Rape, Racism and Bikram Choudhury

I first practiced Bikram Yoga over a decade ago in SoHo. The heat punched through me like a lead fist. Although a few years experienced in Vinyasa, the thick atmosphere combined with long postural holds was overwhelming. I left drained and deflated; mostly, I was disgusted by the soggy carpet creeping beneath my feet. The following morning I woke up with strep throat. 


This particular incubating room did not keep me away, however. Granted, it was probably a year before I stepped inside of another Bikram studio, though step in I did. I practiced in earnest for about six months, not on the ‘recommended daily schedule,’ perhaps twice weekly. I enjoyed the heat, and while I couldn’t perform two of the poses due to injuries, the practice did help me settle into other previously unattainable postures.

Then I was in the Flatiron studio near the tail end of my Bikram affair. Since all Bikram classes are scripted, you always know what you’re going to get. Instructors have to memorize everyone’s names before beginning—an enviable skill. When I went into modifications, I was surprised to be yelled at by the Hawaiian woman standing on the pedestal. No, really, they have pedestals.

I like to be challenged in yoga, but it is not boot camp. Calling me out in a room of 60 sweaty bodies is not going to make me alter what I know to be best for my body. I did practice a few more times, with different instructors. Others had tried to correct me, though when I mentioned my physical issues, they generally understood. This one yelling lady offered great insight into how the guru process and the smug certainty that comes along with it works.

It was in no way surprising to learn that Bikram Choudhury is being sued for rape and a host of other allegations, including blatant racism. Among the gems included in the suit:

Bikram Choudhury frequently leered at female staffers and others, and often stared at and remarked on their physical attributes, including stating such offensive comments as “that bitch is too skinny,” or — to Plaintiff’s assistant “you look good sweetheart but what shall we do about her [gesturing to Plaintiff] she is still too fat.”

Bikram Choudhury made outrageous and offensive comments about homosexuals, including “AIDS is caused by gays, it is the truth,” and “but these fucking asshole guys love me, they love Bikram;”…about African Americans, including “these blacks just don’t get my yoga;”…about Jewish people, including saying Hitler had the right idea, but that he “was just not efficient enough. If he was more efficient, all these fucking Jews would be finished.”

The question of whether Bikram Yoga will survive is partly due to the founder’s tremendous legal prowess. He has sued others for biting his style, as well as attempted to copyright his sequence. He flaunts cars and watches, not to mention the celebrities he’s trained. There is value in what he has created, though not nearly as much as he gives himself credit for. Left to his own devices, he would probably award himself an award for creating yoga itself.

Anytime a founder falters and falls, it is natural to wonder if what he or she has created will go extinct. Anusara Yoga suffered from John Friend’s sexcapades. The same appears to be happening with Bikram, although there was more public separation between Bikram Yoga and its founder, if not on the administrative side, definitely in terms of everyday students. Many people still believe Bikram Yoga to be especially beneficial for things like weight loss, even if studies are now showing that’s simply not true.

Yet I’ve known too many people ‘addicted’ to the heat for it to completely disappear. Most likely, as Bikram becomes more embroiled in lawsuits against him, opportunists will pick off threads of the practice and assimilate it into their studios and styles. This is natural; claiming dominion over any exercise form is at the root of the problem in the first place.

Bikram thought himself above others, a common feature of the guru complex. For eons men—gurus have been mostly, though not exclusively, male—have taken advantage of charismatic traits and a total lack of empathy to make outrageous claims, such as being ‘otherworldly’ and therefore not subjected to the rules of mankind, which translates into as much sex and material goods as possible.

Whenever I’ve previously written or posted about abolishing gurus, some counter on their necessity. What I’m implying is the end of the spiritual celebrity, those who think themselves above ethics and social norms. Teachers are extremely important in all disciplines. Those who believe themselves to be above scrutiny while forcing followers into leaving friends and family and tithe to their organization are not.

Bikram Yoga will hang on for a while, though probably in smaller doses. Doing yoga in heated rooms is certain to remain popular. We can thank Mr Choudhury for bringing that into the public sphere. Then we can let him go disappear into the wastebasket of history, another man with a good idea that became so consumed with his own power that he lived out his days in disgrace. As with most spiritual celebrities, that’s what history will most prominently record. 

Image: Anna Jurkovska/shutterstock.com

Will China’s green energy tipping point come too late?

Pay attention to the decisions made by the provinces.

Surprising Science
  • China leads the world in numerous green energy categories.
  • CO2 emissions in the country totaling more than all coal emissions in the U.S. have recently emerged.
  • This seems to be an administrative-induced blip on the way towards a green energy tipping point.
Keep reading Show less

Got a question for a real NASA astronomer? Ask it here!

NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller is coming back to Big Think to answer YOUR questions! Here's all you need to know to submit your science-related inquiries.

Surprising Science

Big Think's amazing audience has responded so well to our videos from NASA astronomer and Assistant Director for Science Communication Michelle Thaller that we couldn't wait to bring her back for more!

And this time, she's ready to tackle any questions you're willing to throw at her, like, "How big is the Universe?", "Am I really made of stars?" or, "How long until Elon Musk starts a colony on Mars?"

All you have to do is submit your questions to the form below, and we'll use them for an upcoming Q+A session with Michelle. You know what to do, Big Thinkers!

Keep reading Show less

The value of owning more books than you can read

Or how I learned to stop worrying and love my tsundoku.

(Photo from Wikimedia)
Personal Growth
  • Many readers buy books with every intention of reading them only to let them linger on the shelf.
  • Statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb believes surrounding ourselves with unread books enriches our lives as they remind us of all we don't know.
  • The Japanese call this practice tsundoku, and it may provide lasting benefits.
Keep reading Show less

Take the Big Think survey for a chance to win :)

Calling all big thinkers!

  • Tell us a little bit about where you find Big Think's videos, articles, and podcasts.
  • Be entered for a chance to win 1 of 3 Amazon gift cards each worth $100.
  • All survey information is anonymous and will be used only for this survey.
Keep reading Show less
(Photo: ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images)
Culture & Religion
  • The next Mega Millions drawing is scheduled for Oct. 23 at 11 pm E.T.
  • The odds of any one ticket winning are about 1 in 300 million.
  • This might be a record-setting jackpot, but that doesn't mean you have a better chance of winning.
Keep reading Show less

How to raise a non-materialistic kid

Money makes the world go 'round. Unfortunately, it can make both children and adults into materialists.

Robert Collins / Unsplash
Personal Growth
  • Keeping a gratitude journal caused children to donate 60 percent more to charitable causes.
  • Other methods suggested by researchers include daily gratitude reflection, gratitude posters, and keeping a "gratitude jar."
  • Materialism has been shown to increase anxiety and depression and promote selfish attitudes and behavior.
Keep reading Show less

Elon Musk's high-speed test tunnel will give free rides on Dec. 11

The Boring Company plans to offer free rides in its prototype tunnel in Hawthorne, California in December.

Image: Getty Images/Claudia Soraya
Technology & Innovation
  • The prototype tunnel is about 2 miles long and contains electric skates that travel at top speeds of around 150 mph.
  • This is the first tunnel from the company that will be open to the public.
  • If successful, the prototype could help the company receive regulatory approval for much bigger projects in L.A. and beyond.
Keep reading Show less

Cancer researcher says keto is not a fad diet

Anatomy and physiology professor David Harper claims a recent study in The Lancet is flawed.

Photo: Shutterstock
Surprising Science
  • The low-carbohydrate group in a recent Lancet study were typically middle-aged, obese, sedentary, diabetic smokers.
  • The study was not a randomized, controlled, double-blind experiment.
  • Harper has been in ketosis for six years, and says it has profound effects on cancer patients, among other chronic ailments.
Keep reading Show less