Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator review " Netflix's Eva Orner-directed documentary separates the man from the myths

Rohini Nair

When the rape and assault allegations against him broke, the students of yoga guru Bikram Choudhury wondered how they could separate what they had come to know of the man, from what he had taught them.

It might seem like another case of "separate the art from the artist", but it wasn't €" even though it was what his students were told repeatedly to do by seniors within their world, whenever less than palatable facts about their teacher became known: "Separate the man from the yoga". For Bikram €" through a combination of branding and bombast €" was the yoga.

In the ecosystem he engineered, no one could disseminate Bikram yoga €" a series of 26 asanas and two breathing exercises (performed in a heated room) that he claimed to have created and attempted to patent €" without his express permission. Moreover, anyone wishing to teach Bikram yoga would have to prescribe to a strict set of rules laid down by Choudhury and even the slightest deviation could get your permit revoked. If you hoped to set up a studio, you would once again need Choudhary's backing.

Apart from all the rules surrounding Bikram yoga, there was the man himself, who positioned himself as its creator. His personality €" flamboyant, with a magnetism that those who trained under him would attest to €" was inseparable from the brand he built. Bikram was yoga (or at least that particular type of yoga) and the yoga was Bikram.

That inseparability was what allowed Bikram to wield €" and abuse €" great power, and it was what allowed him to get away with it for so long. And it was what left his students €" for whom practicing Bikram yoga had been a genuinely life-altering experience €" shattered and looking for answers when the allegations against Choudhury broke.

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Netflix's new Eva Orner-directed documentary on Choudhury makes its perspective evident in its title €" Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator €" for in its short 86-minute runtime it looks at all these aspects of Choudhury's personality and life.

It briefly follows, through archival footage and clips of his past interviews, his early years in Kolkata, studying under the guru Bishnu Charan Ghosh, who brought a new paradigm to yoga practice. In Choudhury's telling of the tale, he chanced upon Ghosh's institute as a child and began his training there, excelling so much that he was a national yoga champion three years in a row €" a feat that allegedly got him barred from further competitions. He then turned to weight-lifting and (again, by his telling) was set to participate in the 1964 Olympics when an accident shattered one of his knees. His guru promised to make his injury go away through yoga, and this act of healing served as an epiphany for Choudhury, who decided that the practice needed to be spread through the world.

As a yoga evangelist, he first travelled to Japan. Shivering through his asanas in the cold weather, he introduced the heated studios that would later become an essential part of his yoga brand. Then he came to the United States, where a string of celebrity clients helped propel him to the very top of the fitness industry. Choudhury claimed that he got his green card for having treated then President Richard Nixon; he said George Harrison, Elvis Presley learned yoga under him. (Choudhury also once said that he invented the disco ball, so€¦) The truth about Nixon, Harrison and Presley aside, Bikram yoga did find a sizeable celebrity clientele €" everyone from Shirley McLaine (who championed Choudhury) to Raquel Welch (who he later sued for copyright infringement), and Jason and Justine Bateman (who accompanied their father to yoga classes as children).

As the Bikram yoga brand grew outsized, so too did Choudhury's persona: he was a yogi, sure, but he also loved all the material evidence of his success, including Rolex watches and Rolls Royces, and a Beverly Hills mansion. His flashy clothes matched his flashy pronouncements about the millions of lives he was saving through Bikram yoga, of his own genius and vision, his purity, his status as a yogi.

Outside the studio, Choudhury was a polarising figure, embodying the conflict over yoga as a spiritual, ascetic practice, versus yoga as a physical fitness routine that could be commercialised. His standardised (and in a sense, mass-produced) yoga technique was disparagingly compared to McDonald's, but Choudhury himself was proud of having made the practice accessible. And he felt no compunction to be like the yogis of yore and renounce the material splendour he surrounded himself with. Of his physical prowess and aptitude for branding, there was no doubt.

Inside the studio, Choudhury was an exacting teacher, cajoling and heckling (often using abusive language) his students to push themselves. Seeing footage of his sessions €" especially from the massive "teacher training" courses he conducted, where prospective instructors paid an average of $10,000 to attend an intensive nine-week programme €" it's easy to see why some of his students have described the atmosphere as "being in a mega-church", with Bikram as both god and preacher. He could push them to do more than they believed possible with their bodies, and his inarguably beneficial yoga became central to their lives. They were devoted to him €" and Choudhury allegedly used that devotion against them, as a sexual predator.

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Orner's documentary is driven by the testimonies of (among others) Sarah Baughn and Larissa Andersen €" two of the six women who stepped forward with accounts of being assaulted or raped by Choudhury. They describe a pattern by which female students were made to feel like "part of the family", until their professional (and sometimes personal) lives were so entangled with their guru's that it was difficult to extricate themselves from his predations.

Others €" teachers, studio owners, practitioners, members of the Bikram yoga community €" also share their recollections of experiences involving Choudhury. One of the interviewees is Micki Jafa-Bodden, former legal advisor to Choudhury, who later sued him for wrongful termination and harassment. A US court awarded her $7 million in damages, but Choudhury skipped out of the country, and she hasn't received any of that compensation money. The civil cases brought against Choudhury by the six women were settled (all but one) out of court. Choudhury's business declared bankruptcy in 2017; he and his wife Rajashree were divorced in 2016.

But Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator delves deeper into the myth of Choudhury to uncover some of the truths behind his tall tales. Each lie, uncovered, is a revelation, but none more so than the answer to a fundamental question: Did he actually 'create' the routine that came to be known as Bikram yoga?

Like Bikram and yoga, Orner's documentary cannot be uncoupled from its subject. And that subject is so compelling that it is difficult to make a qualitative statement of the documentary's technical merits alone. For someone wanting a slightly more in-depth look at Choudhury (the man and the myths), and how his advent tied in with the rise of yoga's popularity in America, the Bikram | 30 for 30 podcast might be a better bet.

Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator has been called Netflix's follow-up to Wild Wild Country, and while that's an oversimplification, there are elements that the two stories €" Rajneesh and Bikram's €" have in common. Certainly both have fascinating figures who inspired cult-like followings, at their core. In the building of the Rajneeshpuram commune in Oregon, or the pursuit of Bikram yoga, you can see how people truly believed they were working towards some higher ideal, a better world. But most of all, these stories emphasise the perils of worshipping at the altar of another human being: even the most towering idols can, and do, have feet of clay.

Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here €" 

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