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'Hot' Yoga Burns Bright

CBS 60 Minutes, Wednesday, June 8, 2005

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(CBS)  America’s obsession with good health and exercise is leading to a boom in yoga. One man at the forefront of the movement is Bikram Choudhury, an Indian yogi with an all-American approach.

Correspondent Mika Brzezinski reports Choudhury's turning up the heat with his "torture chamber" yoga method. Dressed in nothing but a Rolex and a Speedo, the 59-year-old yoga guru pushes his students to contort 'til it hurts in a room heated to well over 100 degrees.

"I don't sell cheesecake, you know that?" asks Choudhury. "So you come there to suffer. If you don't suffer, you don't get anything. Nothing easy in life."

But isn't yoga supposed to be relaxing and meditative – not torture? Choudhury says no: "That's the biggest problem in America. That's the way yoga [was] introduced to America. Yoga [in America] means sit and close your eyes and you will look at the lamp and look at the crystal and meditate."

In Bikram yoga, meditation starts on the outside, in pushing the body to its extreme.

Choudhury explains, "You use the body as a medium to bring the mind back to the brain. Perfect married between body and mind. Then, you can knock the door to the spirit."

His approach works, he says, because of the 105-degree heat, which loosens the body and allows the muscles and tendons to go farther and stretch even more.

The heat may make the body more limber, but it does nothing to stop a first-time Bikram student's potential pain. In fact, one doctor who spoke to 60 Minutes Wednesday said that people taking Bikram yoga classes should be warned, given instructions on hydration and on modifying poses to avoid pushing the body too hard.

Choudhury mocks the suggestion. "Tell the doctor [that] I say to start chicken farm." He adds, "What do you think I'm doing all this life? All these years?"

Judging by Choudhury's appearance, his "hot" yoga looks to be a great path to preserving and improving health. In fact, the yogi believes medical science will prove Bikram yoga is good for you. He’s collaborating in two separate clinical trials, with doctors from the University of Southern California and Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in New York. They're studying Bikram’s effect on bone density and the overall benefits of yoga.

In Hollywood, people have been swearing by Bikram yoga for decades. Choudhury lists Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Candice Bergen and Brooke Shields among his famous followers.

It's a list that includes none other than the 37th President of the United States, Richard Nixon. Nixon's the key player in the story of how the Indian guru came to America in the first place. It's a tale that, true or not, has become part of Choudhury's own personal folklore.

It was 1972, and Nixon, who was visiting the South Pacific, was suffering from phlebitis. Choudhury says he was summoned, and gave the president his special hot treatment.

Afterward, Choudhury says, "He got up, shave, with the dress, tie, suit, went for meeting. And he asked me first thing, 'Sir, who are you? Are you an Indian black magician?'"

Choudhury explained that he was a yogi, and says Nixon was so happy with the treatment, he gave him an open invitation to come and live in the United States.
Once in America, Choudhury embraced the American way: He franchised. There's a Bikram studio in almost every major city in America, with more than a million students served worldwide. In fact, Bikram yoga has earned a nickname: "McYoga."

The analogy is fine by Choudhury. "What's wrong with that?," he asks. "I eat Big Mac. That means, they mean, correct me if I'm wrong, it's getting more popular. You know, spreading out all over like McDonald's."

And just as that Big Mac tastes the same in every McDonalds, Choudhury wants every yoga student to have exactly the same experience, no matter which Bikram studio they visit. So, for around $5,000 a pop, plus an occasional refresher course, he teaches the teachers his exact set of 26 postures and two breathing exercises - what makes Bikram yoga, Bikram yoga.

Vanessa Calder wasn't trained by Choudhury, but comes from a whole family – her mother, father, sister and older brother -- that was. She says their family-run studio was doing well until June 2002, when it received a letter from Choudhury's attorneys telling them to "immediately cease and desist" teaching Bikram yoga or face legal action.

"It was extremely scary, says Calder. "Here we were, being threatened with lawsuits, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in claims."

Choudhury claimed that because the studio taught other types of yoga and let non-Bikram trained instructors like Vanessa Calder teach classes, they were guilty of copyright violations.

Can physical exercise really be copyrighted? Choudhury argued in federal court that his precise sequence of yoga postures and breathing exercises should be eligible for copyright protection, just as a choreographer can copyright the dance steps in a ballet, or a musician can turn a sequence of "do, re, mis" into a copyrighted song.

The copyright claims riled the yoga community, and Calder organized a group of Bikram instructors to take on the yoga master in court.

Calder says, "What we object to is him saying, 'You cannot teach Bikram yoga, if I say you cannot teach Bikram yoga. You cannot teach those poses in that order, because I own them.' And that's -- that's the problem."

"The ownership of the style," she says, is the problem. "Because yoga is not to be owned. They've existed -- hundreds of thousands of yoga poses -- have existed for thousands of years."

Choudhury says yoga "belongs to the earth. It's a god. But I picked up a piece of it and I created something." He says it's his personal property, and it should be practiced the right way.

This spring, a federal judge agreed with Choudhury's assertion that a yoga sequence can be copyrighted, and ruled that his aggressive stance “is well within Choudhury’s rights as the copyright owner.”

His business strategy has made Choudhury a rich man. He lives the life of a star, complete with a whole fleet of classic cars he’s restored himself. When asked if this isn't a bit un-yogi-like, he replies, "Depends which type of yogi. I’m an American yogi!"

But Choudhury's life hasn't always been that of a Beverly Hills yogi. He grew up in Calcutta, a city known for its poverty. And, although he’s been living in America for more than half his life, India – the birthplace of yoga – will always be home. He says India is "the only country in the world that still there is some humanity and spiritualism left."

Choudhury says that Americans can learn a lot from India, a place where the rich and even the poorest of the poor find the same peace of mind through yoga. He explains, "The philosophy of human life: Who you are? Human. Why you came to this earth as a human. What ultimate destination of your life. To understand all these things... you have to study yoga."

It is this philosophy, he says, more than sweat, that he is selling through the mental and physical challenge of Bikram yoga.

"In America, even you have everything," he notes. "More than anybody else in the world. Still you are not happy."

He adds, "Only materialistic success is the success of human life in America. India, no. I like money. You like money. We need the money. But, money is not going to bring humanity and spiritualism into your life."

Today, Choudhury is treated like a beloved son almost everywhere he goes in India, despite that fact that he made himself into America's guru so many years ago.

"I started with nothing," he says. "Zero. And I never cared for business. You people give me everything. Why? I make you understand what is the value of me and my country's philosophy to make your life better than anybody's life in the world."

Most people would think in Calcutta they have nothing, while in Beverly Hills people have everything. "Why?" asks Choudhury. "Because I bring Calcutta to Beverly Hills."
 


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