The anticipation is almost palpable. A gaggle of deliriously excited young women, dressed in little more than a few bits of stretchy Lycra, are waiting in the car park of the Radisson Hotel at Los Angeles Airport. They whisper and clutch one another, giggling. No, Justin Bieber isn’t about to turn up. This isn’t the next stop on a One Direction tour. In fact, these girls – I’d guess all are under 25 – are yoga students, and they are here to catch a glimpse of their 67-year-old guru: Bikram Choudhury.
‘You’re going to meet Bikram!’ gushes one wide-eyed, flaxen-haired beauty, unable to contain herself. ‘He’s coming!’ And then he appears, stepping out of a red Bentley convertible – one of those from the Eighties with doors that open backwards. He is dressed in a white perforated leather suit – tailor-made in Japan, he tells me – and a purple silk shirt. ‘I design these myself,’ he says later, fingering the material, ‘I have 40!’ Accessories include a white fedora, giant sunglasses with blingy gold bits on the arms, and a comedy-giant gold watch. Oh, and silver rhinestone-studded Cuban heels (he can’t be any taller than me, and I’m 5ft 8in) which he says he owns in three colours. The look is totally, fabulously Bollywood. From nowhere appears an all-female, all stunningly attractive entourage of about six. They are in dark glasses and skintight outfits of various designs, holding clipboards and speaking in multiple languages into mobile phones.
Sarah Baughn, 29, claims he relentlessly ‘pursued’ her ‘for years’, saying they were connected in a past life. According to a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles’ superior court, Choudhury denied Baughn an international championship title she had been awarded, and has prevented her from teaching ‘because of her past and continuing refusal to have sex with her guru’. Baughn’s claim describes how she began practising Bikram while a student studying creative writing in 2004. She dropped out of college at 20 to dedicate herself full-time to yoga. She paid Choudhury $7,500 (£4,925) to attend a ‘gruelling’ training course.
Last October, I was invited to that very boot camp, at the dog-eared Radisson Los Angeles Airport. Every spring and autumn, about 500 men and women from all over the globe descend for nine weeks to live, breathe and study Choudhury’s special brand of hot yoga, before leaving as qualified teachers. The reason for my visit was that Harvard University had announced a major study into whether Bikram Yoga could treat depression. Those who practise it claim to have been cured of everything from arthritis to irritable bowel syndrome.
But what struck me over the two days I spent at the camp was the bizarre, almost cultish atmosphere. There is nothing for students to do in this airport hotel – you can practically smell the jet-fuel from the pool – but yoga. For nine whole weeks. Much of what he says is stream of consciousness. But then he’s suddenly likening himself to Shakespeare. Later, after a shaggy-dog tale about a man who is some kind of devil who becomes an angel thanks to yoga, he says the root of all ill-health is reading bad news. ‘If we only read good news, there would be no illness!’
He also tells me about how he has saved various of his disciples’ marriages – and seems very anti-divorce. But according to the recent lawsuit, Choudhury told Miss Baughn: ‘My wife is such a bitch, you have no idea. I am so lonely. I am dying. I can feel myself dying. I will not be alive if someone doesn’t save me.’ The wife in question, Rajashree, 47, is also his business partner. They have not been private about the shortcomings of their relationship. Of course at the start of our marriage we were going around like lovebirds doing everything together,’ she said during one interview. ‘Marriage is never perfect . . . my poor husband works very hard and has to travel constantly. I enjoy the simple things: going to the opera, visiting art museums and drinking tea.’ Choudhury, on the other hand, enjoys collecting cars: he often talks of his fleet of Roll-Royces and Bentleys and that he has ‘the biggest pool in Beverly Hills’.
He is also boastful. ‘Bikram Yoga is good for marathon sex,’ he is reported to have said during one class. ‘Once you do Bikram Yoga you can’t get it down for 72 hours!’ This kind of suggestive, sexual talk all goes on in plain sight, in classes filled with hundreds of students. The women I talked to (admittedly the younger, more attractive ones) all blushingly regaled tales of his touchy-feelyness. ‘He kissed me and told me I looked like Gina Lollobrigida,’ giggled one. However, as one slightly less lovestruck student explained: ‘He hates to be alone. He is always surrounded by people, but I think he is really quite a lonely person.’
Choudhury began practising yoga after a youthful career in weightlifting led to a knee injury. He found if he closed the windows of his Calcutta studio, it got very hot and his yoga students could stretch further. Choudhury emigrated from Calcutta to LA in the Seventies and his is one of the fitness world’s most enduring success stories. Today, there are 500 Bikram studios worldwide. The marketability of the class has doubtless been boosted by the endless list of celebrity devotees. Presidents Clinton and Reagan, Liz Taylor, Andy Murray, David Beckham, George Clooney, Lady Gaga and Demi Moore are all fans.
He famously fell out with Madonna after he told her she would have to attend a group class like everyone else, as per the Bikram philosophy. He enjoys name-dropping and during our interview becomes rather excited about British actress Sarah Miles, a former student. ‘She great . . . oh yes!’ he says, disappearing into a bedroom. He reappears with a book, which was published in 1978, outlining the progression of poses in his class. Soul legend Quincy Jones appears in some of the photos, as does Miles. The things Choudhury has said over the years seem shocking, almost aggressive – but in person he’s not. He keeps his thinning hair long, with the wispy strands pulled optimistically into a ponytail – rather suspiciously still dark black. He says Bikram Yoga helps people ‘live for ever . . . as long as you like’. But at the same time, he speaks of not having the energy he once did and hoping to pass on his business to his children in the not-too-distant future.
Every student I met at the training camp had a story of overcoming chronic illness. These were vulnerable women – and by their very nature, these change-your-life-type health cults do seem to attract fragile people. Sarah Baughn appears to fit that mould. If we have learned anything from the whole sordid Jimmy Savile saga, any claims of abuse of power must be taken utterly seriously. Two decades ago, according to reports, the Himalayan Institute of Honesdale, Pasadena, lost £1.2 million in a similar case against their guru Swami Rama.
Astonishingly, Choudhury himself has spoken about how it’s the gurus who are the ones being harassed. ‘What happens when they say they will commit suicide unless you sleep with them?’ he is reported to have said. ‘What am I supposed to do? Sometimes having an affair is the only way to save someone’s life.’ (DM)