It's a balmy 87 degrees on a late July afternoon in Miami, but for the dozen people gathered at Bikram Yoga in South Beach, that's not nearly hot enough.
Walking past the shops lining 11th Street between Washington and Collins avenues, practitioners of Bikram yoga climb a short flight of stairs and enter a studio with pastel-colored walls and Eastern art. Then they get as close to naked as they can — donning shorts, Lycra pants, sports bras, and tank tops — and head into a mirror-lined room where the temperature is 106 degrees.
For the next 90 minutes, they stretch, bend, and sweat profusely, drenching their yoga mats and gulping down water. Among the people taking part in this afternoon class is John Elliott, the 44-year-old manager of Bikram Yoga. He'll be teaching later in the evening, but that doesn't keep him from twisting and contorting with the paying members in the sauna-like atmosphere. For Elliott, who has taught Bikram for the past ten years, the combination of extreme heat and yoga is uniquely purifying.
"It gives my body and mind peace," he says after the class, still sweating. "It sends me in a direction I want to go."
Bikram has exploded in popularity in recent years, with more than 330 studios around the nation and seven in Miami-Dade offering the sweat-soaked workout.
But yoga's hottest trend is now at the center of a sizzling dispute between its founder — legendary yogi Bikram Choudhury — and one of his best students, a man named Greg Gumucio who founded his own chain of studios. There's more at stake than just millions of dollars in revenue; Bikram has persuaded the government to let him copyright hot yoga, raising serious questions about whether it's possible to copyright a type of exercise — which is very much a part of the conflict between Bikram and Gumucio.
Whoever wins that battle, many in the yoga world worry the fight could seriously affect a practice that has won millions of adherents by selling a stress-reducing, Zen-like lifestyle.
Bikram, for one, doesn't care about the cost. "I am going to go to trial to get him punishment, to make him an example, so no one will ever have the guts to do that same kind of shit," says the man so synonymous with yoga that people are often surprised to learn he is still living and not just some mythical icon.
Born in 1946 in Calcutta, where he made his name as a yogi by winning a series of youth competitions, Bikram moved to Los Angeles in the early '70s. His first book, published in 1978, preached that his 90-minute hot yoga sessions could heal anything from knee injuries to obesity and arthritis.
It wasn't until 1994 that he began teaching others his fabled method. At the time — 20 years after arriving in the States — there were only four Bikram studios in the country. Bikram was still training teachers one-on-one, the traditional method in India. That year he began educating teachers in groups, schooling up to 400 people in a given session. The courses weren't cheap — today they run $10,900 per student. But he was training so many people that, eight years later, he decided to copyright his method.
In health-crazed Hollywood, the small man's teachings exploded. His clients would include three presidents — Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton — in addition to George Harrison, Charlie Sheen, Prince Harry, and Jennifer Aniston.
"Lady Gaga listens to me," he boasted to a Boston audience during a June lecture. "Her mantra is only one word — Bikram — because Bikram makes her what she is today. It works."
The success earned him celebrity as well, and a starlet's ego to match. He lives in the Hollywood Hills with his collection of Rolls-Royces, earning an estimated $7 million annually. "I kind of run this city," he says. "They depend on me."
In Miami, Bikram has been popular since the '80s, the first studio opening in 1985. It operated in a Little Haiti gym before moving to Miami Beach and eventually settling on 11th Street between Washington and Collins in 2005. An average class boasts anywhere from ten to 30 students, peaking on the weekends. Despite the down economy, business has been good, Elliott says, and he's seeing more people every year.
Like his former mentor, Gumucio has dark, shoulder-length hair, though his locks flow in luscious waves. Heavy eyebrows and a large Roman nose accent a ruddy, usually unshaven face. He first met Bikram in Los Angeles in 1996. Gumucio had quit his job as a radio announcer in Seattle and moved to L.A., somewhat on a whim. He had taken only three Bikram classes when his sister persuaded him to enroll with her in the teacher training program.