L O S A N G E L E S, Oct. 14, 2002 -- Yoga — an ancient spiritual practice of intricate poses passed from teacher to student in a sacred exchange. Yoga — a booming business of glamorous poses in which millions of dollars are being exchanged.
That's an unusual way of describing the Hindu discipline, but as yoga's popularity spreads, it is being adapted for different audiences.
"America is changing yoga," said Paul Keegan of Business 2.0 Magazine. "It's turning from a spiritual discipline to a fitness routine and a marketable commodity."
And no one has been more successful at marketing that commodity than Bikram Choudhury. His "hot yoga" method, practiced in rooms heated to at least 105 degrees, is so popular that Choudhury worries about other teachers "stealing" his style.
"I asked the Justice Department, 'How do I stop it,'" said Choudhury. "The Justice Department said, 'Well, when you are in Rome, you must do what [a] Roman does. You have to franchise your yoga school!'"
And so he has, opening more than 600 studios that carry his unique style.
People hoping to become yoga instructors in the booming Bikram empire must pay $5,000 in tuition.
"When you have something that can make people healthy [or] can make people's minds stronger, you know, emotionally stronger, it is not hard to sell it," said Amir Abdul-Jabbar, a Bikram yoga instructor-in-training who is the son of basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The very concept of "selling" a spiritual practice has offended some traditionalists. Yoga is based on five principles, including one that discourages greed. It would seem that capitalism and contemplation would be poor partners.
That aspect of the growing Bikram movement troubles Max Strom of the Sacred Yoga Movement.
"If the intention is to make money, I think it is not a good thing because it's like franchising a church," he said.
But don't tell that to Choudhury. According to him, he is beyond criticism.
He bragged, "I am bulletproof, waterproof, fireproof, windproof, money-proof, sex-proof, emotion-proof. Nothing in the world can take my peace away from me."
Or, for that matter, his net worth, which is estimated at $7 million.