So here's a real American Success Story:
Bikram Choudhury was born in Calcutta in 1946. At the age of four he began to study yoga with Bishnu Charan Ghosh, the younger brother of Paramahansa Yogananda (author of Autobiography of a Yogi and founder of the Self Realization Fellowship in Los Angeles).
Ghosh was one of the first modern yoga gurus to scientifically document yoga's ability to cure chronic physical ailments and heal the body from the inside out. His College of Physical Education in Calcutta had six thousand students in attendance, and young Choudhury (pronounced "Choodree") practiced yoga four to six hours a day, every day, until he won the National India Yoga Contest at the age of thirteen, the youngest contestant ever to do so. He remained undefeated for three years, developed an interest in weight-lifting as his body matured, and eventually became an Olympic-caliber weight-lifter.
At seventeen, an accident during a weight-lifting session seriously injured his knee. His prognosis was dire. According to several leading European physicians, he would never walk normally again.
Demonstrating the sort of indomitable spirit that characterizes most men and women of achievement, Bikram insisted on being carried back to his guru, and within six months Bishnu Ghosh had the young man back on his feet, totally recovered.
Recognizing Bikram's infectious enthusiasm for the discipline they shared, as well as his magnetic ability to engage his students, Ghosh asked Bikram to start several yoga schools in Bombay and other parts of India. His success was so immediate and enormous that Ghosh shipped his young disciple off to Japan to open two more schools there.
It was in Japan at Tokyo University Hospital that Bikram began to combine western medical science with traditional eastern doctrine. He designed a comprehensive series of twenty-six postures or asanas based on the ancient Hatha Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
Bikram's system was somewhat revolutionary, for the postures he extracted from traditional Hatha Yoga's repertoire of many hundreds were, for the most part, rudimentary. They were intended to be performed not by rubber-jointed yoga adepts but rather by ordinary people of all shapes, sizes, and abilities—in an unvarying order—each pose preparing the way for the next and in toto exercising every part of the body, as well as the mind and the spirit of the practitioner.
Bikram insisted that his 90-minute routine be performed in a room heated to at least 105 degrees. It is this last requirement, perhaps, that most distinguishes Bikram Yoga from all other forms. The heat creates in the body a degree of malleability lacking in a room-temperature environment. The joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments, etc. are less prone to injury, though it should be noted that nothing in Bikram's Beginning Yoga Class—when performed correctly under the guidance of a qualified teacher—is at all harmful to the body.
In 1974, Bikram founded the Yoga College of India in Beverly Hills, California. His timing couldn't have been more auspicious. Americans, in their omnivorous faddish way, were fascinated with the apparently fail-safe benefits of Bikram's system. It worked, and the proof was in the before and after photographs. It helped, of course, that Bikram's earliest students were celebrities, most famously Raquel Welch, Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, and even Tom Smothers, the healthier-looking of the two folk-singer/comedian brothers.
Bikram's Beginning Yoga studios now exist all over the world. The man New Age guru Deepak Chopra says "is doing a great service to yoga" is beginning to franchise his system in a manner unheard of heretofore. He maintains two teacher-training seminars a year in Beverly Hills, graduating 300 new Bikram yoga instructors every six months, and thereby assuring that a Bikram yoga class is a Bikram yoga class is a Bikram yoga class, no matter if it is taught in Manhattan, Beverly Hills, Vancouver, or Adelaide.
I have an associate who—upon learning that I had subjected my old and brittle bones to a yoga routine best termed "demanding"—commented: "I tried yoga once. I almost broke my neck, standing on my head." Obviously, my friend had run across a teacher who didn't have a clue.
It seems Bikram Choudhury was brought into this world to counter such wrong-headed attempts at "instant karma." In his eminently readable and beautifully illustrated Bikram's Beginning Yoga Class he writes:
Unfortunately, Hatha Yoga has been badly abused in the West. A number of yogis came to the West to teach Hatha Yoga. They and their disciples destroyed the Hatha Yoga System as it has been known for thousands of years. These yogis knew true Hatha Yoga, but because of their lack of faith in the Hatha Yoga system and the Western people, they have ruined Hatha Yoga in the West.
These yogis and their disciples failed to recognize that
because of the cultural differences between the East and the West, teaching methods that worked in the East could not work in the West. Rather than change the method by which they taught, they changed what they knew to be true into something that merely resembles Hatha Yoga, but does not deliver the goods.
Americans are very inventive, even if what they invent is wrong. They are inventing posture after posture, making up names for them. Then they sell their wares to innocent, uninitiated people who do not know that they are getting ripped off, even getting hurt.
There are more flavors of Hatha Yoga in the West than ice cream. Americans think that's wonderful. I tell you it is a disaster. Most of these so-called Yoga systems are not Yoga at all. Giving them a Sanskrit or Bengali name doesn't make them Yoga. And using props to help you do the postures only makes matters worse and not better.
There are no alternatives. There can be no substitute for true Hatha Yoga.
I have heard Bikram's system described as "faddish." Personally, I'd call it "old school." The man's been practicing and teaching for over fifty years. That hardly qualifies as a "fad."
When it comes to personally integrating the benefits of a two thousand year-old system of mental, physical, and spiritual heath, there can be no substitute for constant (read daily) practice under the guidance of a qualified teacher.
Perhaps this is Bikram Choudhury's greatest gift to the world: the idea that biography becomes biology, that the way you live your life determines, ultimately, how long and how well you get to continue to search for truth, beauty, symmetry, and perfection.
Bikram's Beginning Yoga Class, Bikram Choudhury with Bonnie Jones Reynolds, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, New York, 2000
The Johnny Appleseed of LSD
Bud and Travis
Camaron de la Isla
Wild Bill Donovan
Sidney Gottlieb, the real-life "Q"
king of the queens
Paco de Lucia
the Real McCoy
Robert K. Merton
J. Fred Muggs
Bernardino de Sahagun
A. J. Weberman