One of Bikram Yoga Vancouver’s regular practitioners, Lisa DeVita, snagged a once-in-a-lifetime interview with Bikram Choudhury himself in Seattle last month. Now, Lisa fills us in on the man behind the yoga, who shared his thoughts – always real, never censored – on religion, celebrity, America and the continued motivation behind his work.
Bikram Choudhury loves to talk. Whether it’s socializing with a group of close friends, lecturing at a packed seminar or yelling at a room full of wannabe yoga teachers, Bikram always has the last word. With a gleam in his eye and a grin, he’s wise beyond his years (though you’ll never get him to reveal his age; records claim he was born in 1946, but Bikram states that he’s much older). Born in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), he studied under Bishnu Ghosh for 20 years before introducing his Bikram Yoga series to the world. But it wasn’t an easy journey.
Decked out in a swanky black suit, ritzy shoes and a flashy white tie, Bikram’s completely at ease, relaxed in a wingback chair surrounded by his entourage in his Hilton Seattle Hotel suite as he recalls the intense scrutiny he endured upon entering the U.S. in the 1970s.
“It was not easy when I first came to America, especially the media,” he says. “They attacked me and attacked me. They asked me why have I committed crimes? Why do I live in India, such a poor country, where everybody is dead in the street? So ignorant.”
Despite the critics and cynics, a few noteworthy Americans sought out Bikram’s mastery. Teaching in Hawaii in 1972, Bikram met Richard Nixon, who was suffering from thrombophlebitis in his left leg. “Nixon couldn’t walk, he was in excruciating pain. So I helped him to cure his thrombophlebitis. As a gift he gave me a green card and that’s how I came to America.”
The opportunity confirmed the predestined course of Bikram’s life, preceded by a chance encounter with actress Shirley MacLaine in the ’60s at a party in India. “Amazing woman,” he says. “We used to have lots of arguments, lots of fights, but I had a wonderful time with her. We’d do yoga [and] then, at night, we’d talk, watch movies, eat. … She used to pump me up like a balloon and then I’d bust. I’d scream, I’d shout. She wanted me to talk, she wanted my knowledge. She was very smart.”
Although the actress insisted Bikram come to Hollywood, America was far from the master’s mind. “I had no plan to come … I was happy,” says Bikram, who was busy teaching yoga and travelling between India and Japan under Ghosh’s direction. “I was a superstar in India. In India, a rock star is not a star; a prime minister is not a star. The real superstar is a guru, a master. So it doesn’t matter to me how many superstars there are in Hollywood.”
This explains Bikram’s indifference toward the many famous faces that subscribe to his yoga. “I never give them special treatment. If I know you’re rich and famous, I’ll give you double hell. You cannot pick up your towel and wipe your face without my permission. No water was allowed inside the room. Now, I’m having fun but before I was so strict, you have no idea. But people loved it. They love it.”
The yoga discipline, said to have originated in India over 5,000 years ago, is associated with Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism philosophies. But according to Bikram one does not need to be religious in order to practise. “Religion has nothing to do with yoga. You don’t have to believe in anything. Just do it and you’ll receive the benefits. Yoga is like fire, if you put your hand in the fire, it’s going to get burned. It doesn’t matter if you believe it or not.”
As for the skeptics and non-believers, Bikram doesn’t try to convert or seduce with flashy gimmicks and marketing ploys. “I don’t care what other people think about what I do and what I teach. People who come to my class have tried everything. … They come to me. Nothing works. Nothing works. Husband gone, wife gone, children gone, house gone, business gone, money gone. These people come to my class and I give them new life. And not just one or two or three people. Millions. Why? Because it’s the first time in your life that you’ve used your body 100%. It works.”
No wonder Bikram Yoga continues to grow and amass followers at an exponential rate. Bikram thinks it’s about time. “I see it work for 20 years with my gurus. Every day. It’s such a simple way, but people are ignorant. I’m not surprised what is happening today. I’m surprised that it’s taken so long. It should’ve been happening 30 years ago.”
Though he spends a great deal of time globetrotting between lectures, seminars and book signings, Bikram says L.A. is where he now feels most at home. “I love America; it’s the greatest country in the world. The system works. They’re strict. If they like it, they like it. If they don’t … I’m the same way, so I communicate better with Americans.”
Except for the occasional Saturday morning classes when he’s in L.A. and Teacher Training, Bikram no longer teaches yoga. But he misses the class environment and often reminisces about special moments in the hot room. He even remembers the very first student who touched her head to her toes in Standing Head to Knee Pose in 1971. “It was Sandy Long. Raquel Welch was number 235 or something. Even with her big boobs she used to be able to touch her toes.”
Who says there’s no talent left in Hollywood?
As for his own practice, Bikram does advanced class on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 12:15 p.m. – when he’s home. When he’s on the road, which is more often than not these days, he says, “The hotel I stay at must have a steam room or sauna. In there I do either 1,500 crunches or my own set of freestyle exercises for my hip, back, neck, knee, all kinds, non-stop, which you cannot survive for three minutes of, I will do for an hour. Most students cannot do this.”
Most students likely wouldn’t be able to deal with Bikram’s daily regimen, either. Sixteen-hour flights, living out of a suitcase, giving lectures, continuous public appearances and, on top of that, eating just one meal a day, “very late at night. No breakfast, no lunch. High protein. Meat, chicken, fish.”
Despite the strict diet, the man’s known to splurge on occasion. “Once in a blue moon if I go to a Lakers game, I’ll have a hot dog or half a cheeseburger,” Bikram says. “I’m not restricted to anything. But I eat once a day. If I’m at home I eat some chicken curry rice, lentils. Or if I go out, I like spicy Chinese food, lobster, crab.” He lists Coca-Cola among his vices, as well as shopping: “That’s my disease. Clothes, shoes, wristwatches, cars, sunglasses, perfume. Anything, I buy. Not just for me, for others as gifts, for friends and family.”
But Bikram’s number 1 passion – people – trumps all. “I cannot be alone more than half an hour. I love to be with people. I communicate well with people, I know them well. I love and enjoy people. That’s my life.”
With that comes a sense of responsibility to pass his message on to the masses.
“Everything becomes clear right in front of your eyes. No more confusion, no more grey area. It takes you two seconds to make a decision, because you know, you see crystal clear right in front of your eyes what is right, what is wrong, what is good, what is bad, what to do, what not to do. It’s simple. But people are always confused. They don’t know what to do in life. But once you do yoga, you don’t need anybody’s help, you go help everybody because now you know about life. It’s not written in a book, you just go practise and practise and practise. You just look at yourself in the mirror and see how you transform yourself step by step, day by day. And I watch this all my life. I love it.”