The man behind the pose
Who: Bikram Choudhury
Brand identity: Yoga for the masses
Brand extensions: Bikram Yoga sequence of 26 poses; training courses; books and DVDs; clothing line; franchise operations (pending)
He claims his method of yoga treats everything from chronic diseases and gynecological problems to financial stress and marital strife. But hubris aside, he deserves all the credit for one landmark achievement: Long before anyone else, Bikram Choudhury figured out how to market yoga to Americans. And he turned his particular brand of yoga into the McDonald's of a $3 billion industry.
In the early 1960s, Choudhury was an up-and-coming yogi in Calcutta with a cadre of high-profile clients, including George Harrison and Shirley MacLaine. When some of them urged Choudhury to bring his unique arrangement of poses and stretches to America, he couldn't resist, setting up shop in -- where else? -- California. At a time when yoga was still a foreign concept, Choudhury began molding it into an accessible regimen for Westerners. He boiled down 84 ancient hatha yoga postures into a simpler sequence of 26 poses, taught in large mirrored rooms heated to 105 degrees, and motivated students with his boot camp -- like cajoling -- hardly the classic style of a yogi.
"He Americanized yoga," says Jimmy Barkan, who trained with Choudhury early on and later became his most senior teacher. "He kept the postures authentic but chose more basic poses better suited for the American anatomy. He made it more accessible."
In 1973, after opening his second studio in Beverly Hills, Choudhury started thinking about expansion. He began by offering courses to train and certify students in Bikram yoga. Promising students were invited to train with him in Los Angeles for up to four years (at a total cost of $2,000) to earn the master's certification needed to open their own studios offering the Bikram method. By the late '80s, more than five had opened, and many new Bikram yogis were sending their students back to Choudhury, providing the master with a constant stream of new customers.
"It was brilliant marketing," says Tony Sanchez, who attended one of the early training courses and eventually ran Bikram's first studio in San Francisco. "He got his trainees to go out and sell the program for him." Along the way, Choudhury was learning something about profit margins: By 1994 he had condensed the training into a 60-day program, raised the price to $4,000, and offered it to anyone who had taken at least six months of Bikram classes. Result: Teacher training only increased in popularity. Today he teaches 600 students a year at $6,000 per head a $3.6 million nut that makes up the bulk of his overall revenue.
Although Choudhury supervised the opening of every new affiliated studio, some students weren't teaching pure Bikram, and the yogi eventually concluded that franchising was the only way to protect his brand. "You go to Starbucks and you know what you're going to get," he says. "It's the same with my yoga."
So in 2002 he began trademarking and copyrighting everything from his name and his series of poses to the dialogues he uses in class. More recently he announced plans to turn affiliated Bikram studios into dues-paying franchises. Lawyers are still trying to figure out a fee structure for each of the 700 studios. Choudhury says they'll reach an agreement by year's end but he's unconcerned about the details. His mind is already on plans for even more ways to expand beyond his line of yoga paraphernalia. Bikram perfume, anyone?