What we can learn from Bikram


Bikram Choudhury leading a yoga class. Photo: ESPN

What the Bikram Choudhury scandal can teach us about ourselves

(Part three of a five-part series on the yoga industry. You can read parts 1 and 2 here and here, respectively.)

A couple of months ago, I tweeted to the CIFF saying that I hoped they would add the new Bikram Choudhury film to their lineup.  The documentary on the yoga mogul had screened at TIFF.  I thought my chances were good that the flick would migrate west to the Calgary festival; no such luck.

My TV and Twitter must be in cahoots. (Big Brother is always watching.) As soon as the Bikram film became available on Netflix, it came up front and centre as a suggested selection.  I knew what I was doing that night. *clicks play*  Like a good little junkie, I followed up the doc with a proper binge-listening session of 30for30.  The podcast dedicated an entire season to the once-dominant hot yoga instructor, a fact that ensured me a constant hit of my now new favourite drug.

The rise and fall of Bikram Choudhury

This piece isn’t about our fascination with a good fall from grace story, although that’s a tempting angle.  As with the financial and social slide of the founders of Studio54, Bikram’s story is one of a man who saw himself above the law.  Fame, fortune, and megalomania gave him an invincibility cloak.  Rather, this piece will centre more on his students and their relationship with the mega teacher.

How could so many of them have fallen prey to his spell and turned a blind eye to the abuse?

The term guru was used by many to describe Mr. Choudhury; I’d rather use the term cult leader.  When you look up the word cult in the dictionary I’m pretty sure Bikram Yoga comes up.  Broadly defined as “persons united by devotion or allegiance to a figure or movement”, cult perfectly describes this school of yoga.

(Am I the only one giggling over the ‘movement’ pun, here?)

The 3 main characteristics of a cult outlined by Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton are:

  1. A charismatic living leader who becomes its source of power and authority,
  2. A process of indoctrination or education that can be seen as coercive persuasion, and
  3. Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and inner circle.

Ding, ding, ding!  We have a winner.

If we’re not convinced, let’s use math to solve the equation:

One patriarchal, horny leader with delusions of grandeur and an agenda + impressionable and vulnerable students + one teacher training program that ensures economic dependability on said leader = Bikram Yoga 

The (Dirty Little Yoga) Secret

We’re kidding ourselves if we think other yoga methods are clean compared to Bikram.  Case in point: there’s the John Friend/Anusara scandal, the disgrace of Ashtanga Yoga’s Shri K. Pattabhi Jois, and the hypocrisy of Amrit Desai of the Kripalu Centre for Yoga to give Bikram a run for his sexual predator money.  Only B.K.S. Iyengar Yoga, the teacher at the helm of the school that started my teaching career, has retained his integrity and stayed out of the headlines.  One of his disciples, however, was not so lucky.

Unless we alter the current yoga power dynamics where men rule and women follow, we won’t change the status quo.  Thanks to the brave women who have come forward about the abuse, I’m confident this change will happen.  We have to help them out by not turning a blind eye to victimization.  If we do this then the days of yoga cults and gurus in Speedos can be a thing of the past.

You can watch the Netflix documentary ‘Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator’ by Eva Orner here.  Listen to the 30for30 podcast series on Bikram by Julia Lowrie Henderson here.



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