'Hot' Yoga Burns
CBS 60 Minutes, Wednesday, June 8,
CBS 60 Minute
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America’s obsession with good
health and exercise is leading to a boom in yoga. One man at the forefront
of the movement is Bikram Choudhury, an Indian yogi with an all-American
Correspondent Mika Brzezinski reports
Choudhury's turning up the heat with his "torture chamber" yoga method.
Dressed in nothing but a Rolex and a Speedo, the 59-year-old yoga guru
pushes his students to contort 'til it hurts in a room heated to well over
"I don't sell cheesecake, you know that?" asks
Choudhury. "So you come there to suffer. If you don't suffer, you don't
get anything. Nothing easy in life."
But isn't yoga supposed to be
relaxing and meditative – not torture? Choudhury says no: "That's the
biggest problem in America. That's the way yoga [was] introduced to
America. Yoga [in America] means sit and close your eyes and you will look
at the lamp and look at the crystal and meditate."
In Bikram yoga,
meditation starts on the outside, in pushing the body to its extreme.
Choudhury explains, "You use the body as a medium to bring the
mind back to the brain. Perfect married between body and mind. Then, you
can knock the door to the spirit."
His approach works, he says,
because of the 105-degree heat, which loosens the body and allows the
muscles and tendons to go farther and stretch even more.
may make the body more limber, but it does nothing to stop a first-time
Bikram student's potential pain. In fact, one doctor who spoke to
60 Minutes Wednesday said that people taking
Bikram yoga classes should be warned, given instructions on hydration and
on modifying poses to avoid pushing the body too hard.
mocks the suggestion. "Tell the doctor [that] I say to start chicken
farm." He adds, "What do you think I'm doing all this life? All these
Judging by Choudhury's appearance, his "hot" yoga looks to
be a great path to preserving and improving health. In fact, the yogi
believes medical science will prove Bikram yoga is good for you. He’s
collaborating in two separate clinical trials, with doctors from the
University of Southern California and Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in
New York. They're studying Bikram’s effect on bone density and the overall
benefits of yoga.
In Hollywood, people have been swearing by
Bikram yoga for decades. Choudhury lists Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson,
Madonna, Candice Bergen and Brooke Shields among his famous followers.
It's a list that includes none other than the 37th President of
the United States, Richard Nixon. Nixon's the key player in the story of
how the Indian guru came to America in the first place. It's a tale that,
true or not, has become part of Choudhury's own personal folklore.
It was 1972, and Nixon, who was visiting the South Pacific, was
suffering from phlebitis. Choudhury says he was summoned, and gave the
president his special hot treatment.
Afterward, Choudhury says,
"He got up, shave, with the dress, tie, suit, went for meeting. And he
asked me first thing, 'Sir, who are you? Are you an Indian black
Choudhury explained that he was a yogi, and says Nixon
was so happy with the treatment, he gave him an open invitation to come
and live in the United States.
Once in America, Choudhury embraced the
American way: He franchised. There's a Bikram studio in almost every major
city in America, with more than a million students served worldwide. In
fact, Bikram yoga has earned a nickname: "McYoga."
The analogy is
fine by Choudhury. "What's wrong with that?," he asks. "I eat Big Mac.
That means, they mean, correct me if I'm wrong, it's getting more popular.
You know, spreading out all over like McDonald's."
And just as
that Big Mac tastes the same in every McDonalds, Choudhury wants every
yoga student to have exactly the same experience, no matter which Bikram
studio they visit. So, for around $5,000 a pop, plus an occasional
refresher course, he teaches the teachers his exact set of 26 postures and
two breathing exercises - what makes Bikram yoga, Bikram yoga.
Vanessa Calder wasn't trained by Choudhury, but comes from a whole
family – her mother, father, sister and older brother -- that was. She
says their family-run studio was doing well until June 2002, when it
received a letter from Choudhury's attorneys telling them to "immediately
cease and desist" teaching Bikram yoga or face legal action.
was extremely scary, says Calder. "Here we were, being threatened with
lawsuits, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in claims."
Choudhury claimed that because the studio taught other types of
yoga and let non-Bikram trained instructors like Vanessa Calder teach
classes, they were guilty of copyright violations.
exercise really be copyrighted? Choudhury argued in federal court that his
precise sequence of yoga postures and breathing exercises should be
eligible for copyright protection, just as a choreographer can copyright
the dance steps in a ballet, or a musician can turn a sequence of "do, re,
mis" into a copyrighted song.
The copyright claims riled the yoga
community, and Calder organized a group of Bikram instructors to take on
the yoga master in court.
Calder says, "What we object to is him
saying, 'You cannot teach Bikram yoga, if I say you cannot teach Bikram
yoga. You cannot teach those poses in that order, because I own them.' And
that's -- that's the problem."
"The ownership of the style," she
says, is the problem. "Because yoga is not to be owned. They've existed --
hundreds of thousands of yoga poses -- have existed for thousands of
Choudhury says yoga "belongs to the earth. It's a god. But
I picked up a piece of it and I created something." He says it's his
personal property, and it should be practiced the right way.
spring, a federal judge agreed with Choudhury's assertion that a yoga
sequence can be copyrighted, and ruled that his aggressive stance “is well
within Choudhury’s rights as the copyright owner.”
strategy has made Choudhury a rich man. He lives the life of a star,
complete with a whole fleet of classic cars he’s restored himself. When
asked if this isn't a bit un-yogi-like, he replies, "Depends which type of
yogi. I’m an American yogi!"
But Choudhury's life hasn't always
been that of a Beverly Hills yogi. He grew up in Calcutta, a city known
for its poverty. And, although he’s been living in America for more than
half his life, India – the birthplace of yoga – will always be home. He
says India is "the only country in the world that still there is some
humanity and spiritualism left."
Choudhury says that Americans can
learn a lot from India, a place where the rich and even the poorest of the
poor find the same peace of mind through yoga. He explains, "The
philosophy of human life: Who you are? Human. Why you came to this earth
as a human. What ultimate destination of your life. To understand all
these things... you have to study yoga."
It is this philosophy, he
says, more than sweat, that he is selling through the mental and physical
challenge of Bikram yoga.
"In America, even you have everything,"
he notes. "More than anybody else in the world. Still you are not happy."
He adds, "Only materialistic success is the success of human life
in America. India, no. I like money. You like money. We need the money.
But, money is not going to bring humanity and spiritualism into your
Today, Choudhury is treated like a beloved son almost
everywhere he goes in India, despite that fact that he made himself into
America's guru so many years ago.
"I started with
nothing," he says. "Zero. And I never cared for business. You people give
me everything. Why? I make you understand what is the value of me and my
country's philosophy to make your life better than anybody's life in the
Most people would think in Calcutta they have nothing,
while in Beverly Hills people have everything. "Why?" asks Choudhury.
"Because I bring Calcutta to Beverly Hills."