February 15, 2002
Yoga guru tells Americans how to twist their way to happiness
Ford, Chronicle Staff Writer
Some people will do almost anything to feel a little heat. Move to
Florida. Visit a tanning booth. Set themselves on fire. But all these pale in the face of
what some yoga fanatics swear is the best way to practice that ancient physical
They spend an hour-and-a-half in a room heated to more than 100 degrees while gliding
through 26 postures, or asanas, designed to work muscles, ligaments and nerves and to
bring serenity to aching spirits.
They are practitioners of a yoga style designed by Bikram Choudhury, a
teacher and proselytizer who believes that yoga -- specifically, his yoga -- can cure the
ills suffered by Americans who have everything yet feel nothing.
He will bring his message to the Herbst Theater next Friday for "An
Evening With Bikram," a lecture sponsored by the California Institute of
"You (Americans) built the best country in the world, but you don't have
the best life in the world," Choudhury said by phone from his home in Beverly Hills,
his English inflected with the lilting cadences of his native India. "Why not?
Because something is missing. Two things: humanity and spiritual."
Choudhury, who has lived in the United States for more than three decades --
he founded the Yoga College of India in 1974 in Los Angeles, where he still teaches -- has
surfed the yoga wave that has swelled in the United States for the past decade.
His two-month teacher-training course has churned out roughly 1,800 teachers
worldwide, and he guesses there are more than 400 Bikram-affiliated studios in the
country. (Locally, Bikram yoga is practiced at the Yoga College of India at 910 Columbus
While Choudhury's main message is a spiritual one, he certainly hasn't
resisted profiting financially. He lives a flashy Los Angeles lifestyle -- Rolls-Royces, a
mansion -- that mirrors those of such celebrity clients as Madonna, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
and John McEnroe.
"Money is very important," he said. "I like money. You like
money. But that's not the end of life. Satisfaction of living, that means mental
Choudhury began studying yoga with his guru, Bishnu Ghosh (whose brother,
Paramahansa Yogananda, wrote the popular "Autobiography of a Yogi"), at age 5.
At 11 he won the National India Yoga Competition, the youngest competitor to take the
title, and repeated the feat three more years in a row.
Next he became a marathon runner and weightlifter; he competed in the 1964
Olympic Games in Tokyo. But a lifting accident crushed his knee and crippled him at 20,
according to biographical information on his Web site. Told by medical experts he'd never
walk, he eturned to yoga, which he says cured his condition.
From that experience, Choudhury developed his method, using as his blueprint
the 84-posture yoga sutras of Patanjali. Choudhury selected 26 essential postures that
could be completed in 90 minutes. The heated room is meant to mimic the warmth of India
and to give muscles a chance to relax.
"If you take a steel to a blacksmith, tell him to make a knife, the
first thing he'll do is heat it up," Choudhury says.
Since then, he has sworn by the discipline as a means of healing injuries and
achieving serenity -- even while ducking the brickbats of critics who charge that his
overheated yoga does more harm than good.
"People talked bad about Jesus, too," Choudhury snapped.
"They're ignorant. Stupid people talk stupid about others when they don't know
"He is a person I feel is definitely on a mission," said Joe
Subbiando, the executive director of the California Institute of Integral Studies.
"There's no question this is the commitment of his life."
For Bikram, that means haranguing Americans into a life made better through
Bikram yoga, a discipline designed to detoxify the body, purify the mind and balance the
spirit in order to achieve the peace of mind he says is the hallmark of the East.
"At the end of the day, you (Americans) have more problems than anywhere
else," he says. "Family life falling apart. Big mental hospital. You lost
yourself. Americans not selfish, they're selfless. You need self-realization.
"We (in India) have not improved economically, technically,
scientifically. We come to you guys (to learn). If you want to learn how to fix your mind,
brain, spine, come to me."
Onstage "An Evening with Bikram," presented by California Institute of
Integral Studies, starts at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 22 at Herbst Theatre, 401 Van
Ness Ave. $35. (415) 392-4400 or visit www.tickets.com.
E-mail Dave Ford at
© 2002 SF Chronicle