Review: Inside Bikram yoga’s predatory cult-like empire

It’s hard to pinpoint the most disturbing moments in Netflix’s recent documentary “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator” directed by Eva Orner (who won an Oscar for her film Taxi to the Dark Side). Whether it’s the chilling moment that he denies that he could have possibly raped anyone as he doesn’t need to, in order to have sex, as many women would as “volunteer” (showing an absence of the understanding that rape isn’t about sex but a crime of violence and power). Or perhaps the moment that he explains that the four things he cannot stand are “cold weather, cold food, cold heart, cold pussy”.

Running at just under 90 minutes it makes for a strange and disturbing portrait of both a man and an empire. The film follows the rise of Bikram Choudhury and his subsequent fall following accusations of sexual and racial assault. Choudhury’s “hot yoga” has become almost ubiquitous in city gyms in the last decade or so. A craze so well known, it’s entirely probable that most of us are well aware of the brand with little idea of the story behind it.

Choudhury brought his self-styled brand of yoga mainstream in the 90s when he took it to the yoga studios of Beverly Hills. Soon gaining celebrity endorsement from names such as Gwyneth Paltrow and George Clooney his signature 26 move routine in a 40-degree room earned Choudhry a significant fortune. He also ran training courses for followers to learn to become instructors averaging $10,000 fees and earning him a $75 million fortune.

Enough to keep him in Rolexes, fast cars and opulent LA houses. Somewhat rather at odds with the typically sparse or stoic lifestyle, we usually associate with yogis. Just one of the many inconsistencies in this man who self-aggrandized his own brand. Claiming he was granted Green Card status by Nixon himself after helping him with yoga (the film disputes this) and that he won national competitive yoga contests in India before coming to the US (but as a journalist explains, no such competitions were running at the time he would have been claiming).

The documentary features a significant amount of archive footage from studio sessions at the start of his empire. And these alone are enough- perhaps in part due to hindsight- to seem rather strange. Participants sweating in the hot studios whilst he shouts at them from an air-conditioned dais. We see him shouting obscenities at physical appearances; standing on female class members and suggesting that rather than urinate participants tie a string around their penises or stuff their vaginas with corks. The level of sadism that seems to exist co-currently with the cultishness of a fitness venture is both over the line but also vaguely reminiscent of parody.

The legal claims against Choudhury have never been criminally prosecuted after he fled the United States in 2016. He faced six civil lawsuits for sexual assault in 2016. Four of which have now been settled (including some of the main interviewees in the film- Sarah Baughn and Larissa Anderson- despite their wanting to continue to court). The LA County district attorney’s office found insufficient evidence to prosecute, a decision the documentary seeks to question. It explains that there are more reports and testimony from more women than these cases alone.

One aspect of the film that is particularly interesting is the reaction of those in the wider Bikram community following the surfacing of the allegations. Some were ostracised for speaking out or championing or supporting those who brought allegations. Others found it deeply personally damaging, seeing it as an attack on someone they saw as a savior or “father figure”.

And here is one of the most unsettling aspects of the story. Whilst undoubtedly this is a film about the fact that powerful individuals will often abuse and abuse power and that systemic problems will stop justice being pursued- a lesson we have seen repeatedly in this post #metoo era- there is something else at play here. And that is the almost cult-like reference that allowed him to build such an insanely lucrative empire. One that- to a certain degree- continues to be unchecked today.

Choudhury’s success is predicated in part because as one interviewee explains “It worked”. There is a dark sense to the dedication though. The idea that people came to him at their “most broken”. That sense of worth and self could be so tied to an individual and a certain practice. Yoga and wellness have been described as “secular religions” and the industry has been shaken by other scandals in recent years.

The fanaticism that Bikram’s empire exhibited reflects the wider cult of wellness that pervades our view of what it means to be happy and healthy. Ideas such as self-care, clean eating, and other wellness brands continually posit the responsibility for peace of mind, happiness and spirituality on our inner selves or the businesses of others. As the industry continues to grow it’s important that we continue to consider who these consumer re-packagings of well-being are. Choudhury’s actions are of course his own responsibility but we need to see them and his ability to capitalize on others’ as part of a wider framework.

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