|He shatters the
stereotype of loincloth-clad guru. Instead, this yoga exponent is totally at ease sporting
a black speedo swimsuit and a diamond studded wristwatch. As he walks into his mirrored
fluorescent light-lit, sauna-like studio, students reach for him like he's a rock star.
"Welcome to Bikram's torture chamber," he intones, and no, he isn't joking. Bikram Choudhury, the 56-year old, California-based yoga exponent, whose sequence of 26 asanas (each of which is performed twice) and two breathing exercises, practiced in temperature that crosses 100 degrees, have been baptized as Bikram's 'hot yoga.'
Hopefully, Fall will see another first of sorts -- Bikram's Yoga College of India will kickstart its franchise in the United States. He explains this move as a means to ensure the purity of his brand of yoga. That the critics pan it as the biggest and crudest step yet in the 'commodification' of spirituality in America, is a different story altogether.
Bikram elucidates, "After years of research and verification, having used the methods taught to me by my guru and using modern medical techniques, I have arrived at this sequence of postures. No matter what your age or whether it's a physical or mental ailment, the practice of these postures yields effective solutions."
Bikram runs over 600 yoga studios in the US alone. He claims to have cured every major disease, including former US president Richard Nixon's case of phlebitis. His celebrity followers include Michael Jackson, Shirley MacLaine and Madonna. He lives in Beverly Hills, has 30 classic cars and his fleet includes Rolls Royces and Bentleys. His empire is worth $7 million, making him one of the biggest players in the burgeoning industry of yoga.
Yoga has alsways been a part of Bikram's life. Born in Kolkata, he started learning yoga when he was four. His guru was Bishnu Ghosh, brother of Paramahansa Yogananda, who founded the self-realization fellowship. At 13, Bikram won the National India Yoga contest. Then became a weightlifter; winning the All India Weightlifting competition in 1963, when he was just 16 years old.
At his guru's urging, Bikram travelled to the West. He opened his first studio in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, in the early '70s, in a basement. He would sleep on the floor and conduct free clsses. Now, of course, a 90-minute class at his institute costs $20 -- one of the most expensive sessions in the city -- not that the cost is a deterrent to the crowds that throng his classes. "How long can I teach yoga for free? And when it's free, only a handful attend them," he reasons.
Somewhere along the way, in 1984, marital bliss beckoned. He tied the knot with Rajashree, a five-time All India yoga champion. They have a 12-year old daughter, Laju, and a nine-year-old son, Anurag. Rajashree helps Bikram in the daily functioning of the institute.
All said and done, this Indian has held the country's flag high, packaging Indian spirituality the American way. The limelight is his for the asking in all major newspapers and magazines. Thanks largely to his diligence in spreading the good word of yoga, 75 percent of all US health clubs offer yoga classes. And as other yoga exponents, including those who are running their own independent studios, say: Bikram's yoga is still the best.
At a time when American laps up everything that has yoga as a prefix or suffix, Bikram Choudhury and his brand are here to stay.