In recent years, there’s been a growing discourse on intense fitness classes – Crossfit, SoulCycle – as the new secular religion. But if there was one branch that pushed the envelope from religion to near-fanatic cultishness, it’s Bikram yoga, the 90-minute routine of 26 postures performed in a room heated to 120 degrees founded by Bikram Choudhury. Clad in his signature tiny black Speedo and tight ponytail, Choudhury lorded over an empire built on sweat, devotion and $10k a pop teacher trainings – and, as explained in a new Netflix documentary, sexual harassment, rape and maniacal control.
Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator is not the first to catalog Choudhury’s abuse and speak to victims on the record; in the ESPN 30 for 30 podcast BIKRAM, reporter Julia Lowrie Henderson, herself a Bikram yoga devotee, delves into much of the same material as Orner. Yet the film visually synthesizes decades of archival footage with first-person testimony and filmed court depositions into a devastating portrait of an abusive narcissist protected from consequences by his own inflated cult of personality, wealth and professional power within the niche world of hot yoga. The film, directed by Eva Orner, the Oscar-winning Australian director of Taxi to the Dark Side, provides direct accounts from former students of sexual harassment and rape by Choudhury at his teacher trainings – twice yearly gatherings held in isolated hotels for nine weeks at a time. Choudhury has not faced criminal charges; after losing a civil case of wrongful termination and sexual harassment by his former legal advisor Minakshi “Micki” Jafa-Bodden, he fled the United States and refused to pay the $6.8m in damages.
Orner pitched and began work on the film in the summer of 2017, just months before the reporting on Harvey Weinstein by Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor for the New York Times and Ronan Farrow by the New Yorker launched a cascade of reporting on rampant workplace harassment and abuse, especially at the hands of powerful men, under the banner of #MeToo. The allegations covered in Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator predate the movement by years, if not decades; two of the main voices in the film, former students of Choudhury and Bikram teachers Larissa Anderson and Sarah Baughn, came forward publicly in 2014. “This is a pre #MeToo story that’s being told in a post #MeToo world, and he got away with it, which is chilling,” said Orner to the Guardian.
The film traces the origins of Choudhury’s self-mythologizing; born in Kolkata in 1944, Choudhury arrived in the United States, by way of Japan, in the 1970s claiming to have coached Elvis Presley and saved Richard Nixon from a leg amputation. He promptly picked up an elite word-of-mouth following in Los Angeles: Shirley MacLaine was a particularly vocal early adopter, as was Quincy Jones and Raquel Welch (who Choudhury later sued for stealing his technique in an exercise book). However outlandish his claims (saving Nixon) or abrasive his personality (former student Jakob Schanzer recalls in the film that Choudhury initially shouted at him “Suck that fucking fat stomach in, I don’t like to see the jiggle jiggle”), Choudhury developed an incredibly devoted, and lucrative, brand. Through teacher trainings, which cost about $10,000 per person, and licensing, Choudhury amassed a fortune of reportedly $75m and a fleet of 43 luxury cars – an image comically at odds with the usually ascetic yoga guru.
Still, Orner said she understands why people were taken with Choudhury and the practice of Bikram yoga; it genuinely changed lives, and became socially and economically all-encompassing. Choudhury “saw potential in you that you might not see,” remembers Val Skylar Robinson, a former student and Bikram studio owner in Pasadena, California, in the film. “People found this yoga sometimes at their most broken.” Robinson discovered Bikram at 28, after she was told she’d require hip surgery; she walked away from her first class without a limp.
But devotion could quickly turn to financial and social dependence; after spending a fortune on teacher training, students could only open a Bikram studio with Choudhury’s permission. Professional advancement hinged on his approval. Exposing his predation or abuse, as Anderson, Baughn and several other women eventually did, meant social ostracism and the end of one’s Bikram teaching career. Instead, for years, people excused or turned a blind eye to the behavior as, “Well, that’s just Bikram.” People wanted to separate the man from the teacher, said Orner. “How about we just don’t?”
The long overdue comeuppance of Choudhury is another wave in the #MeToo movement, said Orner. “I don’t think it’s that unclear – they know what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior, they just got away with it for so long that they [thought] they could do whatever they want.” Yet it’s been one mostly free of consequence; Choudhury is still running teacher trainings overseas, and devotees still run licensed Bikram studios in the US.
“People are slow to change habits when things work for them,” Orner shrugged, though she said she intends for her film to have several concrete takeaways. First and foremost, “don’t go to a Bikram studio – if you want to do hot yoga, go to a hot yoga studio. People who have Bikram studios should change their name and lose any affiliation with him.”
Though Orner managed to request an interview with Choudhury through a mutual contact, he ultimately refused to participate. His ex-wife, Rajashree, also refused – Orner says “She’s very complicit.” Ultimately, though, Orner wanted the film to be about Choudhury. “This is his story, this is his empire.” Plus, there’s the deposition tapes from 2015, in which Choudhury derides Jafa-Bodden’s attorney, Carla Minnard, and says the only four things he dislikes are “cold weather, cold food, cold hearts and cold pussy.” (Minnard also represented Pandhora Williams, who sued Choudhury for racial discrimination afer he kicked her out of a teaching training course with the words: “Get that black bitch out of here. She’s a cancer,” and refused to refund her $10,900 fee).
Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator also includes testimony from men inside the Bikram world, such as Schanzer, a former teacher and best friend of Baughn’s who admits to knowing of her abuse and feeling conflicted; he was worried about her, but didn’t want to betray the group and the leader that then made up his world. Including Schanzer was important, Orner said, becuase “you need men to acknowledge that they knew and they didn’t do anything. One of the things moving forward that we have to have is men standing up for us when they see things that are wrong.”
As of this writing, Choudhury seems to be mounting something of a comeback tour; Orner ends the film with chilling footage of him hugging a female student at a teacher training in May of this year. “What shocked me is that he’s still doing what he did, that he got away with it,” said Orner. “I can’t get my head around that a man can be accused of this same thing so many times and that he got away with it, and that everyone knew.”
Despite years of public outcry, Choudhury is “out there doing exactly what he did,” said Orner. Which only led her to wonder: “even with this film – is it going to have a consequence?”
Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator is now available on Netflix.