Season Three: Bikram Episode 1

Arrival

Bikram Choudhury begins his journey to fame, wealth, and scandal in 1970s Los Angeles. He takes Beverly Hills by storm, using his Hollywood connections and rags-to-riches origin story to build a devoted following and lay the foundation for a yoga empire.

42 mins (Photo by Guy Webster)

Transcript

EPISODE 1

 

[THE MERV GRIFFIN SHOW,

 

MERV GRIFFIN: ‘’The man who shaped up more celebrity bodies than any exercise instructor. He is Los Angeles most prominent yoga master to the stars and three time served as National Yoga Champion of India. Would you welcome Bikram Choudhury?’

 

(AUDIENCE APPLAUSE)]

 

[ABC NEWS NIGHTLINE,

 

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘Half a billion people has been benefited directly, indirectly from Bikram Yoga around the globe.’]

 

BENJAMIN LORR: I mean he’s created a yoga that has healed and helped tens of thousands of people at minimum and that has hurt and destroyed thousands of lives. And there’s no arguing with either sides of those coins.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: This is Bikram, I’m Julia Lowrie Henderson. Part 1: Arrival.

 

Yoga is supposed to be about balance, and karma. It’s supposed to offer enlightenment. It’s supposed to be peaceful and healing…and then there’s Bikram Yoga. Bikram Yoga is suffering.  For 90 minutes in a room heated to 105 degrees you perform a sequence — 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises. A sequence created by Bikram Choudhury to push you to the limits of what you can endure, to make you desperate for air and water and relief.

 

And yet, despite or maybe because of that suffering, millions of people have been drawn to Bikram yoga. NFL players, Hollywood actors, dancers, doctors, moms, dads, grandmothers, grandfathers…me. I did it, I practiced this yoga every day for years… contorting myself into poses like standing head to knee and balancing stick, sweat dripping off my nose, into my hair, my body aching. For a few years, I managed a Bikram studio in New York City. This was my life.

 

That was before though — back when Bikram was just an incredible workout, a wildly popular new take on yoga…when there didn’t seem to be any particular need to think too long or too hard about who Bikram Choudhury really was or how he’d gotten here. Before any of us were forced to think about what we might have missed along the way and how Bikram brought this community to this moment where everything has turned upside down.

 

Bikram Choudhury was in his 20s when he arrived in California in the early 1970s. He had already created his series of yoga postures. He had also already come to understand his life’s two great ambitions — first, to become wildly, massively successful. And, second, to bring his yoga to as many people as humanly possible.

 

BONNIE JONES REYNOLDS: I had had polio when I was 11 years old and I thought I got out scot free. But in my mid 20s everything began to fall apart in my spine and by my mid-30s even chiropractors couldn’t help me.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: In 1974, Bonnie Jones Reynolds was married to Gene Reynolds, the producer of the television show M*A*S*H.

 

BONNIE JONES REYNOLDS: Loretta Swit, Hot Lips Houlihan came to dinner, and ah, Loretta was so excited she had been to a class with Bikram and she was just absolutely bubbling over with enthusiasm. She was standing up and doing poses for us. And um, you know urging us please please to go to Bikram.

 

So I walked into the class and and Shirley MacLaine was in front of me and I kind of hid behind her and he started the class and all of a sudden he said, “Who dat? who dat hiding behind Shirley. Come out here. Oh! Look that junk body! Look that junk body.” He said, “You.” He said, “What’s the matter with you?” And I told him about my neck.

 

He said “You come to me every day for two months. I give you new life.” I said You promise? He said “I promise.” And he did.

 

He was just the mo- one of the most beautiful people who ever lived on this earth.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Young Bikram often drew comparisons to Paul Anka. I think what people mean when they say that is he was handsome, in a clean cut kind of way. His hair was well coiffed, with a deep side part in the kind of ear hugging pageboy-esque style of the day.

 

BONNIE JONES REYNOLDS: He had the most incredible physique.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram was cut. He’s small, he’s only about 5’ 6”, but he was very muscular. And he spent most of his time in a little black speedo.

 

[BIKRAM CLASS,

 

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘I don’t like anything hanging…chest up more…you don’t like too? The women sometimes like something hanging. The men doesn’t.’]

 

JIMMY BARKAN: Bikram was so much fun, he was so charismatic and entertaining.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Jimmy Barkan was an actor straight out of college trying to make it in Hollywood when he first stepped into Bikram’s studio.

 

JIMMY BARKAN: His passion and his joy for life was infectious, and that’s what made him famous.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: That and the clientele he attracted at his Beverly Hills yoga studio.

 

JIMMY BARKAN: Back then he had every celebrity you can imagine.

 

BONNIE JONES REYNOLDS: He was known as the as the yoga master to the stars.

 

JIMMY BARKAN: Every morning I did class with Raquel Welch, Quincy Jones, Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: From the beginning Bikram seemed to understand just how important his proximity to celebrity was to his success.

 

[THE MERV GRIFFIN SHOW:


JULIET PROWSE: I was telling Merv about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar coming to class and he is one of (QUICK CROSSTALK)

 

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: Everybody think he is the best athlete in the world.

 

MERV: He is

 

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: In my class, he is the worst student I ever had in my life.

 

 (AUDIENCE LAUGHS)]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was there, John McEnroe…

 

And most important for Bikram, the Academy Award winning actress Shirley MacLaine.

 

[SHIRLEY MACLAINE: ‘He’s very, very disciplined and very, very kind, and ah, very, very discerning. And his eye is extremely adept at detail … particularly physical, but also mental. And ah, he never stops talking.’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Shirley MacLaine saw something in Bikram, and she opened her life and her rolodex to him.  

 

JIMMY BARKAN: Shirley MacLaine was really the one that put him on the map.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: She paved the way not just for Bikram to meet and teach celebrities, but to become one himself.

 

[CNN INTERVIEW,

 

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: First day I came here she put me Johnny Carson show. I don’t know who’s Johnny. Everywhere, every magazine…I’m the full cover page, first day. From Time, Life, New York Times, Wall Street Journal in everything, everywhere.’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Shirley helped translate the Indian yogi into terms that would make more sense to American ears.

 

JIMMY BARKAN: When he first came to the United States, he was very naïve, he was very sweet, passionate and childlike. He didn’t even charge people for classes, he’d have — you could put a little donation underneath his chair and at the end of the night he’d come and see how much money he would make, and Shirley said, “No, in America you’ve got to actually charge people.”

 

She’s the only one that could control Bikram. Bikram would be like a puppy dog when it came to Shirley MacLaine.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Hollywood loved Bikram for his celebrity connections.  But it also loved his story — a rags to riches fable about a poor boy from India who epitomized the Hollywood dream. It begins on the dusty streets of Calcutta, when Bikram was five years old.

 

[NEWS WORLD INDIA,

 

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘I was five years old … and play little ball.’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram would tell people that he was out playing in a field, and kicked a ball… and it landed at the feet of a man who happened to be a yoga guru by the name of Bishnu Charan Ghosh.

 

[NEWS WORLD INDIA,

 

[BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘From that day, my Yoga started with Bishnu Charan Ghosh, the greatest health culturist of 20th century.’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bishnu Ghosh, besides being a legend in his own right, was the younger brother of Paramahansa Yogananda. Yogananda was the first superstar guru of the 20th century, who wrote the best-selling and groundbreaking book Autobiography of a Yogi. A book read by pretty much anyone with any interest in yoga or eastern religion in the 70s.

 

So by hooking up with Ghosh, Bikram already had a calling card for instant authenticity — he was connected to yoga royalty.

 

As Bikram’s story goes, he quickly became Ghosh’s star student — and a total yoga prodigy.

 

[NEWS WORLD INDIA,

 

[BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘I was a all India national champion, three times. Eleven, twelve, thirteen, unbeaten.’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: He became a three time national yoga champion.

 

[NEWS WORLD INDIA,

 

[BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘Fourth year, when I went to compete, the whole country complained, if Bikram compete, nobody ever win. So, they make law, you cannot compete more than once.’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: He was forced out of the competition circuit for being too good.

 

[NEWS WORLD INDIA,

 

[BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: Then I cannot compete, what am I gonna do? I want name. I want fame. I want to travel world.’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: So he took up weightlifting.

 

[NEWS WORLD INDIA,

 

[BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘1959. And 1960, I became India’s number one weightlifter.’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Just like that, India’s number one weightlifter. He says he broke the world record and was all set to compete in the 1964 Olympics.

 

[NEWS WORLD INDIA,

 

[BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘So, 110%, I’m gonna get gold medal.’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: But then, there was an accident.

 

[NEWS WORLD INDIA,

 

[BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘Seven days before, in training camp, my catcher, you know who catch the barbell, drop the 465 pound on my left leg.’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: The weight fell on his knee and destroyed it.

 

[NEWS WORLD INDIA,

 

[BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘My left leg was crushed, hundred, thousand pieces. Dust.’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Doctors told him he’d never walk again.

 

[NEWS WORLD INDIA,

 

[BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘Everybody said I have to cut my leg off.’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram says he dismissed the doctors who wanted to cut off his leg. Instead, he turned back to his guru, Bishnu Ghosh — who fixed his knee, in just six months, with yoga.

 

[NEWS WORLD INDIA,

 

[BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘So, I told my guru, “The rest of my life. I’ll go around the world and I am to fix bad knees and bad legs.”’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram says he promised his guru he would make it his life’s work to spread yoga. Around the world. To become a guru himself. And that, according to Bikram, is the moment when he began to reinvent yoga.

 

[NEWS WORLD INDIA,

 

[BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘I completely created another kind of Yoga system.’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: This moment of invention is the part of the story that made him a legend to his followers.

 

His master taught one student at a time. But Bikram broke away from that.

 

[NEWS WORLD INDIA,

 

[BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘I started thinking is, “What a waste of time.” In one day I teach five people. How can I teach 5,000 people?’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: And then he took it one step further. He decided to standardize his class — to teach the same set series of yoga postures to everyone.

 

[NEWS WORLD INDIA,

 

[BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘I don’t know your name. I don’t know which kind of problem you have. I don’t know anything. I don’t need to know. You come to my class, go through 26 posture sequence, two breathing exercise. I will go through bone to the skin, hair to the toes, top to bottom, inside out, clockwise, anti-clockwise, 360 degree angle, each and every internal organs. I will activate, re-energize, revitalize, reorganize.’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: It was a one size fits all approach. And it was revolutionary. In the yoga lineage Bikram flows from no one had ever thought to spread yoga that way.

 

First, he took it around India. And then to Japan. Bikram was just 26 years old when he arrived in Tokyo in 1970.

 

Tokyo is where he says he invented hot yoga —

 

 

[NEWS WORLD INDIA,

 

[BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘If you take a piece of steel to a blacksmith and tell him, “Hey, can you make it a knife?” What is the first thing he’s going to do? Put in the fire.’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Japan is a much cooler climate, so he brought heaters into the yoga room to recreate the conditions of Calcutta and make it easier for his Japanese students to stretch.

 

And it worked. But Bikram didn’t want to stay put in Japan. After all, he’d promised he was going to spread this yoga around the world — including America.

 

So he headed to Hawaii in 1971, where one more Bikram innovation emerged — getting close to famous people.

 

[NEWS WORLD INDIA,

 

[BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘My first student in America is Elvis Presley. My second student is President Nixon. 4th of July, 1972.’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: As the story goes, Bikram was called on to treat Richard Nixon, who was in Hawaii at the time.

 

[NEWS WORLD INDIA,

 

[BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: He has phlebitis thrombosis, he came from operation. They want to amputate his leg, as a president! Four days, I give him seven hydropathic treatment, Bikram Yoga in a bathtub.]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram says he cured President Richard Nixon of his phlebitis. Which saved Nixon from getting his leg amputated. And, according to Bikram, earned him Nixon’s eternal gratitude…and a green card.

 

[NEWS WORLD INDIA,

 

[BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘I never even apply for a Green Card. A Green Card was, gift from Nixon.’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: That’s the story Bikram was telling about himself when he arrived in California. He opened his first, very small, studio in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. But San Francisco wasn’t enough for him. For the type of hype and fame he wanted, he needed to make it in L.A. So, in 1973, he opened the Yoga College of India in Beverly Hills.

 

DAVID KUKOFF: Los Angeles, really in the ’70s was very much the Wild West…

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: David Kukoff was born and raised in LA, and wrote the book “Los Angeles in the 1970s.”

 

DAVID KUKOFF: What you have in Los Angeles back then, ah, is this sense of people wanting to explore new spiritual, physical, and mental turf.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: This was the “Me Decade” — a collective moment of Americans turning their focus on themselves — both on the inside and the outside. And no other place was more me centric than L.A. — where fitness became an everyday obsession.

 

DAVID KUKOFF: Anybody with a fresh idea, who said they could answer the questions that were troubling you could attract a following. With the right, the right, the right delivery system, the right charisma, the right message.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: L.A. was perfect for Bikram.

 

[BIKRAM CLASS,

 

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘Sit down again. You’re so lucky that you met someone like me. You know what I mean? Who pick on you all the time to make you healthy happy and peaceful.’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: And Bikram was perfect for LA.

 

[Dinah!:

 

DINAH SHORE: ‘This is what’s happening in Beverly Hills today, it’s quite a topic of conversation, there’s a Yoga College of India and a man who runs it, ah, we’re going to bring him out here now, yogi Bikram.’

 

(CROWD APPLAUSE]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: For all the glamour that came to be associated with Bikram yoga, the actual experience of a Bikram class was anything but.

 

BONNIE JONES REYNOLDS: The studio itself was ah — you would walk in and the floor was totally carpeted. One whole end of it was mirrored and I would say the room was perhaps, 25 by 40 not much bigger than that.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Probably the first thing you’d notice, was how hot it was.

 

JUSTINE BATEMAN: the room was very warm. It was always that way.

 

BONNIE JONES REYNOLDS: His studio probably was heated to 80 degrees something like that. And for those masochists who wanted to down at the end of the room there were a whole bunch of electric heaters and they could stand in front of those electric heaters and do their yoga.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Another thing you’d probably notice — the smell.

 

JIMMY BARKAN: They didn’t even invent sticky mats until late 1980s —

 

JUSTINE BATEMAN: There was no such thing as a yoga mat.

 

JIMMY BARKAN: We did yoga on the carpet, so it was pretty — pretty raunchy in that room.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: But there at the front of the room, in front of a wall of mirrors like in a dance studio, would be the reason you and everyone else had come here — Bikram Choudhury.

 

Justine Bateman would go on to star in Family Ties, but in 1976, she was just a kid, and her father would take her and her brother Jason to Bikram’s classes…

 

JUSTINE BATEMAN: And Bikram would … He’d sit on his little cushion. You know, there at the mirror, and there was me and my brother, and there were few other kids that were in there too. And you would get picked to come give him a little shoulder massage while everybody was getting settled in, so that always felt like a, I don’t know, a nice thing to get picked. Like, oh, it’s your turn to go up and give his shoulders a little work.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Justine would finish her massage and go back to her place on the carpet next to someone like the the music producer Quincy Jones, or the actor Raquel Welch.

 

JUSTINE BATEMAN: There were other actors in there, too, like Keir Dullear. The star of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Keir Dullear — am I saying that name right?

 

KIER DULLEA: I am Keir Dullea. I was in my 40s and I was in better shape than I was at the age of 22 from doing yoga. It was extraordinary.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: People came to Bikram for lots of reasons.  They came for his devotion to his students.

 

JUSTINE BATEMAN: I just remember him being really attentive to each person.

 

[BIKRAM CLASS,

 

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘Your legs is too far out, Joe. Close more. You, too.’]

 

JUSTINE BATEMAN: He seemed to really care about people reaching their sort of yoga goals, you know, in class.

 

BONNIE JONES REYNOLDS: He was so completely dedicated. He wanted nothing more than to give give give give give and help more and more people understand what this yoga could do for them…

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: They also came for his intensity.

 

[BIKRAM CLASS,

 

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘Lower spine back supposed to hurt like hell just try to kill yourself.’]

 

JIMMY BARKAN: I remember Carol Lynley who’s an old — an actress from the ’70s,’80s, she used to say, “You know, we’re used to being catered to in Beverly Hills and we come to Bikram to get our asses kicked.”

 

[BIKRAM CLASS,

 

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: Use your extreme strength and all flexibility try to go beyond your limit of the flexibility and the strength. Hey, chicken, you do the same thing, turn your toes more toes the ankle. I just cannot scream anymore. Give me a break. I’m tired today.]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram’s students also came for a style of yoga that was the complete opposite of the kinds of yoga being taught in America back then.

 

[LILIAS, YOGA AND YOU,

 

LILIAS FOLAN: ‘Hello Class. Namaste.’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: That yoga was… soothing.

 

[LILIAS, YOGA AND YOU,

 

LILIAS FOLAN: Now cross your ankles, place the hands behind you… Don’t hurt your knees now when you stand up, use your hands for support, and come up…]

 

JIMMY BARKAN: It was a very gentle, relaxed type of easy stretching.

 

[LILIAS, YOGA AND YOU,                

 

LILIAS FOLAN: ‘First let’s do some warming up before…’]

 

JIMMY BARKAN: That you really weren’t going to get much of workout from. Bikram comes along and he has a lot more forceful approach.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram’s yoga class is not spiritual, and it’s definitely not gentle. It’s tough physical work.

 

[BIKRAM CLASS,

 

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ,6 inhale. 1, 2…’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: For the first half of class you’re doing what is called the standing series — postures where you balance and stretch and contort on your feet, or one of your feet.

 

[BIKRAM CLASS,

 

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘That’s right, Tony I was just going to tell you and you push the knee back right away. Excellent. Now head down and leg up, Tony.’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: By the time it’s over, you’re exhausted. And dripping with sweat. And so grateful you get to lie down on the floor. Which feels like it will be a relief. But you still have another 45 minutes of work left to do.

 

And there at the front of the room — urging you along — is Bikram in his tiny black speedo.

 

[BIKRAM CLASS,

 

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘Your fat ass going to be smaller, your life will be better, that’s all.’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram was harsh with his students.  But that was part of his philosophy.

 

[BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘You come to my class, you don’t know yourself who you are. I hold a mirror in front of your face. You can see who you are.’]

 

JIMMY BARKAN: He always told people the truth, and he used to say that. He said, “I put a mirror in front of your face and I tell you the truth, and if you don’t like it it’s not my problem.”

 

[BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘When you are 20 pound overweight I cannot tell that you are good shape. I will tell you, “You are 20 pound overweight on your face, and you have to lose it. And if you think I’m insulting you, it’s your problem. And I don’t care, because that’s why you came to me, that’s what you pay for. I must tell you the truth.’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Finally, after 90 minutes of heat and verbal abuse and stories and jokes and intense physical suffering, a Bikram class would end.  And you would be allowed to rest, lying down on the studio’s carpeted floor.

 

[BIKRAM CLASS,

 

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY SINGING AN INDIAN LULLABYE]

 

BONNIE JONES REYNOLDS: He was having terrible problems with his throat with all the talking that he did. But even at the end as we all laid there relaxing at the end of the class he would sing us an Indian lullaby.

 

[BIKRAM CLASS,

 

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY SINGING AN INDIAN LULLABYE]

 

KEIR DULLEA: You just lay on your back in a complete relaxed fashion and he would sing to us in the most beautiful voice.

 

[BIKRAM CLASS,

 

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY SINGING AN INDIAN LULLABYE]

 

KEIR DULLEA: He was an extra — extraordinary teacher. I would say one of the two greatest teachers of any subject that I’ve had in my life. The first one being Sanford Meisner or known as Sandy Meisner, who’s a very very well known acting teacher or was and Bikram in his area was equally brilliant. There was something about his persona that just was so inspiring.

 

[BIKRAM CLASS,

 

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY SINGING AN INDIAN LULLABYE.]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: The longer he stayed in this country, the more America made an impact on Bikram in all sorts of un-yogi-like ways.

 

TONY SANCHEZ: Bikram was very much into fast foods. He was very much into disco dancing.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Tony Sanchez was one of Bikram’s first and best students, one of the first people he ever trained to teach his yoga, and one of Bikram’s friends.

 

TONY SANCHEZ: He called me his best creation.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Tony was along for the ride as Bikram, Indian yogi, became Bikram, Beverly Hills guru to the stars. Bikram’s embrace of America went beyond fast food and disco dancing —

 

JUSTINE BATEMAN: I think he even had a Rolls Royce.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: He loved cars too…

 

TONY SANCHEZ: He managed to buy the last limousine that Howard Hughes had. The car had a toilet inside. He painted it, you know, I think there were like 20 coats of paint. It was so beautiful.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: The obsession with cars and wealth was a very American form of materialism.  But, it was more complicated than that — it had ties to India as well.

 

TONY SANCHEZ: I think most Indians love cars. The Maharajas, you know, they used to collect Rolls Royces and they used to have races on Rolls Royce’s and I think that deep inside you know, he feels as if he’s one of them.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: There was always a part of Bikram that seemed to be looking over his shoulder towards India, trying to prove himself to the people he’d left behind back home.  

 

When he had first arrived in the United States, Bikram had been cautious about claiming too much credit for the yoga he was teaching.  But as his fame grew, he became bolder.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: You wrote a book.

BONNIE JONES REYNOLDS: Mm hmm.

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: “Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class.”

BONNIE JONES REYNOLDS: “Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class” by Bikram Choudhury with Bonnie Jones Reynolds. Photographs by Guy Webster.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: The book was a way for Bikram to satisfy one of his core ambitions — to spread his yoga far and wide — farther than he ever could by just teaching classes at his studio in Beverly Hills. So, he reached out to his loyal student, Bonnie Jones Reynolds.

 

BONNIE JONES REYNOLDS: He said I want you to write my book. He said I know you can do it. I know I know that you will be able to do the book that I need to be done.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram couldn’t even really read or write in English anyway.

 

BONNIE JONES REYNOLDS: At that point, I had just had a bestseller “The Truth About Unicorns.” So, yeah I mean,  he knew that I was able to write.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: And he was right. Bonnie says she developed the entire concept.

 

BONNIE JONES REYNOLDS: Each one of the 26 poses is like a small chapter. And then at the end of each chapter there’s a little section on the benefits what this will do for you.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: It’s Bikram’s entire class, in a book. And Keir and Justine and all of Bikram’s famous students are in there, photographed doing Bikram’s poses. Though not Shirley MacLaine.

 

BONNIE JONES REYNOLDS: You know an interesting thing about the cover. Shirley was supposed to do the — she had promised him that she would do the cover and she backed out and she backed out because when she read the book as I had written it, she was very upset. She said this is much too lighthearted and fun. She said yoga is a very serious business and I don’t approve of of all this fun that you’re putting in — (LAUGHS)

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: When he published his book in 1978 it was the first time Bikram made his yoga series absolutely his own, with his name on it — “Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class.” And his studio, the Yoga College of India, officially became Bikram’s Yoga College of India.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: And so did you guys split profits from the book evenly?

BONNIE JONES REYNOLDS: Um, I get 1 percent of Bikram’s take.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Still, for all his success in America, Bikram never seemed to lose his hunger to be taken seriously back in India as well.  He wanted his Tonight Show appearances and his fancy cars, but he also wanted authenticity.

 

And by 1984, that urge was getting stronger. Bikram was turning 40 and he needed to secure what he had created.

 

[BIKRAM CLASS,

 

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘I don’t have any time for get, fall in love and get married is what you did also. Right?’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: The best way to have a legacy was to have a family.

 

[BIKRAM CLASS,

 

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY:‘One good wife is much better than ten bad girlfriends. In Japan and India they have only one good wife. And here you have 10 girlfriends and all of them bitch.’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram did have an American girlfriend. Her name was Rica and she lived with him. But when he wanted to start a family, he went back to India. Tony Sanchez remembers that trip.

 

TONY SANCHEZ: Bikram went to India and was introduced to Rajashree.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram took a trip to Calcutta. And while he was there, he saw a 19-year-old yoga champion competing.

 

Bikram told his friend, who happened to be the her guru, that he wanted to marry this young woman, Rajashree Chakrabarty. Make it happen.

 

But no one told Bikram’s girlfriend.

 

TONY SANCHEZ: They arranged the marriage without telling Rica that this event was taking place.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: After they married, Bikram brought Rajashree back to Los Angeles, and back to his apartment.

 

TONY SANCHEZ: He came back and Rica had to move out of his apartment.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Rica left, and Rajashree stayed.

 

The new marriage made sense. For Rajashree, a young and gifted yogi from Calcutta, Bikram and his life in America offered nothing but promise. And Bikram secured himself an iron-clad claim to authenticity. With the yoga champion Rajashree at his side he could create a family and a yoga lineage that no one could compete with.

 

[THE MERV GRIFFIN SHOW:

 

MERV GRIFFIN: Now your wife is going to…’

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘She’s coming and joining us to perform.’

JULIET PROWSE: ‘She’s amazing just –’

MERV GRIFFIN: ‘Raja-’

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘Rajashree.’

JULIET PROWSE: ‘She is the champion yoga –’

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘Five time.’

JULIET PROWSE: ‘Of India’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: It wasn’t long before Rajashree got a taste of this new life she had signed up for. Bikram brought her along to an appearance on the Merv Griffin show.

 

[THE MERV GRIFFIN SHOW:

 

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘She’s one of the best in the world.’

MERV GRIFFIN: ‘And she’s how old?’

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘Twenty.’

JULIET PROWSE” ‘Twenty.’

MERV GRIFFIN: Ah! Twenty, and you’ve been married what, a year?’

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘A year and quarter.’

MERV GRIFFIN: ‘Ok. Joining Bikram now is his wife Rajashree, who has outdone her husband as you’ve heard five times and is National Yoga Champion of India. Here she is. Wow, my!’

 

(AUDIENCE APPLAUSE)]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Rajashree, who looks like a child, comes out in a tasteful white leotard. Merv Griffin proceeds to make a bunch of rapid fire insensitive comments, confusing Indians with Saudi Arabians. But, Bikram doesn’t get angry with Merv, he corrects him…and then he joins in on the stereotype game.

 

[THE MERV GRIFFIN SHOW:

 

MERV GRIFFIN: ‘Indians, are they into exercise?’

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘Men we do like, we play soccer in the sidewalk. We grew up like this all my life and we do some exercise, but not like every women go do the dance class or gymnastics, we don’t have all these things. You know we have — women’s are too busy taking care of their husband and children and family cooking the home and cleaning the house.’

MERV GRIFFIN: They don’t want to hear that I hate to warn you, here. ]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: While Bikram is talking about the gender roles in India, the camera is also trained on Rajashree, who is sitting right next to him. As Bikram is saying this Rajashree stops and inhales deeply — there is a look of sheer exasperation that crosses her face. It lasts only a moment before she replaces it with a laugh and a smile. But in this moment when her guard is down it feels like you’re watching her realize what she has signed up for — not just as the queen to this yoga king, but life in the Hollywood elite. Rajashree assumes her place in this whole thing right before our eyes. She’s 20 when she walks on that stage. And, yes, in pretty much every culture women may have to deal with a lot of shit from their husbands, but they do so in private. This is so public. And this will become Rajashree’s dilemma, and it will become the dilemma of anyone who gets close to Bikram. This place of yoga royalty comes with a very high price. And Rajashree will find herself smiling and laughing and not saying anything through so much worse.

 

[THE MERV GRIFFIN SHOW:

 

MERV GRIFFIN: ‘Did he talk through the whole honeymoon?’

RAJASHREE CHOUDHURY: ‘Yes, he did. You won’t believe it.’

(Merv and audience laughs)

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘I’ve been asked same question before also.’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Being a part of Bikram’s burgeoning yoga empire came at a cost, you had to play his game, his way. And while Rajashree seemed to understand that, not everyone close to Bikram did. For years, Tony Sanchez was Bikram’s star student.

 

[BIKRAM CLASS,

 

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: You know who I was imagine doing in front of my eyes? Tony —

STUDENT: Which Tony? ‘Oh Tony over there?’

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘No my Tony, San Francisco Tony. I close my eyes I wanna think Tony is moving according to my dialogue that’s why it was perfect timing. Start again! Second set.’]

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Tony really was the apple of Bikram’s eye.  It was Tony who Bikram trusted to run his studio in San Francisco.  But it was also Tony, who dared to stand up for himself.

 

TONY SANCHEZ: I did approach him and asked him if he could sell me his studio because he was draining too much of the resources to pay for his lifestyle in Los Angeles.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram was using the profits from San Francisco to fund his increasingly lavish lifestyle — and Tony wanted to get paid. He thought he deserved more from his friend and guru.

 

TONY SANCHEZ: I did ask and he took offense so he said almost like, “How dare you ask me? You’re breaking my heart.”

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: On Tony’s birthday, Bikram drove up to San Francisco in his Rolls Royce with his accountant and his new wife, Rajashree.

 

TONY SANCHEZ: I got fired on my birthday and so I had to take whatever I — belonged to me and left the studio.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram followed Tony out of the studio, put his hand on his shoulder and said:

 

TONY SANCHEZ: “No hard feelings. If you need anything, anything at all, please call me.” And then I left. And I never called him back.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: And like that, Bikram cast out one of his first and most loyal students.

 

He followed that up, by taking another of his longtime students to court.

 

[RAQUEL WELCH – TOTAL BEAUTY AND FITNESS,

 

PA: RAQUEL. TOTAL BEAUTY, TAKE ONE, SOUND ONE.

 

Raquel Welch, the actress and bombshell, had been a Bikram student since his earliest days in Beverly Hills. They were legitimately friends at one point. And he bragged about her constantly. But in 1984 she put out Raquel Welch’s Total Fitness.

 

[RAQUEL WELCH – TOTAL BEAUTY AND FITNESS,

 

RAQUEL: Hi.

STUDENTS: Hi! Hi Raquel! Good morning Raquel.]

 

It’s flagrantly and unabashedly Bikram’s yoga — the yoga Bikram had used to get famous in America.

 

[RAQUEL WELCH – TOTAL BEAUTY AND FITNESS,

 

RAQUEL: Place your feet six inches apart. Arms straight out in front of you, parallel to the floor.

 

[BIKRAM CLASS,

 

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: Keep your feet six inches apart. Exactly straight position, arms in front of you, parallel with the floor. Locked elbows. Fingers together.

 

JIMMY BARKAN: It was exactly the 26 poses.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: To Bikram, the video was a betrayal.  But it was also an opportunity.

 

JIMMY BARKAN: He sued her for copyright infringement and that’s how he built his house in Beverly Hills from that lawsuit.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: We don’t know how much money Bikram got from Raquel Welch — the settlement was private and the court records have actually been destroyed. But we do know that it was a lot. That settlement was what allowed Bikram to finally solidify his place in his adopted country. And he did it in the most American of ways–with a lawsuit.

 

Over the next decade, Bikram and Rajashree started a family in the house that Raquel Welch built.  And they continued the process of expanding the Bikram yoga empire around the country.  According to Yoga historian Stefanie Syman, their timing couldn’t have been any better.

 

STEFANIE SYMAN: I think in the 90’s people started craving something other than the fitness options that were out there. I mean, there was the gym culture, there was jogging. There was, aerobics had kind if waned. There was really nothing to fill the void.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: In. Walks. Yoga. 6 million Americans were practicing yoga in 1994. A decade later, that number had more than tripled.


[THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW,

 

OPRAH WINFREY: ‘You mentioned yoga. That you’ve given up the hard work out, is it true?’

MADONNA: ‘Yup’]

 

JIMMY BARKAN: Madonna threw away her weights and she had proclaimed that all she does is yoga.

 

[THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW,

 

OPRAH WINFREY: ‘Gave up all your exercise equipment…?’

MADONNA: ‘No more pumping iron.’

OPRAH: ‘No?!’

MADONNA: ‘No more Stairmaster’

OPRAH: ‘No?!’

MADONNA: ‘No more treadmill.’

OPRAH: ‘No?!’

(AUDIENCE APPLAUSE)

MADONNA:Yeah! I’m free!’]

 

JIMMY BARKAN: And all the sudden, it just was a tipping point and it went nuts.

 

JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram had spent much of the 70s and 80s building his empire in Los Angeles. His story could have ended there, and it would have been an impressive tale of self-creation. From the streets of Calcutta to becoming a guru to the stars.

 

But a giant yoga wave was cresting, about to sweep across the country. There would be so much opportunity for anyone who could offer themselves up as yoga royalty. So much opportunity for someone like Bikram Choudhury.

 

[ABC NEWS NIGHTLINE,

 

BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘I never lie. Never cheat. I never hurt another spirit. I’m the most spiritual man you ever met in your life. Maybe one of these days if you practice Bikram yoga, You will understand that.’]

Credits

Arrival

Jody Avirgan, Host, Editor and Senior Producer

Erin Leyden, ESPN Films Senior Producer, and Series Editor

Julia Lowrie Henderson, Reporter, and Producer

Deirdre Fenton, Production Manager

Kate McAuliffe, Production Assistant

Keith Romer, Editor

Vin D’Anton, Associate Producer

Ryan Ross Smith, Mixing, Sound Design, and Original Music

30 for 30 Podcasts

Andrew Mambo, Producer

Ryan Nantell, Producer

ESPN Films

Connor Schell, Executive Producer

Libby Geist, Executive Producer

Adam Neuhaus, Director of Development.

Jenna Anthony, Associate Director of Development

Catherine Sankey, Production Manager

Jennifer Thorpe, Production Manager

María Delgado, Production Manager

Tom Picard, Production Manager

Louise Argianas, Director of Footage Licensing

Alex Bohen, Development Production   

Paul Williard, Associate Producer

Collin Fleming, Associate Manager of Social Media and Marketing  

ESPN Audio

Traug Keller, Senior Vice President

Tom Ricks, Vice President, Audio Digital Strategy & Marketing

Megan Judge, Director, Audio Distribution & Marketing

Pete Gianesini, Senior Director, Audio Production

Ryan Granner, Director, Digital Audio Operations

Elizabeth Fierman, Senior Manager, Events & Marketing

Devon McGowan, Brand Marketing Manager

Ryan Hurley, Program Director, ESPN New York

RJ Santillo, Associate Producer, ESPN New York

Raymond Deenihan, Producer, ESPN New York

Rodney Belizaire, Chief Engineer, ESPN New York

Additional Production Support

Kate LaRue, Kate Elazegui, Justin McCraw, Tony Chow, Barbara Raab, Lisa Pollak, Khrista Rhypl, Leah Harari, Jason Heilig, Chi-Young Park, Hayley Fox, Roger Jackson, Keri Potts, and Kathakali Jana, our fixer in Calcutta.

Special Thanks

ABC Nightline for use of audio from their reporting on Bikram by David Wright and Ben Newman.

 

Mike Mayle, Tony Sanchez, Sandy Sanchez, Keir Dullea, Mia Dillion, Ann Kalyan, Chitralekha Shalom, Pedro Vargas, Rebecca Greenfield, Jason Koontz, Alex Cuervo, Jerome Armstrong, Ida Jo,  Dana Duke, and Big Twig Studio.

 

30 for 30 Podcasts theme music composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the Song Exploder podcast.