Note: The following article contains discussion of sexual misconduct allegations that some readers may find upsetting.
Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator arrived to Netflix on Wednesday November 20. The documentary delves into Bikram Choudhury's hot-yoga empire, made popular in the '70s in Beverly Hills before exploding into the mainstream.
“Welcome to Bikram’s torture chamber, where you’ll kill yourself for the next 90 minutes,” he would say at the start of the class. Over 90 minutes, this devotees would work their way through 26 specific postures in stifling heat – 105 degrees Fahrenheit – in pursuit of physical improvement.
This success made Choudhury a celebrity in his own right, something that he perpetuated with a lavish lifestyle and TV interviews. (He reportedly built a fortune of something like $75m and kept 43 high-end cars.)
It now seems that there was a cult-like foundation to Bikram's business model, and some disturbing claims about his conduct have emerged. This is laid out in Netflix's film, unfolding in frustrating and painful detail over its 90-minute runtime.
Choudhury had a system in place that granted him control of the yoga from its teaching to its practice. He attempted to trademark the 26 moves that set it apart from other styles, branding it after himself and setting up a programme whereby the only way to officially teach Bikram, in his name, was to be trained by the man himself. The added clout of his own fame made this even more effective.
All this allowed him not only to be in very close proximity to his followers (for lack of a better word), but it also put him in a position of power.
Sarah Baughn, a former student of Bikram, was one of the women to initially come forward with allegations against him. She told her story again for the Netflix documentary and repeated the claim that he sexually assaulted her in his hotel room. Bikram held his training sessions in hotels and would also hold meetings with some of his yoga students in his room.
Sarah also detailed some of the psychological aspects that led to the alleged abuse. She described how Bikram had inserted himself into the lives of his students as an important and dominant figure – someone, most importantly, that they needed in order to accomplish their career aspirations.
Describing him as the "leader" of a family, she told the filmmakers: "I wanted to be a teacher, so badly, and I wanted to be a good teacher. The way that they shaped that world for us – we grew to understand that the only way you could be a good teacher was through him."
Sarah also went into detail about how the yoga had positively impacted her life, to the point where she felt thankful for it. Bikram would also single her out from the crowd by calling her by her real name, rather than his usual pattern of assigning nicknames.
Jakob Schanzer, another former student, also described feelings of gratitude towards his teacher and the practice that he introduced him to.
"I needed something in my life, I needed guidance that I didn't have. And I think Bikram saw that right away from me was that I was someone that would be loyal to him," he said in the documentary.
Jakob described an environment illustrating the wall of silence that can benefit those in positions of power. It was one whereby many of the women had stories about Bikram, but also one rife with the feeling that to speak publicly about it would have come with the risk of being "professionally exiled".
Later in the documentary, Jakob shared how "hard" it was to hear the allegations against someone that he had once seen as a father figure. Although, in light of the women's stories, this might feel hard to swallow, it just further highlights the extent of Bikram's influence and control over those closest to him.
Jakob has now stopped teaching Bikram yoga, and claims that he knows of more women, in addition to those that have now come forward, who claim to have had abusive encounters with Bikram.
Larissa Anderson reflected on the almost god-like persona that Bikram radiated, particularly with the wisdom in his field. He made promises of making her famous and she was offered an invitation to stay at his home. One night, after Bikram's family had gone to sleep, Larissa alleges that Bikram assaulted her and then went on to rape her.
"I felt like my physical body was completely limp, totally numb," she said. Larissa told the filmmakers that she had confided in her girlfriend the following morning but, other than that, she pretended that nothing had happened.
At first, Larissa was adamant that she didn't want anyone to know, and that she wanted to complete her yoga training because that was all she knew. Soon after, Bikram approved her opening of a yoga school.
Following the birth of her daughter, Sarah Baughn came forward with her story. Other women then also started to share similar accounts, and it also prompted Larissa to speak out when she realised that she had not been alone.
According to an ABC7 news report from 2016, Bikram faced six civil lawsuits for sexual assault – four of which have now been settled (including Sarah and Larissa's). He denied all allegations. Choudhury's former lawyer Micki Jafa-Bodden also sued him for wrongful termination and sexual harassment (via The Oprah Magazine). She was awarded over $7million in damages by a jury – $6.5m punitive damages and $924k compensation – but according to reports, Choudhury left the USA without paying and has not returned since, even though he continues to make money from the USA.
Pandhora Williams, who also featured in the documentary, also sued Choudhury for racial discrimination; he kicked her out of a teaching training course using racist language, and also refused to return her fee (which was over $10,000).
In archive footage from televised interviews, Bikram denied the allegations against him. In video footage of his testimony from his civil court cases, he pleaded the fifth amendment (invoking his right to refuse to answer on the grounds that he might have incriminated himself) multiple times.
So how does he continue to make a success despite the allegations? A blog post by a former devotee helps to explain it: "I don’t condone the deviations he’s taken in his personal life or the way he used his power to exploit other people, willingly or unwillingly. I hope his heart bears a heavy burden and that justice and truth prevail. But, I still believe in the yoga, and to summarize my trip to meet Bikram, my pilgrimage to the source, I am very glad I went."
The short version is that even when made aware of the accusations, people are willing to separate the man from the teaching, and still follow the teaching.
The closing moments of the documentary highlight the fact that no criminal charges have been issued against Bikram. He has not paid vast sums of the damages awarded to his alleged victims, having left the country and – authorities believe – hidden his financial assets.
Bikram still continues to run his teaching programmes across the world, with a photograph of a school in Spain being shared this year. His Mexican teacher-training sessions are promoted on Facebook. He is embarking on "Bikram's 2020 India Legacy Tour" in 2020, billed as a "once in a lifetime India Tour with Bikram Choudhury" taking in Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Mumbai and Kolkata, at a cost of $3950 per person.
Despite the allegations against him, Choudhury's official Twitter account still continues to promote his classes.
Only a few weeks ago (October 27), it was reported that a 62-year-old woman had died while participating in a training programme with Bikram Choudhury. There's no implication of any criminal wrongdoing, but the Mail on Sunday's report does claim that her family were unhappy with the fact she was left in the hospital alone. However, a spokesperson for Choudhury claimed that Mexican privacy laws meant that his staff were not allowed to be at her bedside.
Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator filmmaker Eva Orner has said that she has a few hopes for her documentary; overall, the wish to highlight the women's accounts and make people aware of the full backstory of Bikram yoga.
"I'm saying to Gavin Newsom [Governor of California], you know, I'm sure he watches Netflix a lot. Watch the film, call [LA District Attorney] Jackie Lacey and tell her to step it up and do something," she said during a recent interview with IndieWire. "Jackie Lacey needs to explain her actions. And we contacted her office and her spokesperson repeatedly and they declined the interview for filming. She's never spoken out about it. That implies guilt to me."
The LA County DA's Office responded to this with a statement to IndieWire: "In 2013, a case was submitted to the District Attorney's Office for filing consideration. At that time it was determined that there was insufficient evidence to file criminal charges.
"Successful prosecutions typically involve a combination of factors, such as the victim reporting the crime quickly to authorities, cooperative witnesses, and the presence of physical evidence and DNA evidence.
"Like all criminal cases, to file charges prosecutors must have sufficient credible evidence to prove the defendant is guilty of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
"The District Attorney's Office is unaware of any ongoing investigation involving Bikram Choudhury, however, if law enforcement presents anything to our office, a complete and thorough review will be conducted.
"If it is determined that there is sufficient evidence to file charges and prove those charges beyond a reasonable doubt, the District Attorney's Office will take the appropriate steps to bring Mr. Choudhury to justice."
Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator is available now on Netflix.
Rape Crisis England and Wales works towards the elimination of all forms of sexual violence and sexual misconduct. If you’ve been affected by the issues raised in this story, you can access more information on their website or by calling the National Rape Crisis Helpline on 0808 802 9999. Rape Crisis Scotland’s helpline number is 08088 01 03 02.
Readers in the US are encouraged to contact RAINN, or the National Sexual Assault Hotline on 800-656-4673.
Digital Spy now has a newsletter – sign up to get it sent straight to your inbox.
You Might Also Like