The Emperor Has No Clothes (Because It’s Too Darn Hot in the Room)

Certain things in life, when put together, just seem plain anachronistic – nuns and strippers, babies and guns, dogs and cats, yoga and…cars?

For Bikram Choudhury, a love for fancy automobiles goes hand in hand with a passion for yoga. This is only one of the many contradictions that make up the self-proclaimed founder of Bikram, or “hot” yoga. He even compares how his yoga practice helps people to fixing vehicles in his book, “Bikram Yoga: The Guru Behind Hot Yoga Shows the Way to Radiant Health and Personal Fulfillment” (Harper Collins, $24.95): “I fix the human chassis, I tune up human engines, I recharge human batteries, and I adjust human transmissions.”

There is a lot of controversy surrounding Choudhury, who is known to rail against other popular types of yoga – calling the downward dog position “American circus” and the prop-utilizing Iyengar school “a Santa Monica sex shop” in one interview with the Chicago Tribune. Choudhury believes that his Bikram yoga is a truer form of the practice, using 26 poses and specific breathing techniques that involve every organ in the body, all while enduring 105-degree heat.

Why does Bikram necessitate practicing in such a hot environment? Choudhury’s theory is that the heat increases muscle flexibility and facilitates detoxification (through the numerous buckets of sweat you’re sure to produce with such a workout).

The poses used in the 90-minute workout have been copyrighted, which has angered many yoga practitioners who believe that no one can “own” an ancient practice. Choudhury has gone so far as to threaten legal action against teachers who do not follow his protocols.

Regardless of his methods, the man has developed an empire of 500 Bikram yoga studios, awarding him a level of success that has resulted in a classic Beverly Hills lifestyle – he claims to own at least 35 Rolls Royce’s, hobnobs with the Hollywood elite, and once told a Chicago Tribune reporter that he’d been “attacked” by over 500 women wanting to have sex with him.

Choudhury developed his 26 trademark postures back in 1965, basing them on Patanjali’s The Yoga Sutra. He claims that there are only eight kinds of yoga – karma, hatha, raja, vedanta, bhakti, mantra, jnana and laya – and that modern yoga styles like vinyasa and kundalini are not valid forms of the practice. However, some might suggest there is no such thing as “Bikram” in the pure origins of yoga, either. His poses are adapted, and the main aspect of Bikram, the heavily heated environment, was never part of the ancient practices.

Even so, Bikram yoga has been gaining popularity all over the world, and Choudhury certainly has his fans, including such celebrities as Shirley MacLaine and Raquel Welch.

Despite the controversial personality and high-end tastes of its founder, many people have found a love of yoga practice through Choudhury’s official Bikram studios. While Choudhury might distance himself from other forms of yoga, dismissing its practitioners as “clowns”, Bikram has evidently helped many people find the mental and physical clarity that all types of yoga embrace, and these people often go on to develop a love for yoga across party lines. Students of Bikram often end up branching out into hatha, vinyasa, and other types of yoga, and vice versa. Maybe Choudhury’s form of the practice isn’t so different from other forms of yoga, after all. Just don’t try and argue that with him!

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