Rape and Racketeering: Ugly, Unpunished World of Indian Yoga Gurus

Just when a Netflix documentary about a self-proclaimed yoga guru and rapist, Bikram Choudhury, was riling up yoga practitioners around the world, people woke up to read about another Indian ‘guru’ named Swami Nithyananda, a ridiculously inarticulate and fraud fugitive who has allegedly set up a Hindu country on some island overseas.

These two men are not just self-styled gurus who have piggy-backed on India’s spiritual image to cheat the world, they are rapists who have fled the country they called home to prey on gullible people abroad.

Also Read: Bikram Yoga – A Cult of Sweat, Submission & Fear

Is This Real Yoga, Even?

The documentary titled Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator reveals the story of an Indian man who faked his way to fame in the United States for almost 40 years by teaching hot yoga in a classroom where temperatures were raised to 40 degree Celsius (100+ F).

Nowhere in India will a traditional yoga teacher ever teach in an artificially simulated environment, extreme hot or cold. In India, you learn yoga in a space where you can breathe fresh air. Yoga is spiritual, and once you’re on your mat, you turn inward, meditate, connect with your breath, and don’t push your body beyond its limits. You also wear comfortable clothing that allows you to stretch well during your asana practice.

Palpitating to yoga poses in the sweltering heat, as shown in the documentary, looks more of a punishment than a practice. Bikram’s students wore skimpy clothing and sweat endlessly, while he, wearing just a speedo and a rolex, whirled foul language over a microphone.

Inside a Bikram yoga class.
Inside a Bikram yoga class.

“Suck that fucking fat stomach in, I don’t like to see the jiggle-jiggle,” Bikram told Jakob Schanzar, who was 300 pounds when he started his yoga practice, the documentary by award-winning director Eva Orner shows. Schanzar stayed on to complete the course.

Also Read: Yoga Guru Bikram Told to Pay Nearly $1 Mn for Sexual Harassment

Blind Reverence or Desperation?

On the other hand, Nithyananda’s incoherent discourses receive unimaginable applause from brainwashed disciples. An example below:

“When you shower, fluoride enters your body through skin and initiates a fight within yourself, and you don’t become a powerful person.”

File photo of Nityananda.
File photo of Nityananda.

Don’t bother comprehending that. What makes some people show allegiance for such men and their idiosyncratic sermons is beyond justification, but surely there must be some psychological explanation behind it. Be it lack of education, awareness or even common sense, the magnitude of the followers, as seen in Bikram’s yoga classes where they came in drones to endure insult, is unfathomable. It’s almost like witchcraft or a spell cast through hypnosis.

A woman, who was pinned against the door by Bikram Choudhury as he pressed his body onto her, managed to break free and flee, but not before uttering “Goodnight Boss” to the man who had just sexually assaulted her. Shocking, right? Then there’s a story of another woman, who got raped by Bikram, and walked up to him in a distressed state after to plant a kiss on his forehead. Both these incidents are narrated by the two victims themselves in the documentary.

How does one explain the above behavior? Sickeningly blind reverence, desperation or money, perhaps?

Also Read: In Artful Living, Sri Sri and Nityananda Have Much in Common

Faking Away to Glory

For $10,000 dollars, Bikram’s students could attend a nine-week course which allowed them to start a Bikram Yoga franchise anywhere in the world. They could then teach his hot yoga involving 26 poses and 2 breathing exercises, a sequence that he trademarked as his creation. The documentary reveals that his claim was false as he had learned that sequence from his own guru in Kolkata before he left for the U.S.

The fraud faked it all – his qualification, his yoga, his US immigration, his megalomania and his teaching.

From the time he left India in the 70s, it appears Bikram’s intention was to become famous by cashing in on a gullible crowd that knew little about yoga or India, and was ready to accept anything said or preached by a brown-skinned man who came from the land where yoga was born.

Bikram has also been charged with racism, and is said to have provoked colored students in class. “Get that black bitch out of here, she’s a cancer,” a student reveals in the documentary.

Around the same time when Bikram’s hot yoga was developing a cult status, a similar scenario was happening in America at Bhagwan Rajneesh’s Osho camp – both these men were pushing boundaries to transform people by playing with their minds. From Bentleys to Rolls Royces, the two men collected them all.

A photo of Osho with his disciples in <i>darshan</i> at Poona in 1977.
A photo of Osho with his disciples in darshan at Poona in 1977.

Even the famous K. Pattabhi Jois, who founded Ashtanga Yoga in Mysore, was accused of sexually harassing women in class. Sexual assault allegations were also made against yoga gurus, such as Amrit Desai,of Kripalu Yoga fame and Kausthub Desikachar, the son of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, the man known as ‘the father of modern yoga’. Then there was Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, another self-acclaimed Godman who was convicted for rape and murder in India.

The list of self-acclaimed yogis and gurus in India is endless – some fake, some real, some in politics, some not - and while some have received punishment for fooling people, there are others who roam around freely with a credulous crowd in tow. There are women too on spiritual paths with abundant followers but they are rarely linked to sexual behaviors and complaints about their libido don’t make headlines.

“But why is it always men from India?” asked a friend while discussing a lawsuit in Singapore where a yoga teacher was charged with molesting a woman during class. As it turns out, that yoga teacher too is Indian.

In a country now synonymous with sexual misconducts and a rape culture, it is appalling that Indian spiritual gurus carry that flame of shame inside and outside the sub-continent.

Bringing Bad Name to a Glorious Practice

To be sure, not every Indian spiritual man or yoga teacher is a fraud and a rapist. Unfortunately, there are enough out there who have maligned the reputation of others, and until a disciple or student speaks out in disdain or slams a lawsuit, truth is conveniently swept away under the carpets.

“Any guru who ties students down using money, fear or emotion, is not a true guru of yoga because this shows they are themselves insecure,” said Subba Vaidyanathan, who teaches the Yoga Sutras and meditation in Asia, Europe and the U.S. “The students have a responsibility to themselves, and should not seek to grow by being ‘close’ to their gurus. We must correct this soon for the sake of yoga and the world.”

Yoga preaches humility, patience and kindness, and such traits are usually absent in self-professed know-all gurus.

Also, real gurus don’t flee a situation or secretly abscond to hidden places.

While Nithyananda is rumored to be near Ecuador, Bikram is still teaching his infamous hot yoga and seeking his next prey elsewhere. After his students, and legal advisor, spoke up against him and revealed his ugly side, Bikram Choudhury fled the U.S., ignoring the $7 million plus damages the court asked him to pay. He went to India, Thailand, and most recently conducted his nine-week teacher training course in Acapulco, Mexico, where a woman who took his class allegedly died.

(Kavita Chandran is a journalist, author and founder of yogahoodonline.com. She is the former editor of Yoga Journal Singapore and has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and CNBC. She is the author of a yoga memoir called ‘The Head that won’t Stand’. This is a Reader’s Blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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