Authors: Benjamin Lorr
Luckily a solution appeared. After a particularly agonizing class,
Shirley MacLaine took the guru aside and
explained that he should really be charging for his classes. Charge? Bikram eyed her suspiciously. Up until this point, Bikram had followed the Indian convention and kept his classes free, accepting donations from his more generous clients. But as Shirley pointed out, he was in America now. And Americans didn’t respect things that were given away free. This yoga was special, and he needed to protect it.
The need for quality control and Shirley’s American Way combined in Bikram’s mind, forming a perfect marriage: discipline and capitalism, cash and control. After hiring a manager, an accountant, and a lawyer, Bikram
began the process of expanding. For his teachers, he chose the best of the giant children: the most flexible ones, containing the best spines. But he never let himself forget they were children. In addition to demanding that they teach only his yoga, in exactly the sequence he had developed, Bikram recorded himself leading a class. He then used the recording to write up a script—he called it his dialogue—which all teachers would have to memorize and recite during class. Practicing at a Bikram studio, he decided, would be like practicing with Bikram himself, only with the direction uttered through someone else’s lips.
By forty, Bikram
controlled a growing network of studios and let a motorcycle ride over his chest on the evening news.
By forty-five, he had saved Kareem Abdul
-Jabbar’s NBA career, rejuvenated John McEnroe’s tennis game, collaborated with NASA to bring yoga to astronauts, and massaged a pope. By fifty, he had discovered diamonds and fedoras. By sixty, Bikram was sitting firmly on top of a yoga empire, operating in thirty-seven countries worldwide, showing up to teach his classes in only a Rolex and a Speedo. In the intervening years, he married an Indian yoga champion half his age (she won the national competition five times to Bikram’s three), bought a ten-thousand-square-foot house in the Hollywood Hills,
stashed close to forty Rolls-Royces in its garage
, and fathered a pair of beautiful children.
But what never changed over all those years, what couldn’t change, was his devotion to his mission, to his karma yoga. And so, millionaire many times over, Bikram is still right there today, teaching class himself, on a dais in his headquarters in Beverly Hills: hips wrapped tight in leopard print, chest freshly waxed, demanding perfection through his headset microphone to a room of hundreds, smiling as his students compete to feel pain in front of him.
Sometimes I think if he didn’t exist, someone would have to invent him.
But then sometimes I think that’s exactly what happened. That it was Bikram who hallucinated Bikram, that he’s his own Rushdie. After all, all the information above comes from one of his official biographies or from an interview with a senior teacher. Much is unverifiable. And the details shift constantly.
In some accounts he started training at three
, sometimes at
six; other times he won the championship at eleven, twelve, or thirteen. And
his famous yoga sequence, the very core of Bikram Yoga
, was actually not so much developed or designed by Bikram, but largely excerpted with only the slightest of changes from a longer series of ninety-one postures that have been firmly in the public domain for the last hundred years.
Other Bikram claims are not so much vague as completely unknowable. Nixon, currently frolicking among the immortal sages, will be forever unavailable to confirm or deny his Bikram moment. (
Of course, this hasn’t stopped the president’s
library from expressing extreme skepticism that the two ever met.) Likewise, Bikram Yoga Headquarters has repeatedly rejected requests for citations, references, or copies of the Japanese medical research central to Bikram’s original health claims. And
NASA has been unable to locate
even the hint of a relationship with Choudhury or anyone else on a project involving yoga. The extent of Bikram’s own weight lifting injury is, of course, lost to time along with his medical records.
We do have the celebrities, of course. Bikram’s studio is lined like a Manhattan diner with their framed autographed pictures. But even here things get tricky.
For every Jim Carrey, who has repeatedly and publicly
thanked Bikram for his girlfriend’s butt, there is a Madonna.
Here is Madonna talking about her yoga workouts
with morning-radio host Johnjay on his nationally syndicated show.
You ever do Bikram?
Uh, yeah. I mean that’s like turn the heat up so hot, you don’t have to do anything ’cause you just sweat?
Yeah, it’s like 110 degrees and 50 percent humidity. …
Do you like that?
As for the Beatles, Bikram told the BBC he treated them in 1959
—before they had formed as a group.
Finally, there are the claims that have simply melted away over the years.
It was once common knowledge among students that Bikram won an
Olympic gold medal.
He bragged constantly during the pre-Internet
1970s about the world records he set in weightlifting. Or that Nixon greeted him on the runway when he arrived in America. Nobody in the Bikram world mentions these anymore.
But then, just when you’ve decided the man is an unending charlatan, a self-promoting boob, a yogic version of a spoiled American child actor grown old (to say nothing of his back spasms, his death threats, and the legions of patent lawyers at his beck and call), he will reinvent himself before you. He will unnerve you. You’ll walk into his studio in Beverly Hills and find him singing sweet lullabies to his students during class. You’ll watch him talk to an elderly student, in his leopard-print and Rolex, with the heartbreaking compassion of a master healer. You’ll find him listening to a woman in tears describing her son with cystic fibrosis. And you will watch as Bikram ushers her back to his office to design an individualized posture sequence to help alleviate his symptoms. You’ll read glowing unsolicited testimonials from professional athletes and supermodels, the two classes of professionals who probably know most about maintaining the body.
You’ll learn that those forty-something Rolls-Royces in his garage are used cars he bought as wrecks, and that he repaired them with his own hands. Late at night, while he wasn’t sleeping. Vocation: fixing junk bodies. Avocation: fixing junk cars.
You’ll look at his shirtless, hairless chest and realize that at sixty, his type of health can’t be faked.
You’ll talk to him and realize that his manic conversational energy is exactly what you’d expect from a man who hasn’t slept in forty-six years.
And whatever you ultimately decide, what’s not in dispute, what’s clearly
not a hallucination is that
right now in America
there are just over 1.1 million men, women, and children who regularly come together for ninety-minute doses of his healing. That at his command, legions of grown men will don spandex and roll around on a mildewy carpet trying to bite their toes without bending their knees. That twice a year as a guru,
he charges just under eleven thousand
dollars for the privilege of bending in his presence and receiving his training. That there are 1,700 studios open worldwide, filled with more than eight thousand instructors willing to devote their adult lives to reciting his words from a script. That many of them adopt a faux Indian accent when doing so.
It’s dizzying. The Freudian concept of ambivalence goes beyond uncertainty and mixed emotions. True ambivalence, Freud insisted, is a condition where we contain opposite emotions inside us, simultaneously exploding out in completely opposite directions. This is Bikram.
Dr. Yeargin is a sweat scientist. A professor in the Department of Applied Medicine and Rehabilitation at Indiana State University, she has spent a career investigating the complex physiological interactions between heat, hydration, and athletic performance. She has consulted with professional football teams, enthusiastically sampled drippings from marathon runners, and applied rectal body temperature probes to hulking jocks. Given that intense heat is the sine qua non of my Bikram experience, she feels like the perfect person to talk with. Also given the logistics of rectal probes, I’m guessing she is pretty charismatic.
When I talk with her, she is about to run fieldwork with firefighters, investigating the effectiveness of head-cooling helmets. The firefighters, dressed in full Vader-like protective gear, will run through training exercises designed to mimic real-life rescue operations while Dr. Yeargin attends to their physiology: capturing their core body temperature, heart rate, skin temperature, and sweat rate in action. The whole scene seems like the intersection of hard science and a romantic comedy, with the brainy, diminutive
Dr. Yeargin on her tiptoes adjusting the placement of sensors while the fire-fighters lounge between training sessions, crack jokes, and prepare to rush back into danger.
The data she collects will be analyzed backed at her lab. She hopes the results will be used to design better cooling systems for helmets—or perhaps to move away from head cooling completely.
“I do a lot of work with children too,” she said. “And children are reasonable. When a child gets hot and verges on heat illness, they get grumpy and whiny and quit. Adults, on the other hand, tend to think they can push through anything.
“One of the dangers of a head-cooling device might be that it encourages that mentality. It doesn’t help anyone if we have firefighters that think they are perfectly fine but are actually on the verge of collapse.”
Understanding the mechanisms behind that collapse is what led Dr. Yeargin to study heat in the first place. In the summer of 2001, just as she was entering a master’s program in exercise science, she watched three consecutive heat stroke deaths ripple through the sporting world: one each at the high school, college, and pro level. The deaths were senseless and mysterious. One occurred at 88 degrees and 60 percent humidity, a typical Florida summer day. One occurred surrounded by coaches, trainers, and elite medical facilities. All involved athletes in prime physical condition who, after completing their workout for the day, simply fell into comas and died. The more she investigated, the more interested she became in the physiological mechanisms that triggered these deaths. She switched the focus of her master’s. When she was finished, she switched the focus of her career and began work on a Ph.D.
From her office, Dr. Yeargin gives me
a crash course in the physiology of exercise during extreme heat. “Your body is battling two sources of heat coming at it from two directions,” she explains. “First, inside the body, your muscles are producing heat through metabolism. Second, and more importantly, heat from the outside world is penetrating inward.” Combating these forces is absolutely essential to survival. The body has a critical core temperature just north of 105 degrees, after which the brain begins to shut down and organs start to fail.
To exercise in heat is to create a series of dilemmas: the body must negotiate the urgent need for cooling with the desire to continue exercising.
This begins with the body’s normal response to heat, shunting blood from the core to the skin. As blood cycles to the surface, it dissipates heat into the atmosphere and then cycles back to cool the entire system. During exertion, however, the muscles of the body require increases in blood to function. In response to the two separate needs, the body shunts blood in two directions: into the muscles to feed performance and out to the skin to cool. This fork, however, leaves a gap: the major organs of the body—especially the gut, liver, kidneys, and brain—can be underserved and undernourished.
Compounding this rerouting is a massive relaxation of the vessels holding the circulating blood. Heat stimulates a reflex, dilating the size of the blood vessels. In the form of a heat pack on a tight muscle, this expansion can be wonderful, increasing circulation, allowing deeper flow into the muscle. When applied bodywide however, the sudden increase in the size of the vessels decreases the pressure in the system (think of the difference in pressure between water running through a tiny nozzle or a wide tunnel). The reduction in pressure forces the heart to pump harder to push blood the same distance, further straining the system and reducing blood available to other organs.
Finally, of course, there is sweat. Lots of it. Pumping fluid to the skin allows evaporation to release unwanted heat. The hotter it gets, the more the body sweats; the more sweat, the more evaporation cools.
The flipside to this process is a decrease in blood volume. The sweat sliding down your back is no longer circulating in your body. As the plasma volume decreases, there is a cascading effect, compounding all previous reactions. The heart must work even harder still. The organs receive even less blood. Less blood
flow means less cooling at the skin. Core temperature escalates and the body comes ever closer to shutdown.
All of which is why exercise in high heat feels harder: The muscles are starved for energy. The brain isn’t receiving enough blood and starts sending freakout feedback messages. The heart physically can’t beat hard enough to pump blood to all the places it is needed. The result is the common demoralizing effect where a relatively easy workout can suddenly feel incapacitating.
“The brain is especially sensitive to these changes,” Dr. Yeargin explains. “It is a princess. It wants the perfect temperature, perfect electrolyte balance, perfect sugar levels. … If it doesn’t get it, you see confusion, disorientation, irritability, grumpiness.”