Controversial Bikram Yoga Guru Likes the Heat

To his hard-bodied disciples, Bikram Choudhury is a yoga rock star.

December 03, 2012, 8:03 PM

Jan. 16, 2012— -- To his hard-bodied disciples, Bikram Choudhury is a yoga rock star.

Bikram, who, like Madonna, tends to go by one name only, developed the original "hot yoga," a rigorous sequence of 26 poses performed over the course of 90 minutes in a room heated to a stifling 105 degrees.

Bikram Yoga is Eastern mind-over-body discipline meets Western obsession with fitness. A booming business. Bikram has made millions off the sweat of others.

Years ago, Bikram trademarked his name and copyrighted his routine -- one of the first prominent yogis to do so. His Yoga College of India is not a traditional ashram. It's franchised, like McDonald's, so that the menu is the same at every Bikram school anywhere in the world.

In the 1970s, when he first came to California, Bikram quickly became a sort of a "guru to the stars," An entire wall of his Beverly Hills mansion is a tribute to his famous disciples and friends. There are photos of him with Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones, as well as politicians such as Indira Ghandi, Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy.

Bikram has instructed long list of Hollywood A-listers. Elizabeth Taylor, Raquel Welch, Shirley MacLaine, Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen were among his early followers.

"I am more American than any American. I am more Western than any Western person," Bikram said. "I'm kind of a spoiled rotten boy."

Bikram insists his form of yoga doesn't just improve the body and invigorate people's sex lives but that it also saves lives.

"I can make you live 100 years," he said. "Say you have a bad knee, you want to fix your knee, come to my class... Do the same 26 postures with a woman who has a uterus problem. Same 26 poses, the uterus will be taken care of. Your knee will be taken care of.

"I've cured patients who have absolutely no hope, 98 percent of heart was clogged, they don't even want surgery," Bikram continued. "Send him to me and eight months later I send him back, brand new heart like a panther heart."

Bikram, who often speaks in excited hyperbole, estimates that half a billion people have benefited directly or indirectly from his yoga.

He has certainly benefited. His yoga, his books and his trademarked line of yoga gear have made him a multi-millionaire, with a Beverly Hills mansion and a collection of cars worthy of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

He gave "Nightline" a tour of his impressive car collection, which fills a warehouse staffed by a team of mechanics. Bikram owns more than a dozen Rolls Royces, including one he said used to belong to the Queen Mother. He owns a vintage Mercedes limo that he said Hitler gave to the last British raja as a wedding present. He owns the Aston Martin he said James Bond drove in "Thunderball," as well as a Royal Daimler he said used to belong to reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes.

Although Bikram was among the first to recognize yoga's potential as a cash cow, others also saw its enormous business potential. Last year, Bikram sued a former protégé Greg Gumucio, who founded a rival yoga studio called Yoga to the People, alleging copyright infringement. Both men spoke with "Nightline."

"Here you have this traditional knowledge that's been around for 5,000 years, and there was kind of a run on the bank," Gumucio told "Nightline." "It's kind of like if Arnold Schwarzenegger said I'm going to do five bench presses, six curls, seven squats, call it 'Arnold's Work' and nobody can show that or teach that without my permission. That's crazy to me."

But Bikram calls Gumucio a thief. "He was my student, I trained him" he said. "Then he got greedy, so he has to be stopped."

Gumucio, whose has studio locations in New York City, Seattle, San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif., countersued, claiming that Bikram had no business copyrighting yoga to begin with.

The U.S. Copyright Office appeared receptive to Gumucio's argument. The Copyright Office issued a position statement summarizing its interpretation of the law, saying, "The Copyright Office takes the position that a selection, coordination or arrangement of functional physical movements such as sports movements, exercises and other ordinary motor activities alone do not represent the type of authorship intended to be protected under the copyright law."

After our interviews, but before the case went to trial, the two men reached a settlement. Gumucio agreed to stop teaching Bikram's sequence of 26 poses. Bikram agreed to drop the lawsuit.

In a two-page open letter posted to the Yoga to the People website, Gumucio explained his decision to settle.

"I no longer felt the need to be entangled in the Bikram battle," he wrote. "I feel complete in the job I set for myself, which was to free yoga from the destructive threat of copyright custody and ownership. What becomes of the 26 posture sequence commonly known as Bikram Yoga, and Bikram's uninformed copyright claim to it, is now in the hands of the studio owners and teachers who practice it. I have decided it's time for a new journey and a continuation of YTTP's commitment to make yoga accessible to everyone."

Last month, another yoga school run by former Bikram students convinced a judge that Bikram's sequence of poses was "not copyrightable." The judge ruled that Evolation Yoga "cannot be held liable for copyright infringement" for teaching the technique.

Bikram's lawyers have appealed the ruling.

But Bikram and his legal team now have yet another case looming.

In 2010, Pandhora Williams spent about $11,000 to attend Bikram's intensive teacher training course in San Diego. She claims she was offended by portions of what she said Bikram said in his "dialogue," the banter that helps distract students through 90 minutes of body-bending poses. She claims that during class, Bikram made derogatory comments about women and homosexuals, saying, "Women are bitches and whores. They're here for one thing, and that's to make babies."

After completing seven weeks of the nine-week course, Pandhora said she confronted Bikram.

"I walked up to him, and I said 'Bikram, You're breaking my heart.' That's what I said to him. 'Why are you preaching hate when there's already so much hatred in the world?'" said Williams, who claimed his response to her was, "'We don't sell love here, you f**king black bitch. Get out.'"

Bikram declined "Nightline" requests to talk about the case, but ABC News obtained video and transcripts of his deposition in which Bikram denied making hateful comments and claimed Williams approached him in a way that made him feel threatened for his health and safety.

"I'm the most successful man in the world," he said. "It will keep going like this way as long as I live. If some sick crazy person think what I am it's their problem. It's not my problem. I'll still continue keep doing it."

Williams is now suing Bikram for unspecified damages. The case is scheduled to go to trial in March.

"He should not be allowed to spew so much hatred in his society and hide behind yoga, which is so beautiful and so pure," Williams said.

But Bikram rejects Williams' characterizations.

"I never lie, never cheat, I never hurt another spirit," he said. "I'm the most spiritual man you will ever meet in your life."

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