Just Say "Om"

It's 100 degrees in the exhibit hall and a thousand sweaty men and women in Speedos and sports bras are contorting themselves like balloon animals. Over on the trade-show floor, spiritual healers are cleansing chakras and analyzing auras. Hardly your typical convention center scene -- unless you're at the Los Angeles Convention Center, site of the first annual Yoga Expo last September.

"When we first talked about doing this two years ago, everyone thought we were crazy," remembers Stephen Mehlert, who produced the expo with Beverly Hills-based multimillionaire guru Bikram Choudhury. "In the yoga world, nothing this big had ever been done before."

That might have stopped lesser mortals, but not Choudhury, whose claim to fame is the Bikram, or "hot," method of yoga performed in sauna-like temperatures at his 600 affiliated studios worldwide. With fans from Madonna to Michael Jackson, Choudhury had no problem lining up speakers like John Gray (of Mars-Venus fame), Deepak Chopra, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (Boasts the diminutive yogi, "With my reputation I could get the president of the United States to show up.") Toss in the first World Yoga Championship, plus an attempt to make the Guinness Book with the globe's biggest yoga class, and Choudhury and Mehlert had the makings of a back-bending blockbuster.

Staff Shortage

It was an immense organizational task that, save for some volunteers and about 20 paid staffers hired just six months out, the duo handled largely themselves. "We work twenty-four hours a day, we don't sleep," says Choudhury nonchalantly when asked how they managed. "Bikram and I can go thirty-six hours nonstop," Mehlert chimes in (after working together for three decades, the two are used to finishing each other's sentences). "We get done in half a day what most people do in half a week," adds his boss.

Bottom-Line Bummer

They may be fast, but not always profitable. The cost of flying in seven judges from India for the yoga competition, plus the distraction of Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign -- which ate up available radio and TV time, severely curtailing the duo's promotional efforts -- added up to a five-figure loss. Still, thanks to the yoga contest and Choudhury's 2,000-person class (even if that number didn't break the Guinness record), the expo got plenty of exposure. "The publicity was worth it," says Mehlert, citing a Tonight Show segment and several "copycat" conventions; indeed, the two are proceeding full steam ahead on this year's version. "We know how to make money," notes his boss, "and how to spend it!"