In a white circus tent heated to 105 degrees, 600 not-quite-naked people contort their bodies into positions you never knew were possible. The men have perfect, rippling muscles. The women (and the majority of students here are female) are long and taut, with fatless stomachs curved just enough to be erotic and breasts that perk cheerfully upward. They sit with their legs tucked behind their heads, bodies arranged like pretzels, then gracefully deploy their arms, hips, hands, and legs to open like Georgia O'Keeffe flowers into variations on the split. The mats beneath them are damp with sweat. Overhead, great white plastic ventilating tubes, 70 feet long and 5 feet wide, pump humidity into the air. The vinyl of the tent drips with condensation, and a locker-room aroma hangs in the air.
I've only just arrived, but this bacchanal of bare flesh has been going on for two months. These men and women have come to the sprawling Town and Country Resort Hotel on the outskirts of San Diego to become certified instructors of Bikram Yoga, the controversial American variant that is performed at extreme temperatures. Each has paid $7,000 in tuition and $3,900 in residence fees (all students must stay at the Town and Country) for nine weeks of study, six days a week. This includes two daily 90-minute yoga sessions, as many as five more hours of posture clinic (where they learn to correct their spine or shoulders in particular asanas, or postures), and evening lessons in anatomy and Hindu philosophy followed by Bollywood movies and Indian soap operas until 2:30 or 3 in the morning. When they leave, they will be certified to teach at one of the 5,000 Bikram Yoga studios worldwide.
That's assuming they're able to execute the demanding series of postures that make up Bikram. Right now, the students are in head-to-knee pose, or dandayamana-janushirasana: From a standing position, lift one leg so that it's at a right angle to your body, keeping your knee locked, then bend your upper body forward toward the lifted leg. Imagine the tableau, the kaleidoscope of slim, strong-hipped, bowed bodies, the scene multiplied by the mirrors lining three of the four walls. Now it's camel pose, or ustrasana: On your knees, hands on your hips, bend back until you grab your heels with your hands, then thrust your chest into the air. Before the session is over, 50 or so students have rolled up their mats and left, overwhelmed. I hear what sounds like the chop-chop-chopping of helicopter blades and realize it's my own heartbeat. The ceiling spins. I roll over, open my eyes, and watch the ballet of it in the mirrors. I see more than I bargained for. Because of the heat, everyone is wearing the smallest, tightest thing they can, and, especially with the sweat, the clothes do not cover so much as exaggerate.
Morning practice is bigger than usual today because this is "Intensive Training Week," when many come for the recertification required to maintain their teaching credentials. Most are working through the 84-posture intensive series, the two-hour-plus advanced routine practiced by the elite. This is the portion of the program that is personally supervised by Bikram Choudhury, the 64-year-old founder of Bikram Yoga. Only the best, bravest, and most beautiful practice at the feet of the guru, who sits cross-legged on a giant inflatable leather throne against the back wall. He's in a black Speedo, bare-chested, his hair tied in a topknot. His triceps stand out like pistons. Sometimes a woman will brush his hair or wash and massage his feet. He resembles a cartoon genie on his magic carpet. Between cell-phone calls, he barks Bengali-inflected criticisms and corrections into his headset. He speaks only in exclamation points.
"You, Miss Teeny-Weeny Bikini! Spread your legs! You, Mr. Masturbation! Until I say 'Change,' you do not move a muscle!"
It's hard to tell if these directives are intended for anyone in particular or if Choudhury is just working the crowd. He keeps up a patter of bawdy, sexually suggestive, often male-bashing banter throughout the session. Students—men, especially—have been known to complain, but for most, Bikram's commentary is part of the package. He's built his business, which has been estimated to earn him nearly $5 million a year, in large part by applying a veneer of eroticism to this ancient spiritual practice. For the women here, the "boss," as he calls himself (and everyone else), offers a path to sexual awakening. For the men, Bikram Yoga is a great workout, and maybe an opportunity to get close to a few kundalini-stimulated hard bodies once class lets out.
Choudhury hums "Killing Me Softly" into the mic of his headset as his pupils struggle to hold a posture, even the strongest among them trembling. At last he gives the signal to change.
"This posture called dirty old bitch! Because not even one more inch can you stretch!"
Born in Kolkata, India, Where Yoga is a competitive sport as well as a spiritual practice, Bikram Choudhury claims to have become the All-India National Yoga Champion at the age of 13. He left in 1970 after his guru, Bishnu Ghosh (the younger brother of Paramahansa Yogananda, who is generally credited with bringing yoga to the West), instructed him to spread the practice throughout the world. Choudhury's principal innovation—heat—is supposed to increase flexibility and prevent injury, but he came to it by necessity. In Japan, where he first taught, he found himself shivering through his postures during winter, so he brought in space heaters. Suddenly it was easier for his students to lock their knees and touch their palms to the floor. As an added benefit, the saunalike temperatures heightened their sense of euphoria and purification after workouts. In 1972, when he launched Bikram's Yoga College of India in a tiny studio in the North Beach section of San Francisco, the heaters came with him. Bikram Yoga was born.
Choudhury's method has its critics. Some medical professionals claim that it can increase the risk of cartilage tears and stress the heart. There's also the obvious danger of heatstroke and dehydration. In San Diego, a medical tent is set up not far from the main practice area for students who vomit, suffer seizures, or pass out during sessions.
Others object to Choudhury's decision in 2002 to patent his sequence of 26 postures and two breathing exercises, which has made him very rich (all Bikram studios must pay a licensing fee to open, along with a new, much-protested monthly fee) and, in the eyes of many, an apostate. Yoga is thought to date back 5,000 years, and for Hindus, claiming it as intellectual property is akin in Christian terms to copyrighting the Lord's Prayer. "Call it exercise. Call it a good workout. Call it what you like," says Dr. Aseem Shukla, cofounder of the Hindu American Foundation. "But don't call it yoga. It's a cynical appropriation of Hinduism."
But Choudhury, whose classes have attracted more than 3 million people, has his defenders. Bikram Yoga "is certainly focused on the body," says Stefanie Syman, author of The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America. "But changes in the body can result in deeper, more spiritual changes. There's room for all different kinds of yoga." And from the beginning, Choudhury has been helped by friends in high places. Richard Nixon, a "good friend," was an early pupil. "That's how I get my visa!" Choudhury says. Soon, athletes like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and John McEnroe began approaching him. "They all say, 'Bikram, you must give me one more year, please! Let me play for one more year!' I give them 10 more years!" (This is not exactly correct. Choudhury has a penchant for hyperbole.)
Today, he's Hollywood's guru of choice, with followers like Madonna, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, Lady Gaga, George Clooney, and Kobe Bryant. These endorsements have helped him peddle Bikram-branded products, including books, CDs, DVDs, apparel, towels, mats, and water bottles. Besides charging for teacher training and studio licensing, he also generates revenue from fees for regional Bikram Yoga tournaments that produce a national champion each year. And he's looking for ways to expand his empire: He's in talks with several U.S. cable networks about a reality show, and Sun, an Indian company, wants to launch an all-Bikram channel. There are also plans for a satellite-radio show and a magazine. He's even campaigning to get yoga recognized as an Olympic sport.
And with the client list comes a Hollywood lifestyle that has drawn criticism from rival gurus for being insufficiently modest. Choudhury owns an 8,000-square-foot mansion in Beverly Hills and a fleet of more than 40 Rolls-Royces and Bentleys. He wears a million-dollar diamond-and-ruby-encrusted Franck Muller watch. "In America we like all of our spiritual leaders to come straight from central casting," says Robert Love, author of The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America. "We want them to be poor, to be sexually ascetic, to be perfectly pure, to be almost inhuman. But in reality, few of them are that way."
Choudhury has other quirks too. He says he eats a single meal a day (chicken or beef, no fruit or vegetables), drinks only water and Coke, and needs only two hours of sleep a night. Then there are the stories about him having sex with his students. When I ask him about this, he doesn't deny it—he claims they blackmail him: "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!" Whatever the nature of his dalliances, his appeal to women is obvious—and a common trait among spiritual leaders, as Love points out: "When Swami Vivekananda"—another key figure in the spread of yoga to the West—"toured the U.S. at the end of the 19th century, it was the same way. Mostly women showed up for his lectures." And after Indian mysticism became popular in the West in the sixties, a new wave of gurus emerged, like Acharya Rajneesh, who evinced a radically open attitude toward sexuality.
The entire resort throbs with the libidinal energy of Choudhury's followers. They're everywhere: in line at the ice machine, under the thatched umbrellas at the restaurant, stretching in front of the mirrors by the elevators. The other hotel guests eye them. As one session ends, two middle-aged, beer-bellied guys in baseball caps pull up chairs to smoke cigars and watch the girls as they file out of the tent.
Female instructors laugh about the erections created by the pulmonary effects of some seated postures. "At times I can't even look at the men," says Mollie Glicksberg, a teacher who is getting recertified. "There's a swollen penis, jumping out at me. I don't know whether to laugh or run away screaming."
That hard-core yoga would stimulate sexual appetites seems obvious. But the practice's Tantric aspects have long been taboo, thanks to the influence of Christian missionaries in India. Officially, hookups are forbidden at teacher training. "I tell them all, 'No touchy-touchy, no kissy-kissy, no fucky-fucky!' " Choudhury says. But everyone knows better.
"It's a sexual playground," says Paul, a trainer from the Bay Area who has been certified in Bikram for seven years. "What do you expect? There are hundreds of gorgeous, extremely fit women everywhere. There are almost no guys. The practice gets everyone all worked up. It's the energy going up the spine." Paul is tall and well-muscled, in his early thirties, with curly black hair hanging to his shoulders. He's wearing only a tiger-striped Lycra Speedo (you can buy your own in the water tent) and flip-flops. Several women—hotel guests, not yoginis-in-training—inspect him hungrily as they pass by. "We're not supposed to have sex here," Paul acknowledges. "But you know how it is. A lot of us come back year after year. Seeds are planted." He winks.
Charlie, a teacher from Los Angeles, is middle-aged but has the body of a much younger man. He's here for just a few sessions (walk-ins are allowed at $20). He comes to practice with Choudhury and "honestly, to meet girls," he says. "I just walk up and say hi in the laundry room. A lot of them do their wash after evening practice. Or you can get lucky at the pool in the afternoon." But by far the best place for pickups, he says, is the posture clinic.
It's guys like Charlie and Paul, with their evident ability to offer more advanced forms of stimulation, who inspire worry among men whose wives or girlfriends have caught the yoga bug. "Often, one partner will outgrow the other," Syman acknowledges. "Yoga is about growth and change. If you don't grow and change together, well, you grow and change apart."
"My husband and I joke that Bikram Yoga is my other lover," says Angela Sinclair Moulin, who owns a studio in Kansas City, Missouri. "Our anniversary is the same day as I graduated, so he'll say to me, 'Who are you spending our anniversary with: me or Bikram?' "
At a Q&A that follows one of Choudhury's evening lectures, several women ask which postures are best for inducing orgasms. "For good sex, you want eagle pose!" he answers. This involves twining your arms around one another, doing the same with your legs, then lowering yourself into a seated position. "With this one you are fucking until you are 90! You have seven orgasms in a row!"
That afternoon, Judes, a young Australian who works for Choudhury, shows me into his hotel suite. "I'm in love!" she exclaims blissfully. "I'm in love with Bikram! I'm in love with our life! I'm in love with what we are doing for people!"
The doors and windows are open, and the white curtains billow in the breeze. Barefoot, smiling women in their early twenties—blond California babes and dark Indian princesses—walk back and forth performing mysterious errands. Choudhury, in tight black jeans and a black T-shirt, his ponytail pulled through the back of a black baseball cap, is sitting on the couch talking to the owners of an Indian TV station while a dozen or so admirers look on. Up close, he appears even more muscular, vibrant, youthful. You half expect him to leap up and stand on one hand.
Seeing me, he pats the couch. I sit, and everyone in the room turns their attention to the two of us.
I ask whether Bikram Yoga promotes spiritual growth.
"You Westerners are like spiritual babies," Choudhury says. "You were born in the wrong country, with the wrong skin color, in the wrong culture. You can never be spiritual! It is not your fault. I'm sorry about that. If you can even get the body right, that much is good enough for you!"
So there isn't any religious aspect to Bikram Yoga?
"Religion is the biggest piece of shit created in all time!"
Does he ever feel embarrassed about the way he lives?
"All this money means nothing! They ask me, 'Bikram, now you are so rich. Why do you not live like the poor Indians?' I tell you why! Because I have been in that gutter! I have lived in the streets of Calcutta!"
When I get up to go, he takes my hand. "It is very simple," he says. "Go do good in the world, like me. Teach them their mind has a screw loose. It hates itself, it hates its body. But the lotus can grow in the garbage! Make them fall in love with themselves! That is the secret. I tell the same thing to my good friends, and they write Chicken Soup for the Soul. They sell, what, 10 million copies? You can trust me." (You'll have to—the authors wouldn't confirm any interaction with Choudhury.)
The next morning, back in the practice tent, Choudhury resumes his soliloquizing. "Woman is one-third mind, one-third body, one-third spirit," he shouts as the students go through their standing postures. "Man is one-third goat, one-third dog, one-third spirit!" It's easy to wonder if he actually means any of the things he says. Is Choudhury, as he himself sometimes says, nothing more than an entertainer?
Maybe. But in America, entertainers are leaders and leaders are (entertainers. In that light, Choudhury makes sense for American (yoga. He's a rock star—and the sweaty masses in the tent, currently struggling to hold the toe-stand pose, are his fans, joined together in shared idolatry.
After another grueling two-hour session, the warm morning air is like a meat locker compared with the superheated tent. My body and mind feel airy, illuminated, cleansed. It's a glimpse of samadhi that sparks a realization: Regardless of how it's packaged, yoga—or any demanding exercise—can produce a kind of enlightenment.
A feline yogini seated outside the tent looks at me appraisingly. She can tell from my body that I'm not a regular practitioner. "Stick with it," she says, bringing her arms over her head, her fingers knit loosely together. Her appearance is overtly sexual. "Soon you won't ask yourself why you do it. You'll ask yourself why everyone else doesn't."