Friday, February 15, 2002       

COMMUNITY
Yoga guru tells Americans how to twist their way to happiness
Dave 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 discipline.
  
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 Integral Studies.
   "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 Ave.)
   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 peace."
   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 returned 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 anything."
   "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 dford@sfchronicle.com.

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2002 SF Chronicle

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