ERIC JENNINGS: Bikram was beginning to introduce elements of the training that were designed to break us down.
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘Concentration, patience, faith, determination, will power, self control, control of mind, discipline.’]
JENELLE LEAT: You don’t have to believe it all. You don’t have to accept it all.
LIZ WINFIELD: Don’t argue. Don’t question. Just trust the process.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Part 2: Process.
[BIKRAM TEACHER TRAINING PROMO:
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘I want to invite all of you from all over the world to teacher training with your friend, with your student with your school owner, family, children. Everybody.’]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: In order to grow, in order to take full advantage of the rising wave of yoga in America, Bikram needed teachers. Lots of teachers.
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘I used to teach the yearly you know five teachers. So we started teacher training. So we have 1800 graduate that going around the world and opening schools.’]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram launched a teacher training program. A way to mass produce teachers in nine week sessions.
[BIKRAM TEACHER TRAINING PROMO:
STUDENT: ‘I would suggest it to anybody.’
STUDENT: ‘Everyone can benefit. The young, the old.’]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: The first training was in 1994 and it was small — 30 some odd students. But by 2000, teacher training took off. Bikram was doing two trainings a year and getting hundreds of students at each training.
[BIKRAM TEACHER TRAINING PROMO:
STUDENT: ‘It enables me to live my life. You know I have a full time job I have a child and I practice Bikram and now I’m going to be teaching.’
STUDENT: ‘You will get the results that have been promised to you.’]
JENELLE LEAT: My name’s Jenelle.
MARTHA WILLIAMS: I’m Martha Williams.
ALEX WHEELER: Alex Wheeler.
JENNIFER BOYLE: My name is Jennifer Boyle, I went to Bikram Yoga Teacher Training in fall of 2005.
JENELLE LEAT: 2007.
WENDY COOLEY: 2011. I’m Wendy Cooley.
ERIC JENNINGS: Eric Jennings.
TIFFANY FRIEDMAN: Tiffany Friedman.
MIKE MAYLE: I was in 2007.
MARTHA WILLIAMS: Mine was in 2000.
Martha: [00:12:16] There was a little brochure on the wall in a studio in Key West and the teacher — I was leaving his class one day and he said you know “You should think about going to the teacher training.”
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: The excitement of going to teacher training was real.
WENDY COOLEY: I had a specific teacher that said to me, “There’s a certain point as a practitioner that it’s your responsibility to be a teacher.”
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: I can tell you from my own experience managing a studio, and always assuming I would go to training some day, that it was seen as an honor — validation for all the hours and money and sweat you’d poured out on the mat. And it was an important step.
ALEX WHEELER: My partner Jackie went to teacher training, I figured if I went to teacher training we could open a studio or we could travel teaching, we were young.
MIKE MAYLE: I had the light bulb idea that this would probably be a nice way out of the career I was in.
TIFFANY FRIEDMAN: Everyone in my life thought I was crazy and I went down to San Diego for nine weeks.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: The way the Bikram world worked — it was the way, the only way, to become a teacher, and perhaps some day open a studio of your own.
JENELLE LEAT:I remember thinking how proud I would be, imagine what it’s gonna be like when people ask me what do you do for a job? And I would say oh I’m a Bikram yoga teacher.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Jill Lawler was just 17 years old when she first walked into a Bikram studio in Vancouver, Canada.
JILL LAWLER: It really transformed me mentally, physically, spiritually. It changed my life for the better. And I wanted to share that feeling with my friends and family and the rest of the world. I really, at that time, was convinced that everybody should do this yoga and that if everybody did it, the world would be a better place.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: So, she decided she needed to go to training.
Getting into teacher training doesn’t take much — you need to be at least 21 years of age, you need to be able to to pay the hefty tuition, which could cost as much as $16,000, and you need a letter from a studio owner vouching for your dedication to the practice. That’s it.
JILL LAWLER: You’re supposed to be 21 to go into the training but I was 18. So I just wrote a letter to Bikram basically explaining how the yoga changed my life. Please let me in early.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: She sent it along with a letter from her studio owner
And she talked to her parents about covering the $10,000 it would cost her to go.
JILL LAWLER: My parents had a college fund for me that I just begged them to let me use some of it for teacher training and said that I’ll just pay my own way through the rest of school if it comes to that.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: A few weeks later, Jill got a short note back from Headquarters:
JILL LAWLER: I got a response that was one sentence. No like, “Hi, Jill.” No beginning, no end, just one sentence that said, “Give us your address, comma, we’ll send you the dialogue, period.” That was all that was in the email.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Jill and every other trainee were sent a copy of the dialogue — which is the script to a Bikram Yoga class that they’ll have to memorize in order to be certified as a teacher…they also get a welcome packet
Liz Winfield got hers when she signed up in 2011. She still has it.
It starts with this letter – and sets some clear expectations:
LIZ WINFIELD: “The most important thing is to listen to Bikram. Don’t judge label or argue. Just listen. Consider everything he says. Hold back judgment, expectation and even questions, most will get answered by the process. Avoid getting involved in anything that can distract your attention from the training. These things include family, job, relationships, other people’s dramas including and especially your fellow trainees and the outside world.” End quote.
JENELLE LEAT: Just trust the process.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Just trust the process — no matter what might be in store.
After getting her one sentence notice of approval, Jill borrowed from her college fund and went to training…it had been years since the whole operation could be held at Bikram’s Headquarters in L.A. Now they were held at hotels and resorts. Hers was held at the Las Vegas Hilton
JILL LAWLER: I remember, especially being from Canada, from Vancouver, the most shocking thing was like culture shock, was walking into the casino and seeing someone smoking inside. I was like, oh my god. Does anybody see that person? They’re smoking inside. Then I realized that there’s like ten other people smoking inside. So it was a really weird atmosphere to have a teacher training.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Everyone stays at the hotel — the students, the staff. The hotel is basically a little town – your new home for nine weeks — with Bikram running the show from his penthouse suite.
JILL LAWLER: This was also the first time that I was away from my parents and my boyfriend and my whole family and hometown ever, so it was the first independent adult thing I had ever done and I just felt on top of the world being there and just, the energy, being surrounded by 400 like-minded people… it really felt like we were all a big family that all wanted the world to be a better place. It was really a beautiful energy.
LIZ WINFIELD: Day one Rajashree gets up there at training, we are your family now…everybody’s so hungry to hear that because they’ve left their family so they need a family and they don’t have anybody there and so oh this is my family now. That’s why it’s called the yoga family. Anywhere you go in the world if you’re part of Bikram Yoga you’re part of the family.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: If this was a yoga family, Bikram’s wife Rajashree was the mom.
MARTHA WILLIAMS: She just always smelled of Jasmine and I mean she’s just beautiful. She’s like a goddess.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: She was there to make the trainees feel at home, to start building a sense of community. A lot of people say she’s the one who came up with the idea for teacher training in the first place.
MARTHA WILLIAMS: Rajashree, who deserves at least as much credit as he does.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: And as Vice President of Bikram Yoga Inc., her signature would also be on your teacher training certificate.
Teacher training is a show. Benjamin Lorr wrote a book called “Hell-Bent,” about his time as a member of the Bikram community. As part of writing that book he did teacher training.
BENJAMIN LORR: The training’s filled with senior teachers who come in, they fly in on their own expense out there to teach a class in front of their guru and they lead the room. It’s a big deal if you’re a teacher.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: There were the first time attendees (the wannabe teachers), the staff, the senior teachers… but everyone was really there for the star of the show, Bikram Choudhury.
BENJAMIN LORR: Bikram was a rock star in that community and there were women who were throwing themselves at him. I remember at my training there were the women in bikinis who had line up in front of him and show off their practice to him and look for his approval.
[BIKRAM TEACHER TRAINING PROMO:
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘When I first started the teacher training a lot of people wanted to come not to be a teacher, to come to teacher training and spend 2 3 months 7, 800 hours with me.’]
JILL LAWLER: I had a lot of gratitude for him inventing the yoga and was really excited to meet him.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Jill got her chance to meet Bikram at his welcome lecture.
[ABC NEWS NIGHTLINE
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: Have a seat.’]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: The welcome lecture took place in a tent outside the Las Vegas Hilton.
JILL LAWLER: I remember he was wearing like really tight white pants and then like a really tight shirt and like, flashy sunglasses or something like that. Like, he looked very L.A.
He looked really healthy like amazing for whatever how old he was. you see a 70 year old man in that kind of shape telling you that this yoga works, it’s kind of hard not to believe him, right?
[ABC NEWS NIGHTLINE,
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘My wife, you meet her? She sleeps, she sleep like a 22 hours a day. Her name is Sleepy Yogi. I go home, she’s sleeping, I go out she’s sleeping’
JILL LAWLER: I thought he was really funny. His charisma was awesome. I also liked that he was authentic.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: This was man responsible for the yoga she practiced. The man she’d come to learn from. The man that she would call guru.
[ABC NEWS NIGHTLINE,
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: That’s why I said, you are one of the most luckiest, intelligent, clever, smart, man, person in the world. You decided, to sacrifice your life and share your own personal experience with the rest of the world. It help them, to save their life.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram speaks directly to trainees who have left jobs, families, boyfriends, girlfriends, everything that matters to them to be here with him. For nine weeks. It was a powerful moment for Jill, who had just depleted her college fund and taken a huge risk.
[ABC NEWS NIGHTLINE,
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: So, your job, my job, together, to save, almost, seven billions people’s life.]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: As Jill learned, and everyone at training quickly learned… you’re literally stepping into Bikram’s world.
[ABC NEWS NIGHTLINE,
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘100% come into us — whether you like it, dislike it, believe it, disbelieve it, want to do it, don’t want to do it doesn’t matter.’]
JILL LAWLER: There was quite a few rules. There was the whole no kissy kissy, no touchy touchy, no huggy huggy, no fucky fucky.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: You’re there to do yoga, not meet your soulmate.
JILL LAWLER: No drinking no smoking no drugs.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: But Bikram’s strictest rule, was also his weirdest.
JILL LAWLER: No green. Bikram apparently hates the color green so we weren’t allowed to have green yoga outfits green purses green backpacks green hats, like nothing….
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘Students cannot open the mouth, get the fuck out of here.’]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram’s not messing around, you’re there to work.
LIZ WINFIELD: You’re going to be doing two yoga classes a day one in the morning one at night.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: You’re booked from early in the morning to late at night with classes, lectures, and clinics.
MARTHA WILLIAMS: And that schedule goes on 5 days a week.
MIKE MAYLE: You’re wiped. I mean, you’re sleep deprived at that point.
BENJAMIN LORR: Training consists largely of doing the class again and again and memorizing dialogue.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Teacher training is about learning to teach Bikram’s class. Bikram’s way. And you spend the bulk of your time trying to learn Bikram’s dialogue.
MIKE MAYLE: It’s get up and say the script and then go sit down… and then you have three or four people telling you how bad you did and then you repeat that 26 times.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: And to learn how to teach Bikram’s class, Bikram’s way, you also take a lot of classes from Bikram himself.
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘Welcome to Bikram’s torture chamber to kill yourself for next 90 minutes.’]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram did not teach all the classes at teacher training. Sometimes, he’d be out of town and not present at training at all.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: But when he was there, he would teach the second Bikram class of the day — the evening class.
‘Both knees lock. Lock, lock, lock, lock, lock, lock, lock, lock, lock, lock. Both knee lock! Lock it! Lock it! Lock it! She lose the hand!”
BENJAMIN LORR: ‘We would all get in there and it was like a megachurch with Bikram at the front and this kind of bright, construction cone orange, chair that he would call saffron, the color of gurus immortal. He would sit up there and we would all be in strict rows lined up, 380 people so, you’re just a little dot in the sea.’
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: No matter where it was, the yoga room more or less always looked the same inside — a huge space, with carpet, mirrors on the walls, and a giant podium at the front for Bikram.
Students stood in row after row after row. Everyone wearing as little clothing as humanly possible. They were packed in tight, their mats meticulously arranged so that all 400 of them could fit in them room.
From his podium, Bikram sporting his black speedo, man bun, and signature Rolex watch, would lead the class
MIKE MAYLE: Those classes would go two hours or more so those classes were very hard driven, very hot, you suffered a lot.
JILL LAWLER: You either suffer so much that you just hit the floor and can’t get back up, or you’re just like, power through class like you’re flying is what I found.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: The rules here were the same here as in every Bikram class — don’t leave the room. No matter what.
TIFFANY FRIEDMAN: The staff would stand at the doors and not let you out. There was one time where I started my period and I went out, and to push on the door and the staff member looked at me and wagged his finger no, and I pointed down and there was blood coming down my legs, and he let me out. And I thought, “Are– are you insane?”
BENJAMIN LORR: And this is all happening at this state where you’re semi delirious
TIFFANY FRIEDMAN:It was about 120 degrees with at least 40% humidity, if not more.
BENJAMIN LORR: So, you’re like “What is this a giant hallucination that’s going on around me?”
TIFFANY FRIEDMAN: You know, people were passing out and peeing on their mats and vomiting and…
BENJAMIN LORR: Is this real? Is this woman just like apparently shit herself next to me, ‘cause thats what it smells like.
TIFFANY FRIEDMAN: And you just kept going.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: This suffering is what you came for, it’s the backbone of training. It’s what’s breaking you down so you can be rebuilt. And it’s what bonds you to your fellow trainees.
WENDY COOLEY: In the nine weeks that we are at teacher training something happens. The only way I can describe it is I had a girlfriend that said, “You know, when you go through something super difficult with someone else, you end up being closer friends, you’re closer friends with them than you are with your family,” you know? And they really do put you through a lot.
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: Hips down, body up, not hips up! what’s wrong with you? You have a chicken ass, why you going up? Come on (clap)]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram’s evening class would leave attendees physically and mentally drained. But this was not the end of the day. After the dinner break, trainees would return and, once again, anxiously await their guru.
JENNIFER BOYLE: Bikram would walk in the room and it was like fedora and white snappy suit and he’s bossing everyone around and everyone’s calling him boss.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: During what was known as the evening lecture, all bets were off.
Bikram could lecture and then decide to show a Bollywood movie. Or two Bollywood movies. Or have more to say after the movie. Or just lecture into the wee hours of the morning
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘What can I talk to today?’
CROWD: ‘Love, love, love.’
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘Love? Holy shit. I’m the wrong person to talk about love, man. I don’t know nothing about love.’]
BENJAMIN LORR: The lectures are lectures, they’re Bikram talking extemporaneously about whatever’s on his mind at the time.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: And Bikram’s favorite lecture topic…was Bikram.
JENELLE LEAT: He’s constantly lecturing us about how he never lies, never cheats, never steals and he’s the most spiritual man on this earth —
ALEX WHEELER: Sometimes it would go off into total left field.
BENJAMIN LORR: You know, I mean, I remember a lecture where he would talk about how many orgasms he had when he was … or no, well, how many orgasms he had, how many orgasms his partner had, he would talk about being invited to edit scripts by various … I wrote scenes in “Being There” by Peter Sellers … it’s really whatever’s on his mind and it comes off as half raving half kind of stand up comedy monologue, and he can be very funny in the way of somebody who just says what’s ever on their mind.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: As trainees sat in these lectures, they were often a little thrown by what they heard…but they were willing to persevere — because there were moments of pure gold in there, too.
BENJAMIN LORR: And then all of a sudden he’ll go into some vision of what it means to be a person and like the power of the individual and the you know it will be these truly beautiful sentiments. And he’s he is a man who’s capable of great beauty. You hear this in his singing voice in just in the way he phrases things he’s clearly capable of tapping into that.
BENJAMIN LORR: Those moments are genuinely beautiful .
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: This is the great paradox of Bikram Yoga…it may look miserable on the surface, but it has the potential to be totally life changing.
Bikram himself would talk about how he went through the same transformation.
BENJAMIN LORR: He can be quite profound when he talks about yoga and spirituality and his training with his guru. Because he went through rigorous training with Bishnu Ghosh and he reflects on that and how he learned self control.
WENDY COOLEY: I remember him talking about his mother not liking something that he did and just slapping him across the face, just constantly talking about is personal abuse as a child. And then, he talks about his yoga studying with his guru. It’s all very, sounds tortuous. And, I mean, he talks about laying on a bed of nails and having motorcycles run over him and him being able to withstand that, which is his experience must have been horrible as a child and you start just thinking “Oh, this is why these classes are really hard.”
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘What the fuck you think you’re doing? How many time I have to correct this shit? How many times? You tell me. Year after year. Tell me, what is object of the posture?’]
JENNIFER BOYLE: I heard him say ghastly things, and I remember … He made a few comments to me. I used to wear…I had very short hair at the time, so I would wear my hair in pigtails because I couldn’t get it in a ponytail, so he would always call me “high school. Hey, high school hair. High school hair.”
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: No one could identify and go after your weaknesses like Bikram Choudhury.
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: Sit! Oy! Sit down! Big ass. Now touch the toes.
Miss Red your spine should be no hunchback.’]
JENNIFER BOYLE: I remember this one woman who was one of his assistants, actually, and he called her “fatty.” He said, “Hey, fatty. Can you get me some milk?”
TIFFANY FRIEDMAN: You didn’t want to be Miss Boobs.
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘Miss Blondie, look behind you the picture on the wall.’]
TIFFANY FRIEDMAN: And you didn’t want to be Miss yellow or whatever it was for that day…And it’s funny, you just find yourself going away from those people.
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘Miss Blue? Miss Blue?’]
TIFFANY FRIEDMAN: But at the time you just don’t want to be that person.
LIZ WINFIELD: He would scream at people. Why did I think that was OK? Because you just go along with everybody saying, “Oh, that’s just Bikram. That’s just Bikram.”
JENNIFER BOYLE: That’s just Bikram. And that was just was everybody’s automatic response to anything that was inappropriate.
LIZ WINFIELD: Bikram has basically created almost like what an alcoholic does. You know you’re tiptoeing around him always kind of on eggshells and always hoping that you’re in favor of him because you don’t want to get screamed at otherwise. So you’re never going to do anything to get screamed at.
JENNIFER BOYLE: I think part of me was like trying to almost pick up on his … Like I’m like this has to be some kind of like he’s fucking with us right? This has to be some kind of a joke because he would just be so blatantly like … He would literally say something like, “Men are superior to women.” Right? And so you’re just kind of sitting there like well that’s bullshit. And then of course he would say, “You go ahead. You leave. I don’t care. I already have your money.” He would say it like that – he would sing it. With that…he has this little crackle in his voice and he would say, “I already have your money.” I just remember thinking wow this is kind of fucked up.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: But the cruelty…was part of the training.
ALEX WHEELER: When he called somebody a fat bitch or you know, lamp post or you know skinny minny or drug addict or what have you, in general, I never saw that person not thank him later. And that was, I think, a key component to his crazy behavior approach that allowed the masses to fully accept his approach, because he was trying to tell you the truth, and nobody else would, you know? Your parents, your teachers, your coaches, they wouldn’t tell you the truth in the way that he would.
BENJAMIN LORR: Look, everybody there is there to transform, it’s a self transformational practice, that’s what it’s predicated on. And, to transform you need someone to push you and so everything that he asks can be viewed through the lens of this is a challenge that Bikram is presenting me with. And my job as a yogi is to persist through it, to be bulletproof in Bikram’s terminology.
[ABC WORLD NEWS TONIGHT WITH PETER JENNINGS,
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: I’m bulletproof, fireproof, waterproof, windproof, money-poof, sex-proof, emotion-proof, stress proof, strength proof. Nothing in the world can take my peace away from me.’]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: If the mantra trainees hear from staff and teachers is: trust the process. The mantra of the man in charge is: don’t let anyone steal your peace.
And the way a lot of people tell it, at some point or other in training, you’re going to face that mantra head on.
For Martha Williams, that came about halfway through her training.
Her friend asked a question about difficulty she was having in a posture, and Bikram in no uncertain terms told this woman she was fat, in front of 200 other trainees.
MARTHA WILLIAMS: He really insulted her and I reached over and I held her hand and he looked at me and he said, “You are not her friend. You know I am telling her the truth. And you know I am and you you’re you’re giving her false love,” or something like that and I just glared at him like how could you possibly…whatever is true or not true you are hurting this person’s feelings right now. And that is wrong. So he actually ripped off his microphone and left the room and got very mad at all of us because we weren’t like on his side. We left the training that night called our husbands and said we’re coming home this is ridiculous. You know this man is a pig. And I think her husband said, “Great, get on a plane get out of there.” And I called my husband and he said, “Wait you’re going to let this guy ruin this for you. I don’t think so. That’s not you, you know learn what you need to learn and then come home you know finish your training finish what you went out there to do” and I was like “Of course of course.” and it’s one of Bikram’s most popular teachings. Don’t let anyone steal your peace. It’s so ironic because he’s the one generally stealing people’s peace.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: While Bikram was doing his best to steal their peace, and push their buttons…students found themselves turning to Rajashree as a calming force.
RAJASHREE CHOUDHURY: ‘I don’t know why we don’t appreciate what we have. Our life. Right? That’s the most important. Today you are here because you are healthy. And that’s the life we really have to always pray for it. And the yoga goes for life.’]
MARTHA WILLIAMS: She’s like, the antithesis of Bikram in many ways.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: She was kinder and softer — in the way she taught, in the way she convinced ill students to get back in the room and do more yoga to cure whatever ailed them.
Where Bikram was extroverted and self-obsessed, Rajashree was reserved. She was quiet.
RAJASHREE CHOUDHURY: Joy is hidden inside of that pain. And today’s the day for you that the pain for 9 weeks what you have gone through, today is the day you finding that joy.’]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Over the years, Bikram and Rajashree appeared together at teacher training with less and less frequency. But, still, the very fact of her existence — that she was his wife — softened his image for trainees. And made behavior that might otherwise have crossed a line seem…reasonable.
TIFFANY FRIEDMAN: Always, there were at least two people massaging him, one on either side, massaging his feet, sometimes also massaging his hands, and at least one other person brushing his hair —
JENELLE LEAT: There would be students at the teacher training, who he would call upon and to be honest, I didn’t really notice whether they went to him or whether he sought them out but there would be girls who they would brush his hair and they would massage feet.
JENNIFER BOYLE: He would sit in the back of the room when we were doing our dialogue and there was at some point — at some points, he would have two or three women, girls really, I’m saying women but they were very young, and they’d be massaging his feet. Literally like one girl on each foot kind of thing, and he would have them massaging his arms and then brushing his hair. Just brushing and brushing and brushing. It was just somehow acceptable. That’s all there was really to it. There’s always that part of you that’s kind of like “What’s going on with this? What is this?” But it’s just…and everyone’s answer is, “Oh that’s just Bikram.”
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: I don’t remember the first time I heard about the fact that students would massage Bikram or brush his hair at training. It was at least a solid decade before I started reporting this story. It’s just a thing I’ve sort of known about for a long time. Sure, it was a little weird, and a little eccentric, but it also wasn’t completely out of line with the image and persona he put forth. It was totally out of line with everything else about Bikram Yoga — we didn’t go around massaging each other. Students don’t touch other students in class, and teachers never touch students in the hot room — and that was a rule Bikram made up. But somehow Bikram having students massage him made a weird kind of sense.
MARTHA WILLIAMS: When I went to training and then year after year after year I would think “What have I seen with my own eyes?” And what I would always go back to is women lining up like a harem to brush his hair, to massage him, chase him around and act ridiculous. That’s what I saw.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: A Bikram studio, whether it’s at training or anywhere else in the world, can look and feel like a hypersexualized environment. It’s literally a room full of sweaty people wearing very little. Whether you want it to be or not, your body is on display. And your only real means for expression is with your body. And in any environment where a body is on display, some people will feel incredibly comfortable with that or lean into it for their own advantage. Some people will be oblivious to it, and some people will feel powerless against it. And all of that is at play in each and every teacher training, where the number of women far outweigh the number of men.
Eric Jennings went to training in 2001.
ERIC JENNINGS: I went with an attitude of, “I’m here for the yoga. I’m not looking for a guru.”
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Eric had actually taken a class with Bikram once before training at a workshop.
ERIC JENNINGS: After keeping us waiting for almost 2 hours, he literally pranced into the room wearing this kimono, his man bun and, what he would later tell us, was a very expensive Rolex on his wrist. and it really put me off.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: But Eric had an experience at that workshop, onstage with Bikram while performing the backbend in half moon pose.
ERIC JENNINGS: Bikram leaned in very close to me, and he said in a very soft and compassionate voice, “You can do more.” I felt in that moment that he actually saw me for who I was and it really affected me.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Eric found that his training was full of moments like that one in the workshop, moments of confusion, where your moral compass feels like it’s spinning, trying to align itself to Bikram’s, and it’s not quite clear which way is north.
ERIC JENNINGS: I’m going to sum it up and say that I came away from my nine weeks seeing that he was a very complicated person, and that he had a lot of traits and attributes and behaviors that I did not understand, or appreciate, or respect. But at the same time, I also witnessed that momentary compassion that I felt with him at the workshop. I saw him be that way with many, many people during the nine weeks.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: After every session, the hundreds of students, who survived 9 weeks inside the complicated bubble of teacher training, would return to the outside world — where the greater public only knew one side of Bikram Choudhury: inspiring guru.
ERIC JENNINGS: I saw this dichotomy of there’s two different people in there, and it seemed like he couldn’t decide which was the real him. In retrospect, I have to be honest and say I chose to put blinders on to the disrespectful Bikram, and focus on what I saw as the compassionate Bikram.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Teacher training grew — and it grew fast. And every time 400 students signed up for training Bikram took in $4 million dollars. That’s 8 million dollars a year…year after year after year. And many of those students opened studios with his name on them, making it so Bikram and his Yoga were everywhere.
ERIC JENNINGS: When I went to his training, I believe that I was witnessing Bikram in the early stages of transforming from genuine, naïve, intuitive, inspirational teacher, and he was becoming, really, a multi level marketing, pyramid scheme promoting shuckster.