By L.R. Zimmerman
Fear. Suffering. Rape. These are not the words I would use to describe yoga. However, while listening to ESPN’s “30 for 30” podcast on Bikram Choudhury, illustrative words like these continued to appear.
Don’t get it twisted. Bikram yoga is an incredible workout and has helped many people,
but Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram yoga, had different intentions. I was left in dismay by the end of the podcast, having learned that the self-proclaimed guru had harassed and body-shamed several of his students, which is not cool. He ended up on the wrong side of several sexual assault allegations, which is really uncool. Then the multi-millionaire fled the U.S. once lawsuits started piling in, which is super fucking uncool. This once-idolized man was said to be a healer but ended up being revealed as a power-hungry narcissist and sexual predator with a creepy skullet.
For me, yoga is supposed to be about balance and healing. Bikram yoga is one-and-a-half hours of agony, intended to push you to the limits of what you can endure. Even though Bikram benefited over half a billion people, he dismantled several lives as well. He virtually taught everyone his methods: professional athletes, celebrities, polio victims – even me. I too have felt the harsh effects of the grueling 90 minute class, with the studio temperature bumped up to an uncomfortable 104 degrees – how it feels to sequence the 26 asanas, sweating profusely, muscles shaking, desperate for relief.
I also remember the euphoric feeling I got after completing the class, like a runner’s high. I could feel my endorphin levels increase, boosted by an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. But those feelings fade. Now that I know the truth about Bikram, I feel humiliated that I never associated the hot yoga brand with an actual living person.
During the early 1970’s, Bikram’s intense style of yoga was introduced in Los Angeles, and Hollywood’s elite became crazed by the demanding fitness routine. Yoga became glamorized; even Madonna confessed her love for the sport on “Oprah.” People from all over the world flocked to Bikram’s sweatbox studio in Beverly Hills.
The guru’s success teaching the rich and famous left him with deep pockets, as people would pay ridiculous amounts of money to become certified to teach this specific method of yoga. It was then, during the intense teacher training, the ugliness of his character was revealed and his devotees began to find out who Bikram really was.
The “30 for 30” podcast notes that he sent his trainees a brainwashing dialogue to memorize for their training. It began with this letter…
“The most important thing is to listen to Bikram. Don’t judge, label or argue. Just listen. Consider everything he says. Hold back judgment, expectation and even questions, most will get answered by the process. Avoid getting involved in anything that can distract your attention from the training. These things include family, job, relationships, other people’s dramas including and especially your fellow trainees and the outside world.”
Aside from the fact the letter itself is bogus and a major red flag, the teachers in training were desperate for his approval. The excitement and energy surrounding Bikram was real.
During training, Bikram’s demeanor toward his students changed drastically. He began shaming his students by calling them fat – he criticized their bodies all while promising that following him would give new life. The yoga high began to weaken, and soon Choudhury’s students faced harsh realization: they had been duped by a con artist who selfishly used yoga to inflate his ego and his bank account.
Real quote from Bikram Coudhury: “Sit down. Sit! Oy! Sit down, big ass. Now touch the toes.”
Not only did he harass his students, he also forbade them from profiting off their hard work. He wanted control of his yoga and his students, using hardball tactics to copyright his yoga method and suing those who branched out to teach Bikram on their own.
Prepare yourself, things get way worse. Bikram’s deviant behavior escalated, and he began singling out students to give him massages, coercing each of them to come up to his suite alone. In the podcast, a staff member, hesitant to come forward in fear she would lose the job she loved, recalls her time in Bikram’s suite in vivid detail.
“Eventually I’m feeling his testicles and he’s talking about how it’s really important to get the perineum massaged and it releases a lot of tension, and it’s really healthy for you and just speaking so matter of fact about these things. And eventually he got up and he was like, “I’m going to go to bed, and I just need a massage. I need a massage to fall asleep.” I reluctantly in my mind I’m going, “Okay. I’m just going to massage him and that’s okay, that’s okay. I can do that.” And I’ve already gone through the whole scenario in my mind, “I can never tell anybody about this.” So, you know, he proceeded to walk towards his bedroom and so I followed and it was dark in the room. There’s no lights on, but I could still see his silhouette. He takes his pants off in front of me and he’s fully naked, and then he gets in bed. When he did that I was shocked and I didn’t know what was going to happen. He proceeded to get in bed, get under the covers and he’s like patting on the bed like, “Come and get in.” I thought to myself, “Okay, I’m just going to sit up. I’m not going to get laid down. I’m not going to get in the covers. I’m just going to sit up and I’m just going to like massage his shoulders until he falls asleep.”
Several of Bikram’s students were contemplating coming forward but feared they would lose everything. They invested years training with Bikram, and upwards of $10,000 each. They uprooted their lives, left their homes, and found a family inside the Bikram community.
The truth didn’t come out until March of 2013. Sarah Baughn, one of Bikram’s former students, broke the silence and filed a lawsuit against the guru.
“He was only in his boxers and a T-Shirt and he pushed himself up against me and he held me up against the door and he just started kissing all over my chest and my body and he’d pushed himself into me very hard.” – Sarah Baughn
Within days her story was all over the news, and the future began to look bleak for Mr. Choudhury. Her attestation encouraged over a half a dozen women to come forward with very similar allegations against him.
“We were watching a movie and he grabbed the back of my head and he kissed me, and I pulled away.” – Larissa Anderson
“I said, please don’t, you’re a guru. The world believes in you. He said nah, I’m just a man.” – Jane Doe Number Three
“Immediately after we got inside, he started trying to force himself on me. He pulled his pants down and came over to me and was just basically thrusting it in my face and just being super aggressive. I had my hands up trying to block him. I was like, “No, no, no.” – Jill Lawler
Once Bikram was accused of a range of sexual misconduct, including rape, he began shipping off his assets to India in fear the government would repossess his prized possessions, including 43 luxury cars. And like the coward I assumed him to be, Bikram fled the U.S. in fear of facing our rigid judicial system.
So, Where is Bikram Choudhury now? In 2017, a California judge issued a warrant for his arrest after he failed to pay a hefty $6.8 million judgement to his former legal adviser. Choudhury remains a fugitive and he has reportedly been hiding out in Acapulco, Mexico.
If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault and are in need of support, there are options available to help you and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice. RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline is available 24/7 and is completely confidential. Call the hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE or speak to a representative in RAINN’s online chat room by visiting, www.rainn.org.