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Trigger warning: This article discusses rape and sexual assault.
Netflix recently released “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator,” a documentary that explores the true story of the founder of Bikram Yoga, who was ordered to pay over $6.8 million in a sexual assault lawsuit and has since then fled the country.
“Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator” weaves the terrifying tale of how an idolized male in power took advantage of some of the young women who followed him. For many, yoga is not merely an exercise routine, but a mental, physical, and spiritual practice from India that can bring enlightenment. Yoga encourages the enrichment of life and spiritual growth, which may make the fact that one of the most famous yogis in America is accused of sexual assault, homophobia, and racism, even more disturbing.
Bikram Choudhury, who was once revered as the founder of Bikram Yoga, is credited by many as the man who introduced America to hot yoga in the 1970s. Choudhury set up his first hot yoga studio in Beverly Hills in 1973 and quickly earned a cult-like following. Bikram Yoga sessions, which typically lasts for 90 minutes, are climate-controlled at 105 degrees Fahrenheit and consist of a series of 26 postures, according to Time.
Hollywood was entranced by this, literally hot, new health trend. Stars such as Lady Gaga, Ashton Kutcher, George Clooney, Martin Sheen, Michael Jackson, and George Harrison have taken Bikram hot yoga classes. Choudhury himself claimed that his yoga healed Richard Nixon, who was in danger of losing his leg due to phlebitis. Although it cannot be proven, Choudhury said that the president awarded him a green card for healing him.
The Bikram Method
Throughout the documentary, we are introduced to the students and colleagues who regarded him as an idol, a leader, and to some, their abuser. Hot yoga proves to be a brutal yet transformative experience. The sessions are done in a piping hot room where some students would even suffer from dehydration, upper respiratory infections, and fainting while enduring body-wrenching poses. Despite how strenuous the method was, many found it to be life-changing.
“People found this yoga sometimes at their most broken,” Val Skylar Robinson said. Robinson who is an owner of a hot yoga studio in Pasadena claims that the yoga healed her hip after she was initially told she would need surgery.
Choudhury built a yoga empire. To become a licensed teacher of Bikram Yoga, Choudhury charged $10,000 for teacher training, which involved training at a chosen hotel for nine weeks, according to The Guardian. During these classes, Choudhury was known to lead his class with both encouragement and verbal abuse. When people are pushed to the point of exhaustion, it can be especially easy to attack them verbally and mentally. These rooms could be packed with as many as 500 people.
“Part humiliation and part sort of benediction by the guru. It’s what they pay for, it’s what they come for,” former Bikram legal adviser, Minaksi “Micki” Jafa-Bodden, describes the classes.
“Suck that f*cking fat stomach in, I don’t like to see the jiggle-jiggle,” student Jakob Schanzer, who was overweight at the time, recalls Choudhury saying to him. “Bikram was so good at getting into our brains.”
The Icon and Abuser
Choudhury’s students saw him as a guru. They idolized him and followed his instruction day-to-night at his teacher trainings. For some, their encounters with Choudhury became sinister.
“He would lecture late into the night, then he called on young women to massage him and brush his hair,” producer Julie Lowrie Henderson said in ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast. “…He normalized something that crossed the line — making abnormal behavior normal.”
Sarah Baughn is a former Bikram student and one of the women who came forward with her allegations of sexual and emotional abuse from Choudhury. In the documentary, Baughn admits that she approached a senior staffer at the Bikram training and told him that Choudhury had pushed himself against her and asked her to have a relationship with him.
“He didn’t look shocked at all. And he, in fact, said that ‘If you decide to stay, that I recommend you do what I do. And separate the man from the teacher,” Baughn said.
Baughn decided to stay in the program but tried to avoid being alone with Choudhury at all costs. Choudhury, who rarely slept, would allegedly invite students to watch Bollywood movies with him late at night.
“We would get a call sometimes at three in the morning, ‘Where are you? Come to my room. I need company, I’m lonely,'” Baughn recalled.
She recounts a night where she and a few other students were watching a movie with Choudhury. Baughn fell asleep, and a senior staffer woke her up and told her that they’re leaving. However, Baughn who could not find her shoes or bag was left behind. Baughn said that Choudhury who was only in his underwear locked the door and pinned her from leaving.
“He started kissing all over my neck and all down my chest and he was pushing himself into me and he just kept saying, ‘I’m going to have you this time.’ I thought… he’s going to rape me,” Baughn said.
Baughn, however, was able to use her elbow to push Choudhury off and fled out of the room. Baughn was left with a difficult decision, as Choudhury had the power to ruin her career and “professionally exile” her from the program and competitions.
“He told me that if I did not have sex with him, I would not have a chance of winning that competition,” Baughn said to NBC.
Baughn is one of six women who have filed lawsuits against Choudhury and Bikram’s Yoga College of India. Her decision came after she had a daughter.
Barely the age of 3, Baughn’s daughter came up to her after she taught a yoga class. “‘Mommy, I want to be just like you someday. I want to teach yoga.'”
“You can’t do that. You’ll get raped,'” Baughn thought as she looked into her daughter’s eyes.
Larissa Anderson is another survivor who was attacked by Choudhury. Anderson was invited to Choudhury’s home and was watching a Bollywood movie with the guru. As his wife and children slept upstairs, Anderson recalled that Choudhury led her to another room and raped her in his home.
Choudhury has adamantly denied all claims of sexual assault.
When asked about the sexual assault cases on HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” Choudhury said that he would never need to assault a woman because “People pay one million dollar for one drop of my sperm. I can make million dollar a day, every day.”
Racism, Homophobia, and Misogyny
Choudhury was not only hit with sexual assault allegations. Pandhora Williams, who attended a Bikram teacher training course in 2010, has come forward that Choudhury said hateful remarks such as, “‘Women are bitches and whores. They’re here for one thing to spread their legs.”
Choudhury allegedly went on a homophobic rant where he supposedly said he thought all gay people should be “left to die of AIDS” on an island. When Williams spoke out against Choudhury, he said, “‘We don’t sell love here, you fucking bitch. Get out. Get this black bitch out of here, she’s a cancer.'”
Choudhury kicked her out of his training and refused to refund her almost $11,000.
Jafa-Bodden also claims that Choudhury was homophobic and racist. “‘He’ll say things like, ‘Blacks don’t get my yoga,'” Jafa-Bodden told The Guardian.
No Justice Served
In 2016, Choudhury was ordered to pay nearly $7 million to his former legal advisor, Jafa-Bodden, who sued him for wrongful termination, sexual harassment, and nonpayment of wages among other charges. However, to this day, Jafa-Bodden has yet to see any of the money that Choudhury owes her.
“At the outset, he expected me to be submissive,” Jafa-Bodden told the Guardian. “He told me he was a god who could do whatever he wanted and that I was ‘stupid and too westernized’.”
Jafa-Bodden recounted that Choudhury encouraged her to sit next to him in bed during professional meetings and mocked her while she tried to do her job. After Jafa-Bodden was wrongfully terminated, Choudhury left her with no visa, repossessed her car, and almost no money.
Choudhury has fled the United States and was not issued a criminal indictment. Without Choudhury physically present, some of his victims had to make a difficult decision.
“‘You know my option was to go to court and get re-traumatized, and he wasn’t even going to be there. Or you know I settle and I’m able to actually move on in my life,'” Anderson said. “‘But when you choose to settle, you’re not really getting justice.'”
Where Is He Now?
Choudhury is still teaching to this day. In a video clip, Choudhury disclosed that he was in India but announced he would be offering teacher training again. He held training in Mexico where a 62-year-old woman died from unknown circumstances. Phyllis Main, who was feeling unwell during the training, was not taken to a hospital until 12 days after she first expressed feeling sick.
It is unclear if Choudhury will ever return to the U.S., but four out of the six women who filed sexual assault cases against Choudhury Bikram have settled.