Bend it like Bikram
AS GURU'S GO, Bikram Choudhury - creator of the original hot yoga - isn't what you might expect. Wearing nothing but a pair of tiny black spandex briefs, a bandana and a huge diamond-encrusted Piaget watch, he leaps onto the podium and begins his class with a mind-boggling display of abdominal churning.
Sucking in his stomach to a point that defies belief, he tenses and releases, rippling abdominal muscles that most of us don't even know we have. 'Did you get that?' he calls to the sweaty press photographers at the back of the room. 'I'm doing this for you. Make sure you get it.'
Choudhury is a charismatic showman - but one with a serious mission: to spread his form of hot yoga (Bikram yoga).
So far, it appears to be working. Bikram studios are mushrooming across the globe. He claims, rather dubiously, that more than 95 per cent of people practicing yoga do it Bikram-style.
'You can't compare any other yoga class with my yoga,' he says. 'There is a day and night difference. Bikram yoga is different because I can cure chronic disease. Heart problems, diabetes, neurological problems, weight problems, emotional problems, gynaecological problems, psychological problems. Everyone comes to my yoga school with some mental, physical, or moral problem and I fix it. I keep them going year after year.
'When you cure chronic disease you've got to use your body not outside in, but inside out, from bones to the skin, from hair to the toes, to each and every internal organ, important glands, the nerves, ligaments, muscles, tissues and fibres.
'In my 90 minute classes you work out every cell, every molecule and every atom, and this prevents chronic disease'.
Scientists and doctors might have something to say about all that, but Choudhury is nothing if not self-assured. He says his long list of clients and advocates includes Bill and Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Madonna, Brooke Shields and Quincy Jones.
Proponents says that Bikram yoga - a sequence of 26 postures performed in a room heated to 37 degrees - improves circulation, extends stretching and helps with weight loss.
Choudhury says the poses enhance mind and body, relax, reshape and heal. He's certainly a good advertisement - he has an impressively taut, muscled body and unlined face and this energetic and vivacious 60-year-old could pass for a man half his age.
Choudhury began studying yoga at the age of four and by 13 had won the National India Yoga Championship, eventually retiring as undisputed All-India National Yoga Champion.
During a weightlifting incident at the age of 17 he injured a knee, and was told by doctors he would never walk again.
Choudhury returned to his roots and doggedly continued to practice yoga. Six months later, his knee had recovered, and he decided to bring his curative methods of yoga therapy to others.
He pioneered his form of hot yoga in Beverly Hills in the mid-1970s.
Now with franchises across the world, Choudhury has placed a US copyright on his practical sequence, which has created controversy within the yoga community.
Traditionalists say it's impossible to patent a 1,000-year old discipline, and that, despite its 20 million students worldwide, Bikram yoga is nothing more than an attention-grabbing mode of exercise.
Choudhury says his yoga allows complete self-sufficiency by giving total control of body, mind and spirit and by seamlessly integrating all three to provide each person with their own unique spiritual sustenance and peace.
'Everybody has one goal - we all want to live a good, healthy, long life. Practising yoga can give you a healthy body, but in many cases the mind is still your enemy.
'So how do you control your mind? It's supposed to be your slave. It shouldn't betray you. Only when body and mind work together can the spirit exist. It's like having a beautiful house. If there's a fire, flood or famine, you have to leave and live somewhere else.
'The whole world is a big joke, a circus. Why? Because the mind gives the body the wrong information,' says Choudhury. 'Mother Teresa was one of the greatest women of our time because she had the right mind-set. She said to herself, 'This is my Karma yoga: I pick up the children from the street and I save them'. Why? Because that was her spiritual food. I teach yoga. I could be a billionaire. I was a billionaire. Why do I give this up and teach yoga? Because it is my spiritual food and my spiritual enlightenment. When I save someone from a wheelchair and help them walk, and I see their smiling face, that gives me so much more.'
Choudhury came from humble beginnings. He was born in Calcutta in 1946, and even though he now lives in Beverly Hills and mixes with the A-list, he says he's never forgotten his origins.
'I came from the Calcutta streets and I still live on the Calcutta streets. My roots remain with me today. I have changed nothing. I am still the same Bikram that left Calcutta at the age of 17.'
Choudhury says he can make a real difference because he has the ear of most powerful people.
'My students are prime ministers, premiers and superstars, and they listen to me. I create peace and so we are going to go on another type of mission to stop battles around the world: discrimination, Catholics fighting Protestants, white fighting black, and men fighting women. We are going to get a big group of celebrities together and travel the world to create peace between countries.'today'