Bikram Choudhury’s image from Netflix | Collage by LiFDB.
Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator | Directed by: Eva Orner
Who is Bikram?
The documentary provides a multifaceted look at Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram Yoga and the community and business he built. We learn that he is a megalomaniac, a yoga teacher who motivates and inspires, a sexual predator, and a compulsive liar.
Credited for commercializing yoga, Bikram introduced the west to a type of yoga without the om-ing, chanting, and simplified the practice by introducing a beginner-friendly series of poses conducted in a heated room. The film captures how he amassed thousands of dedicated followers with his eccentric personality. Interviews with former students acknowledge his “gift”–the ability to understand a person’s body and to push you to your limit, even if that meant name calling and body shaming in class.
The Abuse and the Lies
The documentary shows that there are signs of abusive behavior in his well-attended yoga classes and teacher trainings, and the predatory behavior continues, when he invites students to his room to watch Bollywood films, asks for massages, and sexually assaults women.
Bikram is adored by many, and his victims acknowledge that Bikram yoga has transformed their lives, but he also has a sinister side. He is obsessively self-congratulatory, unapologetic, and polarizing–remind you of someone?
Bikram’s fairytale past, as told by him, involves winning yoga competitions in India and a green card gifted by Richard Nixon. Both stories the documentary finds to be untrue.
To date, Bikram has settled 3 sexual assault and rape cases. Criminal charges were not filed and he denies any wrongdoing, but there is a warrant for his arrest for failing to pay a $7 million judgement to one of his former legal team members, Micki Jafa-Bodden, who was a central figure in the documentary. Jafa-Bodden sued Bikram for sexual harassment and wrongful termination. Bikram fled the US after the verdict.
Bikram’s wife, Rajashree, filed for divorce in 2015. The documentary hints that protecting the finances is the motivation for the divorce.
Bikram still travels the world conducting teacher training retreats.
MeToo Movement and the Yoga Community
The yoga community is not protected from the force that is the MeToo movement. The film captures the power struggle between guru, students, and aspiring yoga studio owners and teachers. It shows what happens when one woman gains the courage to go public and take legal action against inappropriate sexual behavior from a man in power. More women with similar experiences have come forward, and that is part of the story the documentary unravels.
A proprietary yoga sequence, Bikram yoga is a tightly operated enterprise, from exclusive teacher trainings to the opening of Bikram Yoga Studios. Former students who have broken away from the community have rebranded their Bikram studios to just “hot” yoga, which has become one of the most popular types of yoga in the US.
Bikram’s story doesn’t discredit the power of yoga. In fact, interviews from former students show how transformative the practice can be. But it does give us pause to the signs of abusive behavior that emerges from hierarchical yoga communities with revered central figures. The MeToo movement and Bikram’s story can’t convince everyone to behave with respect, but it can empower us to know the signs of abuse in yoga communities.
- Walk away from yoga classes that shame students in public or those that use abusive language to push you physically.
- Don’t be enamored by people in power or feel that you owe them something. In fact, if it takes sexual favors to move into these circles, you might want to rethink if this is a community you want to be a part of.
- Yoga teachers, gurus, and practitioners are all humans, capable of mistakes and not always with the best of intentions. Like everything else in life, be cautious and don’t easily give your trust.
- Speak up: if you feel that you’ve been wronged or abused, seek help.
- If during teacher training you are asked to spend time alone in a room with one of the organizers or teachers, think very carefully about it and assess if meeting in private is necessary for teacher training.