negate the need for food and sleep. “Yoga is the petrol pump. My class gives you energy, like petrol for a car. I don’t need to eat, I don’t need to sleep. Americans are obsessed by diet. If your car engine is broken, does it make any difference how much petrol you put into it? If the body is not good, what difference is it what you eat? If the body is good, you can eat what you want.”
Mary Atwood, manageress at the Life Centre in London, says diet is an important part of yoga. “Ayurvedic yogis believed that if the digestive system is healthy, even poison can be transformed into food, but we have to tailor ancient belief to the modern western world.” Katy Appleton, director of Apple Yoga in Clapham, says: “Doing yoga does change eating habits, but you still need food, which is the body’s fuel.”
While practitioners quibble about the best way to practise yoga, huge numbers of people are joining the Bikram boom. As his fitness empire grows, Bikram needs more teachers and the training course, which originally took four years, is now stripped down to just nine weeks.
Tony Sanchez, an ex-student who broke from Bikram to set up his own school of yoga, believes that this is too short a time for a teacher to be responsible for their students. “The teachers are not experienced and do not know enough to be able to modify the poses to individual needs.”
Choudhury says students are required to have practised his yoga for at least six months before applying to be a teacher. But the British Wheel of Yoga –– the governing body for yoga in Britain is already worried that teachers without adequate training are setting up studios in the UK. The organisation’s chief executive Pier Bibby says, “We are developing and regulating national standards. At the moment, anyone can say they are a yoga teacher and set up a school, and that situation is theoretically open to abuse.”
As far as Choudhury is concerned, teachers certified by him are the only legitimate ones allowed to teach Bikram yoga and increasing numbers of people want to qualify fast and start making money on the yoga circuit.
Choudhury laughs, as he reflects on how much the business has developed over the years, “I used to grab people off the street saying ‘Come and be a yoga teacher!’ Now, 700 people apply for each course and I accept only 200 or 250.”
When I joined prospective teachers at Bikram’s West Hollywood studio last week, they were beginning their sixth week of training. Most are women aged between 20 and 35, though there are some men and a smattering of over forties in the crowd. The totty factor is scorching: lithe young bodies braced in revealing sports bras and pants of Choudhury’s own design: baby pink, blue, orange, red and definitely no green. (He says green is an unlucky colour and bans it from all his studios.)
In the lobby an eight-foot high photograph of Choudhury seated on a tiger skin gazes down upon the super-fit disciples who await their guru’s presence in the flesh. He emerges from his office wearing a black silk suit, crepe silk shirt with pink-edged collar, black tie printed with garish gold diagonals and a feathered fedora. “I designed it all myself,’ he says and gamely climbs onto a pedestal for our photographer.
Below, his students are closing their gaps, gasping, groaning, some turning puce, eyes bulging, wet hair clinging to scalps. At last, he allows a short break –– “OK, I let you drink some water now, I’m being nice to you today” –– and each student gratefully grabs for his or her litre bottle.
The discourse takes a new turn. “I met Elvis Presley, he was a good friend of mine. If he did my class everyday he’d be singing today. I sang for him, he laughed and he loved it!” Choudhury breaks into his own Bollywood version of ‘Love Me Tender’, and then segues into ‘I’m feeling lonely tonight ...la la la la la la la ...I forgot the words. Quincy Jones wanted me to sing, but I said: No! He wanted me to sing rock’n’roll but I refused. I gave six songs to Michael Jackson.”
The crowd respond like puppets for their master: limbs interlocking and bodies bowing before him at his command. They laugh at his jokes and when he sings a final song (ending his live rendition only when the recorded CD version is mixed onto the microphone system) they lie down flat on their backs like happy babies listening to a lullaby.
Later, after a shower, they emerge in the lobby again, smiling and shiny as cult converts. “Fantastic!” says Tony Oostenbrink, 40, who is hoping soon to open his own studio in Vancouver. “This exercise, in conditions of extreme heat, forces a heart-pumping, dizzying boost of blood and oxygen around the body. It induces a natural and addictive high. The endorphin rush is a rollercoaster,” he says.
But not everyone enjoys the Bikram yoga rush. I hear one student mutter on his mobile phone, “He was bullshitting and according to Kundalini teacher Howard Davis, practising yoga at such high temperatures can lead to hyperextension or dehydration. The other danger of working in such high temperatures is that people may want to drink too much before and after the class, and drinking too much water can cause kidney failure. In fact, you shouldn’t drink any water while doing yoga, because it interferes with energy flow.”
Davis’s yoga technique involves chanting, incense, the beating of a gong and chai (sweet tea) to relax his students. It is, in short, the antithesis of Choudhury’s approach. “Yoga was traditionally practised as a preparation for meditation,” he says. “We close our eyes to focus on inner energy flowing through the chakras (power points). It is the interior life we are interested in, not the shallow outer world of illusion and body image.”
But Choudhury is indomitable, “If someone comes to my class for the first time, I say welcome to Bikram’s torture chamber to kill yourself for the next 90 minutes.”
And his students seem more than happy to expand their earthly horizons. After qualifying in LA, they can travel to teach at any of his studios around the world. Samantha Lockwood, 24, says, “This is like one big family, not just an organisation.” Later, however, when Samantha performs the Camel pose for our photographer and Choudhury stands on top of her for what seems like too long, shouting: “Take another one! She is dying!” I have to wonder what kind of family this really is.
Robin Munro, director of the Yoga Therapy Centre in London, says, “You should never push yourself beyond your limits. Commercialisation is taking yoga away from the deeper link between body and mind. We do gentle asanas, breathing and relaxation techniques; and we work on emotions and attitude.
“Yoga can provide useful tools for change by relieving stress and using awareness techniques to stop reinforcing stressful attitudes and lifestyles. The deeper philosophy of yoga is that we are all part of a whole. Just going out for yourself is not going to help anyone. There is a positive subversive element to yoga. The world does change through people’s actions.”
The greatest change Choudhury has seen so far has been to his own bank balance. Along the way, he has undoubtedly made a lot of his people very happy and very fit. How far this benefits the rest of the world remains to be seen.