The Horrifying Cult Origins of Bikram Yoga

November 19, 2019

Bikram Choudhury became a self-made multimillionaire with “Bikram Yoga,” which was founded on 26 carefully-sequenced positions and performed in sweltering studios. Bikram claimed that, though he had learned his “hot yoga” craft under the tutelage of India’s Bishnu Charan Ghosh, his methods were uniquely his own, and that they’d helped him become a three-time national yoga champion in his native country.

He said he’d subsequently brought his program to America on July 4, 1972, when a Honolulu session with President Richard Nixon earned him a green card. From there, he fashioned an empire that boasted numerous celebrities as clients, and earned Bikram—famous for instructing students while wearing nothing but a tiny black Speedo—national renown and wealth, replete with a fleet of luxury Bentleys and Rolls Royces.

It also netted him an army of acolytes who’d follow his every command—and, it turns out, would even tolerate the sexual assault and rape he perpetrated against them. Until, that is, they wouldn’t.

Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator (premiering Nov. 20 on Netflix) is a damning expose of Bikram and his movement, which director Eva Orner’s documentary reveals was nothing short of a cult led by a charismatic leader eager to exploit his environment’s carefully crafted power dynamics to devious ends.

Through a strategic combination of psychological manipulation and professional intimidation, Bikram made sure that he was viewed by all as a veritable god capable of providing the keys to health, happiness and transcendence. Moreover, he let it be known that the only way to thrive in his field—and in his coveted presence—was to acquiesce to his whims, be it suffering endurance-test exhaustion and dehydration in his blazing-hot classes, the verbal abuse he dished out in uninhibited bursts, or the ugly advances he made to select women during late-night massage sessions in his home and hotel suites.

Orner’s film doesn’t get Bikram to sit for an interview because he’s currently a fugitive from the law, having fled the United States in 2016 after losing a $7.5 million civil lawsuit to Micki Jafa-Bodden, his former head of legal affairs, that he’s yet to pay.

Nonetheless, because he’s always been a narcissist who relished hamming it up in the spotlight, Bikram remains front-and-center in Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, courtesy of archival chats on network TV, and clips of him in guiding students through back-bending, sweat-producing studio routines. In the latter, he comes across as an affable, enthusiastic, childlike showman, equal parts mystic and clown—except, of course, for when he’s seen cursing at students in a profane manner unbecoming of a supposed quasi-spiritual guru, a practice corroborated by numerous anecdotes about him pushing disciples by slandering their appearance.

For Jakob Schanzer, Bikram’s nasty comments about his weight were, when paired with his popular yoga methods, downright transformative, and Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator makes clear that none of the horrors committed by Bikram would have been possible if not for the fact that, in a fundamental way, Bikram Yoga really did work for countless men and women. That, in turn, allowed Bikram to franchise his business, with dedicated teachers permitted to open their own studios only after completing his teacher-training seminars. Licensing his techniques was the veritable “cash cow” of the entire enterprise, earning Bikram celebrity-grade riches and a reputation as the “bad boy” of yoga.

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