Bikram Choudhury was once an icon in the yoga community—building a large following and spawning the hot yoga movement across the United States—but the Indian guru fell from grace after being accused of sexually assaulting some of his young female students.
Choudhury, who was famous for teaching his sought-after classes wearing only a black speedo and Rolex watch, ultimately fled the United States to avoid legal troubles.
Choudhury’s rise and fall is chronicled in the new Netflix documentary “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator,” which takes a close look at the larger-than-life character who embraced a philosophy of tough love for his students—openly mocking them in class for their weight or telling them to tie a string around their penis or put a cork in their vagina to stop themselves from having to go to the bathroom during class.
“He was a showman. He was the original marketer of himself,” studio owner Val Skylar Robinson said of Choudhury’s big personality in the documentary.
Choudhury’s Claims About His Early Life
To hear Choudhury tell it, his early life in India was filled with notable stories—although there is reason to believe many of the stories may be more fiction than fact.
He often boasted in interviews that he had been named the All-Indian National Yoga Champion three times as a teen in India before turning his attention to weight-lifting.
But his dreams of competing in the Olympics would later be shattered just before the Games when he said the person tasked with catching his barbell dropped it, causing it to fall on his leg and shatter it into as “hundred thousand pieces.”
Recounting the supposed ordeal in an old interview used in the documentary, he said it was yoga that fixed his leg, thus becoming his lifelong passion.
He even claimed to have helped President Richard Nixon in his battle with phlebitis thrombosis and said he was given a green card by the president— but many of the stories he told about his early life would later come into question under scrutiny.
Officials from The Richard Nixon Library & Museum, for example, were unable to find any evidence the two had ever even met. And Indian journalist Chandrima Pal also said she could not find records of any yoga championship in India at the time Choudhury claims to have won repeated titles as a teen. She said his stories were often more reminiscent of a character in a book.
“We grew up with characters like this. To actually find someone in flesh and blood who was capable of spinning these yarns was quite something,” she said.
Choudhury’s Contribution To Yoga
What is clear is that Choudhury eventually left India for the United States to open his own studio in California and start the hot yoga movement.
Many also flocked to the Choudhury’s exclusive nine-week teacher’s training programs often held in hotels across the United States, costing registrants up to $10,000 as they sweated it out in rooms so hot some vomited or fainted, according to the documentary.
While the experience was intense, Bikram yoga soon had a devoted base of fans who touted the physical and emotional benefits of the program.
“The yoga was so loveable and refreshing and healing,” former yoga teacher John Dowd said in the series.
Those who completed the program—and were given Choudhury’s blessing—were able to get accreditation and were given permission to open a Bikram yoga studio to pass on his teachings.
But it was what allegedly happened outside of classroom that would get Choudhury into legal trouble.
Former yoga instructor Sarah Baughn said she had been watching a movie in Choudhury’s hotel room with a group of other people. When everyone left, she lagged behind to collect her shoes. As she tried to get out the door, Baughn said Choudhury pushed himself up against her and began to kiss her neck and chest.
“He just kept saying ‘I am going to have you this time,’” she said in the documentary.
Baughn said she was able to get out the door before the incident escalated further—but Larissa Anderson’s alleged encounter with the guru went further. She said she was raped in Choudhury’s home while his wife and two children were asleep upstairs.
Both women later settled lawsuits against the yoga guru but Choudhury has publicly maintained his innocence, at one point telling CNN: “If I want to have the sex with the women, I don’t need to attack them or rape them, or abuse them or assault them. There’ll be a line of millions of women in the world, as a volunteer.”
When the allegations of sexual assault began to surface, Choudhury's head of legal and international affairs Minakshi Jafa-Bodden tried to look into the claims but was soon fired.
Jafa-Bodden later filed her own lawsuit against Choudhury for gender discrimination, wrongful termination and sexual harassment and he was ordered to pay nearly $6.5 million, according to Esquire.
But before he ever paid a dime, Choudhury fled the country.
These days, the 75-year-old continues to travel around the world teaching classes.
“He’s lost his beloved America and Beverly Hills. That was his thing: the American dream, the cars, the life. He was a celebrity here — that’s gone. But he still lives a big life,” Eva Orner, the documentary director, told The Los Angeles Times. “He travels constantly. ... He gives talks all around the world, he still makes millions a year.”
In one of the final scenes of the documentary, Choudhury—who filed for bankruptcy in 2017—can be seen posing under a banner reading “Bikram Yoga Teacher Training Fall 2018,” but his spokesperson told Esquire he is no longer doing teacher trainings.
“Since being in Chapter 11, Bikram has not been engaged in organizing any teacher training. He has however agreed to make personal appearances,” spokesperson Richard J. Hillgrove said.
He is also planning a “Bikram’s Legacy Tour of India 2020,” spanning seven cities and costing $3,950 per person in the first part of next year. It’s not clear how much Choudhury will make from the tour, which is expected to focus on “hot yoga classes, worships and training.”
Hillgrove also sent a statement to The Los Angeles Times denying the claims made in the Netflix documentary.
“Bikram Choudhury totally refutes all the allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment presented in the film and is deeply upset by the continued character assassination,” he said.
Amid the backlash brought on by the allegations, his wife Rajashree Choudhury filed divorce in 2015; however, some in the documentary questioned whether the move was simply an attempt to shield some of Bikram Choudhury’s assets.
“His wife filed what we believe to be a sham divorce where all the assets that he had went into his wife Rajashree’s name to shield him from the verdict,” trial attorney Mark Quigley said.
One yogi has even questioned Bikram Choudhury’s claim that he developed the 26 six yoga poses, plus two breathing exercises, that make up the foundation of Bikram yoga. The poses, according to Mukul Dutta, actually were developed by Bishnu Ghosh, a former yogi who taught both men.
“Everything he taught was the lesson of his master,” Dutta said in the documentary. “Bishnu Ghosh actually was a giant. Perhaps the greatest yoga therapist. When I heard that Bikram declared my master’s yoga as Bikram Yoga, that made me a little bit annoyed. I can teach something which I learned from my master, but it is my ethics that I must tell my student that it is not mine.”
While some yoga studios that once bore Bikram’s name have changed their name to focus on hot yoga rather than the connection to guru, others still believe Choudhury left a positive impact on the yoga community.
“I’ll never stop doing it. I’ll never stop promoting it,” former studio owner Patrice Simon said of Bikram yoga in the film. “I am happy he’s still doing his teacher trainings. For some reason, I get the feeling that he’s going to make a comeback.”
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