*Disclaimer* We firmly condemn Bikram Choudhury and see him for the abuser, r*pist, homophobe, and racist that he is. We stand with the victims and hope that our articles can shed light on the truth.
Bikram Choudhury is the founder of Bikram Yoga, a 90-minute postural yoga class consisting of 26 āsanas and 2 breathing exercises practiced in a significantly heated room.
This article will explore:
- Who is Bikram Choudhury?
- Bikram Choudhury’s rise to fame
- How he developed his brand of Bikram Yoga
- The downfall and evolution of his empire: allegations of abuse
- Bikram Yoga today
Who Is Bikram Choudhury?
Born in 1944, Choudhury grew up in northern Calcutta. He was a natural athlete and began practicing bodybuilding and then yoga at the gymnasium of his teacher Bishnu Charan Ghosh.
Ghosh was the younger brother of Paramahansa Yogananda, the well-known author of Autobiography of a Yogi and founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship. It is believed that Ghosh trained his students in a yoga sequence consisting of 84 asanas.
Bishnu Charan Ghosh:
Bikram Choudhury’s Rise To Fame
Between 1966 and 1969 Choudhury worked amongst Bollywood stars in Bombay as a masseur. In 1970 Ghosh instructed Choudhury to leave India and begin teaching yoga in Tokyo, Japan.
Choudhury was expecting to return to Calcutta to complete his training, however, the sudden death of Ghosh inevitably meant that his plans would change.
The abrupt end to his training could explain why Choudhury developed his sequence of just 26 postures at this time, although later taught an ‘advanced’ series of 84 postures to select students in the U.S.
However, another theory suggests that Choudhury developed his 26 posture series specifically for Westerners who were predominantly new to yoga when he first moved to North America. Essentially, creating a ‘beginners’ yoga class.
In 1971 Choudhury left Japan to teach yoga in Hawaii and later he found himself in California amongst the wealthy and famous.
After the spiritual-seeking era of the late 60s, Choudhury’s arrival was widely welcomed. His focus on yoga’s physical effects on the body quickly drew in Hollywood’s actors and actresses searching for the next full-body workout.
How Bikram Choudhury Developed His Brand Of Yoga
The ‘heated room’ element of Choudhury’s class continued but would rise from around 30 degrees to 41 degrees Celsius. This soon solidified itself as a standardized aspect of a Bikram Yoga class, alongside mirrored studios and carpeted floors.
These later became significant features in Bikram Yoga teacher trainings and were part of the instructions that graduates must follow when opening a new studio in his name.
It was in California where his yoga practice gained notable attention and in 1994 Choudhury ran the first Bikram Yoga Teacher Training. From here on, they would run two or three times per year.
Bikram Choudhary wife, Rajashree, helped develop the teacher training certification course with her experience training in India. However, unlike the 3 years of study required there, the training they created in America would require just 2 months to complete, at the steep price of $10,000.
Benjamin Lorr published Hell Bent, a memoir of his time involved with Bikram yoga which details his teacher training experience. One particular story describes mannequins dressed in Bikram-branded yoga clothes displayed during the welcome talk.
Rajeshree states “You will be losing weight and gaining weight and so of course need to be buying very stylish clothes”. Questions are answered, such as what to do when needing to vomit in the middle of a room of 100+ people – in this circumstance you are allowed to leave but must return quickly!
A 45-page script is to be memorized between the exhaustive schedule of classes.
This is important to determine certification. These production-line trainings with 100 or more students in one room and script memorization are what led to Bikram Yoga’s nickname “McYoga”.
Bikram’s Celeb Claims To Fame
Celebrity associations and endorsements were a large part of Bikram Yoga’s popularity and initial success. Stars such as Madonna and Lady Gaga have previously expressed their love for the practice.
Choudhury would often boast about the famous students he had taught. He also made elaborate claims, including that his yoga system saved Richard Nixon from having his leg amputated, and that Elvis could have survived had he had the time to teach him his yoga (Schickel).
Although it was true that many celebrities were fans of his class over the years, Choudhury did have a tendency to exaggerate. With claims that he made later turning out to be false, we are left to wonder what is also untrue.
For example, recent research into the lineage of Bikram and Ghosh Yoga found that Choudhury did not become a student of Ghosh until age 18. Practicing yoga from the age of 3 was the story he had countlessly recalled.
He also told stories about winning yoga championships in India, however, no records of this can be found.
Competitive Yoga and the International Yoga Asana Championships
Choudhury was closely associated with the International Yoga Asana Championships (now IYSF), where he named the Bishnu Charan Ghosh Cup after his teacher. However, he stepped back from his position after allegations of abuse surfaced.
The idea of competitive yoga caused some controversy in the yoga world. Many believe that approaching yoga as a sport is not in alignment with the goal of a spiritual yoga practice, some even claiming this to be a disrespectful act.
However, Choudhury argued that competing and judging the execution of yoga postures was traditionally practiced in some areas of India. The 2017 documentary Posture, explores various perspectives.
The Downfall And Evolution Of Bikram Choudhury’s Abusive Empire
In 2009, Choudhury began a series of claims attempting to copyright his 26 yoga posture series. The intent was for the sequence to be exclusive to the name Bikram Yoga.
However, his attempts were not successful.
The publicity around this caused controversy and divided opinions. Some were in support of Choudhury’s desire to copyright and franchise Bikram Yoga sequences and studios, believing that he had created a unique healing system. Others, however, saw this as a purely profit-driven pursuit, influenced by capitalism and Americanization.
The Bikram Yoga ‘brand’ gained further publicly around 2013 when allegations of sexual abuse, racial discrimination, and homophobia surfaced.
After being convicted and charged in 2016, Choudhury fled the U.S., failing to pay fines of over $7.4 million. A warrant was issued for his arrest should he return to the United States.
Choudhury also divorced from his wife Rajashree in 2016, reports state that she obtained their properties in Beverly Hills and Los Angeles plus his luxury cars. The settlement confirmed that Rajashree would not be responsible financially for Choudhury’s current or future lawsuits.
The #metoo movement, which gained popularity a few years later is likely to have supported further women in coming forward with their stories. These stories of abuse are explored in a 2018 podcast series Bikram by 30for30, ESPN, and the 2019 Netflix documentary Yogi, Guru, Predator.
Yogi, Guru, Predator; interviews a number of Choudhury’s previous students, including survivors of his abuse.
Shockingly, some students admit that although they were not direct victims of Choudhury’s abuse, they were aware of abuse happening to others, yet they had not spoken out. They admit that their reasoning for this was for fear of what may happen to them if they challenged Choudhury or his staff.
Once aware of the truth, is it possible to continue a Bikram Yoga practice?
Many previously-dedicated students and teachers made the decision to distance themselves and remove the ‘Bikram’ name from their studios.
Understandably, there was confusion and upset for those who had found the yoga practice beneficial for their health, or even those who had proclaimed Bikram Yoga had changed their lives.
Overall, it appeared that many teachers and students were not ready to abandon the practice that had provided significant physical and mental health benefits.
This led to a myriad of studios continuing to teach Choudhury’s ‘Bikram’ sequence, but renaming it ‘26&2’, referring to its 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises. Another name is ‘Original Hot Yoga’, or OHY, the word ‘original’ referring to the exact sequence taught by Choudhury, rather than an adaptation. Other studios simply renamed themselves ‘Hot Yoga’.
This evolution brought Hot Yoga into the contemporary yoga sector of post-lineage yoga, a term explored by Theodora Wildcroft, where practitioners have rejected the concept of gurus and what could be considered dogmatic teachings.
“Democratically developing content, and sharing it with others regardless of affiliation, is definitional of post-lineage yoga”.Wildcroft (2020)
These practitioners focus on navigating ways for postural yoga to better suit their bodies, gender, and lifestyle.
Bikram Yoga Today
There are still a number of his students who deny or refuse to believe the allegations and choose to continue promoting his name. Today, Bikram Choudhury continues to teach his yoga outside of the United States.
After fleeing the U.S. in 2016 to avoid charges, Choudhury seemingly kept a relatively low profile for the next few years.
However, in 2023, he is back in the spotlight for attempting to teach a week-long event in Vancouver, Canada organized by the Canada Yoga Sports Federation.
The event was promoted with the slogan “Boss is back!”, arguably an aggressive reference to Choudhury’s character, teaching style, and abusive nature. Scheduled to begin on 20th February, organizers were forced to cancel Choudhury’s week of teaching due to the outpouring of responses, including petitions against the event via social media.
So where does this leave us?
Bikram Choudhury’s name continues to cause controversy in the yoga industry. His recent actions prove that, unfortunately, although our awareness continues to be raised on these issues, there is still much work to do to ensure safety within yoga spaces.