Little is known of Choudhury’s early life. Born in Kolkata in 1946, he claimed to have been invited to America by Richard Nixon, and to have taught yoga to the Beatles and Nasa astronauts. He once told a class that he invented the disco ball….
We’re 15 minutes into the Monday morning class at Hot 8 Yoga in Beverly Hills. Francesca Asumah, one of the most sought-after instructors in California, is putting 48 perspiring humans through a sequence of 26 poses and two breathing exercises popularised by the celebrity yogi Bikram Choudhury. The temperature is a sapping 40C. Sweat slicks over yoga mats. Beautiful bodies melt into shapes that seem beyond the realm of ordinary human geometry.
Asumah’s class, titled A Dance With The Ancients, falls somewhere between gym session and sermon. “You must learn to love yourself, guys!” she encourages us in a northern English accent (she’s half-Ghanaian, half-English, and from Manchester). “If everyone loves themselves, then the whole world will be loved. And beware false gurus! Gurus are middlemen. We are all born in the temple. If anyone claims to be your guru, run a mile, people!”
The message has a special charge in this room. This is the home of what the yogis in my class call “the Bikram community-in-exile”: people who used to be at the heart of the movement, and who say they suffered horrendous abuse in their pursuit of yogic enlightenment. Sweating next to me is Minakshi “Micki” Jafa-Bodden, 48, former legal adviser for the Bikram yoga company. She wants me to appreciate the hold that these poses have before she will talk any further: “You can’t understand me unless you understand Bikram yoga.” And it’s just as well Jafa-Bodden remains devoted to the 26 poses: last month, Los Angeles county court gave her control of the entire global empire.
If you’re not up on your chakras and pranayamas, you could be forgiven for thinking that “Bikram” is a term for a kind of hot yoga performed by celebrities and Hollywood types in unsanitary conditions. It is that: Andy Murray credits it with helping his “fitness and mental strength”; Serena Williams and David Beckham are said to be fans. But it is also a sequence of moves that takes its trademarked name from one man. At his early 2010s peak, the pony-tailed, waxed-chested image of Bikram Choudhury adorned the walls of around 650 licensed Bikram yoga studios across the world. For many, he was a spiritual leader as well as the inventor of an exercise class.
Little is known of Choudhury’s early life. Born in Kolkata in 1946, he claimed to have been invited to America by Richard Nixon, and to have taught yoga to the Beatles and Nasa astronauts. He once told a class that he invented the disco ball.
What is certain is that his yoga gave his students something they found life-changing. Asumah first went to a Bikram-affiliated studio in London in 2000. “I immediately saw the benefit of it,” she says. “At a normal yoga class, you do whatever poses the teacher feels like teaching you. Our form of yoga is different. I’m 64. My quality of life is so joyful and I know it’s because of the yoga.” She believes the 26 poses contain a “sacred geometry” that has been handed down from “the ancients”. Choudhury also claimed his form of yoga was more rigorous and authentic than westernised forms preaching peace and love.
Choudhury first set up a studio in a basement in Beverly Hills. From the mid-1970s onwards, he drew in a celebrity clientele, including Michael Jackson, Jeff Bridges, Shirley MacLaine, Barbra Streisand and Raquel Welch. His classes, heated to a regulation 40C (designed to mimic conditions in Kolkata), offered a combination of constructive hazing, cosmic wisdom and pantomime eccentricity. He would wear Speedos and issue bizarre commands; in 2011, a writer for GQ magazine went to a class and reported him telling a student, “You, Miss Teeny-Weeny Bikini! Spread your legs!” He loathed the colour green and banned people from wearing it. He had never seen carpet until he arrived in America, and believing it represented the height of luxury had all his studios carpeted, hygiene be damned.
Initially, Choudhury asked for donations and slept on the floor of his studio; but as his celebrity grew, so did his material demands. He claimed he had trademarked his sequence and filed aggressive lawsuits to prevent former students from adapting his 26 moves (including a suit accusing Raquel Welch of stealing his sequence for her exercise book). In 2012, a California federal judge dismissed Choudhury’s attempt to trademark his sequence, ruling that a series of yoga poses cannot be copyrighted. As a New York studio owner, Greg Gumucio, whom Choudhury tried to shut down, told ABC news: “It’s kind of like if Arnold Schwarzenegger said, ‘I’m going to do five bench presses, six curls, seven squats, call it Arnold’s Work, and nobody can show that or teach that without my permission.’”
Choudhury’s most reliable stream of revenue was his twice-yearly teacher-training sessions, where up to 400 students would pay around £10,000 to undergo nine weeks of intensive yoga to become certified Bikram instructors. These earned Choudhury a personal fortune estimated at $75m, including a fleet of 43 luxury cars.