Bikram Choudhury: Burning man


Bikram Choudhury: Burning man

The yogi talks sexual assault allegations, unashamed hedonism and conspiracy theories

By Shamik Bag  January 23rd, 2015

In the heavily patterned living room of his home in South Kolkata, international yoga sensation Bikram Choudhury languishes on his sofa as though riding in one of his Rolls-Royces. Kitted out in a polyester shirt, white trousers and glassy leather shoes strung with logos, Choudhury looks lithe for his 68 years. Overhead is a cloud of framed photos of him in various stages of gregariousness with acolytes and dignitaries — Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy, Jyoti Basu, Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan. He coos an old Hindi number at our (still) camera.

Since taking his eponymous form of yoga — Bikram Hot Yoga comprises 26 poses performed at 40° C — to the West in the ’70s, the megalomaniac Beverly Hills yogi has never strayed too far from the headlines. His flouting of austerity, the medical grey areas of his practice, the routine allegations of sexual abuse by his women students, his penchant for suing competitors for copyright infringement, and his legions of global devotees despite it all, have rendered him a kind of cult figure.

I sat down with the guru-to-millions, and as the conversation progressed, was very glad for my trusty Dictaphone. This is the kind of interview you have to play back and then play back again just to make very sure you heard right.

ELLE: What brings you to Kolkata?

Bikram Choudhury: I have a lot of offers to start Bikram wellness centre, Bikram healing centre, Bikram product line, Bikram university, Bikram lecture tour. The Delhi government is building a Bikram yoga school in a stadium. I saw the 10,000 sq ft location. They want Bikram Yoga back in India. 

ELLE: How did you first get interested in yoga?

BC: After the Second World War, people were dying from diseases. My entire house was affected by smallpox. My older sister and a brother died. My maternal grandfather and mother moved us to Deoghar in Bihar. There, our neighbour, an elderly panditji, would teach us Hindi. I was five years old and uninterested, so he taught me sirsasana, dhanurasana and other asanas to make it worthwhile for me.

Later, after we returned to Kolkata, while playing one day, our ball went into the next house. I went looking for it and saw big-bodied men exercising in a gym. When I went back the next day out of curiosity, I saw kids doing what panditji had already taught me, but their postures were wrong. I took my shirt off and did some advanced postures. It impressed a man sitting on a bench and he wanted me to come back. That was [yoga guru] Bishnu Ghosh. From that day, I have exercised seven days a week.

ELLE: It took the cold weather in Japan for you to start Bikram Hot Yoga, is that right?

BC: In Japan, it was –9° C when I arrived. One day, one of my students, Mrs McArthur, brought a little heater, plugged it in and warmed up before class. She felt she exercised better the hotter it was. The room felt hot too. That day onwards, students started bringing their personal heaters. The heater, breathing out like in kapalbhati, was new for me. We were happily sweating it out at 50° C. Bikram Hot Yoga took off.

ELLE: Why do you call the Bikram Hot Yoga class a torture chamber?

BC: Because it is one. Most of the people who come are spoilt brats. They look for something easy. Nothing is accomplished without pain. You come here to suffer. I’ve even seen Olympic sprinters fall and throw up after three postures. 

ELLE: How important is Bikram Hot Yoga’s 105° F (40° C) system?

BC: It is the most important thing. To make a knife out of a piece of metal, a blacksmith puts it in the fire, and later, gives it shape. I do the same. Most people are like scrap metal in a junkyard. A cold room is also very risky because you can get hurt, you’ll end up in hospital and I’ll end up with a lawsuit. In India, nobody will sue the guru. In America, they are looking for a cause to sue. [Even] right now, somebody is suing me. 

ELLE: Tell us about your experience teaching yoga in Mumbai, before you left for the US.

BC: I would teach at rich people’s — Marwaris’ — houses. I was handsome and smart. Every housewife attacked me physically. I once jumped from the second floor of the Malabar Hill house of an actress who wanted to rape me, and almost broke my leg. Abuse was a daily occurrence for me. They were nice to me but this was their weakness. Even in the US, four girls, who were my students, attempted suicide because I wouldn’t sleep with them. It came out in a magazine too. What can I do? I can’t save 200 women every day. I can’t be a man hooker. 

ELLE: You currently have 11 charges against you in the US — from sexual molestation to rape. The American courts have accepted eight of them. What do you have to say?

BC: I want the truth to come out. I’ve been targeted because I’m famous. For the 1,000-odd franchises of Bikram Hot Yoga, there are 13,000 illegal schools. Yoga is a $120 billion business in the US; my own business is worth billions. I have spent $3 to $5 million over seven years to get the intellectual copyright for Bikram Hot Yoga. Now I want to confront all illegal schools backed by big corporations. The girls are being used to destroy me so that they can use my brand.

ELLE: What is so special about Bikram Hot Yoga that so many want to emulate it?

BC: I created something that nobody thought of in the last 5,000 years. Every yogi will make you feel good, increase blood circulation and [help] you breathe better. My yoga saves [people] from bone cancer. Why and how do you think I went to America? I fixed President Nixon’s leg. He was suffering from thrombosis. I gave him three lessons and he didn’t know which one was the bad leg. My green card was a gift from him.

ELLE: People have sued you, claiming yoga is in the public domain and can’t be copyrighted.

BC: A group of students, some of them my own, filed the case against me in San Francisco. Three years later, the judge said that [while] initially she had found yoga is free [after inquiries] in India, and thus, cannot be copyrighted, after three years of research, she was convinced that if anything should be copyrighted, it should be Bikram Hot Yoga. You know what the other cases against me are? I’m a bad man; I don’t like women or white people. I talk like this: “You fucking white pig”, “You black shit”, “You fat women” — that’s the way I talk and teach. That’s why I'm Bikram. They twist things to make me look bad. I don’t care.

ELLE: Controversies aside, what, according to you, made yoga so popular in America and the world?

BC: Me. I made it the highest exported item from India. I sell life. What kind of life? Long life, good life. I make people look like 50 when they are 85. What is the hardest thing in the world? It’s to bring the mind back to the brain and hold it there. In a Bikram class, I hold your mind in my hands and inject it in your brain. I take you to another consciousness.

ELLE: You began by giving free yoga lessons in the US, but very quickly went flat-out commercial.

BC: My friend, the actress Shirley MacLaine, said, “Because you started free yoga, all the dirty hippies come to your school”. She said Hollywood and rich people won’t come because the class smells. Yoga was free in India and I never paid my guru anything. In exchange, I would clean the floor. But Indian culture didn’t work in the West. So 40 years ago, if you wanted to shake my hand, you had to pay $20.  

ELLE: You’ve also acquired expensive tastes. There are stories about your Rolls-Royce fleet. How many do you have?

BC: I don’t know. Who cares? See, these are not important things. These are silly questions. “What makes Bikram, Bikram?” is the question you should ask me. My guru lived the same way. He would go to America and buy a Rolls-Royce, Packard and Cadillac at the same time. He had three Harley-Davidson bikes. Who said that every yogi has to live on the streets? What good is a yogi living in the Himalayan caves doing for society?    

ELLE: You’ve never liked to be identified as a yogi.

BC: One doesn’t have to wear make-up or certain clothes to feel like a yogi. People respect me for my knowledge. My guru never wore saffron robes. At Ramakrishna Mission, where I studied, we ate meat and fish. Both Ramakrishna and Vivekananda were non-vegetarians. I think those who give up things to be a yogi are failures and confused people. We don’t chant slokas to heal people. We are physical culturists.

ELLE: What about somebody like BKS Iyengar who lived a simple and austere life as a yoga guru?

BC: What did he do for the world? He ran a school, but there are a million yoga schools. What did he create? People prostituted his yoga across the world. They destroyed it, like they are trying to do to my yoga. He was the nicest gentleman but he did nothing. For 50 years, I earned dignity for India in America. Most yoga gurus went to America to teach but couldn’t, because they wanted to teach as Indian yogis. It doesn’t work. When in Rome, act like a Roman. You have to know their disease. 

ELLE: Isn’t it ironic that your yoga has very little presence in India? Do you plan to ramp up the numbers?

BC: I spent nearly Rs 100 crore to open the biggest yoga school in Mumbai, but they closed it. The building didn’t have a permit. Do I need the headache? In India I want to come have luchi-tarkari, fish curry, rasgulla, and be gone.

ELLE: As a yoga guru, what would you like to communicate to the world?

BC: You know why people come to me? I never tell them how bad they are. I only tell them how good they are and how it can be better. The first step of yoga tells you that you always ignore the
bad and automatically you’ll be with the good. If you can’t speak the truth, just make sure you don’t lie.  

In the heavily patterned living room of his home in South Kolkata, international yoga sensation Bikram Choudhury languishes on his sofa as though riding in one of his Rolls-Royces. Kitted out in a polyester shirt, white trousers and glassy leather shoes strung with logos, Choudhury looks lithe for his 68 years. Overhead is a cloud of framed photos of him in various stages of gregariousness with acolytes and dignitaries — Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy, Jyoti Basu, Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan. He coos an old Hindi number at our (still) camera.

Since taking his eponymous form of yoga — Bikram Hot Yoga comprises 26 poses performed at 40° C — to the West in the ’70s, the megalomaniac Beverly Hills yogi has never strayed too far from the headlines. His flouting of austerity, the medical grey areas of his practice, the routine allegations of sexual abuse by his women students, his penchant for suing competitors for copyright infringement, and his legions of global devotees despite it all, have rendered him a kind of cult figure.

I sat down with the guru-to-millions, and as the conversation progressed, was very glad for my trusty Dictaphone. This is the kind of interview you have to play back and then play back again just to make very sure you heard right.

ELLE: What brings you to Kolkata?

Bikram Choudhury: I have a lot of offers to start Bikram wellness centre, Bikram healing centre, Bikram product line, Bikram university, Bikram lecture tour. The Delhi government is building a Bikram yoga school in a stadium. I saw the 10,000 sq ft location. They want Bikram Yoga back in India. 

ELLE: How did you first get interested in yoga?

BC: After the Second World War, people were dying from diseases. My entire house was affected by smallpox. My older sister and a brother died. My maternal grandfather and mother moved us to Deoghar in Bihar. There, our neighbour, an elderly panditji, would teach us Hindi. I was five years old and uninterested, so he taught me sirsasana, dhanurasana and other asanas to make it worthwhile for me.

Later, after we returned to Kolkata, while playing one day, our ball went into the next house. I went looking for it and saw big-bodied men exercising in a gym. When I went back the next day out of curiosity, I saw kids doing what panditji had already taught me, but their postures were wrong. I took my shirt off and did some advanced postures. It impressed a man sitting on a bench and he wanted me to come back. That was [yoga guru] Bishnu Ghosh. From that day, I have exercised seven days a week.

ELLE: It took the cold weather in Japan for you to start Bikram Hot Yoga, is that right?

BC: In Japan, it was –9° C when I arrived. One day, one of my students, Mrs McArthur, brought a little heater, plugged it in and warmed up before class. She felt she exercised better the hotter it was. The room felt hot too. That day onwards, students started bringing their personal heaters. The heater, breathing out like in kapalbhati, was new for me. We were happily sweating it out at 50° C. Bikram Hot Yoga took off.

ELLE: Why do you call the Bikram Hot Yoga class a torture chamber?

BC: Because it is one. Most of the people who come are spoilt brats. They look for something easy. Nothing is accomplished without pain. You come here to suffer. I’ve even seen Olympic sprinters fall and throw up after three postures. 

ELLE: How important is Bikram Hot Yoga’s 105° F (40° C) system?

BC: It is the most important thing. To make a knife out of a piece of metal, a blacksmith puts it in the fire, and later, gives it shape. I do the same. Most people are like scrap metal in a junkyard. A cold room is also very risky because you can get hurt, you’ll end up in hospital and I’ll end up with a lawsuit. In India, nobody will sue the guru. In America, they are looking for a cause to sue. [Even] right now, somebody is suing me. 

ELLE: Tell us about your experience teaching yoga in Mumbai, before you left for the US.

BC: I would teach at rich people’s — Marwaris’ — houses. I was handsome and smart. Every housewife attacked me physically. I once jumped from the second floor of the Malabar Hill house of an actress who wanted to rape me, and almost broke my leg. Abuse was a daily occurrence for me. They were nice to me but this was their weakness. Even in the US, four girls, who were my students, attempted suicide because I wouldn’t sleep with them. It came out in a magazine too. What can I do? I can’t save 200 women every day. I can’t be a man hooker. 

ELLE: You currently have 11 charges against you in the US — from sexual molestation to rape. The American courts have accepted eight of them. What do you have to say?

BC: I want the truth to come out. I’ve been targeted because I’m famous. For the 1,000-odd franchises of Bikram Hot Yoga, there are 13,000 illegal schools. Yoga is a $120 billion business in the US; my own business is worth billions. I have spent $3 to $5 million over seven years to get the intellectual copyright for Bikram Hot Yoga. Now I want to confront all illegal schools backed by big corporations. The girls are being used to destroy me so that they can use my brand.

ELLE: What is so special about Bikram Hot Yoga that so many want to emulate it?

BC: I created something that nobody thought of in the last 5,000 years. Every yogi will make you feel good, increase blood circulation and [help] you breathe better. My yoga saves [people] from bone cancer. Why and how do you think I went to America? I fixed President Nixon’s leg. He was suffering from thrombosis. I gave him three lessons and he didn’t know which one was the bad leg. My green card was a gift from him.

ELLE: People have sued you, claiming yoga is in the public domain and can’t be copyrighted.

BC: A group of students, some of them my own, filed the case against me in San Francisco. Three years later, the judge said that [while] initially she had found yoga is free [after inquiries] in India, and thus, cannot be copyrighted, after three years of research, she was convinced that if anything should be copyrighted, it should be Bikram Hot Yoga. You know what the other cases against me are? I’m a bad man; I don’t like women or white people. I talk like this: “You fucking white pig”, “You black shit”, “You fat women” — that’s the way I talk and teach. That’s why I'm Bikram. They twist things to make me look bad. I don’t care.

ELLE: Controversies aside, what, according to you, made yoga so popular in America and the world?

BC: Me. I made it the highest exported item from India. I sell life. What kind of life? Long life, good life. I make people look like 50 when they are 85. What is the hardest thing in the world? It’s to bring the mind back to the brain and hold it there. In a Bikram class, I hold your mind in my hands and inject it in your brain. I take you to another consciousness.

ELLE: You began by giving free yoga lessons in the US, but very quickly went flat-out commercial.

BC: My friend, the actress Shirley MacLaine, said, “Because you started free yoga, all the dirty hippies come to your school”. She said Hollywood and rich people won’t come because the class smells. Yoga was free in India and I never paid my guru anything. In exchange, I would clean the floor. But Indian culture didn’t work in the West. So 40 years ago, if you wanted to shake my hand, you had to pay $20.  

ELLE: You’ve also acquired expensive tastes. There are stories about your Rolls-Royce fleet. How many do you have?

BC: I don’t know. Who cares? See, these are not important things. These are silly questions. “What makes Bikram, Bikram?” is the question you should ask me. My guru lived the same way. He would go to America and buy a Rolls-Royce, Packard and Cadillac at the same time. He had three Harley-Davidson bikes. Who said that every yogi has to live on the streets? What good is a yogi living in the Himalayan caves doing for society?    

ELLE: You’ve never liked to be identified as a yogi.

BC: One doesn’t have to wear make-up or certain clothes to feel like a yogi. People respect me for my knowledge. My guru never wore saffron robes. At Ramakrishna Mission, where I studied, we ate meat and fish. Both Ramakrishna and Vivekananda were non-vegetarians. I think those who give up things to be a yogi are failures and confused people. We don’t chant slokas to heal people. We are physical culturists.

ELLE: What about somebody like BKS Iyengar who lived a simple and austere life as a yoga guru?

BC: What did he do for the world? He ran a school, but there are a million yoga schools. What did he create? People prostituted his yoga across the world. They destroyed it, like they are trying to do to my yoga. He was the nicest gentleman but he did nothing. For 50 years, I earned dignity for India in America. Most yoga gurus went to America to teach but couldn’t, because they wanted to teach as Indian yogis. It doesn’t work. When in Rome, act like a Roman. You have to know their disease. 

ELLE: Isn’t it ironic that your yoga has very little presence in India? Do you plan to ramp up the numbers?

BC: I spent nearly Rs 100 crore to open the biggest yoga school in Mumbai, but they closed it. The building didn’t have a permit. Do I need the headache? In India I want to come have luchi-tarkari, fish curry, rasgulla, and be gone.

ELLE: As a yoga guru, what would you like to communicate to the world?

BC: You know why people come to me? I never tell them how bad they are. I only tell them how good they are and how it can be better. The first step of yoga tells you that you always ignore the
bad and automatically you’ll be with the good. If you can’t speak the truth, just make sure you don’t lie.