Bikram Choudhury is not in the best of moods when we meet him at a suburban five-star. In the middle of a high-volume conversation in Bengali with his lawyer, he sits on a terrace overlooking an artificial lagoon.
The sheen of his trousers matches the glint of chrome-toed loafers that we are told cost USD 3,000 (Rs 1.66 lakh). The last two months have been arduous for Los-Angeles based Choudhury, creator of Bikram Yoga, and self-proclaimed guru to the famous. In June, the United States Copyright Office declared that since yoga asanas improve health, they are not eligible for copyright.
This leaves Choudhury’s patented sequence of 26 hatha yoga postures performed in 105 degrees Fahrenheit, in jeopardy. To add to his woes, earlier this month, Mumbai’s only Bikram Yoga studio in Bandra downed shutters abruptly, following a dispute with franchisee Anurag Srivastav.
While Srivastav’s office claims Choudhury demanded an exorbitant franchise fee that wasn’t due until the studio completed a year, the yogi accuses him of running the studio without signing a franchise agreement that came with a USD 50,000 (Rs 27.6 lakh) fee. “He paid nothing.
Instead, I ended up paying close to a crore as rent and trainers’ fee for eight months,” says Choudhury, who is now looking for a rule-abiding franchisee. The same rap on the knuckles won’t work with the Copyright Office, though.
He controls his agitation with a deep breath, before saying, “Of the 84,00,000 yoga asanas that exist, I picked 26, and arranged them in a sequence after years of research. Each pose is accompanied by my instruction, so that it can offer unique benefits. It’s like arranging musical notes in a melody.
No one owns the notes, but when Bappi da spins them into a melody, he does trademark them,” says Choudhury. Despite the June judgment, a copyright protection that was granted to Choudhury in 2002, has not been re-evaluated by the Copyright Office, and still stands valid. Unless revised, Choudhury isn’t in immediate trouble. But that’s hardly worrying the man who doesn’t let humility roam anywhere near him.
“There is a reason why I dominate 98 per cent of yoga in the world,” says the disciple of Bishnu Ghosh, brother to Parmahamsa Yogananada, author of the famed Autobiography of a Yogi. “I make people do real exercise. Running, jogging and playing sport is not exercise.
When people join my torture chamber at 40.6 degrees Celsius, and reel under 40 per cent humidity, I don’t say, ‘Hi, honey, welcome to Bikram Yoga. Don’t hurt yourself, do the best you can’. I say, ‘Be ready to kill yourself for the next 90 minutes.
After the first pose you’ll feel nauseous. After the third, you’ll throw up. And by the end, you will have a blackout.” The ‘torture’ works, supposedly, with Choudhury claiming to have successfully cured fatal illnesses, including phlebitis of 37th US president Richard Nixon, actor Charlie Sheen’s drug addiction, and tennis star John McEnroe’s paralysis.
Whipping out a sheaf of papers from American medical experts, including a letter by Harvard Medical School director of research, David Mischoulon, dated June 2012, he says he has already proved himself.
An assistant professor in the department of neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, is keen to analyse Choudhury’s sleep patterns to evaluate how he manages to function despite sleeping for four hours each day.
“Do you think they are stupid?” he asks. “Every top doctor across the world salutes me. Bikram is number one.” You realise it’s one of those days when Choudhury, who likes to call himself a gangster, is living up to the ‘bad boy of yoga’ tag. Unlike traditional yogis, Choudhury won’t shun material pleasures, and flaunts a diamond-rimmed watch.
Owning up to possessing 100 Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, he says he doesn’t want to die lonely, meditating on a mountain. “Does the Pope live in caves? He won’t. I do my bit for society, I make people healthy.
Why shouldn’t I enjoy the benefits?” And that makes him nothing like yoga gurus in India. It’s not the ascetic lifestyle, but their narrow vision, Choudhury has a problem with.
Shying away from research and improvisation, India’s yoga masters are “shoddy”, he says. “Baba Ramdev is as good as a clown. He can’t identify the asana he is teaching. He does Shupta Vajrasana, and calls it Ardha Kurmasana. What he teaches is nothing but stretching exercises.” We tell him we are unsure, who’s better.
The ignorant yogi or the one who builds an empire, only to let his followers down. John Friend, whose Anusara Yoga empire included 2,00,000 followers in 70 countries, was recently found to be a serial adulterer and marijuana dealer. No shastra in India, argues Choudhury, teaches the guru to have sex with his disciples. “But gurus have girlfriends. It’s a personal choice.
Sex is not bad,” he says, highlighting the controversial connect between a healthy libido and yoga asanas. A stimulant for sexual hormones, the right asanas, says Choudhury, can gift you “incredible sexual powers”.
“I had one lady tell me, ‘Mr Choudhury, my husband used to eat, sleep and snore. Yoga has turned him into a sexual animal. What do I do?’” he laughs. Still want to enter Bikram’s sweatbox?
► (Ramdev) can’t identify the asana he is teaching. He does Shupta Vajrasana, and calls it Ardha Kurmasana
► He (Mumbai franchise) paid nothing. Instead, I paid close to a crore as rent, and trainers’ fee for eight months