Photo courtesy of clipart.com
LOS ANGELES – Earlier this year Bikram Choudhury, founder of Bikram’s Yoga College of India, held a seminar on yoga philosophy and practice in San Diego that attracted hundreds and highlighted the continuing popularity of the well-known yoga brand. The exposure once again sparked talk of a franchise launch for Bikram Yoga.
The Los Angeles-based business already operates on a scale similar to many franchise companies. Started in the United States in 1973, Bikram Yoga has more than 1,700 schools, 5,000 certified teachers worldwide and 500 yoga centers with affiliation agreements. The validity of the concept has been spearheaded by founder Choudhury, who first came to the United States on an invitation from President Richard Nixon and then became the de facto yoga guru to the stars. A three-time winner of the All India National Yoga Championships in his youth, Choudhury has taught world leaders, sports figures and celebrities, including Indira Gandhi, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, John McEnroe, Serena Williams, Quincy Jones and Raquel Welch.
Bikram Yoga, also known as “hot yoga” because of the temperature and humidity of the room it is performed in, is a specific sequence of poses and breathing exercises that integrate body, mind and spirit, and purport to help relieve a variety of afflictions – from stress, insomnia, arthritis and back pain to more serious chronic diseases.
Choudhury started training other Bikram Yoga teachers in 1994 and the approach has evolved into a system very similar to that of a typical franchise chain. Teachers receive nine weeks of training and serve a six-month apprenticeship at a Bikram Yoga location. Once certified teachers launch their own locations, they have to adhere to several standards that keep the brand unified across all of its locations. These include: using only certified Bikram Yoga teachers, using the same Bikram Yoga method and only Bikram Yoga, an approved facility with standard heated room, mirrors and carpet. The location of all Bikram Yoga schools is also approved by Choudhury’s main school in Los Angeles.
Jim Kallett, director of Bikram’s Yoga College of India, San Diego, said that talk of franchising Bikram Yoga has been going on for years, but that it is certainly much closer to happening now.
“It is a big process for franchising. It is not only state, but international,” said Kallet, who has been teaching Bikram Yoga for over a decade. “Franchising is being worked up. … It always seems to be imminent. Hopefully, it will be in the very near future.”
Kallet runs a 7,000-square-foot Bikram Yoga school in San Diego, which he originally launched in 1998. His school is now one of about eight other locations in San Diego, but is the biggest with six classes a day and over 200 attendees a day. Kallet opened a second Bikram Yoga school in La Jolla, Calif., in 2001 and sold it a year later.
An active member of the Bikram Yoga community and spokesperson for the brand on numerous occasions, Kallet said that the sentiment among Bikram Yoga certified teachers is welcoming to franchising.
Affiliates of Bikram’s Yoga College of India say that the rise in yoga popularity make Bikram’s brand a great candidate for franchising in the United States. Photo courtesy of clipart.com
According to him, a number of factors make franchising the brand a great option, notably the ability of the schools to do things as a group, such as deals with vendors or insurance companies, a stronger network of communication amongst schools, a system-wide accounting system and central financial data that could be accumulated to better understand the brands overall performance.
Kallet said perhaps the best benefit from franchising would be making an even stronger brand name. “Franchising is the real thing. That is the right way to strengthen your brand,” he added.
Choudhury has copyrighted the sequences of poses and exercises in Bikram Yoga, a move that was controversial amongst the yoga community and has been challenged in court, but upheld. From Kallet’s perspective, a franchised Bikram Yoga model would provide even more legal protection from other yoga schools teaching the Bikram Yoga method and simply calling it something else.
Though Bikram Yoga has a support model already, with teachers coming back for recertification every three years, Kallet believes the franchise model would shore up more support for certified teachers and their schools.
Kallet admits that some current Bikram Yoga affiliates are scared of the process of switching to a franchise model, but he believes, once they are properly educated about what it would mean and the benefits, they will see the light. “It is really to our advantage. The benefits we would get from it would be tremendous,” he said.
At the end of the day, the main reason Kallet is pulling for franchising is because Bikram Yoga has proven to be such a successful and popular concept, that it makes no sense not to follow a model that has proven to be the best way to deliver a brand from locations all over the world.
“[Choudhury] created a package and a system that made yoga accessible to Western cultures. He brought it away from something religious … and made it accessible,” Kallet said. “You can practice and make life better. … When your body is healthy your mind works better and vice versa.”
“A lot of business people are turning to yoga as a way to improve their health and in turn be more successful,” he added. “Yoga helps things back into balance.”
As Kallet’s school has grown over the years, he said what has encouraged him the most is the increasing variety of people that take yoga classes. While it used to be mostly women and housewives taking his classes, he pointed out he now has 40 percent men and people from all walks of life.
“In the past, if you did yoga you were probably into the New Age movement … now it is anyone,” said Kallet. “We have judges, lawyers, truck drivers, house wives. You name it and people come to this school and do yoga.”
“The demand is unlimited,” he added. “We want the whole world doing yoga.”
Kallet’s passion for Bikram Yoga is reflective of other certified Bikram Yoga teachers such as Diane Ducharme, who teaches Bikram Yoga in Boston.
Ducharme’s Yoga for You school, which opened in 1995, was the first Bikram Yoga center in Massachusetts. When she started the school, Ducharme had been taking Bikram Yoga classes for over a decade and jumped at the chance to become a certified teacher once Choudhury started training in the mid-1990s.
“I have never taken or done any other yoga,” she said. “It was brilliant and great and I loved it and I never felt the need to go and explore anymore yoga.”
“I knew I wanted to go and teach this and get certified,” she added. “When I found this it was my passion. It is what I knew I would do for the rest of my life.”
Ducharme’s Bikram Yoga center teaches 24 classes a week and she has a staff of approximately 10 teachers.
Ducharme is one of the Bikram Yoga affiliates who would be totally on board with franchising. “I’m not worried about it at all,” she said.
She said she understands the power of a brand name and already feels as if her business benefits from it. “Just being on [Choudhury’s] Web site brings in business,” she said. She admitted a belief that franchising would really ramp up Bikram Yoga’s business and take it to a whole other level.
The main question in the mind of BikramYoga affiliates now regarding franchising, according to her, is what exactly they will get if a franchise model is launched.
Though Kallet is optimistic about Bikram Yoga launching a franchise model in the near future, Ducharme is more hesitant to discuss the reality of it, saying she is still waiting after hearing about franchising many times. She chalks this up to Choudhury’s main focus on yoga and not the business of selling franchisees. “His big thing is he loves yoga. He doesn’t love business,” she said.