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

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