Before us the Yogi—enthroned on a voluminous orange couch—urged us to contort our bodies further and further, stretching and tangling ourselves inside a giant, soaking hot sauna.
I had had to break and sit down twice in the last minute, pouring a liter of water down my throat, and trying to replace the fluids escaping my skin in monsoon proportions.
The breasts in my line of site shifted, and the point where the sweat cascaded off the woman’s tiny sports bra, shifted as her sinuous leg lifted in a graceful ballerina’s kick. On my left, a man went down and lay on his back with his face in his hands.
I needed to cool down.
“Are you ok boss?” Bikram asked me, not unkindly, as I scampered for the door.
“I just need some air.” I panted.
Fleeing the room and its scorching battery of wall-mounted heaters, I grabbed a fresh white towel and made my way to the changeroom, overcome by the distinct recognition that I was about to faint.
Entering, I discovered two other casualties lying on the floor. I joined them immediately and tried to lift my feet up on to the bench, but realized that I was about to be sick.
I heaved a liter of water onto the pristine towel.
The nearer of my companions raised his head from the floor, “You’re feeling like that too huh?”
I vomited some more, then acknowledged the comment, “Jesus, that’s tough. It’s my first time…”
He grinned—a flushed and sickly sheen couldn’t entirely conceal Hollywood-handsome looks—“I’ve been doing it for two and a half years. I lost 30 pounds. It’s the best.”
The driving motives of human behavior are often elusive. There’s something in the terroir of Los Angeles that seems to breed a particularly virulent strain of eccentric aspiration. The city smashes inexplicable desires together like gravity. Let’s call it The Hollywood Effect, and let’s blame it on the heat.
Bikram Yoga is a seminal case. It could be said to possess many of the same elements as living in this city; in-crowd adherence to a pseudo-mystical body of practice (see: free-market capitalism), sexually explicit writhing bodies, mild self-flagellation, and heat.
Bikram Yoga is the perfect allegory of life in Los Angeles, and Bikram himself is a perfect ambassador—a true icon—of this city.
The first time I see him he’s wearing enormous gold sunglasses, the second time a silver belt and bejewelled shoes. His Rolls-Royce collection stalks my memory as a vanishing line of staggering opulence, one after the other, after the other, held in my mind with colliding thought-bubbles of genuine envy, and a condescending pity that they’re just machines, they’re just machines.
Bikram Choudhury came to Los Angeles in 1973—a yoga guru who had won his first National Yoga Championship in India at the age of 13, and who would go on to found and develop an eponymous school of yoga that takes place in sweltering artificial heat that parodies the climate of India. He has forged an empire that spans about 1000 studios worldwide, and which in 2006 Bikram suggested might be earning him as much as $10 million per month.
His oratory floods with dropped names and celebrity encounters, but Bikram is the centre of his universe, and even the weightiest of stars are mere satellites to him in the tales that he tells. Bikram is Los Angeles. There’s the stupefying affluence, the scientifically questionable philosophy, the undeniable effectiveness, the glamorous veneer, the cheerful affability, the adoration and distastefulness. There’s the lawsuits.
The least that can be said is that the guru is a lightning rod for controversy, just like the city in which he resides.
Sun, sleaze, and sweat. The day had started off ordinarily enough—with a slight hangover and the standard fragmentary memories of amusement and regret from the night before.
Bikram had invited me to his class at the back-end of the photoshoot at his home the week before, and my curiosity rendered his generous invitation irrefusable. So I had dragged myself out of bed at 8:30 on a Saturday morning and drove from Echo Park through Beverly Hills to Bikram’s studio.
Hobbling back to my car after the two hour class, and defeating—by a matter of moments—one of Los Angeles’ vast flock of perpetual vultures (the parking police), I made my way back through Beverly Hills feeling dehydrated, but alive.
Crammed into traffic between a yellow Ferrari and the foot-bound Louis Vuitton legions en route to Rodeo Drive, I messaged My Editor ‘‘Fuckkkkkk 2 hours of that……. I puked my guts up.’’
He called me up—amused but sympathetic—“the classes only normally go for 90 minutes” he told me, I wasn’t sure whether that was consolation or not.
After a few exchanges he tested my willingness to get back on the lash—“There’s a beach party today if you wanna go? There’ll be babes…and bikinis.”
My dreams of lying in bed comatose and rehydrating evaporated fast—far more quickly than my hangover would as it turned out.
He arranged for Soaree to pick me up. Soaree and I had first met earlier in the year at Coachella, where she had gigs modelling bikinis and being on stage as an extra during the Father John Misty set. Her mother had named her Soaree after seeing a bird circling in the sky—soaring—at the moment of her birth.
She had been raised in a hippy commune in the desert, and was without a doubt the most Californian girl I had ever met. The fact that she was actually from Arizona was irrelevant, and just went to show that California is an idea as much as it is a place.
She picked me up from my house in a weather-beaten car with a chirpy dog on her lap (‘Cookie’), then we detoured into the homeless-strewn urban canyons of Downtown to pick up My Editor.
Any drive to the beach from the Eastside means jostling your way along the titanic freeways that hack Los Angeles apart. These endless concrete edifices have a consecrated feel to them—vast cathedrals of worship to self-determination and internal combustion.
Sipping on Slurpees as the weather ascended towards 100, we reached the sand and sea, and found our party under some umbrellas, slugging wine and soaking in the sun.
The beaches in Los Angeles are a unique proposition. The famous L.A. sprawl rides them all the way to the shoreline, and down on the southern beaches—where we were—the industrial spectres of power stations reach as far onto the sand as the houses.
While this makes it difficult to deceive yourself that you’ve escaped for the day and detoured into a tropical paradise, there’s a distinctive pleasure to being both at the beach and inescapably in the heart of a mega-city.
We swam, we drank, we smoked, we swam. We went to a restaurant with hip furniture and tanned clientele.
We were then presented with a typical Los Angeles challenge—what to do with the car, and what side of the city to stay on?
L.A. is a discombobulated cluster of distinctive cantons. Hollywood is nothing like Malibu, which is completely different to Downtown, which is totally unique from Silver Lake, which is very far from Santa Monica. While Ubers have definitely changed the proposition of navigating your way across the city, the costs are still an issue.
Your alternatives are to drive drunk, or to pick a side and stay put. After a fulsome day, and with a sober driver in hand, we decided to head east again, back over the swollen ribbons of concrete, 16 lanes abreast, back towards the glowing towers of Downtown, rising like luminous pricks in the night.
Seeing a distinctive structure on the horizon—tall and curved and a little apart from the other skyscrapers—My Editor made A Proposition: “Who feels like a martini at the Ritz?”
Soaree and I took minimal convincing. The Downtown Ritz Carlton is home to one of the restaurants of another Los Angeles icon featured in CALIFUK—the famed celebrity Chef Wolfgang Puck. His restaurant and lounge are enthroned 24 stories above the street-side hustle.
Soaree pulled the car into the valet behind a menacing black Lamborghini, but as we went to leave, the attendant noticed that we were hauling contraband: “Is that a dog?”
In spite of our reassurances to them of Cookie’s gentle nature (and the fact that she’s the same size as a football), the valets were adamant that they could not accept our car with Cookie as a snoozing passenger.
In L.A. being turned away from the valet is usually equivalent to being the last pick in gym class, but we held our heads—and our pooch—up high and made our way to the parking lot across the street—only in L.A. is parking your own car ever a novelty.
Leaving the dog (curled up, with the windows down a bit), we returned to the hotel and headed skywards for the lounge. Stepping into it, the city opened up before us through a glimmering wall of glass. A dizzying sweep of humanity, a galactic cluster of electric-light, a horizon-spanning thicket of stone and steel towers. Light and life in all directions.
A dry martini at my lips, weary arms from yoga and surf, some mild sunburn, some faint intoxication, some good company. From urban enclave, to luxury principality, from beach town, to Downtown. A day in L.A.
Amidst it all, I managed to conduct the following Q&A with Bikram Choudhury via email:
Why have you made California your home?
Los Angeles is the best place in the world to live.
Describe the importance of meditation in contemporary society?
No comment. It’s a stupid question.
What is the most profound injury reversal or healing you’ve seen the Bikram method achieve in a student?
Back problems. Nothing comes close to fixing back problems, 99.9 percent of back problems are healed.
What do you feel is the most critical posture of the series?
For women, triangle. For men, fixed-firm pose
Some would argue the “extreme” nature of the Bikram method is counterproductive to good health? Why do you think there is this concern?
They don’t know anything, so we need to educate them, that’s why ignorance is bliss in the west.
Do you feel powerful as the leader of the Bikram movement?
Of course, I do.
Do you feel like your practice continues to improve? Have you faced plateau at any stages?
Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Physically, emotionally, spiritually, it just grows.
What attracts you to luxury automobiles?
Some people think I collect cars because I am a show off and an egotist, but I started collecting broken down junk cars and fixing them, and creating something beautiful from them, because it is the same thing as the junkyard human body that Bikram yoga also fixes.
If you weren’t leading the Bikram movement, what would you be doing?
Something creative. Since childhood I have always been fascinated with being a singer, a composer, some sort of creative genius.
Between London and Los Angeles, who are you favorite figures in culture and why?
London, L.A. there is no culture. According to where I come from in India, money and wealth is nothing. In India, being born with no money, you understand what money is, but in America and the West people live for money and die for money and there is no culture.