Over the last 20 years, controversial Los Angeles yoga magnate Bikram Choudhury has turned his signature brand of "hot" yoga into a worldwide, multimillion-dollar industry.
But it was Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo who turned up the heat Thursday, charging the popular yogi with 10 criminal safety violations at his La Cienega Boulevard studio.
Delgadillo said Choudhury repeatedly flouted notices from the city's fire and building and safety departments that his converted warehouse studio had insufficient fire exits for the number of its students.
Inspectors in April found 160 people squeezed into a space with a maximum capacity of 49, said Deputy City Atty. Eric Rosenblatt, who is handling the case.
"Los Angeles is not known as a place that has fires in warehouses and we would like to keep it that way," Delgadillo said.
Choudhury, in a phone interview from Bangkok, Thailand, where he is opening a studio, said he was the victim of a five-year campaign of harassment by employees of the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety. He also said that he had had it with Los Angeles and was moving the world headquarters of his Yoga College of India to Honolulu.
"Thanks a lot, L.A.," he said. "I've made up my mind."
Choudhury said then-Mayor Richard Riordan personally approved plans for the conversion work on the warehouse, which he said was done "by the book." But building and safety officials made him redo a bathroom four times, he said.
"What criminal charges? That I don't know how to make a shower?" Choudhury said. He also said a judge had ruled three times in his favor on building disputes.
Choudhury said his system, Bikram yoga, consists of a sequence of 26 postures, repeated twice, performed in a studio heated to between 100 and 105 degrees. Choudhury told The Times in 2002 that the heat helped him work his students' bodies "like a blacksmith."
Dubbed "Yoga's Bad Boy" by Yoga Journal, he has upset traditionalists with his aggressive business tactics and brash behavior. Choudhury pioneered what was believed to be the first yoga franchising operation in the world, charging fees to operators of the hundreds of yoga studios on five continents that operate under his name and teach his practice.
Choudhury also charges candidates to teach Bikram yoga $6,000 for a two-month training course, plus an optional $2,100 in transportation and housing fees.
He made headlines last year in a legal fight over his claim of a copyright on his yoga poses. Choudhury had tried to prevent others from teaching his style of yoga; he said he was protecting the purity of his discipline. The dispute was ultimately settled.
Choudhury, 60; his landlord, American Sunroof Corp., and its president, Christian Prechter, 59, were charged with overcrowding, failure to maintain emergency exits and obstructing exits. Each count carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.
The yoga studio in the 1800 block of La Cienega was once an American Sunroof Corp. warehouse. In 2000, American Sunroof obtained a permit to convert the site to a yoga studio from its earlier manufacturing use but never received a final inspection or certificate of occupancy, Delgadillo said.
In July 2005, Choudhury, his attorney and a representative of the landlord attended a formal hearing at the city attorney's office, at which they were advised of the violations and how to remedy them, Rosenblatt said.
In April, the studio was temporarily shut down by the Los Angeles City Fire Department because of overcrowding and safety issues, including failure to maintain proper exits, he said.
Bikram said his yoga has helped stars such as Shirley MacLaine and Raquel Welch and athletes such as Kareem Abdul Jabbar and John McEnroe. He once said that he had cured Richard Nixon of phlebitis.
"Obviously it's a popular form of fitness," said Delgadillo, who does not practice yoga but said he stretches before his workouts. "But no one is above the law, whether it's celebrities or the yoga guru to the celebrities."