6 things about controversial yoga guru Bikram Choudhury

Bikram Choudhury speaking during an interview in 2008.
Bikram Choudhury speaking during an interview in 2008.PHOTO: ST FILE

Bikram Choudhury, who founded the Bikram yoga practice, has been ordered to pay US$924,500 (S$1.32 million) to a former legal adviser.

Ms Minakshi Jafa-Bodden, Choudhury's former personal attorney, said that she was fired for investigating sexual misconduct charges against her employer.

The guru faces further lawsuits from women who allege that Choudhury raped them when they were his students.

Here are six things about the controversial figure.

He made his millions practising yoga in a hot room

Choudhury earned his fortune with Bikram yoga, a type of yoga with 26 poses over 90 minutes, done in a room heated to 40.5 deg C in what he says is an attempt to replicate conditions in his native Kolkata. He developed the sequence while looking for a cure for a leg injury suffered in a weightlifting accident at 13 in India, Choudhury claims.

 

Starting out in the United States with a studio in a building's basement in 1973, Choudhury soon attracted a fanbase of Hollywood stars like Barbra Streisand and Jeff Bridges. Other celebrities like Lady Gaga and even former US presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton would eventually count themselves among his students.

In 1994, he expanded into training teachers to teach his brand of yoga around the world, charging them for the privilege (at US$10,900 a person in 2012) and earning fees from the franchises they set up. LA Weekly said in 2012 that there were an estimated 600 Bikram yoga studios worldwide.

He leads a lavish lifestyle

Choudhury owns luxury cars like Rolls-Royces, Bentleys and a Royal Daimler limousine, which was once the property of American business tycoon Howard Hughes, that has a toilet in the back. "This is my favourite car. It is Howard Hughes' last limousine, his Royal Daimler, the only one in the world with a toilet inside," he told The Guardian in 2006.

He also conducts classes wearing a jewel-encrusted Rolex watch, and lives in an 8,000 sq ft mansion in Beverly Hills, according to Vanity Fair.

LA Weekly reported in 2012 that he earned an estimated US$7 million annually. The man himself told The Guardian in 2006: "I'm making - I don't know - millions of dollars a day, US$10 million a month - who knows how much?"

He tried copyrighting yoga but failed

Choudhury reportedly threatened legal action against studios who taught his yoga sequence, but one studio decided to fight back.

A Florida yoga studio that he accused of copyright violation took the case to court, only for a US court to rule that Choudhury's sequence was not protected by copyright law. This meant that other studios could not be held liable for teaching it, the LA Times reported in 2015.

Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw said that the sequence of poses and breathing exercises that make up Bikram yoga is "an idea, process, or system designed to improve health".

"Copyright protects only the expression of this idea - the words and pictures used to describe the sequence - and not the idea of the sequence itself," she wrote, according to the LA Times.

A lawyer the newspaper spoke to compared the sequence of poses to a recipe, which cannot be copyrighted.

He says what he thinks

A local yoga teacher who spoke to The New Paper in 2015 said that Choudhury, whom she trained under, "is politically incorrect" and " just says what he thinks".

Of his brand of yoga, he told The Guardian: "When you come to my class I guarantee you, for 90 minutes you will forget who you are, what is your name, whether you are man or woman, what you are doing here; for the first time since you were born your mind will be totally free, meditated from the rest of the world: I take you to another galaxy."

He attributes the success of pop star Lady Gaga to his yoga. "Lady Gaga listens to me. Her mantra is only one word - Bikram - because Bikram makes her what she is today."

Given his celebrity clientele, Choudhury says: "I kind of run this city. They depend on me."

And of former student Greg Gumucio, with whom he ended up embroiled in a copyright suit, Choudhury said: "If you have a sick body, a screw-loose brain, you will only be surviving - that will be a man like Greg, Hitler or Osama bin Laden."

His wife is splitting up with him

Mrs Rajashree Choudhury has been married to the yoga guru for 30 years, but reports claimed that she has had enough.

Celebrity gossip site TMZ reported in December last year that Mrs Choudhury had filed legal documents for a separation, citing irreconcilable differences. She wants "spousal support and stakes her claim to various community assets", TMZ said, which include several properties.

The Telegraph said that Mrs Choudhury could get tens of millions of dollars if they split up, as California's divorce law states that anything earned while they were living together would be considered "communal property".

"My wife never looks at me any more. My children, my wife... We die only once in our life, (but) I'm dying every day," Choudhury said in 2014 after the allegations broke.

He claims he would not have to force himself on women

Choudhury told CNN in 2015 that he does not have to force himself on women as he has many offers of sex.

"Women likes (sic) me. Women loves (sic) me," he said, in what was the first time he was addressing the rape allegations. "So if I really wanted to (be) involved with the women, I don't have to assault the women."

He also said that he feels sorry for the women. "I don't think they are bad people. It's not... (them who) are saying that (the allegations). They are entranced by... lawyers."