Weird History Bikram Yoga Isn't Just Stretching, It's A Big Business And A Cult Of Personality  

Melissa Sartore
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The business of yoga continues to boom around the world, in large part due to the meteoric rise of Bikram yoga during the 1970s and '80s. Developed by Bikram Choudhury, the yoga practice that bears his name became much more than an exercise regimen. This form of exercise arguably turned into one of America's weird cults; the popularity of Bikram yoga was facilitated by Choudhury's ability to spread his vision through thousands of trained instructors. Along the way, the yoga guru amassed a huge fortune and devoted followers, but more recently, Choudhury's legal problems have shaken the Bikram yoga community to the core. 

The grueling heat of a Bikram yoga studio is a place to stretch, breathe, and get centered through a sequence of poses that challenge both mind and body. Though it seems relaxing, it may be as grueling as Crossfit. How did 26 postures and two breathing techniques become so prolific and dominate the yoga landscape? What about Choudhury and his methods were so appealing? And what did he do to start, grow, and ultimately tarnish a cultural movement?

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Choudhury Developed Hot Yoga During The 1970s

Kolkata-born Choudhury left India in 1970 to visit Japan to teach yoga. While in Japan, Choudhury discovered the cold rooms where he was teaching were more accommodating when heated. By introducing heaters into his yoga practice, Choudhury found his students were more flexible and less likely to get hurt.

In his observations, the sauna-like conditions Choudhury brought to yoga also resulted in a "yoga high." He saw that his students were in a state of happiness - a euphoria - after an extended session of hot yoga.

At first, Choudhury heated rooms to 82 degrees Fahrenheit (28 degrees Celsius) but today, Bikram yoga rooms are heated to 104 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40 to 41 degrees Celsius). 

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Choudhury Tried To Copyright His Yoga Practice

Choudhury published his first book, Bikram's Beginning Yoga Class, in 1978. He successfully sued former student Raquel Welch in 1984 when she released a similar book and video. Choudhury alleged she took his intellectual property, but the two parties settled out of court.

Through the 1980s and '90s, Choudhury trained instructors to follow his 26 asanas in precision only his Bikram training courses could provide. In 2002, Choudhury attempted to copyright not only his written works but his yoga sequence in full.

When Choudhury's attempts to copyright his 26 asanas were challenged, the matter went to court in Northern California. In 2005, the US District Court for the Northern District of California determined that copyright for asanas would be possible, but didn't go as far as to protect Bikram yoga. Rather, they left it open to interpretation as to what qualified as unique enough to be protected.

Disputes over Bikram yoga didn't end there. In 2015, the US District Court for the Central District of California ruled instructors trained through the Bikram yoga training program could teach outside of the Bikram's Yoga College of India. According to the court, "Copyright protection is limited to the expression of ideas and does not extend to the ideas themselves; the Bikram Yoga Sequence is not a proper subject of copyright protection."

To many, Choudhury's attempts at copyrighting are offensive, given the length of time yoga has existed and its role in religious practice. Dr. Aseem Shukla, a co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation, stated, "Call it exercise. Call it a good workout. Call it what you like... but don't call it yoga. It's a cynical appropriation of Hinduism."

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Choudhury Was Reportedly Known To Berate Clients And Instructors

During Bikram yoga classes, Choudhury would walk around making comments about his patrons. He said he saw "junk bodies” and promised to give his followers "a long life, good sex, and plenty of money." Seen as eccentric and charismatic, Choudhury's behavior was part of the overall Bikram experience. He could be harsh, but was also inspiring, appearing to care about the well-being of his students. Choudhury created a sense of community, encouraging his followers to transform together while working on themselves. 

During training for future teachers, Choudhury would enter a room and announce, "So your job, my job, together, is to save almost seven billion people's life," and tell his future instructors they were about to subject themselves to an intensive 90-minute workout. All the while, he'd be massaged, have someone stroking his hair, or be pampered in some other way. 

According to one attendee, simply called Jane, Choudhury was worshipped at the events: 

He'd walk into the room and people would literally put their hands together in prayer and get down on the floor and bow down, out of respect for him.

Choudhury Has Faced Accusations Of Assaulting Several Of His Instructors

Despite orders to his students that intimacy was forbidden at training events - he reportedly told them, "No touchy-touchy, no kissy-kissy, no f*cky-f*cky!" - Choudhury has faced accusations of taking advantage of women under his instruction. Choudhury has settled several lawsuits alleging misconduct ranging from harassment to assault.

In 2010, he was accused of disparaging women and homosexual men alike, allegedly making statements that women were "here for one reason: to spread their legs and make babies," and spewing ignorant comments about AIDS and men who are gay. The plaintiff, Pandhora Williams, approached Choudhury to ask him why he said disparaging remarks, but she was told, "We don’t sell love here, b*tch!" and kicked out of the training.

Additional lawsuits were sent to Choudhury's former lawyer, Minakshi Jafa-Bodden, but Choudhury fired her when she challenged him. This brought yet another suit against the yoga guru.

Overall, Choudhury has paid millions of dollars to settle civil lawsuits. He maintains his innocence, claiming he doesn't "have to assault the women" since women are attracted to him. According to Choudhury, he only slept with students, instructors, and trainees when given "no choice."

"If they say to me, 'Boss, you must f*ck me or I will [end my own life],' then I do it!," he claimed during an interview. "Think if I don't! The karma!"