He’s known as the man who put yoga on the map, describing himself as ‘the most spiritual man you will ever meet'. But allegations of sexual assault and rape against Bikram Choudhury have torn a community apart. Amanda Cassidy looks at the rise and fall of the guru of hot yoga.
“I found hot yoga when I was at my most broken,” admits Francesca Asumah, a yoga teacher from LA. “You’ve never done yoga until you’ve done a Bikram class. I nearly died. I shook for three days. It was like an awakening. You have to dig and find something inside yourself to stay and bear it. That was the real magic.”
Magic, a force, powerful, god-like – all adjectives used to describe the man, originally from India, who made his mark on the American health scene for years, hob-nobbing with the rich and famous and creating this near-fanatic cultishness of yoga.
Known as the guru, Bikram ran teacher-training events around the US, franchising exponentially as he developed his teacher-training courses in his hot yoga technique involving 26 poses and two breathing techniques. With his trademark black speedos and ponytail, he built an empire on sweat and devotion. Thousands of yoga studios globally now bear his name over the door.
But the heat has now turned up for the man who says in interviews he only sleeps 30 hours a month and never eats. Six rape and sexual assault cases have been filed against Bikram in US civil courts, and more allegations of sexual assaults are beginning to emerge.
The boy-done-good story was irresistible.
“Yoga belongs to the earth,” Bikram said in an interview on US TV in 1999. “But I picked up a piece of it. I created something." Indeed, according to those who were interviewed as part of Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, a new Netflix documentary released on Wednesday, it was his ability to “speak to the soul" that saw his hot yoga classes turn into a health and spiritual movement that remains as popular as ever today.
His story was inspiring – a child yoga champion turned weightlifting star who shattered his leg when a weight felt on it. His own yoga guru taught him the poses that would make him world-famous. He saved his leg and wanted to change the world. He claims that he began by treating President Nixon and was gifted his green card to work in the US in return. He became rich and powerful, featuring on the cover of magazines, showing off his collection of Bentleys and expensive watches. The boy-done-good story was irresistible.
That story, along with his ‘family’ of teacher trainers, bred a community where pupils and followers were told not to question anything the maestro did. Many admitted that they joined the Bikram ‘movement’ when they felt the most vulnerable. “He was a celebrity, a showman, the original marketer of himself. He was a cross between Mother Teresa and Howard Stern," remarked one female former pupil.
"The abnormal becomes normal”
He attracted those who wanted healing. And he abused that power. That's according to Sarah Baughn who was also a pupil of Bikram Choudhury. “The training took nine weeks and was part humiliation, part benediction. I hadn’t felt good in a long time, I finally felt, yes, I have this deep connection and understanding that it will make all my pain go away.
"They describe it as ‘the family’ and I understand why; being on this common ground with others, having a leader that created a ‘thing’ for us, it was amazing. Bikram would feed a lot of one-liners and everyone would repeat back…feed back lines. I felt so connected. He always called me Sarah, others had nicknames, but I was 'Sarah'. I wanted to be a good teacher so badly. The way he shaped that world for us, the only way you could be a good teacher was through him. He held all the power.”
Others began to see flashes of megalomania and other red flags. Jakob Schazer also took his classes. “Beforehand, they’d tell us to make sure to eat well, drink lots but then Bikram would come in and shout at us to 'Put a knot in your dick or a cork in your pussy, you are not allowed to pee'. He was so good at getting into our brains. It was quite dystopian actually. The colour green was banned and while we were all sweltering and passing out with the heat, he had an air conditioning unit blowing air into his head. The abnormal becomes normal."
People wanted to separate the man from the teacher. How about we just don’t?
But the more Sarah saw, the more she started to question things. “He called me into his office one day and asked, 'What are we going to do about this?' I said, about what? And he replied, 'What are we are going to do about us? Should we make it a relationship?' I thought, oh my god and I fled.”
Another time Sarah describes how he touched her body inappropriately and refused to let her leave the room, his body physically blocking the door. The documentary also hears from another woman who described being raped by Bikram while his wife and children slept upstairs.
The film is directed by Eva Owner, an Oscar-winning director who explained in an interview recently how people for years "turned a blind eye to some of his behaviour, saying, 'Well, that’s just Bikram'.” People wanted to separate the man from the teacher, said Orner. “How about we just don’t?”
Liz Winfield worked with Bikram as a medical practitioner. She says that he made people feel special, like they were chosen by him. “He would say to me, 'We are your family now, a community. And if you knew about family and abuse, you start out loving the father figure, and this is Bikram. You have to understand there are nine weeks of yoga, sweating and wearing next to nothing. There is a hyper sexually charged atmosphere. People used to say that week five was sex week. At the end of class people would massage his feet and back, I massaged him.”
They were told, don’t question anything that Bikram says. Trust the process.
Many of those paying the $10,000 for the teacher training course felt ‘locked in’ by the threat of professional exile. “Bikram is a deciding factor to your livelihood," says one franchisee. "You want to believe in something so badly. That’s why I was targeted."
Choudhury has not faced criminal charges, but after losing a civil case of wrongful termination and sexual harassment by his former legal adviser, he fled the US and refused to pay the $6.8m in damages.
But how could so many smart women be involved in a system where this could have happened?
“They were pre-conditioned,” explains one lawyer for the victims. “They were told, don’t question anything that Bikram says. Trust the process. If you want to have the privilege of going to his classes, you have to be recommended. This turns it into a very closed, incestuous system that ensures that Bikram would get rich and more powerful, while continuing to have women held ‘captive’ during the training. People around him whose financial livelihood involved keeping this silence."
But what about all the studios around the world that continue to have the name Bikram over the door? Anne Leonard from Bikram Yoga Dublin says she watched the documentary yesterday. "Sara, Larissa and anyone else who has experienced abuse has my fullest of sympathies," she says. "This should not have been their experience.
Yoga teacher Alicia Harmon of Yoga Foxrock explained that she first encountered the Bikram school of yoga in 2000 in Seattle, WA.
“I spent the entire class trying not to faint nor attract the attention of the militant instructors with their authoritative ear-pieces. I left sweaty, frustrated and dehydrated and never went back. Since then I've heard about the founder's numerous shocking sexual predator allegations. The yoga buzz is that Bikram has lost support and although his style still flourishes, his personal reputation is in ruins."
But many of those taking such classes are still not aware of any allegations against its founder. Many of the Bikram Yoga practitioners we spoke to were surprised to hear of the allegations and were divided about how to react.
In his name?
"I have no issue separating the man from the exercise. I feel like I’m supporting a local business and wouldn’t feel there is a direct connection with the founder. I see it as a form of exercise rather than an ethos. I love the heat and find it very therapeutic. My body responds well as I’m really not flexible so I focus on the physical side of it," explained one woman.
“I think once you 100% trust your teacher and you are getting something out of it there isn’t a problem," another told us. "You feel amazing after releasing all those toxins from the skin."
Another Bikram practitioner disagreed: “I don’t watch movies with certain actors in them as a point of principle. I think I might now choose to do a different form of yoga or activity instead as I wouldn’t be able to relax fully knowing what might have gone on.”
"He let his community down. He destroyed it. He destroyed lives”
"Would I return to Bikram knowing that the master of Bikram was a predator? No. The Bikram yoga gang are very much a family. Supporting a class would be supporting him, his actions, his beliefs. My Bikram days are over."
Those who have researched Bikram’s roots are also struggling to prove some of his claims. "There is no record of his childhood yoga championships (Yoga wasn’t competitive at that time). The Nixon Presidential library also has no record of any meetings with Bikram. Other well-respected Yogis have accused Choudhury of plagiarizing the 26+2 method used throughout his teaching. As Indian journalist Chandrima Pal puts it, it seems like he has been “playing hopscotch with the truth his whole life".
Questions have now been raised as to why nobody is prosecuting Bikram after half a dozen women have made such allegations. And although many studios have changed their name to 'hot' yoga, there is a large cohort who continue to promote yoga in Bikram's name.
“I’ve seen enough," says one teacher who felt obliged to down his Bikram practice. "How can anyone still practice under his banner? He let his community down. He destroyed it. He destroyed lives. I can't be part of that.”
Image via Netflix
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