The Birth of a New Brand of Exercise Fetish

The Birth of a New Brand of Exercise Fetish

The Birth of a New Brand of Exercise Fetish

From Bikram yoga to Tae Bo, the 1990s exploded with exoticized consumer fitness products.


Remember “being in your body”? In the 1960s and ’70s, a crop of counterculturalists argued that corporeal awareness was crucial not only to self-actualization but also to social transformation. Flocking to an expanding network of retreats, New Age bookstores, and organic food stands, they embraced “embodied practices”—as they began to be called—as a means of liberation from the inauthentic, technocratic, and spiritually bankrupt modern world. The yoga mat was considered one such experimental and even revolutionary space, thanks, in part, to how yoga married non-Western spirituality with physical work that could be positively transcendent.

Within a decade, yoga was beginning to converge with a mainstream fitness culture focused on physical beauty and individualistic self-improvement that some of its more radical acolytes rejected outright. Whether through “Hatha for Stretching” courses at the local YMCA or a Slimming With Yoga paperback shelved next to jogging manuals, entrepreneurs began to capitalize on a growing appetite for “exotic” antidotes to the inauthenticity and excess of American life. Such unapologetically inner-focused seeking sparked ridicule from social critics like Christopher Lasch and Tom Wolfe, who derided yoga and other such pursuits as symptomatic of a “culture of narcissism” typical of the “Me Generation.”

American yoga participation stalled during the 1980s while aerobics classes boomed, but the ’90s saw its resurgence and transformation from esoteric spiritual practice to a commercial juggernaut. By the end of the decade, a solidly established fitness industry was powered by enthusiastic consumers, many of whom had injuries from years of high-impact exercise. Beyond the gym, a cultural moment that prized—and commodified—both the pursuit of health and a moderate form of multiculturalism provided fertile soil for the rise of Bikram Choudhury.

Choudhury, an Indian immigrant who favored loincloths, Rolex watches, and luxury cars, most famously and lucratively blended intense physical fitness and yoga. Accused in 2013 of rape, intimidation, and displays of general misanthropy—such as publicly yelling at a student to “suck in your fat fucking stomach”—Choudhury has since come to be inextricably associated with such abuse. But a certain grandiosity was always indispensable to the rigorous, heated yoga program that propelled him to fame. Choudhury fancied himself a “human blacksmith” who fashioned flesh instead of metal, boasting that his cures lasted a lifetime whereas doctors’ waiting rooms were always filled with patients battling the same unresolved afflictions. Typical coverage mentioned his blissed-out followers, who overcame physical ills and “traded their shrink for yoga class.” One journalist admiringly relayed Choudhury’s belief that no one in top physical shape needs more than four hours’ sleep a night and described him, in between sips of Coca-Cola, yelling at a student who missed one day of class that “24 hours without me, it’s no wonder you can’t sleep and are having a bad day.”

In Choudhury’s version of his life story, he had emigrated to California, by way of Japan, in the early 1970s after a successful career as a bodybuilder and competitive yoga champion—a discipline he discovered after an accident with a barbell shattered his femur. Believing that only “false yogis” charged money for their wisdom, he began teaching yoga for free at Los Angeles’s Ambassador Hotel and at weight-loss spas. But by 1974, realizing that wealth signified status in his adopted country, he opened studios in Hawaii and Beverly Hills. With the heat turned up to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, Choudhury sat atop a red plush barstool he called his “throne,” guiding students through his signature series of 26 postures and breathing exercises over 90 minutes. He wrote a 1978 mass-market book, Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class, and appeared on The Tonight Show. By the ’80s, his Beverly Hills studio was reportedly bringing in $1,000 a day. Celebrities such as Shirley MacLaine, Raquel Welch, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sang his praises. Choudhury credited this ascent to fame and fortune to his most prominent pupil, Richard Nixon, who helped him get a green card after his yoga therapies saved the president from a leg amputation due to thrombosis. Choudhury’s narrative is unsubstantiated—from the yoga championships, which did not commence in India until the mid-’70s, to the Nixon anecdote—but its uncritical repetition contributed to his material success, which was undeniable.

By the early ’90s, Bikram’s Yoga College of India was up and running, and in 1994 it began offering teacher trainings. Thirty-five enthusiasts showed up initially, paying $5,000 each for 12 weeks of instruction and a certificate granting them “all rights and privileges to teach Bikram’s Yoga System.” These programs soon swelled to over 300 registrants per offering, consolidating Choudhury’s wealth and firmly establishing the connection between spiritual refinement, physical exertion, and unsparing instruction. His network of affiliated schools exploded in number, from 10 in 1996 to nearly 700 worldwide by 2003, and hotels, recreation centers, and health clubs from Miami to Brattleboro, Vt., and the Jersey Shore advertised “Bikram-style yoga” even if they possessed no formal credentials or license to do so.

He sued former student Raquel Welch for ripping off his series (they later settled), but the sheer number of pretenders was becoming unmanageable. Since the launch of his teacher certifications in 1994, Choudhury had wanted to franchise his schools, but advisers had dissuaded him with warnings of red tape. In 2002, aware of the value of his brand and angry about impostors cutting into the profits to which he now felt entitled, he took action. Choudhury trademarked his name and “the sequence,” the series of postures that he had adapted from his own teacher, Bishnu Ghosh. He then went after imitators. But in a move many thought befitted a consumer goods manufacturer more than an enlightened yogi, he also franchised his business and relentlessly expanded it, with displays of “anger and capriciousness,” per a 2003 article in Yoga Journal, that alienated many.

Inspired by the fitness industry, Choudhury set the standard for the “ultimate commodification” of transnational yoga by establishing its most recognizable brand, making it inextricable from commercial fitness culture and defining yoga as a consumer product.

Choudhury attributed his “yoga mogul” status—a phrase that became a fixture of his frequent media coverage—to his unapologetic embrace of aggressive American capitalism and his astute understanding of a certain sort of consumer’s willingness to hand over large sums to self-styled experts and showmen, who promised, as Choudhury did, both enlightenment and the elimination of “cottage cheese thighs.” But unlike P. T. Barnum or Norman Vincent Peale, Choudhury’s popularity stemmed in part from the tendency to invest “exotic” figures with authority and even otherworldly power. This subtle sort of racism has deep American roots, especially as directed toward Asia, but it took on new forms in the 1990s, when a broad if often superficial celebration of ethnic and cultural diversity germinated first in education and politics, but soon also informed popular culture and the fitness worlds it encompassed.

Bikram Yoga was hardly the only exercise business that benefited from this shift. In 1993, The New York Times commented that Americans put off by yoga as “weird and painful and elitist” or even boring—if not “writhing around with all your pierced buddies down at Jivamukti”—were embracing a more accessible and cathartic program, one also inspired by an Eastern movement practice: “Tae Bo.” Developed by African American martial-arts champion Billy Blanks in the basement of his suburban Boston home, this program combined cardiovascular training with martial arts. When he started out in the early 1980s, Blanks found little interest in the program, which he first styled “karobics”—before learning the name had been patented—at the karate dojo he ran. But a decade later, having relocated to southern California, Blanks discovered an enthusiastic audience for the program he repackaged as “Tae Bo,” a portmanteau fusing Tae Kwon Do and boxing. Effusive endorsements from celebrities as diverse as pop star Paula Abdul and welterweight boxer Carlos Palomino soon followed.

The premise of Tae Bo—“one fantastic body shaping fitness system” offered in a suite of video tapes “without bulky, expensive equipment”—was familiar, but its appeal was distinct. One print ad featured “Tae Bo” in spray-painted, graffiti-style letters separated by a yin-and-yang symbol, centered below a banner of two eyes staring out from a black background, ambiguously symbolizing either a ninja mask or Blanks’s own skin. Scholars debate whether martial arts originated in Asia or Africa, but in the United States these forms were often “polycultural.” Boxer Muhammad Ali and karate master Bruce Lee inspired one another in the 1970s, and they understood the fights against racism and colonialism as intertwined, especially in the Vietnam War era. African American boxer Sugar Ray Leonard—who became friends with Blanks—commented in 1982 that he “patterned himself” after Lee. In the Black Panther Party and beyond, dojos were spaces where Black men, women, and children practiced martial arts as a part of a program of racial self-determination. As historian Maryam K. Aziz argues, some practitioners imagined these “movement arts” as a rejection of capitalism and racism.

Blanks professed no such politics. Indeed, though he had initially struggled to find a video production partner because a Black star was perceived as a risky proposition, especially in a workout targeting a white, female audience, he downplayed race and racism, saying he didn’t “really let that bother him,” that his “goal was to touch the hearts of people, not just touch white or black people.” Like many Black celebrities whose mainstream success was predicated on political discretion, such statements might have been a prerequisite for Tae Bo’s runaway success: By 1999, its infomercials played 2,000 times daily on cable television, moving $80 million of videos. But its popularity also reflected new attitudes about racial diversity even in the politically restrained fitness industry. Both appealing to and challenging stereotypes of Black men, Blanks was the first Black trainer to headline a mass-market home video whose sweat glistened visibly on his muscles rather than being quickly toweled off, fitness video producer Cal Pozo remembered. Pushing the genre’s boundaries while perpetuating the image of superhuman Black physicality turned out to be a remarkably profitable proposition.

Blanks was appointed to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports under President Bill Clinton, appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and prompted so many imitators that his lawyer estimated that she issued 60 cease-and-desist letters a week to businesses marketing classes such as “Y Bo” (at the YMCA) or “Tae Combo.” Television direct sales had become an important avenue for selling fitness videos, while those in stores often sat “rotting on the shelf.” Blanks, however, had “single-handedly reignited the fitness category at retail,” Billboard magazine gushed, and was the rare exercise personality whose videos sold successfully via both channels. Praising Blanks as “the guy who can bring [retail fitness videos] back from the dead,” Billboard chronicled the similar success of a video distributor that had for decades struggled to find an audience for its “gay-and-lesbian-oriented videos,” but in the late 1990s had prospered because “it’s not just gay and lesbian people who buy and rent them: the potential for the genre has changed dramatically. “Tae Bo is the macarena of exercise,” effused The New York Times with a hint of mockery, likening its irresistibility among both men and women to another cultural crossover phenomenon, the catchy Spanish dance song ubiquitous at the time.

The social and cultural progress that Blanks’s individual success story suggested was incomplete, however. Notably, former Massachusetts studio manager Patricia Pierce told The Boston Globe she had financed Blanks in the 1980s and designed the workout with him, though her work had never been acknowledged. Another woman, Patricia Moreno, who had developed a martial arts/cardio fitness program called Powerstrike with her partner, Ilaria Montagnani, remembered their disbelief as Blanks became a global celebrity teaching a program nearly identical to the one they had developed in New York City gyms almost simultaneously. “I think it’s because they were women,” one former student reflected as to why Powerstrike did not achieve such recognition. “As amazing as they were, many women are drawn to the thrill of working out with a tough Black guy.” Blanks’s celebrity absolutely challenged the color line, but it should also be understood against the backdrop of the rise of mass incarceration of men of color during the 1990s. As Blanks inspired many to take up exercise, a series of weight-lifting bans in prisons explicitly curtailed the rights of others to do so. As Victoria Felkar has written, such restrictions were rooted in long-standing fears of overdeveloped Black men, which were reignited by talk among policy-makers of a generation of “super-predators.” But they also reflected a new attitude about exercise as a positive, even enjoyable form of self-improvement, and thus an activity with no place in a penal institution.

Popular culture deferred to these limits just as explicitly. One 1992 episode of the popular soap opera All My Children takes place at a health club, where adults of all ages toil away on Nautilus machines and weight racks. The presence of Livia Frye, a slender Black woman in a leotard pedaling on a stationary bicycle is notable, for white-owned gyms in affluent areas like fictional Pine Valley had for decades courted a “classy”—read white—clientele. A successful attorney who ultimately marries the white gym owner, Livia is clearly socially at ease in this exercise space. Her son Terrence, a college student who moonlights at the front desk, is less easily integrated. While folding towels, he is accosted by two white members, who address him as “boy” and demand that he serve them grapefruit juice. The two men assure a white attendant that he need not rush to get them a locker, but snarl that Terrence better drop the “bad attitude” and get his “step ’n’ fetch it in gear.” Appalled, Terrence’s white friend Haley gasped, “Oh, not here!… Racist pigs make me sick!” The white owner was similarly aghast that such “hatred still exists,” and assured Terrence such bigotry had no place in his club. But the two members, who were later revealed to be part of an underground white supremacy network, returned to beat Terrence unconscious. Pine Valley was “never the same again,” the episode teaser says. But Terrence had long been familiar with white people whose “frozen polite smile” revealed their racism; what took him by surprise was their expressing such attitudes so openly at the gym.

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