A new Netflix documentary takes a no-holds-barred look at yoga guru Bikram Choudhury, still training teachers after dozens of accusations of abuse
In recent years, theres 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, its 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 Choudhurys 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. 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 producer 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 adviser 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 thats being told in a post #MeToo world, and he got away with it, which is chilling, Orner told the Guardian.
The film traces the origins of Choudhurys 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 dont 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 shed require hip surgery; she walked away from her first class without a limp.