The Hot-Yoga Wars

Two yogis battle over the fate of a tradition (and a very large pile of money).

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

Over the years, a handful of former students have attempted to set up unaffiliated studios. Bikram 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.

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

A Pupil Challenges His Master

Like his former mentor, Gumucio has dark, shoulder-length hair, though his flows in luscious waves. Heavy eyebrows and a large Roman nose accent a ruddy, usually unshaven face. If Bikram 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 he attempted to stand in the half-moon pose, his 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 further 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, Bikram 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," Bikram 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, Bikram was impressed.

"From that day forward he was nice to me," says Gumucio. "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, says Gumucio, Bikram trusted him to return to Los Angeles to run his world headquarters studio and stay in his home, while Bikram 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," Bikram would later say. "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 were 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.

Yet their friendship began to strain in 2000. That's when Gumucio met John McAfee, a software billionaire turned yoga teacher, and visited his Colorado estate. The pair immediately clicked. Soon McAfee was inviting him to teach at a retreat, spending several days in nature practicing yoga in complete silence. By the time it was over, Gumucio decided he wanted to teach multiple forms of yoga, incorporating McAfee's Kriya method, which focuses on the spine.

"That's when things started to go south," Gumucio says. Bikram felt a sting of betrayal at seeing his protégé take on a new mentor. "He said, 'You cannot be a fucking prostitute. You cannot have your feet in two holes.'"

At the same time, other students had begun to rebel against Bikram. They formed Open Source Yoga Unity (OSYU) "to get out from under his brain," says Gumucio.

For a $500 membership fee, hot yoga teachers could join OSYU anonymously, in the process gaining an advocate that would help them "teach yoga freely."

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1 comments
Rob
Rob

I personally know Bikram, he's a customer of ours here in Honolulu (exotic cars). Man lives a very extravagant lifestyle, has over 200 cars in his collection, about 8 million dollars worth of watches and makes about 10 million a month. I don't patronize his franchises at all but he sure has made a brand out of his style. Dude was champ in India as a young kid and now his yoga is taught all around the world. There's a lesson in international business, marketing, quality control and franchising to learn from him. Other than all that, he's a nice guy, in his own assertive and boastful way.

 
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