The Horrifying Cult Origins of Bikram Yoga: Rape, Harassment and Lies
The new Netflix documentary “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator” explores the sexual-assault allegations against Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram Yoga.
Bikram Choudhury became a self-made multimillionaire with “Bikram Yoga,” which was founded on 26 carefully-sequenced positions and performed in sweltering studios. Bikram claimed that, though he had learned his “hot yoga” craft under the tutelage of India’s Bishnu Charan Ghosh, his methods were uniquely his own, and that they’d helped him become a three-time national yoga champion in his native country. He said he’d subsequently brought his program to America on July 4, 1972, when a Honolulu session with President Richard Nixon earned him a green card. From there, he fashioned an empire that boasted numerous celebrities as clients, and earned Bikram—famous for instructing students while wearing nothing but a tiny black Speedo—national renown and wealth, replete with a fleet of luxury Bentleys and Rolls Royces.
It also netted him an army of acolytes who’d follow his every command—and, it turns out, would even tolerate the sexual assault and rape he perpetrated against them. Until, that is, they wouldn’t.
Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator (premiering Nov. 20 on Netflix) is a damning expose of Bikram and his movement, which director Eva Orner’s documentary reveals was nothing short of a cult led by a charismatic leader eager to exploit his environment’s carefully crafted power dynamics to devious ends. Through a strategic combination of psychological manipulation and professional intimidation, Bikram made sure that he was viewed by all as a veritable god capable of providing the keys to health, happiness and transcendence. Moreover, he let it be known that the only way to thrive in his field—and in his coveted presence—was to acquiesce to his whims, be it suffering endurance-test exhaustion and dehydration in his blazing-hot classes, the verbal abuse he dished out in uninhibited bursts, or the ugly advances he made to select women during late-night massage sessions in his home and hotel suites.
Orner’s film doesn’t get Bikram to sit for an interview because he’s currently a fugitive from the law, having fled the United States in 2016 after losing a $7.5 million civil lawsuit to Micki Jafa-Bodden, his former head of legal affairs, that he’s yet to pay. Nonetheless, because he’s always been a narcissist who relished hamming it up in the spotlight, Bikram remains front-and-center in Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, courtesy of archival chats on network TV, and clips of him in guiding students through back-bending, sweat-producing studio routines. In the latter, he comes across as an affable, enthusiastic, childlike showman, equal parts mystic and clown—except, of course, for when he’s seen cursing at students in a profane manner unbecoming of a supposed quasi-spiritual guru, a practice corroborated by numerous anecdotes about him pushing disciples by slandering their appearance.
For Jakob Schanzer, Bikram’s nasty comments about his weight were, when paired with his popular yoga methods, downright transformative, and Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator makes clear that none of the horrors committed by Bikram would have been possible if not for the fact that, in a fundamental way, Bikram Yoga really did work for countless men and women. That, in turn, allowed Bikram to franchise his business, with dedicated teachers permitted to open their own studios only after completing his teacher-training seminars. Licensing his techniques was the veritable “cash cow” of the entire enterprise, earning Bikram celebrity-grade riches and a reputation as the “bad boy” of yoga.
It also created a paradigm in which, at closed-off, multi-week classes held at hotels around the country, Bikram was constantly supplied with fresh new females who wanted nothing more than to earn his favor. Sexual assault—quite a lot of it, by many accounts—followed, although out of fear of being kicked out of the profession they loved, most refused to publicly speak out. Sarah Baughn changed all that, filing suit against Bikram in March 2013 for allegedly trapping her in his hotel room and forcibly trying to initiate sex. Though she was condemned and ostracized by those in Bikram’s camp, other ugly stories soon emerged, including from Larissa Anderson, who says she was raped by Bikram in his home, and from Jafa-Bodden, who sued Bikram for unlawful termination after she refused to continue being party to his predatory behavior.
Doing the guru no favors are deposition videos in which he pleads the fifth and, when speaking, curses Jafa-Bodden’s attorney Carla Minnard and admits that the four things he doesn’t like are “cold weather, cold food, cold hearts and cold pussy.”
“He’s a dangerous man,” asserts Minnard, and the evidence supporting that assertion is difficult to dispute. So too are allegations that he was actually a con man of sorts, having stolen his methods from Ghosh and repackaged them as his own, and having never won any national yoga contests (which didn’t exist at the time) or treated President Nixon in the first place. What emerges is a portrait of a charlatan who stumbled upon a popular new way to make a buck, and used his ensuing clout to abuse and terrorize the women he desired.
Orner’s non-fiction approach is standard-issue, but her narrative structure is sharp, first introducing Bikram as he sold himself, and then slowly peeling back layers of falsehoods to reveal the lies, betrayals and violence upon which his kingdom was built. This storytelling design also allows the director to reveal surprising things about her talking-head speakers—most notably Patrice Simon, who at film’s conclusion admits that the only reason she sat for the documentary is so she could let everyone know that “this yoga is magical,” that she thinks Bikram is primed for a comeback, and that she’s happy he’s still overseeing training sessions in other corners of the globe.
For some, the brainwashing remains intact. And the fact that Bikram has held recent teacher seminars in Mexico (2018) and Spain (2019)—and that Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey has yet to file criminal charges against him, despite having six accusers and a wealth of civil-trial evidence at her disposal—speaks to the various ways that individual and legal cowardice, misogyny and self-interest help perpetuate such misconduct; which, in the end, makes Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator not only an eye-opening account of Bikram’s wretchedness, but a vital act of speaking truth to power.