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Mr. Hot Yoga: How Bikram Choudhury changed the way we exercise

News_Bikram Chodhury_at Stude Hall
In Zoot suit and fedora, Choudhury doesn't look like the traditional yogi. Photo by Gabe Canales
News_Bikram Chodhury_at Stude Hall
Bikram Choudhury addresses a crowd at Rice University's Stude Hall. Photo by Gabe Canales
News_Bikram Choudhury_yoga
At one teacher training session, Choudhury stood on a woman's back. Photo by tiarescott/Flickr
News_Bikram Choudhury_young photo_ Oct 2010
In this undated photo from his autobiography, a much younger Choudhury demonstrates the spine-twisting pose. Courtesy of Morrow
News_Bikram Choudhury_book_Oct 2010
In his autobiography, Choudhury describes encounters with Richard Nixon and Shirley MacLaine. Courtesy of Morrow
Bikram College of Yoga-Rice Village
Get Directions - 2438 South Blvd. Houston

At first, I thought I had happened into the wrong hotel room.

The man at the door was dressed in a cream-colored silk zoot suit and shirt with contrasting black collar and cuffs, jeweled cuff links, an American flag tie tack pinned to his swirly black tie, gold loafers and white fedora, with his longish black hair peeking out from the back.

This is the man who "invented" hot yoga?

I had expected a swami in flowing robes. Instead I found a man who looked like he was part of Michael Jackson's entourage.

"I'm in show biz. I entertain people," Bikram Choudhury said during an interview before presenting a lecture at Rice University. "It's a very boring subject. Why do you want to pay money to go to a hot room and torture yourself? I have to make it a little interesting."

In recent years, Birkram's regimen of hot yoga, incorporating two sets of 26 poses during a 90-minute session in temperatures approaching 112 degrees, has taken off. In 1995, when the first freestanding Bikram studio in Houston opened, it attracted only a handful of students. Now there are six sanctioned studios in Houston — 15 in Texas — and thousands of regulars. He has more than 500 approved studios in the United States and around the world.

"Before, only young kids used to come. Now (people in their) 50s and 60s come — doctors, engineers, lawyers, scientists," Bikram said.

Why has it become so popular?

"There are hundreds of reasons," he said. "But the shortest answer is, it works."

He cites a recent scientific study in which Bikram yoga appears to prevent bone loss in women and cites the number of loyal celebrity clients — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Ralph Sampson, Michelle Kwan, Serena and Venus Williams — who claim it prolonged their sports careers. His latest adherent, Kobe Bryant, recently took up Bikram yoga for the same reason, Choudhury said. The clientele ranges from Playboy playmates to the U.S. men's gymnastics team, who did Bikram yoga in Houston before the 2008 Olympics, said Mike Winter, owner of two Houston studios.

Feel the heat

Choudhury came up with the idea for hot yoga a long time ago — just how long ago, he won't say; his birth certificate indicates he's 64, but he intimates he's much older — when practicing yoga in his hometown of Calcutta.

"India is hot. We'd open the windows but my sweat felt cold, so I closed the windows and doors to my practice. Everyone complained to my guru."

He believes that doing the poses in heat stimulates and strengthen muscles, joints and organs.

Classes are standardized, so that a Bikram session is consistent in Houston or Honduras. "Wherever you go — man, woman, which language, young, old — it's exactly the same thing. It's like a Cadillac dealership. Anywhere in the world, you go to buy a Cadillac, and it's the same car. It's a product of Detroit. I'm a product of Beverly Hills," he said.

According to his autobiography, Choudhury's green card came courtesy of President Richard Nixon, whom he treated for advanced thrombophlebitis in his left leg while Nixon was in Hawaii. Soon afterwards, in 1973, Choudhury settled in Beverly Hills and, at the urging of Shirley MacLaine, opened a yoga school. At first, he didn't charge for his classes until MacLaine told, "If you don't charge money, people won't respect you. They'll think you're full of it."

He quickly cottoned to western ways. Although he was conflicted at first, telling MacLaine "If I ask for money, I'm a false yogi, a fraud," Choudhury now lives in a Beverly Hills mansion, owns a fleet of Rolls Royces and Bentleys and a closet of flashy designer clothes and Rolex watches. He sees nothing wrong in combining the material with the spiritual.

"Indian yogi's are old-fashioned, conservative, prejudicial people. You have to look like yogi, talk like yogi, have a beard like yogi. Now, I live in America. Indian people never have the opportunity to learn what the west and America has to offer to this world. (There's) nothing wrong with nice house, nice clothes, nice food, nice friend. But don't forget the other part. You live in the best country in the world, America, but you don't live long enough to enjoy it. So I give you good life, enjoy what you accomplished. It's a balance. That's the most important thing."

He has resisted western vices. He has never tasted alcohol or coffee and never smoked a cigarette. He says he only sleeps a few hours a night and eats only one daily meal — a piece of fish, chicken or meat or a small amount of egg curry rice — at night. "The best food in the world is no food," he said.

He does an advance class three days a week and practices on his own — doing as many as 1,500 crunches in the sauna in sweltering temperatures he says most people couldn't handle — on other days.

Each Bikram class is heavily choreographed from start to finish. While some have questioned the class length and wondered if it could be shortened, he says it must be done in its entirety to realize success.

"It's a melody. If you drop one key, it's not the same," he said.

His manner is mild, but during teacher training sessions, known as "Bikram boot camp," Choudhury is sometimes anything but Zen-like. He has been known to loudly berate teachers and call them out when instructions are not up to his standards.

"I'll do anything to make it work. I'm not an easygoing man," he said.

Answers critics

Choudhury scoffs at Southern Baptist Seminary president Albert Mohler's recent pronouncements that Christians should not practice yoga because it has a spiritual aspect meant to connect with the divine.

"What he said is normal but the way he said it is totally ignorant," Choudhury said "If you do yoga, you have good health. It's a preventative medicine." 

And, he maintains, no one in the western world understands spirituality, anyway.

"So far in my life, no western man, including the Pope, can answer this question: 'In one sentence, what is spiritualism?' So when people talk about spirit in the western world, we Indians laugh because if people can't learn A,B,C,D, how can you explain Shakespeare, Byron, Shelley and Keates?"

And he shrugs off criticisms that he copyrighted his 26-posture sequence, even though yoga is a 5,000-year-old tradition that cannot be owned, to create the "McDonald's of yoga."

"Nothing bothers me," he replied. "I'm bullet proof, waterproof, wind proof, money proof, sex proof, emotion proof, stress proof, strength proof."

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