/ Back to Women’s Retreat Panel Bios — Mary Jarvis and Dr. Lisa Ellis /
Born in Kolkata, India, Rajashree Choudhury started her yoga training at the urging of her parents at age four. She was a five-time winner of the National Indian Yoga Championship from 1979 to 1983.
With over 15 years in the East and 25 years in the West, Rajashree’s special focus has been on the emotional side of yoga and how yoga balances the energy of the human body and impacts not only disease, but also affects the body/mind/soul connection which constitutes vibrant health.
She also helped her husband create the highly successful Teacher Training program after more than ten years of teaching yoga in the United States. She conducts seminars on yoga and personal development worldwide. She also teaches her highly acclaimed Pregnancy Yoga classes.
Rajashree has appeared on many national television programs in the United States and abroad doing seminars worldwide, promoting the countless benefits of yoga. In conjunction with the International Yoga Asana Championships, now in its tenth year, she has founded the USA Yoga Federation, a non-profit organization formed to facilitate her goal of yoga ultimately being accepted as Sport. Most recently her mission is to help women in crisis of all ages and nationalities. She has been active in many charitable organizations over the years including Karma for Kids, dedicated to helping children with cancer, Uprising yoga, helping child victims of sex trafficking, and Parikrma, educating slum children in India.
Emmy Cleaves took her first yoga class in 1950 from a Hindu in Beverly Hills, California. As a young war refugee from Latvia, her trajectory to that tiny locale had been at least as unlikely as his. So when she later studied under another Hindu, Bikram Choudhury, the universality of the teachings remained clear to her. “There’s only one kind of yoga,” she says. “There are just different paths to it because we are such a myriad of people. We are all God’s experiment of one.”
Emmy was a young girl when she and her mother fled their hometown of Riga, Latvia, during the Stalinist army’s second advance on the country during WW2. When the Eastern front advanced on Danzig, the camp disintegrated and Emmy separated from her mother, was shipped off to Denmark, then back to Germany, and finally to the United States. Emmy was a successful businesswoman in Los Angeles by the time she attended that first yoga class. She had been pestering her jazz dance teacher for more of the slow stretching exercises he taught as warm-ups; he told her to do yoga—the first time she heard the word. “I became completely fascinated with the subject,” she says. For her, as for most practitioners, the initial attraction was physical. “But when I started learning the philosophy, it seemed like “yes, that’s exactly it; that’s the truth,” she recalls, ”the ethics and morality that my mother had taught me. I had always sensed that we’re not just a quantum mechanical body, that we’re multidimensional beings, and that the body is just a denser form of the many interactive energy fields. So it resonated completely with my state of mind.”
Emmy began reading books and practicing on her own. For the next two decades she sampled the relatively limited smorgasbord of yoga offerings then available in Los Angeles. “I would try a class here and there, but I was never impelled to stay because internally I never connected with anyone,” she says. The teacher has to resonate on some other level than just ‘Put your legs here’ and ‘do this’ and ‘stretch that.’”
Then at thirty five, Emmy almost died from a brain hemorrhage, which is how her father died in Latvia. The experience changed her forever. “A life threatening event like that makes you wonder what the purpose is of your survival. Why are you alive? Why didn’t you die? Emmy’s search for answers created cataclysmic upheavals in her life. She gave up being a businesswoman, divorced her first husband and began exploring meditation and yoga more seriously.
In 1973 Emmy attended a demonstration by a 26 year old yogi by the name of Bikram Choudhury. “His group consisted of maybe ten people—all ages and shapes, including a couple of kids. I was fascinated by the energy and precision of his demonstration.” At the end of the presentation Bikram jumped off the stage, walked across the room, and stuck a card in her hand. “Tommorrow. You come my school,” he said. She did.
As chance had it, in the preceding weeks Emmy had been reading Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramanhansa Yogananda, whose brother Bishnu Ghosh had been Bikram’s guru throughout his childhood in Calcutta. Ghosh, a master of yoga’s physical practices, trained young Bikram to compete in the National India Yoga Competition, which Bikram won at the age of eleven and for next three years. At Ghosh’s behest Bikram set off for the West, eventually ending up in Beverly Hills where he began re-teaching Emmy Cleaves everything she had ever learned.
“We argued. We really argued,” Emmy says.“I had done yoga for a long time, none of it the way he demanded it be done.” Bikram’s methodology involves a basic series twenty six poses practiced in a 42C/105F studio. His studio and teaching methods were different from what Emmy had previously learned. “I would go into a Cobra pose doing everything right,” Emmy says, “ and he would say, ‘No, that’s not the way.The posture’s not the object; your body is the object.’ I began getting very frustrated. And that heat! I said, ‘Bikram, if you’d turn down the stupid heat this room would be much more full.” He said, “An empty barn is better than a barn full of naughty cows.”
Emmy had had enough. “It was upsetting my whole equilibrium,” she says. Her friend Barbara Brown, a pioneer in the development of biofeedback, was taking a trip to India to tour research centers and Emmy joined her. Among the facilities she visited, she found yoga being used to treat medical conditions like diabetes and asthma. “Lo and behold, they did the postures Bikram’s way,” Emmy says. “I visited three of four other research centers that did the poses his way as well, with the same energy and same demand for precision.”
So Emmy went back to Beverly Hills and immersed herself in Bikram’s teachings and in the logic of his twenty-six-posture / ninety minute series. “The first time you do the twenty-six postures which cover a normal range of motion for just about anybody, they act as a diagnostic tool,” she explains. Even People with minimal body awareness are able to diagnose their own problem areas. Then with practice those same postures become therapeutic tools that re-educate your body and heightens the efficiency of its major systems.
Like any well chosen asana program, Bikarm Yoga is intended to tone the endocrine, lymphatic, and digestive systems, increase capillary blood flow and produce a strong, limber and comfortable musculo-skeletal system. To attain the benefits of this series, though, the sequence of the postures is paramount which is why Emmy defends Bikram’s decision to copyright his method.