I have a 10-pack! Still I have a 10-pack!” The Beverly Hills “bad boy” of yoga, Bikram Choudhury, who owns a fleet of 40 Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, and has a global army of acolytes sweating it out to his copyrighted “hot yoga” sequence at temperatures of 40C, is keen to prove he has defied his 63 years. The diminutive mogul leaps up like a coiled spring from the sofa of his luxurious Park Lane suite ― black candyfloss ponytail bouncing beneath a trilby concealing his bald patch ― and yanks up his disco top to reveal a yoga-trim torso and chest stubble (he teaches only in Speedos and a radio mike: perhaps he shaves for aerodynamics).
Sufficiently famous to ditch the surname, Bikram is his very own poster boy. He insists he never gets sick, doesn’t sleep (no, he hasn’t been to bed, having just had “a kind of party”) and doesn’t eat ― well, just a little protein in the late evening. But, then, the Calcutta-born yogiraj may not even be 63. “I don’t say my date of birth,” he smiles enigmatically. But it’s on your website ― 1946. He won’t budge. “I feel 20 years old,” he declares emphatically. Bikram Yoga, now with more than 4,000 studios and rising worldwide, is seen by its legions of devotees as a cure-all. Andy Murray raved about it after taking it up this year ― the toughness helps his mental strength, he says. The Williams sisters practise it, as do all the New York Giants. And Lily Allen. And Madonna. And, erm, Peter Mandelson, who has been on the phone. “He wanted me to make more yoga schools,” Bikram deadpans. “Since he’s been doing my yoga, he write me that his life changed. He feel everything so clear, he could do things much more faster.” Phew.
The Bikram Yoga website features testimonials covering more than 50 ailments (as diverse as tinnitus, kidney cancer, anorexia and hepatitis C) that have miraculously improved or been cured.
“It is beyond medical science,” Bikram shrugs. He tells me how Nasa scientists tested Bikram Yoga on osteoporosis patients for eight months, seeing a “100%” improvement, but ― his eyes widen ― “They couldn’t write a thesis how this happened; I prove this every single day. Whether a president [such as Nixon, whom Bikram taught in 1972 and who then gave him an open invitation to live in the United States] or a prime minister [Indira Gandhi, whom he calls his godmother], or the Pope [Paul VI].” Bikram claims to have rejuvenated them all. “I saved years and years and years and years and years.”
A yoga prodigy, Bikram was spotted at the age of four by the yoga master Bishnu Ghosh (like, huge in yoga circles) and, from 13, won the All-India Yoga Championship for three consecutive years. He headed to Hollywood in 1971 to set up a yoga studio. Blame Shirley MacLaine. “She was after me for so long to come to Hollywood” after taking lessons at his Bombay studio.
Now a multimillionaire, he is the exemplar of the American dream. So, how much is Bikram Choudhury worth? “Priceless,” he beams. “I ask you question: what is the worth of one human life?” Well, priceless. “So all the money in the world can’t price Bikram.” Ballpark? “Millions, millions.” Last year, The Wall Street Journal estimated his wealth at $7m, but he has previously admitted earning $10m a month.
It’s the money that gives him the bad-boy tag. Yogis are supposed to be spiritually rich, not materially. And it’s just not yoga to copyright, profit from and litigate against an ancient practice that has never been owned. Bikram threatens legal action against any Bikram studio that deviates from his “McYoga” script (as detractors call it). The insults fly: “spiritually bankrupt”, “materialistic”, “egomaniac”. Bikram laps up the attention: “So, a lot of people criticise Jesus. Is he bothered?” he says. “I am a super-duper-duper-duper star.”
He lives, appropriately, in a “10,000-square-foot mansion” with his yogi wife, Rajashree, the five-times champion of the All-India Yoga Championship, and their daughter, Laju, 19, and son, Anurag, 17. He’s happy to admit that his one vice (he doesn’t even drink tea or coffee) is shopping, “especially for cars and watches”. On his hotel coffee table is a Morgan brochure; on his wrist a diamond-encrusted watch by Royal Diamond, one of maybe 100, he says. Unprompted, he reveals that he owned the Queen’s car for 11 years, and now owns cars previously belonging to the Queen Mother and the Beatles. He insists it’s nothing to do with having cars fit for royalty, but that Bentleys and Rolls-Royces are “the most typical automobile to restore”. Yes, incredibly, Bikram says it’s about fixing old bangers (and, yes, the palace’s cars really do arrive in disrepair), wheeling out what must be his favourite metaphor about bodies being like car engines: he’s good ― no, the best ― at fixing both. “The critics are just total ignorant,” he says warmly. “I am not interested in material wealth in the way they think.”
What with working “24-hour days”, there’s just a little time left for the Hollywood scene. Bikram is “like a brother” to Randy and Jackie Jackson. Bikram and Michael were friends since Michael was “12½”, but then Bikram gave Michael “the biggest job you have ever seen in your life” (a Supremes warm-up gig in Japan in 1971). Bikram could have saved Michael “110%” (ditto Diana, Princess of Wales, with whom he once dined). “For me, piece of cake, but I cannot chase him. They have to come to me.” Michael, he says, was too shy to attend his classes. Bikram will not do private sessions ― the last person to receive such a privilege was Nixon. But the real disease here, reckons Bikram, is ego: “The biggest problem is them thinking, ‘I am Elvis Presley, I am the biggest superstar.’ ” (Yup, Elvis and Bikram were like that.) Bikram Yoga is the antidote: “I make you forget who you are.” But, Bikram, you have a very healthy ego! “No,” he says, shaking his head beatifically, “that is not my ego. That is my confidence. If I had ego, I would not talk to you.” You see, us westerners have the idea of a yogi all wrong. It’s not about humility at all, he claims. “Do I look like an Indian yogi? I look like a rock star, right? I am a real yogi because I don’t pretend. A yogi never lie, never hurt another soul; he turn the other cheek. I do that. I even teach people, that’s why I’m Bikram and the whole world follow me.” Proof, if ever, that you can do too many positive affirmations.
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