BIKRAM YOGA TIMELINE
1944 or 1946 (February 10): Bikram Choudhury was born in Kolcata (Calcutta), India.
1951: Choudhury began studying Hatha Yoga with Bishnu Ghosh.
1959-1962: Choudhury won the National India Yoga Championship three consecutive years.
1963: Choudhury suffered a severe knee injury that doctors believed would permanently prevent him from walking.
1964: Six months after his crippling injury, Choudhury’s knee was fully healed.
1970 (February): Choudhury opened schools in Japan and created his twenty-six pose sequence.
Early 1970s: Choudhury immigrated to the United States.
1974: Choudhury opened the Yoga College of India in Beverly Hills.
1977 (January 1): Choudhury’s first book, Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class, was published.
1979 (January 1): Choudhury submitted a copyright for the entire text of Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class .
1984: Bikram and Rajashree Chakrabarti were married.
1994: Choudhury offered an accelerated course of teacher training.
1998: Celebrity Madonna appeared on the Oprah television program and promoted yoga practice.
2002 (October 24): Choudhury filed a supplementary copyright for his twenty-six poses in sequence.
2012 (June): The U.S. Copyright Office ruled that the sequence of poses was ineligible for copyright.
2013-2015: Six sexual harassment lawsuits were filed against Choudhury.
2016: Bikram and Rajashree Choudhury divorced after thirty-two years of marriage.
Yoga has become extremely popular in the United States. A 2017 Yoga Journal sponsored survey estimated that the number of yogis and yoginis has topped 20,000,000, up 4,000,000 since an earlier 2012 study. (YJ Editors 2017). [Image at right] According to this source, over eighty percent of practitioners are women; over sixty percent are between eighteen and forty-four. One third of practitioners have been practicing for three years or less. Yoga’s connection to the current exercise and fitness movement is reflected in the finding that health, conditioning, fitness, and stress relief were all mentioned as motivations by more than half of practitioners surveyed.
Hot Yoga, (which generically refers to yoga practiced in a heated space), is the creation of Bikram Choudhury. He began experimenting with what became Hot Yoga while teaching in Japan around 1970, gradually increasing the heat in the yoga studios to its present level of forty degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) and developing his specific combination of twenty-six asanas in the Hatha Yoga tradition. There are, of course, numerous examples of using heated environments for personal healing and transformation, from Turkish baths to Native American sweat lodges. Choudhury’s innovation was to connect yoga and heated environments, along with his specific combination of twenty-six asanas in the Hatha Yoga tradition (Hall 2019).
Very little actually is known about Bikram Choudhury, founder of Bikram Yoga. He was born on February 10, 1944 or 1946 in Kolkata (Calcutta), India. Much of the limited information available has come from Choudhury himself. According to this autobiographical and hagiographic account, he was first introduced to Hatha yoga poses when he was three years old. At the age of five, he began studying seriously under Bishnu Ghosh, the brother of Paramahansa Yogananda. Yogananda had moved from India to the U.S. in 1920 and founded the Self-Realization Fellowship in 1925. He reports that he taught meditation practices and Kriya Yoga to a large western audience and authored the influential book, Autobiography of a Yogi (1998). Choudhury’s training included four to six hours of daily, rigorous study and practice of different Hatha poses, or Asanas. Under Bishnu Ghosh, Choudhury claims, he began competing in the National India Yoga Championship and won first place for three consecutive years beginning in 1959. After his third victory, he claims that he retired as the undisputed “All-India National Yoga Champion” and went on to travel with Ghosh, giving weight lifting demonstrations. However, he was forced to discontinue his travels when, at age seventeen, he suffered an extreme knee injury due to a weight-lifting accident. Choudhury sought out the best doctors in Europe; he reports that they informed him that he would be unable to even walk again, let alone continue weight-lifting. Choudhury refused to accept this diagnosis; instead, he sought out the help of his teacher, Bishnu Ghosh. After six months at Ghosh’s school, Choudhury’s knee had fully healed. Soon after, Ghosh encouraged Choudhury to start his own schools in India, and later Japan, teaching the ways of Hatha Yoga. Choudhury asserts that his American supporters convinced him to immigrate to America and open a school. Much of this hagiographic account has now been contested and discredited (See, Issues/Challenges).
It is established that Choudhury arrived in the U.S. in 1973 and established the Yoga College of India in Beverly Hills the following year. In the early years, Choudhury appears to have been interested primarily in teaching Yoga (MacGregor 2002):
“In those years he was trying to be a pure yogi,” recalls Emmy Cleaves, who was Bikram’s 15th student in Los Angeles and is now a senior teacher. “He slept on the floor there. That’s the kind of sacrifice he was willing to make. He has invested a lot in this, because his guru told him to go out and teach yoga. From an Indian perspective, he was doing the right thing.”
In those days Choudhury was celibate. He didn’t drink, nor does he now. Some recall that the young Choudhury was so shy he would barely meet people’s eyes when he spoke. He ran his yoga school as if it were in Calcutta, rather than Beverly Hills. “Do you know, every yoga school in India is free?” Bikram asked. “My school was free. We don’t think to charge money. For us, a yoga school is like a temple. I had a little box, and people could put money in it. Like a church.”
Using this location in Beverly Hills as his base of operations, Choudhury began expanding what became his empire and published his first book, Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class, in 1977. Shortly thereafter, Choudhury found his classes increasing in size and popularity. His classes could accommodate a hundred people at a time, many more than traditional yoga classes. As the demand for classes increased, so did the demand for schools and teachers. The names of many celebrities (Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen, Raquel Welch, Quincy Jones, Shirley MacLaine, Madonna, Michael Jackson, George Clooney, Tiger Woods), have been linked to Bikram Yoga (Larsen 2018). Choudhury has also claimed that President Richard Nixon invited him to the White House for advice on how to deal with his phlebitis problem.
Choudhury ‘s personal life changed in 1984 when Bishnu Ghosh’s son helped to arrange his marriage to then nineteen year-old Rajashree Chakrabarti. (Image at right) Chakrabarti had won the National India Yoga Championship. The couple had a daughter, Laju, and a son, Anurag. Rajashree Choudhury is a yoga therapist and founded the U.S. Yoga Federation and the International Yoga Sports Federation. One of her goals has been to gain acceptance of Yoga as an Olympic event.
In 1994, Choudhury made the decision to offer an accelerated course of teacher training. This would allow dedicated students to study ten hours a day for nine weeks with Choudhury, his wife, and some senior instructors. At the end of the nine week training, those students who passed Choudhury’s personal review received their teaching certification and were able to teach in one of his studios or open one of their own. In 1998, Madonna, who became a practitioner of Bikram Yoga for a time, appeared on the Oprah television show and promoted yoga practice, which brought even greater attention to Choudhurh. According to Choudhury, he has certified more than 11,000 teachers. As of 2011, there were over 500 Bikram yoga studios worldwide, and that number has continued to increase steadily.
There are eight elements of yoga: absorption (samadhi), breathing (pranayama), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyani), observances (niyamas), postures (asana), restraints (yamas), and withdrawal of senses (pratyahara). The ultimate goal is to reach liberation or enlightenment. Yoga programs featuring asana are the most popular among Yoga practitioners in the West. Hatha Yoga, from which Bikram Yoga is derived, emphasizes unifying opposites (such as masculine and feminine, hot and cold, positive and negative), and creating balance. The asanas are intended to balance flexibility and strength, purify the body, and open the body’s channels so that energy may flow freely.
Bikram Yoga is one form of what has come to be known as “Hot Yoga” or “Powerful Flow Yoga.” As already noted, Hot Yoga may be used to describe any yoga practice carried out in a heated environment. Proponents of Hot Yoga assert that the heat and resulting sweating are cleansing and loosen tight muscles. Proponents see the high energy/high exertion style of Hot Yoga as quintessentially American. As one yoga instructor put it: “On some level, we’ve Americanized yoga. People are living very frenetic lives, and our nervous systems are used to that…. it’s only logical that a nation of multitaskers would want to do a number of things at once: working out, sweating, balancing and stretching (Theiss 2013).
Bikram Yoga is a very stylized form of Hot Yoga. Choudhury has abandoned individual and small group instruction characteristic of classical yoga instruction for large classes in spacious studios. This format has earned his teaching style the nickname McYoga. Each studio must be carpeted, sessions run ninety minutes, no music is allowed during the sessions, studios are heated to 90-105 degrees, and, most importantly, there are twenty-six poses that are always performed in a specified sequence. Choudhury has often been questioned about the unique nature of his sequence. He is asked how it can be unique if others who teach Hatha Yoga employ the same poses. Bikram acknowledges that the poses themselves are not unique. Instead, he asserts, it is the specific order of poses and breathing techniques that make his system the most effective.
Bikram Choudhury strongly professes a belief in the healing power of Hatha Yoga based on his personal experience. He claims that, when his knee was injured and doctors told him it was beyond repair, yoga is what returned him to full health. He states that it was this experience that inspired him to begin teaching and to create a powerful sequence of asanas and pranayamas that he has dubbed Bikram Yoga. This sequence is so powerful, Choudhury says, that it can produce miracles. Many yogis and yoginis who faced apparently insurmountable physical ailments, from crippling car accidents to severe physical impairments, report making full and astounding recoveries. They credit their recoveries to the practice of Bikram Yoga.
Every session of Bikram Yoga features two breathing methods (pranayama) and twenty six poses (asanas) that are derived from eighty four classical yoga poses and are always performed in the same order. [Image at right] When students walks into the studio with their towels and wash cloths in hand, they are immediately struck by a heat wave, as the studios are kept at temperatures ranging from 90 to 105 degrees Farenheit. Choudhury believes that this allows the muscles to heat up more quickly, which, in turn, will assist his students in their poses.
Choudhury and all of his instructors teach their classes the same way, from the front of the room with a microphone, instead of on the floor demonstrating the poses. Choudhury believes that if a student if really listening, then he or she should be able to correctly do the pose as instructed. If the student is not doing the pose correctly, the instructor will tell them what to change and how, but only rarely will the instructor physically correct the pose.
Class begins with the first of two breathing exercises, called Pranayama. In this first Pranayama, the students will stand while moving their arms in time with their breathing to completely fill and empty the lungs. This is followed by twelve standing poses that are common in most Hatha disciplines of yoga. It begins with Half Moon Pose, which involves standing with arms stretched overhead and palms pressed together while bending in all directions. This stretches the abdomen and the back while increasing flexibility. This stretch and Standing bow are the only ones in this set with back bends; all of the others are either forward bends or balancing poses. The balancing poses, such as Eagle Pose, are extremely physically demanding, and most beginners find themselves teetering within seconds. However, Bikram asserts that these poses can be invaluable, as they build focus and concentration.
After the standing poses are completed, the students move into Corpse Pose, or Savasana, which is a brief, but necessary, respite for the students tense muscles. Next comes a quick straight-legged sit-up and a forward bend before moving into the next pose. This sequence of Savasana, sit-up and forward bend is inserted between each of the next several poses. First comes a series of backbends, Cobra Pose, Half Locust, Full Locust and Bow Pose. Next is a forward bend, Half Tortoise pose, backbend, Camel Pose and finally a kneeling Pranayama. This pranayama marks the end of the series, as the body empties and fills with clean, healthy air.
Bikram Yoga was first conceptualized in Japan, after Bikram Choudhury began his Hatha Yoga School there in 1970. When he first began teaching in the winter in Japan, he claimed that his studio was so cold that his muscles did not work right. However, when he heated the small room up, he found that his muscles were able to move more freely. Later, when he was teaching in Hawaii, much warmer outside than Tokyo, he found a similar result. The studio had been so air conditioned that his muscles simply did not move the way he wanted them to. So, in the middle of hot and sunny Hawaii, Bikram turned off the AC and turned on the heat. Further, “As an added benefit, the saunalike temperatures heightened their sense of euphoria and purification after workouts” (Martin 2011). This simple temperature change was a major part of the founding of Bikram Yoga.
The other major element in the development of Bikram’s Beginner Yoga classes was the sequence he developed for the Asana and Pranayama. When he was injured, Bikram set about finding the perfect poses that would allow him to heal. It then occurred to him that there may be a set of poses that address the most common ailments of the public. So, in Japan he set about creating and shifting a list of poses that, when done in a particular order, provided the maximum amount of stretching and strengthening possible. Once this sequence was completed, he was encouraged by some famous students of his to bring this technique to America. In America, this fast and efficient teaching method was quickly picked up by many of Hollywood’s notables in an attempt to be healthy as well as trendy.
A boom in the popularity of “Hot Yoga” meant a high demand for more teachers. [Image at t Bikram took this opportunity to expand his empire by allowing students
to quickly become certified as teachers. After they completed a rigorous and expensive training course, these teachers could work for him in his schools or open their own franchises that would pay him rights. Currently, Bikram receives most of his income, not from the franchises themselves, but instead from the teacher certification course, which Bikram claims brings in the most money.
In 1973, there were three Bikram Yoga locations in the U.S. (Honolulu, San Francisco, and Beverly Hills). The first studio in BeverlyHills was located in the basement of a former bank building. By 2002, there were 500 Bikram Yoga studios. It is not entirely clear what produced the surge in the number of Bikram Yoga studios. Bikram himself has commented that “It was like this for years,” Choudhury says, drawing a flat line through the air. “Then in the last years it shot up, like this! Like a rocket!”Some factors. The American fascination with Asian spiritual teachers, the physical fitness fascination that swept America, the location in avant guarde California, and the celebrities that Bikram attracted all may have contributed.
Choudhury and his Bikram Yoga have faced controversy and opposition on a number of fronts: his putative commercialization of Yoga, competitors in the “hot yoga” market, and allegations of sexual impropriety, and a related erosion of yoga studios maintaining any visible relationship with the Bikram name.
Choudhury faced increasing personal scrutiny as controversy increased around his practice. While little had been, and remains, known about his early life, the hagiographic account that he created and that remains in place on many Bikram-sponsored websites has been substantially undermined (Armstrong 2018
There is strong opposition to the commercialization of among a number of traditional practitioners and groups for whom Bikram Yoga essentially constitutes selling a spiritual practice when one of the principles of Yoga discourages greed. As one observer stated: “Yoga is huge and infinite. What’s being branded are the physical aspects of the practice. You can’t brand the spiritual aspects. Yoga is not hamburgers.” Dr. Aseem Shulkla, co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation was even more pointed: “Call it exercise. Call it a good workout. Call it what you like,”….”But don’t call it yoga. It’s a cynical appropriation of Hinduism” (Martin 2011). There have been similar responses to Choudhury’s establishment of franchises (MacGregor 2002):
“We have never heard of this,” said Deborah Willoughby, founding editor of Yoga International, a Pennsylvania-based magazine that focuses on the spiritual dimensions of yoga. “A lot of places have branch centers, like Shivananda, or the Himalayan Institute, where students will open a center and work under the guidance of a spiritual director. But it is not like it is owned, or licensed. It is just a desire to spread the spiritual teachings.
This branding is particularly characteristic of American innovations on traditional Yoga. As observer Paul Keegan put the matter, “America is changing yoga….It’s turning from a spiritual discipline to a fitness routine and a marketable commodity.” Beyond the Americanization of Yoga, the higher level of athleticism and physical exertion required can have deleterious consequences. Theis (2013) reports that “The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which monitors yoga injuries, has found there were about a dozen reported nationwide in 2000, and 7,369 in 2010, the most recent year studied. These include tendon, hamstring, disk, and back strain injuries. And, there is controversy whether this yoga-fitness regimen actually burns more calories than conventional yoga practice (Askell 2013).
Bikram Yoga has also faced an increasing number of competitors who adopt certain aspects of Bikram practice. One successful competitor is Modo Yoga, founded by a former Bikram practitioner has revised a number of Bikram precepts and practices (Rubin 2013):
There would be 40 postures and classes of varying length and format taught with no script, with the temperature set at just below 100 degrees rather than Bikram’s “torture chamber” (Mr. Choudhury’s description). Students are encouraged to drink water; Bikram suggests holding off as much as possible. And studios are to be of green construction from top to bottom. The selected name is Moksha, which is Sanskrit for freedom or liberation.
The group claims over sixty studios, with additional studios planned. Another competitor that also uses heated rooms, Core Power Yoga, is reported to be growing rapidly in the U.S. Choudhury has responded to competitors by labeling others offering Hatha Yoga as “circus clowns” and filing lawsuits where he felt there was infringement of his unique style of Yoga (MacGregor 2002; Wright, Newman, and Effron 2009; Fish 2006). Choudhury has been successful in trademarking his form of Yoga practice and the variety of products associated with it but not in copyrighting the sequence of postures that are at the center of Bikram Yoga as it is the expression of facts and ideas not facts and ideas themselves that are legally protected (Bennett 2013). Partly in response to Bikram Yoga’s attempt to copyright its practices, the government of India initiated a program to head off such initiatives (Gowan 2014): “For more than a decade, they’ve been building a vast compendium of age-old medicines and practices, the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, which is now available to patent offices worldwide. They are documenting 1,500 yoga poses, some by videotape, which will be added online next year to help prevent the ‘misappropriation’ of yoga by commercial enterprises, said Archana Sharma, the project’s leader.”
Certainly the most potentially damaging problem Choudhury has faced is accusations of sexual harassment and assault. In 2013, he began facing six lawsuits involving sexual harassment or rape charges, five initiated in 2013 and one in 2015 (Koul 2013; Sanchez 2013; Ford 2015). The women all tell very similar stories. They were originally approached by Bikram when attending his classes. He told them that he felt a special, cosmic connection to them. Some felt flattered, others tried to turn his attention back to his wife, but none of them was prepared for the escalation of attention they received. As time went on, all women reported that Choudhury became more demanding of their time and attentions, singling them out for meetings alone or for massages from them. Then, after he was alone with them, generally in his room at a hotel, they allege that he pressured them to have sex with him. All of the women report having rejected his advances, and their resistance met with different results. Some women reported being groped and pushed up against walls before being allowed to leave. Some women stated that they were physically restrained within the room and were raped.
All of the womem report having suffered the same business fate. Those who had their own studios found that Choudhury had removed their name from his website, denying them any business by affiliation. Others who mostly taught at Bikram Yoga schools found themselves unable to teach and learned that Choudhury himself was encouraging others studios not to hire them to teach either. One woman reported losses of over $50,000 after Choudhury removed her school’s name from his website.
In the wake of the allegations, a number of schools once affiliated with Bikram Yoga have now dropped the name or the classes altogether to avoid the taint of the scandal (Healy 2015). For example, in 2019 the last remaining Bikram yoga studio in Vancouver, Canada came under increasing pressure to remove the Bikram affiliation as a result of the sexual abuse allegations (Hurst 2019).
For his part, Choudhury does not deny that he has had sexual relationships with his students but rather accuses them of blackmailing him (Martin 2011): “Only when they give me no choice! If they say to me, ‘Boss, you must fuck me or I will kill myself,’ then I do it! Think if I don’t! The karma!” He is also unrepenatant in the face of such charges. He has been quoted as saying that “I’m beyond Superman… I have balls like atom bombs, two of them, 100 megatons each. Nobody fucks with me” (Sussman 2005). In the wake of the Netflix documentary, simply denied its allegations, and his attorney referred to the contents as “just a package of rehashed material” (Hurst 2019).
Image #1: Front cover of Yoga Journal.
Image #2: Bikram Choudhury.
Image #3: Rajashree Choudhury.
Image #4: A “Love Your Sweat” Bikram Yoga poster.
Image # : The twenty-six poses (asanas) in Bikram Yoga that are derived from eighty four classical yoga poses.
Image # : Bikram Choudhury leading a yoga practice session.
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Hurst, Allison. 2019. “Vancouver hot yoga studio feels blowback from scathing Bikram Netflix documentary,” November 26. Accessed from https://bc.ctvnews.ca/vancouver-hot-yoga-studio-feels-blowback-from-scathing-bikram-netflix-documentary-1.4703923 on 27 November 2019.
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Sanchez, Raf. 2013. “ Yoga guru Bikram Choudhury ‘raped students in cult-like training’.” The Telegraph, December 5. Accessed from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/10498946/Yoga-guru-Bikram-Choudhury-raped-students-in-cult-like-training-camps.html on 1 March 2015.
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