Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator (2019) ★★★
Director: Eva Orner
The corrupt guru is a tricky character, because he often imparts knowledge that is good. Bikram Choudhury was your classic bad guru: hypocritical, greedy, domineering, and cruel, but his “hot yoga” routine was so popular that people were willing to overlook his bullying style, which was peppered with racist and sexist taunts. This changed in 2013, when several women filed charges against him for rape, sexual assault, harassment, and discrimination. Their accusations, along with allegations of racism and homophobia, threw the Bikram yoga world into turmoil as devoted students and Bikram studio owners rushed to defend him. Others were disgusted and cut ties to him altogether. Bikram, meanwhile, fled the country after being convicted for unlawfully firing his personal lawyer, who tried to address his harassment.
This comprehensive documentary reveals the multiple lies at the heart of the Bikram Yoga School, as well as Choudhury’s extensive abuse. When you get to the end, you may wonder why anyone would continue to defend him. And yet people still do; Bikram teaches packed workshops outside of the United States and many studios continue to bear his name. To me, the most interesting interviews were with former students and studio owners who had to come to grips with the fact that the practice they loved had been given to them by a terrible human being. It was clearly hard for some of them to separate the teacher from the practice of yoga — including a few of the women who were his victims.
What made it harder was that Bikram turned his yoga into a cult of sorts, so that his way of yoga was the best way, the only way. His method was prescriptive: a series of 26 poses, always done in the same order, and practiced in a room heated to 104 degrees. Teachers of Bikram had to teach it his way, and they had to train with Bikram at expensive retreats that took place in hotels and lasted for weeks. Everything about the process forced people to make a huge psychological and financial investment, one that was hard for people to divest from, even when it became clear that the Bikram was bad news. One woman, a former Bikram teacher, explains it simply: “the yoga is magic.” My husband, who was watching with me, was annoyed by this description. “Why can’t she just say it’s healthy?” But I think I know what she means. Yoga is not exactly addictive, but once you start doing it, you begin to crave it. Its benefits are subtle but immediate.
I never tried Bikram Yoga, but I’ve been practicing yoga on and off and for almost twenty years. I started doing it to deal with a running injury and I was impressed by how quickly it helped me to heal, and also how it seemed to quell my anxieties. I recently started practicing again on a daily basis via online classes and once again, I’m impressed by how mellowing it is. Other forms of exercise tend to exhilarate, while yoga smooths things out and creates a little more space in your mind. I recently read an article explaining how strength-training work-outs like yoga and weight-lifting begin to rewire your brain after just a few sessions. Yoga clearly taps into this physiological response and the positive benefits can feel miraculous, especially if you’ve never experienced anything like it before.
I can’t remember when I first became aware of abuse in Bikram Yoga, but there was a cultish feeling around it, even before the rumors of sexual assault surfaced. It was popular in New York and people loved to talk about how tough the workouts were and how everyone was half-naked and dripping with sweat. There was a boot-camp aspect that I couldn’t relate to. Having recently listened to ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast about USA gymnastics, I’m beginning to wonder if there is any benefit to boot-camp situations where a person becomes so exhausted and broken down that they lose their sense of self. I understand that discipline, repetition and single-minded focus are important to athletic pursuits, but I think they can be achieved in a safer, more nurturing environment.
Speaking of ESPN podcasts, reporter Julia Lowrie Henderson made a five-part podcast about Bikram a couple of years ago. It was so good that I was reluctant to watch this documentary because I felt like I knew enough, but I guess I was drawn back to the subject because I’ve started doing yoga again. It was fascinating to get a visual of Bikram’s packed classes, and to see how he led them from on high. One detail I will not forget is how he would sit on a cushioned, air-conditioned throne while hollering at all the practitioners sweating it out beneath him. It just seemed so blatantly hypocritical, the perfect distillation of his hollow teachings.