'Yoga's bad boy' makes no apologies

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Celebrity guru Bikram Choudhury attracts controversy, but his students swear by him

Celebrity guru Bikram Choudhury, the self-described "busiest man in the world," says he always makes time for some retail therapy.

"It takes six hours," the L.A.-based yoga mogul said, before laughing: "And I buy all the junk. I love it, you know?"

Bikram teaches his wife Rajashree in 1999. - Submitted photo

Celebrity guru Bikram Choudhury, the self-described "busiest man in the world," says he always makes time for some retail therapy.

"It takes six hours," the L.A.-based yoga mogul said, before laughing: "And I buy all the junk. I love it, you know?"

Choudhury was in Vancouver recently, where he gave a sold-out lecture and helped judge the Western Canadian Hatha Yoga Championships.

Speaking with Choudhury - founder of the hot and sweaty Bikram Yoga empire, including more than 350 affiliated studios around the world - is an entertaining and slightly dizzying experience.

The 63-year-old charmer easily hops from topic to topic. And he's especially effusive about the benefits of his trademarked Bikram Yoga, a 90-minute class distinguished from other yoga styles by a series of 26 postures practised in a set order, in a hot room of about 37 C.

"I offer longest life - not life in a wheelchair," he said. "Life. Quality life. The best life possible any human being can offer you. That, I do my job."

It's a job he's been doing for more than five decades.

Choudhury first began his yoga journey when he was three years old. Two years later, he said, he met his guru, Bishnu Ghosh, and began doing yoga for "at least" four hours daily at Ghosh's College of Physical Education in Calcutta, winning the National India Yoga Championship when he was 13.

During this time, he said, he first began to notice the impact of heat on his body.

"When room is more hot, then I can sweat more, I can stretch more, I can push more, I can go more deeper and deeper and inside the body, it hurts less and you never get injury," he said, recalling early days in India when he'd shut doors to keep in the heat.

"So I developed this with my own practice," he said. "Years and years and years and years."

From the beginning, he said, his style of yoga has appealed to celebrities, from film stars to politicians.

"I always teach celebrities, all my life," he said, recalling a class he taught in the early 1970s that was packed with "superstars" gathered together by his famous student, Shirley MacLaine.

"That's the way it started. So they called me 'guru of the stars,' from Day 1," he said, casually mentioning other famous Bikram students, such as Tiger Woods, by first name only. "Now, it's not a big deal." Other famous hardbodies reported to be fans of Bikram's include Madonna, Elle Macpherson and George Clooney.

Choudhury says he has little time for anyone who expects special treatment.

"This is the way I run my kingdom: my way or the highway," he said in a tone that leaves little room for dispute. "I don't listen to anybody. You need my help: Come to me, shut up, forget who you are. I will take care of you. And I do my job."

This means following instructions, as he leads a group through exercises, from breathing techniques to more challenging balancing postures.

He likens the focused group dynamic of a Bikram class to the military: all the rules apply to everyone in the group.

"They have to listen to the dialogue. So 90 minutes, first time in your life, your brain is free from the rest of the world. You relax. That is not possible privately."

He said he loves teaching people his system, even if his schedule can be gruelling.

"Oh my God. It's more than love. It's my life," he said.

He keeps a book of testimonials.

"Millions of people told me, 'Bikram, I was a vegetable, couldn't walk, your yoga saved my life, changed my life.' ... I get so many compliments every single day."

But the outspoken teacher also attracts a good deal of controversy.

Critics question everything from the benefits of a heated space to the competitions associated with Bikram Yoga, such as the championship in Vancouver, to Choudhury's copyrighting of his Bikram Yoga set. (Only those certified and licensed by Choudhury can teach Bikram Yoga. And franchisees, or owners of Bikram Yoga studios, pay a $10,000 "initial franchise fee," as well as monthly fees, outlined on bikramyoga.com.)

Not to mention the minimalist attire favoured by the oft-shirtless and micro-shorted Choudhury - and many of his students.

"I know people judge him and he can maybe say some controversial things," said Lisa Pelzer, owner of two Bikram Yoga studios in Vancouver, which attract hundreds of students every day.

But she said this is part of his teaching: "From what I've seen in over the last 13 years that I've been practising, is that he kind of says things to people that they need to hear."

Truth isn't easy to swallow, said Choudhury, who doesn't seem to mind causing a stir or being tagged "yoga's bad boy" by Yoga Journal.

"I have the biggest and the longest mouth in the world," he said. "Everybody's scared of my mouth. You know why? I speak the truth."

This is tough for people, he said. "Truth is the most bitter to accept, swallow and digest it. The moment you speak truth, you lose your popularity. But I don't care," he said.

"I yell, scream, fight with my truth."

Organizations: College of Physical Education

Geographic location: Vancouver, Calcutta, India

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  • Lilia
    April 14, 2011 - 11:19

    Thanks for the information! I've been looking into starting up a yoga franchise in my area, and wanted to know if Bikram was trademarked. Your post really helps--and it's good to know that even Yogis use retail therapy!