Two things inspired me to write about the controversial yoga superstar, Bikram Choudhury today:
- Three days ago, I found this historic pic of Bikram Choudhury (b. 1944) that I’d previously lost. (I collect archival yoga images.)
- Two days ago Netflix just came out with a new documentary on the man. It’s ominously titled: Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator.
In the above pic, BC poses in front of his Beverly Hills studio with Bishwanath Ghosh (b. 1944) the son of Bikrams’s guru, visiting from India.
It’s probably 1976.
Contrary to popular expectations and his own pronouncements, Bikram (in an echo of the great BKS Iyengar’s student-guru relationship) only studied yoga postures for 6 months under the storied Bishnu Ghosh (1903 -1970) before leaving for Japan in early February of 1970.
Even though posture demonstrations were extremely common in India (Iyengar performed them beginning at age 16 in 1935) competitions for yoga did not exist there in the late 1950s.
They started in ‘74.
Bikram was neither a storied yogi nor a competitive weightlifter who won a gold medal at Tokyo’s 1964 Olympics, as he’s said.
In the 1960s, he was a handsome bodybuilder who won a single local lifting competition.
He was also a professional masseur who — foreshadowing his celebrity-strewn years in America — served Bollywood stars and other glitterati after migrating to Bombay from Calcutta in 1965.
In 1970, the well-known teacher, Patricia Sullivan, began teaching yoga in a small Honolulu studio, just holding place for a teacher “coming from Japan.”
That man was Bikram Choudhury, who replaced Sullivan in January of ‘71.
Consistent with his pronouncements, Bikram really did meet Elvis Presley in Hawaii and really did cure Nixon of phlebitis there (according to Calcutta Yoga author, Jerome Armstrong).
Bikram prospered in many ways in the islands, then bounced to San Francisco in 1973.
Ten months in, he went searching for better fortunes in LA.
Some people have karma for fame.
They usually achieve great things, too, but sometimes it’s just fame they’re good at.
Think of the Kardashians.
Bikram’s got a huuuuge fame gene.
He shot to stardom in the hothouse of Hollywood. Like Yogi Bhajan, he caroused with politicians, talk-show hosts, and famous athletes.
Nobody’s reputation intimidated him.
In retrospect, it seems he looked down on every American — feeling we all lacked discipline.
Or maybe he just looked down on everyone.
In 1978 he published his first book, Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class. It was filled with pics of his student celebrities with whom he created a crazy-fun, radically challenging path to health.
Legions students were cured of profound disorders by his practice.
The renowned 26-posture sequence was distilled from his guru’s 28-pose guidebook, Yoga Cure.
He modified that series a little, eliminating a couple over-challenging poses for the U.S. tribe. He thought to add heat upon seeing his Japanese students march to saunas after class.
Most of the time, if fame drags your wagon, wealth tags along, too.
Choudhury’s Rolls Royce fleet got wings when he launched teacher trainings in ‘95 — eventually filling rooms with hundreds for $10,500 a pop. In 2015, after losing a $6.8 million harassment suit to his former attorney, he transferred his assets to his wife, moved his Rolls Royces to Florida, filed for (mock?) divorce, then fled the country. The attorney was given ownership of his studios by the court.
He now fills up teacher trainings in Mexico and Spain.
He’s done more to spread yoga than any human in history, inspiring over 400 studios and hundreds of thousands of practitioners.
A uniquely gifted man and teacher, he’s also, doubtless, a megalomaniac and a rapist.
Even before watching the Netflix film, I fantasized about a reality show where Bikram and Trump are locked in a cottage on half-rations, and we watch their egos burn the whole countryside down.
Like Trump, Bikram’s a despot who built an empire on a personality cult and a fraught relationship to truth. Betraying his teacherly responsibilities, he ran amok in our victim culture, taking full advantage of anyone willing to trade dignity for the blessings he could give.
As we talk of quid pro quo in the impeachment hearings and I observe Republicans trade away their dignity and reason for Trump’s cult of power, I reflect on the exchanges people make for status and success. Both the Netflix special on Bikram and the impeachment process reveal how we kowtow to kings of charisma — how we trade self-respect for tribal acceptance, social position, and vocational perks — nurturing a fascinating crop of reckless, pop-culture despots.
Credit to Calcutta Yoga author, Jerome Armstrong, for much of the data here.