Bikram Choudhury Battles for Control of the Hot Yoga Tradition He Invented | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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Bikram Choudhury Battles for Control of the Hot Yoga Tradition He Invented 

Thursday, Jul 19 2012
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But as part of his new approach, he began schooling larger and larger numbers of people in a group, eventually working his way up to 400 people in one session. The courses weren't cheap — today they run $10,900 per student. He was training so many students that, eight years later, he decided to copyright his method. If someone wanted to teach his style of hot yoga, that person had to sign a franchise agreement — with the requisite fees kicked back to Choudhury.

There are now more than 330 studios in America — 600 worldwide — with the greatest concentration in California, where Bikram yoga is offered at 86 locations.

Over the years, a handful of former students have attempted to set up unaffiliated studios. Choudhury successfully sued a few of them. But none of these insurrections have been as big, painful or lengthy as his current battle with Gumucio, his former favorite student.

click to flip through (8) ILLUSTRATION BY TOM CARLSON
  • ILLUSTRATION BY TOM CARLSON
 

The various suits have sent a palpable chill through the world of hot yoga, considered the largest and fastest-growing segment of the field. Choudhury claims that 35 million Americans practiced his brand of yoga last year alone.

Like his former mentor, Gumucio has dark, shoulder-length hair, although his flows in luscious waves. Heavy eyebrows and a large Roman nose accent his ruddy, usually unshaven face. If Choudhury seems like the Energizer Bunny, a constant stream of nervous energy, Gumucio is his counterpart, exuding a slow, cavalier confidence.

They first met in Los Angeles in 1996. Gumucio had quit his job as a Seattle radio announcer and moved to L.A., somewhat on a whim. He'd taken only three Bikram classes when his sister convinced him to enroll with her in the teacher training program.

That first day Gumucio attempted to follow Choudhury's directions to stand in the half-moon pose: feet together, arms pressed tight overhead, torso stretched to the right. Ideally, the body curves into an upside-down L shape, which requires the sides of the body to stretch farther than feels humanly possible and leaves one's abdomen shaking. Yet the novice strained to tilt more than a few inches to the side. As his eyes focused on his posture in the mirror, Gumucio says, Choudhury approached him from behind.

"What the hell are you doing here?" the teacher asked quietly.

Gumucio smiled. "Well, I'm here to do your teacher training."

Their eyes locked in the mirror, Gumucio still struggling to bend his body sideways. "Good luck," Choudhury said, giving him a look of slight disgust before moving on.

"So for the next eight weeks he literally tried to kill me," Gumucio says. "I mean, maybe not literally, but he made it, like, uncomfortable, because I think he couldn't believe this guy with so little training would go to the teacher training."

To the uninitiated, a Bikram class can seem like a cult. It's not uncommon to see girls brush the guru's hair or massage his body as he lectures, as if he were a deity.

One day, while struggling through class, Gumucio says he decided to take matters into his own hands. He signaled to one of the girls that he wanted to take over. "I decided to massage the evil villain in my life," he recalls, laughing. According to Gumucio, Choudhury noticed his new masseur and was impressed.

"From that day forward he was nice to me," Gumucio says. "But I had to pay a different kind of, you know, penalty. Because then he made me massage him, like, every single day for, like, four hours a day. I would be dripping with sweat all over, just from working on this crazy man."

All that fawning worked. By the end of Gumucio's training, the men had formed a close friendship. Six months later, Gumucio says, Choudhury trusted him to return to Los Angeles to run his world-headquarters studio and to stay in his home while Choudhury and his family went to India on vacation.

Gumucio had been welcomed into the inner circle of one of the world's foremost yogis.

"He is a very good disciple at the beginning," Choudhury would say later. "He was my good student."

Their relationship would remain solid for the next five years. Gumucio helped with teacher training and speaking engagements. The men vacationed together and stayed in each other's homes.

Gumucio would go on to open four studios in Seattle, but none was called "Bikram yoga." Instead, he used generic names like "Yoga Fitness." The field had yet to see the popularity it has today, and Gumucio believed that greater success could be had by appealing to a wider, more athletic audience than the "new age, tree-hugging" type Bikram attracted.

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