Bikram Yoga – A Cult of Sweat, Submission & Fear

Yes, he looks sleazy in the trailer but I’m just a few minutes into the Netflix documentary ‘Bikram – Yogi, Guru, Predator’ when young Bikram Chodhury (now 75) turns on his boyish charm in 1970s studio sets. I’m like, ‘This guy is just a funny showman with a few good poses up his sleeve and a couple of east-west friendly jokes.’ Some more minutes in, and I’m certain of one thing, I would never sign up for a Bikram hot yoga class. By the end I see yet another story of power abuse and and sexual assault that has come to become synonymous with flashy ‘Godmen’.

Mounted high on his orange-towelled sinhasan, commanding his sweating, obedient subjects, Bikram – the yoga ‘guru’ must think ‘ Americans’, as he loves to call them when he puts them down, are basically looking for a good dose of S&M. “Welcome to my torture chamber, where I’m going to suck every last drop of blood from you.”

The orange-towelled throne, with personal air conditioning and sweating pupils below.

Bikram: Do you have a choice?

Crowd: No.

Bikram: It’s like an Indian marriage, no choice.

Bikram used cliches about India in his one liners, convincing western yogis-in-the-making that he would be their saviour if they simply surrender to him and acknowledge that they know nothing whereas he knows everything.

‘Dressed Only in a Speedo and a Rolex’

The peck-twerk got audiences laughing.

The media pretty much played along. After all, he walked on stage shirtless in a man-thong doing peck-twerks. But, they also seemed to see right through him. When Bikram appeared on a TV show, he sounded like a boastful small-town tourist guide, peddling yogic cures while his much, much younger wife Rajashree demonstrated poses in a white swimsuit. The woman anchor asks, ‘How old is she?’, to which Bikram, by then already middle-aged with a comb over, answers ‘Twenty’.

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Bikram’s wife Rajashree, who divorced him in 2015, after a thirty-year union.

The Bikram fold looks hard. The poses look painful. You can see it in the immensely controlled expression of the yogis in the sweltering room, doing the 26-posture routine at his command – holding asanas for longer and deeper than mere mortals can bear to, with sweat dripping from their fingers onto the heated floor (really!).

If you’re wondering why anyone would want to be a part of something so hard, both mentally and physically, especially when the ‘lion’-like guru can turn from jocular to insulting and humiliating on a whim, let’s look at the California yoga culture of going deeper and more flexible in your practice:

"“My backbends were deeper, my standing bow hold was longer.”" - Former Student, as shown in the documentary "“He sees a potential in you that you don’t see in yourself.”" - Former Student, as shown in the documentary " “The first day, I thought I was going to die but I went back in and I never limped again.”" - Former Student, as shown in the documentary

Inside a Bikram yoga class.

"“When I first started out, I weighted 300 pounds. In my first class, I was in the second or third row and he pointed at me and said, ‘Suck that fat *!#ing tummy in, I don’t like to see the jiggle jiggle.’ I needed to be cursed and screamed and yelled at and that is what got me into shape and that is what made me a really good teacher.’’" - Jacob Schanzer, Former Teacher Trainee under Bikram Choudhury

Watching a young woman folded in that backbend with Bikram standing on her hips, doing a jig, pretty much confirms that the man is on a power trip. But when a goofy power trip changes into something more sinister, that’s when you know you’re in for trouble.

If Osho Had Ma Sheela, Bikram Met His Match in Minakshi ‘Mikki’ Jafa-Bodden

Mikki Jafa-Boden took it upon herself to slap lawsuits on the man she once represented.

Allegations of assault and rape emerged against the guru from pupils who were closest to him.

The Bikram franchise made money off its teacher training programmes, where each aspiring teacher paid north of $10,000 to attend a 9-week intensive workshop at a hotel bootcamp, which was the venue for much of the alleged abuse.

One teacher trainee alleged that he made advances on her in his penthouse suite, while another who was a part of his ‘inner circle’ gave a chilling account of how Bikram allegedly raped her in his living room while his wife and children slept upstairs.

Enter ‘Mikki’ – his trusted legal adviser. She hears about these allegations and confronts his wife. She is threatened with dire consequences but refuses to back off until Bikram is reported to the authorities. Lawsuits are filed, and she makes a settlement, as do two of the six women who accused him of assault and rape.

As per this report in the LA Times, Bikram Choudhury has since reportedly denied all allegations after watching the Netflix documentary.

Today, many of his students – now teachers themselves – have removed the word ‘Bikram’ from their franchises, separating the learnings from the man who branded them. One of them, however, said she would never teach his form of yoga again.

While ‘Wild Wild Country’ had us in the thick of the cult’s wilderness with Osho’s crazy, alluring world with sinister plots unfolding under velvet robes, the fall from grace for Bikram is not quite as dramatic. He is a fighter with a penchant for expletives and will fight from any corner of the world and for now though a ‘fugitive’ in the Unites States is prepping for Bikram’s India Legacy Tour 2020 .

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