by Kara-Leah Grant
In the last year five women have filed lawsuits against Choudhury, with charges ranging from rape to sexual harassment.
The allegations are serious, and according to an in-depth Vanity Fair article about Bikram and the charges, the plaintiffs all tell a similar story.
A young woman is singled out for attention, Bikram tells her how wonderful and special she is, using spirituality to imply there’s a unique connection – like shared past lives. The attention becomes progressively more sexual, and any rejection is met with anger and threats.
Bikram doesn’t operate in a vacuum though – he’s got people around him all the time. He’s famous for not liking to be alone. Similar to the Anusara Scandal involving John Friend, it’s alleged that Bikram’s inner circle knew of his behaviour and enabled it – or at least, turned a blind eye.
Bikram is a powerful yoga teacher who has trained and taught thousands and thousands of students, many of whom have gone on to open their own studios. There is no doubt at all that his sequence of postures are powerful and healing. Many people have had transformative experiences from regular practice of Bikram Yoga – myself included.
However, what happens when the head of the organisation abuses his trust and power? Then what?
How does that affect the wider Bikram community – the Bikram Yoga Studios and teachers whose very livelihoods depend upon Bikram Yoga? Because, lawsuits aside, Bikram does have a long history with yoga.
He began studying at age four with the renowned guru Bishnu Ghosh – the younger brother of Paramahansa Yogananda, who wrote The Autobiography of a Yogi.
In his teens, Bikram won asana competitions and then at age 17, blew out his knee weightlifting. The doctors apparently told him he wouldn’t walk again. Devastated, Bikram went back to his teacher, Gnosh, and asked for help. As Bikram tells it, with daily yoga, he was as good as new again in six months.
It’s worth noting that Gnosh’s teaching were focused primarily on health and fitness. He wasn’t teaching yoga in the real sense of the word – that is, as a state of being where the fluctuations of the mind cease and one simply is. No, his focus was on the body – building it up, controlling it, working with it.
It’s pure speculation on my part, but if this is how Bikram Choudhury learned his yoga – as a total focus on the body and asana with scant energy or awareness given to the other limbs of yoga (especially the yamas and niyamas), it’s no surprise his behaviour was abusive.
Yoga isn’t just about the body nor is it just about asana (postures). Yoga is a path to liberation or enlightenment.
That path involves first knowing oneself – shadow side and all, and then realising that there is no Self.
If asana is only practiced as a physical pursuit, and no effort is made to know oneself, instead of the bonds of the ego lessening over time, they can strengthen and entrap.
What was it like for those closest to Bikram? What did they see and why did no one else point out that the Emperor had no clothes? Or were they expressing concern over his behaviour and was Bikram discounting their feedback?
Benjamin Lorr details why this might have been in this article. He investigated the Bikram World for his book Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga.
Just to get to a place where you are face-to-face with a guru like Bikram Choudhury means you have devoted countless hours practicing his style of yoga, paid thousands of dollars to him personally, hope to make a living teaching his classes, and have embraced a larger community of studio owners and senior teachers who have made even greater investments of time, money, and passion in the same direction.
In Bikram’s case, he assisted this process by creating a sliding continuum around his behavior, from his ribald jokes and frequent hip-thrusts in Speedo, to his leveraging of cultural differences in requests for massages and brushing his hair, to his invitations to select students up to his private suite to watch Bollywood movies late into the night. Blurry lines and passionate devotion gives everyone involved—from targets to observers to guru himself—plenty of opportunities to substitute excuses for accountability.
In other words, like frogs placed in cold water a-top a hot element, the Bikram faithful were encultured to accept Bikram as he was – somewhat off colour and mad, but teaching a powerful sequence they believed in.
Speaking up would mean no longer being part of the Bikram World – and plenty of Bikram teacher have spoken up and left the fold over the years, like Mark Drost and Tony Sanchez.
One of the plantiffs from the recent civil cases, Larissa Anderson, tells her story in this article. It’s harrowing to read. She was a young woman who’d experienced sexual abuse as a teenager and credits Bikram Yoga with getting her life back on track. Eventually, she invested more than $200,000 in yoga teacher training and opening a Bikram Yoga Studio – despite being raped and later assaulted by Bikram. She managed by doing what everyone else advised:
Separating the man from the yoga practice.
According to this article;
Anderson’s allegations appear to be consistent with rumours that many community members had been hearing for years. People interviewed for this story allege that Choudhury has sexually assaulted them, harassed them, broken up relationships, and generally abused his power. “If there was a CEO in this country that acted like Bikram,” says Elizabeth Winfield, who went through teacher training in 2011, and is well connected in the community, “he’d be run out of the country.”
However, over here in New Zealand, we’re a long way from the epi-center of Bikram World. I wanted to know, how is the Bikram community coping here?
So I spoke to a few of the owners of Bikram Studios. All of the teachers I spoke to echoed a common theme – you have to separate out the man from the yoga.
As Anika Speedy, owner of Bikram Yoga Wellington says:
I and my teachers believe in the integrity of the Bikram sequence. It comes down to my belief that Bikram’s 90 minute Beginning Yoga series is incredibly powerful on so many levels. We have seen it change many people’s lives.We are all certified to teach Bikram’s 90 Minute Beginning yoga series and that is what we teach. We teach it with integrity and passion and a belief in it’s therapeutic benefits.Like we have seen with John Friend/Anusara Yoga and Kuasthub you have to separate the ‘guru’ from the yoga.One of the benefits of being in New Zealand is that we can focus on teaching Bikram the yoga and not get caught up in the media drama surrounding Bikram the man.
While none of the teachers said they knew anything about the charges that were being laid, several said they weren’t surprised, given the nature of the culture and organisation that surrounds Bikram, headquarters and teacher training.
Bikram has ruled for a long time using fear and control – however, it’s a culture that didn’t transplant to New Zealand studios.
Nikki Harris, who was the first person to open a Bikram Studio in New Zealand (in Mt. Maunganui) and now runs EastWest Studios in Auckland says:
Our biggest responsibility in the studios right now is to keep the focus on each individual students personal yoga practice, which for most is really a relationship between themselves, their mat, and their direct community they practice in daily.
Keeping the yoga student-focussed can be difficult under Bikram. He makes very specific demands on Bikram Studios, such as no other styles of yoga, or modifications of Bikram Yoga including 60 minutes or 75 minutes classes, are allowed to be taught.
All good and well if Bikram Yoga is working for the student – but what about the student that needs to balance their practice with Yin Yoga or Restorative? There’s no room in a Bikram Studio for responding to the needs of the student, beyond offering them Bikram.
As Anika and some of the other teachers pointed out, the scandal is not just indicative of issues within the Bikram community, but the yoga community at large. Many teachers have fallen recently.
Despite the issues and uncertainty around Bikram, there’s still students who want to train as Bikram teachers. The sequence speaks for itself, and current teachers are making sure that future teachers know what’s going on and can make their own decisions about the wisdom in pursuing a Bikram Teacher Training at the present time.
As for the yoga students that continue to pour through the doors at Bikram Studios up and down the country, Kristina Anderson of Napier Bikram Studio makes the interesting point that 95% of students don’t even know that Bikram is a person.
I am the representative of Bikram yoga – me, the studio owner, and my teachers. How we conduct ourselves, how we teach and what relationships we form with our students and the community we are continually building, are what matters to the students (and me).
When they are in Camel and opening up their heart and throat chakra to the universe, believe me, they do not have Bikram Choudhury in the forefront of their mind. ever. Students come back into the hot room because of the myriad of physical, emotional and spiritual connections and benefits they experience as a result of the powerful process of connecting with breath, stillness and therefore themselves. This beautiful unfolding occurs, their life changes and that’s what brings them back into the room.
Like some of the other studios, Kristina says Bikram Napier will be exploring different options like the possibility of becoming an integrative hot yoga studio.
Despite his transgressions, many of the teachers expressed gratitude to Bikram and all he’s taught them over the years.
Donna Wikio, who owns Dunedin’s Bikram Yoga studio called him a damn good teacher, and she said that mostly she feels disappointed.
I’m annoyed and upset. It’s another negative to put on top of the yoga when the yoga itself is so awesome. It’s painting a certain image of something that people already have certain images -it’s another little thing for people to clutch on to and denigrate the yoga. It’s a disappointing and it bums me out. We’re at ground level sweating our arses off getting this yoga out because it works, and we’ve taken another knock because of his behaviour.
Peggy Preston, who owns Queenstown Bikram concurs:
The whole thing is a mess to be honest. It’s definitely sad but he chose his path and will pay the dues. I’ll always appreciate Bikram for what he taught me. I was disappointed, but we’re a long way away over here and we just don’t talk about it.
It was both illuminating and humbling to speak to so many of the Bikram Studio owners up and down New Zealand.
They’ve all invested serious money and time in teacher training in California, and in setting up studios here in New Zealand.
They do what they do because they believe in the yoga itself – the 26 posture sequence that Bikram created with help and support from his guru Bishnu Ghosh. It’s transformed their lives, and they’ve seen it transform the lives of hundreds of other students.
This latest scandal is both disappointing and difficult, but also an opportunity for evolution and change. As Kristina at Napier Bikram says:
Nothing like a good shake up to see where everyone stands. Change is the only thing we can be absolutely certain of. I look forward to the unfolding process and where this will lead me, my studio and my students. I’m excited – I have Bikram to thank, once again ;o)
More Articles on Bikram and the Scandal:
- Had Your McYoga Today? A Stretch of Success (a great background article written a number of years ago.)
- The Bikram Scandal and the Shadow Side of Yoga
- Bikram Yoga’s Embattled Founder: The Alleged Rapes and Sexual Harassment Claims Against Guru Bikram
- Shocking Bikram Sex Scandal Should Shock No One
- The Bikram sex scandal: What you need to know
- Yoga, Scandals, Personal Responsibility, and Collective Growth
- Inside the Bikram Yoga Scandals: Bikram Choudhury’s Accuser Speaks
- Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga