*Disclaimer* We firmly condemn Bikram Choudhary 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.
Trigger warning: discussion of sexual violence, rape, racism, and homophobia.
The documentary Bikram Yogi Guru Predator provides a disturbing account of the sexual abuse and harassment allegations against the founder of Bikram Yoga and serial abuser, Bikram Choudhury.
Bikram Yoga, the 26-fixed-posture, 90-minute class, taking place in a setting of 105F (45C) degree heat with 40% humidity (all whilst Bikram himself had two air conditioners blowing at the back of his head), swept through the West, namely America, from the 1970s onwards.
The Bikram documentary, directed by Eva Orner, tells the real stories of women who were abused by Bikram. These are experiences that predate the Me Too movement by years, if not decades, yet have sadly familiar stories of women silenced and exploited by men in power.
As Eva Orner described, this film is a ‘pre #MeToo story that’s being told in a post #MeToo world’.
We’ll dive into these themes:
- The impact of Bikram
- Power dynamics
- Culture of abuse
- Compulsive liar
- What now?
- Should we be promoting the yoga of a rapist?
The impact of bikram
The start of the Bikram documentary focuses on its strong impact on America, developing a dedicated following and building a global brand.
It speaks of his life prior to teaching yoga and, amongst other things, gives a list of all the celebrities he had worked with and who enjoyed his ‘revolutionary’ Bikram practice.
With much focus on the ‘force’ of his teaching presence and the 26 powerful asanas Bikram brought to the world (although it later turns out he didn’t create them as he claimed to), there is a glorification of the hardness of class and how it ‘opens you up’ and ‘detoxes you’.
I was initially skeptical of the centering of Bikram’s voice with it not being clear that he was a perpetrator of sexual violence, but the romanticization of him was soon cut short with disclosures being made of his ‘mentally unstable’ and abusive nature.
His narcissism also reared its ugly head early on in the documentary, with him making bold, public statements such as ‘you will never find anyone more pure than me‘ and ‘I am the most spiritual man you will ever find‘.Thankfully, as I’m sure you can tell, this is not the case!
Choudhury is portrayed as a charismatic and influential figure, with a cult-like following.
This unbalanced power dynamic is worsened by the fact that Bikram was the sole authority figure within his yoga community, with complete control over the training and certification of teachers (with the teacher training setting students back about $12,500.00).
The documentary portrays Choudhury as a man who uses his power and authority to coerce students into sexual acts, often using his position as a spiritual leader to justify his behavior and evade responsibility.
This is, sadly, not a new pattern. Where there is power, there is always the potential for abuse of power.
We know just from looking a few minutes down the road at the rest of Hollywood, the awful ways in which people in high positions of power use their authority to perpetrate violence and silence those who they abuse.
Bikram Yogi Guru Predator is one example of the many ways in which patriarchal systems often enable and excuse perpetrators of abuse.
At one point in the Bikram documentary, Micki Jafa-Bodden details how she challenged Bikram’s wife about the power that he held within the institution. The following day, she was met with much aggression, intensely threatened by Bikram, and told to quit on the spot.
She later became the only person ever to win a case against Bikram Choudhury.
The abuse of power dynamics went beyond misogyny and crossed intersections of racism and homophobia too, as misogyny often does. Although not mentioned in the documentary, I later read he would frequently viciously rant about the LGBTQ+ community.
In the documentary, a student quoted him as having said ‘women are bitches and whores, they’re here for one thing, to spread their legs‘ as well as telling her to ‘get out you black bitch‘.
Culture of abuse
Bikram Yogi Guru Predator shares stories from women who were impacted by Bikram’s abusive behavior.
They are powerful, courageous, and heartbreaking, and, importantly, they shed light on the ways in which abuse is often hidden and silenced within communities, and the ways in which it is perpetuated by societal norms and cultural attitudes toward victims of sexual assault.
The women describe how Choudhury would single them out and groom them for abuse.
One of the women who had disclosed sexual assault from Bikram, Sarah, explained how she went to one of the senior staff members and told them what had happened. Their response was to advise her to ‘separate’ the man from the teachings.
Sarah, along with the other women, often had allegations dismissed or ignored by other members of the Bikram Yoga community, who were often financially dependent on him, afraid to speak out against him, or simply idolized Choudhury and refused to see any wrong.
In addition to the disbelief or dismissal, disclosures were often met with victim blaming and retaliation from the wider students and teachers.
After the medical assistant, Liz, posted an allegation of rape against Bikram on the group’s Facebook page, comments stated that they ‘could have walked away at any time‘, as if they were somehow to blame for what happened to them.
The culture of disbelief clearly was deep-rooted in the Bikram community, perhaps by people refusing to believe their ‘Guru’ could be a perpetrator.
Several members of the Bikram Yoga community are shown defending Choudhury and minimizing the allegations against him, as well as several former teachers feeling extremely conflicted about their feelings towards the abuser.
One former teacher said at the time it felt like the women were publicly destroying his father. This is reflective of the larger societal attitudes towards victims of sexual assault, where women are often blamed for their own victimization or met with disbelief and skepticism.
The culture of abuse was clear for everyone to see, Bikram didn’t even go so far as to hide his misogyny and blatant sexism.
From the tapes shown, Bikram, as well as his lawyers, were abusive and extremely provocative towards Micki’s attorney, Carla.
At his pre-trial deposition, Choudhury clearly states on camera, referring to Carla’s perceived ‘stupidity’, ‘you can take a donkey and train it for a thousand years and it will never be a horse… that’s why you have divorce in this country. This is why you need me’.
In Bikram’s eyes, Carla was a donkey. Perhaps this is how he viewed all women who wanted to divorce their husbands – donkeys who could not be trained. From the context, it’s likely he believed they could not be trained to please or most probably obey their spouses.
On top of violence and aggression, it seems that one more thing wouldn’t stand in Bikram’s way of power – the truth.
Throughout the documentary, he’s portrayed as a megalomaniac; building an empire on a foundation of lies with his interest solely in money, power, reputation, and ego. Far from a genuine yogi, some could argue.
It was not only the sexual violence allegations that he lied about, Bikram Yogi Guru Predator portrays Bikram as lying about pretty much anything and everything! Those around him were unsure of the extent to which he genuinely believed his own lies.
From winning India’s yoga championships to working with and ‘curing’ President Nixon, to claiming Bishnu Charan Ghosh’s 26-asana series as his own creation, his detachment from reality progressively worsened as the documentary went on.
Perhaps one of his bigger lies came at the end of the documentary where he is shown to have secretly hidden his assets and fled to Mexico, where he still lives today, dodging the series of lawsuits against him and avoiding paying what the court has ordered him to pay.
Devastatingly, we see at the end of the documentary that he evaded court procedures with some of the cases against him being forced to settle, rather than gain justice through the courts, which several women made it clear that they had never intended on doing.
To this day, Choudhury has escaped prosecution with Carla stating that there is often a ‘reluctance to go after powerful men’ by the American judicial system. Another saddening and frustrating, yet unsurprising, reality.
Even more worryingly, he is still training teachers despite the many accusations of abuse, violence, and discrimination. It seems that, despite this documentary and wider knowledge of Bikram as a perpetrator, he is beginning something of a comeback tour.
As of February 2023, he launched an event in Vancouver under the banner ‘Boss is Back’.
Should we promote the yoga practice of an abuser?
The end of Bikram Yogi Guru Predator tells of another faction in the Bikram community; those who still support Bikram Yoga and those who do not.
One woman details how she ‘will never stop doing it‘, due to the powerful effect it has on her, whilst a man states that ‘anyone who does anything under his banner‘ should ‘wise up’.
I must say that, personally, I am in the latter camp. This comes down to one question for me; should we be promoting the yoga of an abuser? My answer is a definite ‘no‘.
Not only is it reprehensible that he is teaching with the prospect that he could be perpetrating serious violence against other women and students, but it’s also deeply re-traumatizing for those who have already been subjected to his abuse.
Whilst I know that the teachings themselves were not actually Bikrams, but Ghosh’s, I struggle to separate the teacher from the teachings. When we support the practice of Bikram Yoga, I feel that we, by default, are supporting Bikram.
I feel disheartened that we can still support a perpetrator of violence against women, who has also avoided the rule of law by fleeing the country. Too, I am outraged that he has a platform to teach and be an authority on yoga. For me, this goes against the very essence of ahimsa.
However, I do acknowledge that the actions of Bikram can not take away from the profound impact that the practice has had on many people. As the documentary portrays, for many, it was a truly life-changing practice.
Bikram Yoga does not have to be one or the other, it can be both; deeply saddening and deplorable that the leader was able to commit violence and evade justice, at the same time as being a practice that has improved thousands of lives that people are attached to.
It can be hard to come to terms with the fact that a practice you love is, by its very nature, connected to someone that has done harm. But we also need to acknowledge and make it clear that that the leader of this institution was a perpetrator.
When it comes to holding perpetrators accountable, we can all do better. In other words, we vote with our feet. If we stop supporting abusers or, even better, we call them out for their actions, they lose their power.
I am not sure that those still supporting Bikram are giving those impacted by his actions the best chance to heal from what has happened to them. Painfully, Bikram is certainly not where abuse and violence began in the yoga community or where it will finish.
I know that for much of the community, and myself included, standing against Bikram Yoga is a way that we can honor survivors who have been courageous enough to share their stories and speak out against, not just Bikram, but all perpetrators of violence.
The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its membersCoretta Scott King
As well as the documentary, you can find out more about the allegations in this podcast on Bikram.
If you would like to read more about trauma-informed yoga, an important practice that can help us individually and collectively heal, you can read our article here.