Yoga and the art of making money

Bikram Choudhury demonstrates that an ancient practice intended to draw its practitioners closer to God can also be a fast track to wealth, The Sun’s Harvey Enchin writes…

Vancouver Sun (Canada), Sep. 14, 2002

The ancient Indian practice of brought yoga closer to Mammon.

Devotees insist that the pursuit of money, power and fame is the antithesis of the values yoga promulgates. But, as Bikram Choudhury has demonstrated, yoga can provide a path to wealth and celebrity as well as enlightenment.

Choudhury, the story goes, was summoned to the White House in the late 1960s by then U.S. president Richard Nixon, who was suffering from phlebitis. Whatever magic Bikram conjured so impressed Nixon that he offered to help set up the young yogi in any American city he chose.

No fool, Choudhury established his Bikram Yoga College of India in Beverly Hills. A star was born.

Choudhury, who won the National India Yoga competition when he was 11 years old, has developed a style of yoga that has taken the fitness world by storm. Of some 800 asanas or postures that comprise hatha yoga, or physical yoga, Choudhury chose 26 which are performed in a 90-minute workout in a specific sequence in a mirrored, carpeted room heated to 41 degrees (105 degrees Fahrenheit). Absent are chanting, incense, candles and bells. Sweat substitutes for inner peace.

Legions of aging baby boomers, battered by decades of aerobics, are flocking to Bikram yoga studios in search of a less jarring way to stay healthy. A survey found 30 million Americans practise yoga at least once a week, a number that is increasing daily. And the cachet of celebrity helps draw a growing number of them to Choudhury, guru to the stars, including George Harrison, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Shirley Maclaine, Raquel Welch, Quincy Jones, John McEnroe and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to name a few.

Yoga has made Choudhury very rich. He lives in a Beverly Hill mansion staffed with servants and boasts a collection of 30 classic cars, Rolls-Royces and Bentleys among them.

There are 300 Bikram studios worldwide — 13 of them in Canada — and “two more open every day”, says Jennifer Anderson, the Bikram official in charge of affiliation.

Later this fall, Bikram will become a franchise operation, a first in the 5,000-year history of yoga. Owners of Bikram schools will pay a modest up-front fee, rumoured to be about $500 US, and a percentage of gross monthly revenue, expected to be two to three per cent depending on volume. Financial terms will be disclosed when the franchise package is distributed next month.

“The reason for franchising,” Anderson said in an interview from Bikram headquarters in Los Angeles, “is quality control, to maintain the purity of the Bikram method. Other yoga schools have uncertified Bikram teachers, offering a diluted version of the yoga. That’s part of the reason he decided to go with this.”

Bikram charges $5,000 US for its rigorous nine-month teacher certification program, which has produced about 2,000 certified Bikram teachers with 300 enrolled last term (the biggest class ever), and 230 more taking the course now. Choudhury will make about $2.6 million US this year from teacher training alone.

Bikram wants to protect its graduates from competitors that offer a Bikram-style class for less than the Bikram rate, luring business away from authorized Bikram schools.

Benefits of franchising are described on the Bikram Web site as: Protecting the Bikram Yoga brand, providing uniform quality of service, building consumer confidence, improving promotion and marketing, enforcing standards, protecting owners’ investment and increasing the value of the schools.

To tighten control on the Bikram product, Bikram has trademarked his own name, the name “Bikram Yoga,” related logos, the sequence of postures and the script Bikram teachers follow during class.

“It’s all protected under U.S. trademark and copyright law,” Anderson said. “It is Bikram’s intellectual property.”

At Vancouver’s Prana Yoga and Zen Centre, students are engaged in a more traditional form of yoga — a flow of classical postures assembled by director Ifat Erez, a 40-year-old beauty in flowing robes who advocates drinking urine as an integral part of the yoga lifestyle.

The yoga community in Vancouver is small — all the teachers know and respect each other — and Erez says she would never, ever criticize one of her colleagues.

But she is concerned about the growing commercialization of yoga and teachers who feel it necessary to stop others from copying their methods.

“I don’t believe we can hold anything in terms of this knowledge,” she says serenely, sitting in a pillow-strewn room used for relaxation and meditation. “I cannot trademark anything of my teaching because it’s not mine. I didn’t invent anything. I’m just using the teaching that’s been around for 5,000 years.”

She fears that if governments see yoga as big business they will try to regulate it, organize it into a system and determine who can teach. “That will kill the yoga,” she said. “This has never been in the nature of yoga. The beauty of yoga is that you have different teachers with different approaches and students find their teachers like finding a cup of tea.”

Erez worries that the business of yoga will compromise the practice and change the relationship of students and teachers. “You start to think of what your students want instead of what they need. You start to relate to them as customers and how much you can satisfy them so they come to you.”

While half-naked students sweat it out at Bikram, Erez forbids “sexy” dress; for women no sports bras, for men no shorts or bare torsos. “I’m fighting against this because the tradition of yoga is not about showing off, it’s growing internally.”

Erez says her centre offers 60 classes of hatha yoga every week, but only two in meditation. She estimates that only one in 200 yoga students practices meditation. “I know exactly where yoga stands today and all you can do is accept it.”

By the end of this year there will be nine Bikram schools in British Columbia, including three owned by Danny Dworkis and Lisa Pelzer, who opened their first in Kitsilano in 1999. The two, once a couple but no longer romantically involved for reasons they refuse to divulge, used to run a home services business. But soon after Pelzer discovered Bikram in Hawaii in 1996, took the training in Los Angeles and opened her own school, it became clear that yoga would provide far greater income.

Dworkis said while he and Pelzer embrace the franchise business model, approximately 30 per cent of Bikram studios are expected to break away and will, consequently, be obliged to drop the Bikram name and stop teaching the sequence of postures or using the instructional script.

Bikram graduates who open their own schools must agree to use the name Bikram Yoga College of India, heat their studios above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, ensure that all teachers are certified by Bikram, teach only the Bikram sequence of postures and nothing else, and carpet the space. Bikram enforces its rules. It has notified Yogapod in North Vancouver and Bikram Yaletown of violations of these requirements.

“The purpose of the franchise is to keep the yoga pure,” Dworkis said. “The yoga has never been about money. It’s to heal the body — to connect the body, mind and soul. Bikram is a beautiful guy and his objective is to help you.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday September 16, 2002.
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