I first interviewed Bikram Choudhury in 2010, when he was in Phuket to deliver a session of his unique brand of hot yoga at his Kathu studio.
Things were going well until I constructed a rather lazy and obvious question as to the definition of spirituality.
As a relatively young Westerner, this was my fall-back question to a yogi, my go-to area when my rudimentary knowledge of yoga had expired and my eyes had begun to glaze over.
Bikram sensed this, fixed me with a stare, and then dismissed the question with a shake of the hand, “I don’t talk about such things with white people. There’s no spirituality in the Western world.
“You guys just have to follow me with this. If I want to learn how to build an air plane, I’ll come to you guys, but your life, your spirituality, your inner happiness – you have to come to me.”
Instead of causing the interview to take an awkward turn, it had rather the opposite effect.
I had to agree with Bikram to a certain extent, and told him that at least when it came to Eastern religion, practices and spiritual expression – regardless of how many beads are worn, incense sticks are lit, George Harrison experimental albums are listened to, and yoga postures are struck – I, and perhaps by extension most of the white Western community, was still very much sitting in the dark.
I enjoyed that afternoon with the Beverly Hills-dwelling, American celebrity-instructing yogi immensely. The fact that I later discovered he drove a Ferrari and wore a Rolex only seemed to be at odds with what I perceived to be yoga spiritualism, but what did I know?
When I heard that Bikram was returning to Phuket last month (he’s seen rapid growth in Thailand, having recently opened his first school in Samui, which comes on top of three in Bangkok, one in Chiang Mai, and the Phuket centre), I was eager to meet up with him once again.
Seeking the truth
As I arrived at the location we had arranged for the interview – a rented house in Kathu – he was laid out on a leather coach, listening to music by Snoop Dogg.
Pleasantly, Bikram says he remembers me and, in reference to my “spirituality question”, tells me with a smile “You know, life is too short, I don’t really have time to waste.”
Indeed he doesn’t – the day before our meeting he was in Tokyo, a few days before that in Seoul.
This is a man who was more or less single-handedly responsible for exporting yoga and its practices to the Western world in the 1970s. A man who has imparted his wisdom to the likes of Quincy Jones, Richard Nixon, George Harrison, and, more recently, Andy Murray and Bill Clinton. The latter of whom he professes to have saved his marriage.
“This is my life,” the yogi says, “I am constantly travelling around the world. Around three new Bikram Hot Yoga centres open every day. In the last six months I have been extremely busy.”
At 67 years old, he shows no signs of slowing down. On a recent visit to Santiago, Chile to open a Bikram centre – his first visit to South America – he wanted to give his students something extra.
“I used to do 24-hour yoga sessions – a six hour seminar, an eight hour posture clinic, a regular class, and then book signings and meet and greets,” Bikram says.
“Ever since 2008, I only really do seminars, but as it was my first time in South America and there were over 600 people there ... I didn’t want to disappoint them.
“I did a class from midnight to 3.30am. It was great.”
There are now thousands of Bikram Hot Yoga centres around the world, with the large bulk of them in the U.S where Bikram has lived since arriving on the invitation of President Nixon, who was suffering from phlebitis (an inflammation of a vein, usually in the legs).
It’s a place that he has mixed feelings about.
“In L.A, where I live now, they are very health conscious, but mentally I believe a lot of Americans are sick people, that’s why they need Bikram yoga more than anything else.
“They [Americans] have more crime than anywhere else, more drugs, more everything. You name it, they have it. I like American people, they are good to others, but are just bad to themselves.”
Bikram tells me how his American students get 100 per cent of the physical benefits from his classes, but don’t benefit philosophically, and certainly not spiritually.
“They have no idea, but my job is not to tell them how bad they are. My job is to show them how good they are and how good they can be.
“I tell them that their life can be much better, if they just modify, adjust and rejuvenate themselves a little bit.
“Part of the problem is that their culture is completely dependent on money, so I do try and teach them humanitarianism and spirituality.”
One way to enlightenment
In the 50-plus years that Bikram has been teaching yoga, Westerners have wholeheartedly embraced the Indian discipline, and thousands of classes are taught every day in cities around the world.
But for the self-proclaimed “old fashioned yogi”, there still is only one comprehensive technique and yoga style.
“Ninety-eight per cent of the world who do yoga do Bikram Yoga. I have researched all my life to create the system from A-Z.”
For Bikram, the importance of his invention of the 26-posture system cannot be understated.
“I keep people alive in every way, physically, mentally, sexually. I have a student who is 103 years old. I had a student whose heart was 98 per cent clogged until he started doing Bikram Yoga. Scientists can’t explain it, students can’t explain it.”
And how does Bikram Choudhury explain it? “It just works.”
As with any successful enterprise, there have been no shortage of sceptics of Bikram Hot Yoga over the years, with many detractors questioning the health benefits of subjecting bodies to 40C temperatures for extended periods of time.
Many professors who conduct research into extreme temperatures and heat stroke and heat-related deaths recommend people avoid the exact conditions that hot yoga induces.
Studies have revealed that if someone’s core temperature rises to a dangerous level, it can lead to a rapid deterioration of organs, coma or even death.
A date with the master
I attend the official Bikram seminar the next day at the Bikram Hot Yoga Centre in Kathu, where the room is packed with Westerners who hang on Bikram’s every word during his 2.5 hour session (in true Bikram style, this is an hour over the scheduled time).
It’s fascinating to see Bikram at work, whether during the yoga classes, leading a seminar – where he repeated many of the ideas, phrases and statistics that he had said to me during our private interview – or being interviewed.
He commands every situation easily and convincingly, through well-practiced body language, the carefully chosen use of motivational speech phrases and speech patterns.
Because of this and the obvious adulation of his devotees and followers, Bikram often turns preconceptions and ideas on their head, obviously delighting in doing so.
At one point during his speech, he breaks off and points out that he is wearing a US$650,000 Rolex watch and asks the audience how much they think he paid for it.
Before anyone can formulate a reply, he answers – “It was free, they just gave it to me.”
For guests who were perhaps then waiting for an analogy to follow about how worthless it actually is, how the soul has no need of such material possessions, they were going to be waiting a long time.
“People want to give things to Bikram. They want to use Bikram’s name,” he says.
While he does go on to say life is priceless, Bikram obviously still values material things, rather a lot.
It’s again apparent when he later uses the analogy of a Ferrari during a speech about the limitations, capabilities and functions of the human body.
“What’s the point of having a Ferrari if you only drive it at 10mph to your office and back? And then drive it 10mph back to your home?
“You want to know how to drive a Ferrari?,” he poses, before again answering his own question. “You take it on Highway 6 in L.A. at 2am in the morning.”
He lets that image hang in the air for a few minutes, and then moves on, leaving those assembled scratching their heads as to whether there was a deeper meaning to his words, or if Bikram really does just like to drive his sports car very fast in pre-dawn California.
The legacy of Bikram
One of his biggest accomplishments he tells me is the soon-to-open department dedicated to the research and practising of Bikram Yoga at Harvard University – before swiftly correcting himself.
“Actually, no that’s wrong, my biggest achievement is what we’re currently working on – we’re going to have our own Bikram University in L.A.
“It’s going to be like a retirement home, but I’ll keep them busy for 15 hours a day. I’ll keep them alive. Bikram will keep them going.”
Bikram refers to himself in the third person a lot, which begs the question as to who Bikram really is: a brand or person? Or both? And can he really keep them going?
These are questions that can perhaps not be answered. At least, not by this white man.
Bikram Yoga sessions are conducted in an artificially-heated room warmed to 40.6°C, incorporating a series of 26 copyrighted postures throughout a 90-minute class.