ON A MONDAY AFTERNOON in downtown Los Angeles, the famous yoga teacher's disciples gather in a large, rectangular room heated to more than 100 degrees. Solemn, half-naked men with lithe torsos stare into the distance, quietly focusing their energies. Young women in leotards limber up, arching their spines and exhaling in unison with a loud whooshing noise.
Just before 5 p.m., a Rolls-Royce pulls up outside, and moments later the guru strides in. This afternoon, Bikram ChoudhuryBikram, as he's universally knownis wearing a diamond-studded Rolex, a headset microphone, and a tiny Speedo. He climbs onto a padded chair raised like a throne in the front of the room, looks down upon his hushed followers, and begins leading class.
And when Bikram speaks, he doesn't exactly talk in soothing tones. "Arms over the head, let's go," he shouts. Middle-aged and in phenomenal shape, he points out flab and mocks people who are not bending fully. Then he segues, without warning: "I'm feeling sleepy, because I haven't gone shopping for a long time.... I haven't bought a car for two yearsno, I bought a car last month, the fancy new Chrysler. Okay, move your right leg. Now your left leg." A few more exercises, another non sequitur: "What is the number-one reason people get divorced in America? Why do men leave? Because they don't get according to their expectations.... Men have an imbalance of hormones. But yoga helps men maintain [sex drive]. Shit! Shit!"
For the next 90 minutes, the scattershot, profanity-laced, name-dropping monologue continues, with Bikram rapping in mellifluous, Indian-accented English on a range of topicsthe yoga routine, the world's finest automobiles, women he's known. Halfway through class, he abruptly stops and takes a long swig of Coke. He stands up, grabs his trunks, and lets out a loud belch. When he's finished burping, he holds his crotch tighter and thrusts wildly, screaming, "I am a Bengal tiger! I am a Bengal tiger!"
The crowd laps it up. They respond in unison to Bikram's questions, laugh at his jokes, and follow his exhortations, sometimes grimacing in pain. After class Bikram, still clad only in the Speedo, strides to his office, squats on a chair, and leans over his desk, peering into my face as he yells, "There is nothing like this happening anywhere in this country, or in the world."
That would be an understatement. In fact, in the process of seeking more control over the growing American yoga market (at least 16.5 million people now practice yoga, according to Yoga Journal), Bikram has broken brand-new ground for his age-old discipline by seeking to copyright a sequence of yoga poses and set up hundreds of Bikram franchises around the country. He has also used his considerable fortune to go on the legal offensive, threatening to sue studios that use the poses and breathing exercises he practices without crediting him. His attempt has frightened many traditional teachers, who worry about the future of yoga and other communal disciplines that have evolved over centuries, in large part through the sharing of ideas. Unfortunately for Bikram, it turns out that even though yogis are supposed to reject all material attachments, many studio owners aren't giving up their businesses without a fight.