Here it is again. The yoga sex-scandal: too clichéd for fiction, too outlandish to be ignored, leaping from whispered locker-room conversations into garish SEO-ready headlines on CNN. If only repetition led to farce. The latest scandal involves yogi Bikram Choudhury, the already cartoonishly overdrawn guru from Calcutta, lord over an empire of hot yoga studios, now accused by former senior instructor Sarah Baughn of soliciting sex from his female students, punishing them when they refused his advances, rewarding male teachers who brought him willing consorts, and bragging during lectures of his “72-hour marathon sex sessions.”
For those who don’t know him, Bikram Choudhury has long operated as something of a dark prince of America yoga. Beginning his yogic studies at the age three in India, he arrived in America a virgin, teaching free of charge in the basement of a bank. Now, at 67 years old, he parades on his teaching dais in Speedo and Rolex, barking orders at his following of millions (19 studios in New York City alone) as they struggle to contort to his demands. Celebrities like Jeff Bridges, Madonna, and George Clooney have reportedly sought him out. Charlie Sheen—cue curious brow wrinkle—called him guru. He charges upward of $11,000 to attend his trainings. He has 40 Rolls-Royces in his garage.
To be sure, he is also a master healer. The number of people who credit him with saving their lives is legion. And most of the students in those 19 New York City yoga studios probably don’t even know there is a Bikram, the man. They know only his yoga practice and the benefits it has brought them.
In my book, Hell-Bent, I studied the Bikram subculture. I heard amazing stories of personal transformation—from staggering weight-loss and the healing of life-long injuries, to students successfully working through abuse, grief, addiction, and depression. As my research pushed me deeper, I also heard darker stories from women and men degraded by the guru, cast aside if they threatened him, manipulated to serve his whims, and preyed upon if they showed vulnerability or weakness.
But what I found most chilling were the numerous times I heard these stories from the very same person—times when the silence and shame were directly related to the spiritual experience.
It is here—not in the outlandish behavior—that the Bikram scandal connects with other cases of alleged spiritual-abusers. (A statement on Bikram’s website says he “is disappointed by the false charges in this lawsuit,” and “expresses gratitude to all who have reached out to express their love and support.”)
As with muscular development, the personal growth of spiritual exploration involves working through discomfort, taking internal risks, and pushing boundaries. Bikram Choudhury’s style of yoga—famously performed in high heat—emphasizes this liminal aspect. Practitioners are exhorted to push through pain, embrace their weaknesses and make them strengths. The dividends of these efforts can be seen in the miracle success stories that define the community.
It also encourages a trust that easily elides into devotion or surrender. Pushing through boundaries necessarily requires someone willing to hold a standard higher than you yourself believe in, someone who can help you negotiate the entirely normal pains of breaking through boundaries from the dangerous pains of repetitive stress, someone who offers support only if and when you absolutely need it.
Most of us aren’t too good at these things. When people tell us they are in pain, we have doubts. When someone shows us a near-perfect demonstration, we applaud. A guru, on the other hand, must excel at precisely this rare confidence. It is almost a job requirement, as it were. And naturally the more successful he or she becomes, the more confidence is required to meet the new challenges.
From here, it doesn’t take much foresight to see how such transgressions begin. Endeavors based around personal transformation attract people who need to transform—the open, hopeful, and vulnerable. Instruction that requires the ability to hold a ruthlessly high standard can bleed into the urge to control. If internalized completely, a message rooted in the incredible abilities of the self can swiftly swerve into fantasies of omnipotence. And the constant seeking of approval—whether in the form of correctly done postures or a favored inner circle—creates a community where self-worth is earned rather than intrinsic.
It is a profession where the highest positions do not so much attract narcissists as breed them.
What can be more difficult to understand is how these situations can go on so long without detection, or why mature intelligent people remain silent in the face of obvious harassment. In Baughn’s case, the alleged abuse occurred over four years, with her alternately running away from Choudhury’s advances, and then returning to situations where the guru might be present. As legal consultant Dana Cole noted on ABC’s Nightline, “she may not garner much judicial or juror sympathy simply because she kept going back.”
But within a spiritual community, the exact same duality operating on the guru works double time to stifle his targets. 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.
Combine that external Solomon Asch-style conformity with the typical ambiguities of any uncomfortable sexual encounter—not to mention the routine sexist inclination “she was asking for it” when dealing with a male rock-star guru and his throng of female students—and it is all too easy to see how targets can fit feelings of shame, confusion, and revulsion into a larger personal narrative. “Observing emotions,” “working through pain,” “refusing to become a victim”—all potent pieces of advice, cornerstones of a yoga practice built on personal empowerment—can easily be turned into weapons of silence. At the same time, community exhortations to just “focus on the positives” and “remember all the good he has done” provide the justification for their use.
By speaking out, targets are not only betraying a larger enterprise they passionately believe in, they are also not practicing their yoga. They are failing at something vital.
Of course, as scandal after scandal shows, the deck was stacked from the beginning. On both sides. And for me, that regularity is itself the great reminder: while our bodies are capable of enormous transformations, and our spiritual growth can require the breaking of boundaries, there is a steady state of vulnerability essential to the process that can all too easily be exploited. Humans remain humans; the ability to give great love does not mean we can do so consistently; the ability to hold high standards for others does not mean we can do so for ourselves.
Or, for those who prefer answers in their yogic history, perhaps it’s time to embrace a different type of repetition, a cycle back to the past and the instruction of Patanjali—the famous yogic sage of 150 B.C.E. Unlike the secular, therapeutic yoga of your local gym class, Patanjali grounded his teachings not with postures, breath work, meditations, or aphorisms, but with two lists: the yamas and niyamas, a strict litany of moral obligations and ethical restrictions, his basis for all work to come.
It is a message not just for our ever-swelling spiritual communities, but for the all-too-similar communities that encase them.