Bikram claims ownership over his brand of yoga using increasingly hardball tactics. Julia investigates the roots of yoga to try to separate what is true from what is false in Bikram’s story.
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Bikram claims ownership over his brand of yoga using increasingly hardball tactics. Julia investigates the roots of yoga to try to separate what is true from what is false in Bikram’s story.
JODY AVIRGAN: A word of warning. This episode contains mature language and graphic descriptions of sexual assault, abuse, and other disturbing behavior. A list of resources is available in the show description and on our website.
MARTHA WILLIAMS: Power is something that we decide to give to someone.
[ABC NEWS NIGHTLINE,
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: Half a billion people has been benefited directly indirectly Bikram Yoga around the globe]
ALEX WHEELER: He spent so much time, effort, years, hiring, firing, yelling, screaming, throwing shit around, trying to get this to be his in the eyes of the entire universe.
MARTHA WILLIAMS: He has no power over what we decide to do or how we teach you know it’s his teaching his charisma his knowledge. That’s what has value, but power is something that is perceived.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Part 3: Power.
When Kim Schreiber’s sister took her to her first Bikram Yoga class, it didn’t quite go as planned
KIM SCHREIBER: I actually, I walked out on my first Bikram Yoga class.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: But Kim came back. And she came back again. And again. She was battling with mental illness and the yoga quickly became something she needed and wanted to keep doing.
KIM SCHREIBER: It helped me with my depression and bipolar issues.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: The yoga was helping, and she credited her teacher, Bikram.
KIM SCHREIBER: He kind of saved my life because at one point I was pretty suicidal, so um, I describe him as somebody that really saved my life.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Kim signed up for the very first Bikram Yoga Teacher Training in 1994. It was messy and disorganized as a whole, Kim says, but it did exactly what it set out to do: prepare eager students like Kim to teach a Bikram Yoga class, and inspire those people to want to open studios. And upon graduating, Kim did just that – she opened Bikram Yoga Costa Mesa. Bikram himself had picked the location for her, it was the first studio in Orange County, California. He was proud and supportive and Kim was excited to start spreading Bikram Yoga in her community.
And about a year after she opened her studio, a new student came in to take class – Mark Morrison.
MARK MORRISON: I love the intensity of the workout. I love the sweat. But I really liked the owner of the studio. That’s what kept me coming back.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Mark and Kim began dating… and not long after she took him up to L.A. for the yoga equivalent of “meeting the family” — taking class with her mentor and teacher, Bikram.
But right away, Mark didn’t like what he saw
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘Why your fucking knee is still not locked? Bring your mind back from Uranus, Neptune, Pluto to Olympic Boulevard in my class. Think of it! ’]
MARK MORRISON: the way he treated people just simply wasn’t kind. It was, in my opinion, disrespectful, abrasive, obnoxious, the comments that he made
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘Sit down. Sit! Oy! Sit down, big ass. Now touch the toes.’]
MARK MORRISON: And nobody seemed to be safe. He was to me just simply wasn’t a kind person. It doesn’t take too long to form an opinion that this guy’s just a con man.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Mark felt that Bikram was in it for himself, that he was using yoga and the trappings of authenticity as a way to get rich quick.
MARK MORRISON: I didn’t attribute it to him. To me he was just the messenger, the real content was the yoga, that was the real gift. And, yoga’s been around for thousands of years so I’m not going to attribute it to one human being as much as he wanted people to believe that he was solely responsible and he was a god, and he was the gift, and he was Jesus Christ.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Mark didn’t like Bikram — and the feeling was mutual. Bikram could tell a mile away that Mark wasn’t on his side. And so when Mark and Kim started to get really serious, Bikram took her to lunch and told her that …
MARK MORRISON: You know, she should leave me.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: But Kim didn’t leave Mark. In fact, she married him.
And Mark, who was a lawyer and had also studied finance, told Kim he would help her with her studio business. But there was one condition:
KIM MORRISON: You need to separate yourself from Bikram and change the name of the studio. We need to break away or else I don’t want to have anything to do with the studio.
I was resistant. I was confused and somewhere deep inside of me I knew that that’s what needed to happen. I knew. and it was painful.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: It took Kim almost a year to decide that her husband was right, it was time to make the change.
KIM SCHREIBER: I called Bikram and asked him for his blessing and told him what our name was going to be and of course, he didn’t give me his blessing, this was the first, very first time that I chose to go against him so that was huge. In his mind, he felt, I know he felt betrayed.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: He felt betrayed. But more importantly, he felt threatened. And so he took a step to ensure that he would always have control of his yoga. He copyrighted it. All of it.
[ABC NEWS NIGHTLINE,
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘American Way. Make Bikram Yoga copyright, trademark franchising, patent, the Justice Department, the government, will protect you. American way.’]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Back in 1985, Bikram had sued Raquel Welch for ripping off his yoga series.
[RAQUEL WELCH – TOTAL BEAUTY AND FITNESS,
RAQUEL: Are you in great shape and want to stay that way? But you’re looking for a method to maintain your high standards? Than I made this video for you.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: But this was different. It was 2002, and Bikram seemed to be saying, I own everything about this yoga — the name, the dialogue, the sequence of postures. Everything. Not long after he filed his copyright, he put it to work. Against Mark and Kim and their Costa Mesa studio.
MARK MORRISON: He filed this big bombshell of a complaint which your stomach kind of ends up in your throat when you read it and see it for the first time.
Why he filed against us knowing I was a lawyer it always amazed me why he did that. It seems like he would have been much smarter to go after a much weaker studio owner
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Several months later, Mark and Kim, their insurance company, and Bikram’s lawyers all ended up in court. And it became clear why Bikram had gone after them specifically. Mark remembers the judge pulling everyone aside and saying:
MARK MORRISON: And he says, “All right, let me just lay this out for you, guys. What this really stems from is he’s really upset that Kim left the Bikram family,” that’s the basis of the whole complaint and the motivation.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: The judge saw that Bikram wasn’t just after a copyright violation. He was after control over one of his favorite students.
MARK MORRISON: And then he looked at the insurance company and said, “You got a rich Indian over there who’s emotionally charged and he’s going to go all the way and although he will probably lose, it’s going to cost you guys a lot of money,” so you may as well settle.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: So they did. Per the terms of the settlement, their insurance company paid an undisclosed amount. And Mark and Kim went back to their studio and went on with their lives.
For Bikram the settlement was proof that his copyright was ironclad — a weapon that he could use against any studio owners or teachers who tried to cross him. For some people in the community, like Martha Williams, his claim to “own” Bikram yoga made sense.
MARTHA WILLIAMS: It’s not like he’s trying to copyright or trademark all of yoga. He’s trying to protect a very very specific thing in the way it’s taught.
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘When Quincy Jones, my student, takes the doh re mi part, create a melody, become a song, you can copyright that song. I picked up 26 postures, I put in the sequence like a melody, I created that.’]
JIMMY BARKAN: Someone put it really well. They said imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger put together a workout with weights. You do 15 curls and then you do 25 flies and then you do this kind of thing and then you do that kind of thing … and then you make that the Arnold Schwarzenegger workout and then nobody can do the weights that way unless you’re going to get sued by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘Yoga is belongs to the Earth. It’s a god. But, I picked up a piece of it and I created something.’]
KAVYA DUTTA: He didn’t give the yoga to the world. The yoga was there, 5,000 years back.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Kavya Dutta is from Calcutta. Her bloodline is as close to pure yoga royalty as you can get. Her family tree descends from both Vivikenanda and from the family that gave the world Yogananda and Bikram’s own guru, Bishnu Ghosh. Not only the two most famous yoga families in Calcutta, but two yoga families that were critical in bringing yoga to the west in the 19th and 20th centuries.
KAVYA DUTTA: Hot yoga as he claims it. If you look back, there was this practice in India, which is in Bengali we call it poncho ogni kabusha, which means you sit around, you know, you are a yogi, you sit around a ring of fire, you sit in the middle, and you do your meditation. What does that mean?
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: It means some version of hot yoga existed a long time before Bikram came along. Kavya actually went to one of Bikram’s teacher trainings in 2012. She says, his famous sequence of poses that he takes credit for CREATING — they looked very familiar.
KAVYA DUTTA: Ok, there’s a little story I want to share. When I was about three, four years old, my grandmother used to teach me yoga. My grandmother used to teach me similar sequence, which Bikram claims that he has put together. And when I went to Bikram and I saw that he claims that sequence to be his, he claims that sequence to be something that he has created, I couldn’t believe it. I said, “This is something I have done all my life. I can’t say that you have created it.”
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Did you ever discuss that with Bikram?
KAVYA DUTTA: I did, but he didn’t, as usual, he didn’t quite pay heed to it.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: When Kavya got back to Calcutta she told her dad about Bikram’s yoga.
KAVYA DUTTA: So my dad said, “Yeah, because people doesn’t know it there. They know him. They don’t know you. They don’t know what we have been taught here in Calcutta, in India.” He’s just putting it in a new pack, as I understand it. He just put it in a new pack and sold it, like his, but it was not his, I’m sorry to say that.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Kavya’s real problem with what Bikram did isn’t about money, it’s about respect.
KAVYA DUTTA: The most surprising part was the yoga that he had learned here, that he had named it Bikram yoga. It could have been Bishnu yoga. It could have been Ghosh’s yoga. It could have been anything else. If he would really pay tribute to his master, as he keeps claiming, that my guru and my guru and my guru, so you should have named it after your guru, not yourself. You can’t just pick up something and … I’ll pick up tomorrow, I’ll pick up 14 postures from there and I’ll name it Kavya yoga. I can’t do that. You cannot do it. There has to be some sanctity to whatever you’ve learned, towards your guru, towards yourself.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram had a place for his guru, Bishnu Ghosh — he was front and center in the origin story that Bikram told again and again about his own rise from the dusty streets of Calcutta — his perfect little tale about how he linked up with his guru, became a yoga prodigy, and went on to invent his hot yoga, and save a President’s leg.
[NBC TODAY SHOW,
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘That’s why I’m Bikram (LAUGHS). I’m a real Yogi.’]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: But truth with Bikram is a tricky thing to pin down. His stories about himself always veer towards mythology.
BENJAMIN LORR: He intersperses these exaggerations and outright lies with hyperbole.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Author Benjamin Lorr.
BENJAMIN LORR: So he’ll also claim I invented the disco ball or I taught the Statue of Liberty how to do yoga and that’s why she can stand up all day and her back doesn’t hurt. And that’s obviously a joke. And then if you call him on the fact that he was not teaching the Beatles yoga in 1959 because the Beatles didn’t exist. He’ll be like “Ha ha. Obviously I was joking. You humorless prick.” And and that’s how he works.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: It’s pretty easy to prove Bikram didn’t invent the disco ball. It’s unlikely he wrote any scenes in the movie “Being There.” At one point he had to stop telling people he had won an Olympic medal in weightlifting because, well, the internet came along and a simple search quickly disproves that fact. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what his encounter with Richard Nixon in Hawaii was about, and if that’s how Bikram got his green card.
But the truth I really wanted to get to the bottom of was Bikram’s place in the history of yoga, in particular his relationship to the man he called his guru, Bishnu Ghosh.
And to do that, I had to go to India.
[ANNOUNCEMENT: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Kolkata…the outside temperature is 23 degrees celsius. Please remain seated and do not open the overhead bins…’]
[AMBI – landing in India, transitioning to sound of bird]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: I started by trying to find where Bikram grew up.
[AMBI – JULIA: where are we?
FIXER: This is the Bagbazar area part of Kolkata…]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: My fixer took me to a a part of Calcutta called Bagbazar. It’s a neighborhood that has changed a lot, there’s lots of new construction, lots of turnover in population.
But still, within 45 minutes, just going from shop to shop asking…
[AMBI – Men talking]
I found exactly where he grew up — his childhood house.
[AMBI – Fixer guiding Julia.]
8 Mohendra Bose Lane.
[JULIA: – We found it!
FIXER: See! It wasn’t that hard at all.]
From there, it was about a mile and half to the school where Bikram trained — Ghosh’s College.
Ghosh’s college was the place where Bishnu Ghosh tried to accomplish his life’s work — to spread yoga to as many people as possible.
Romit Banerjee’s grandfather was a friend and student of Bishnu Ghosh.
ROMIT BANERJEE: He said the way a Bengali eats food — rice, fish… I want to spread Yoga in every household, so it will be an extension of their life.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: I feel like that is probably surprising to an American audience, right? Like they probably have this perception that everyone in India has always done Yoga.
ROMIT BANERJEE: No, never, never.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: At Ghosh’s College, I met Bishnu Ghosh’s granddaughter.
MUKTAMALA MITRA: Hi I’m Muktamala Mitra. Granddaughter of…Bishnu Charan Ghosh.
Now I am trying to run this college. My grandfather was pioneer of yoga, he established this college and started the therapeutic yoga.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Ghosh did more than simply make yoga popular. In some ways, he deeply changed it. When the British colonized India, they brought the practice of “physical culture” with them. And Ghosh was among the Indians in Calcutta who were profoundly influenced by this.
MUKTAMALA MITRA: He was also very interested in body building. Many of his students also learned bodybuilding and Mr. Universe.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: To Ghosh, yoga and bodybuilding were basically about the same thing — the strength and majesty of the human body, pushing it to its limit. When he opened his college of physical education in 1923, India was still under control of the British empire and bringing yoga practice into the realm of physical culture was an act of revolution, an attempt to elevate an Indian tradition and celebrate the beauty of Indian bodies.
For Ghosh, one of the most effective ways to spread his revolution was spectacle,
MUKTAMALA MITRA: The stunt shows, like supporting elephant on chest, supporting road roller on chest.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: She’s talking about a steamroller. A number of Ghosh’s signature tricks involved something heavy running over one of his students. The most famous is laying a strongman on a bed of nails and having a motorcycle run over the person.
[BED OF NAILS STUNT,
ANNOUNCER: ‘He did,’
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bishnu Ghosh was a showman.
In America, Bikram had told a simple and compelling story about himself as the one who had married yoga and physical culture — a story that allowed him to take credit for that innovation. But in India, the truth is different. It’s Ghosh who combined the elements of East and West. It’s Ghosh who figured out how crucial showmanship was to spreading his message. And it’s Ghosh who first wanted to make yoga something everybody everywhere could do.
JENNA WOLFE: ‘You know bikram yoga– it’s the hot yoga very very hot yoga. Ask someone who takes Bikram Yoga about Bikram yoga and chances are they will try to convert you and the reason for that one man with one very big plan.’]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram launched his first studio in this country in 1973. In 2003 he says there were 450 studios around the world bearing his name. At its height, there were reportedly 650 Bikram yoga studios in America alone — with teacher training creating more and more potential studio owners twice a year.
Studios could barely keep up with the demand. In the studio I worked in, the 6:30pm class would be over capacity. Regularly. People would get turned away — from a yoga class. And our studio wasn’t alone. This thing was a trend. It was a phenomenon. Bikram became part of the cultural lexicon
[LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN,
DAVID LETTERMAN: ‘Oh, I thought it was the guy’s name was Bikram. I’m sorry.’]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Jason Bateman talked about Bikram on Letterman
[JASON BATEMAN: ‘No, the guy’s name is Bikram.’
DAVID LETTERMAN: ‘The guy’s name is Bikram!’
JASON BATEMAN: ‘The guy’s name is Bikram, but yoga Dave is old.’
DAVID LETTERMAN: ‘I understand that. But it’s the Bikram that I have heard over and over again.’
JASON BATEMAN: ‘Yes there is Bikram yoga. That is a man’s name. And what Bikram’s hook is is that he turns up the heat so hot.’
DAVID LETTERMAN: ‘Right. That’s what I’ve heard.’
JASON BATEMAN: ‘In his studio that if you were if you were confused that you were in hell. He makes it very very clear.’
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram kept telling his story, and people kept buying it. However authentic or inauthentic the path he may have taken to arrive there, Bikram Choudhury had managed to create an empire.
[ABC NEWS NIGHTLINE,
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘I’ve built an empire. Yup. Why not? Half a billion people has been benefited directly indirectly from Bikram yoga around the globe.’]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: That empire though was built on a pretty shaky foundation.
MARTHA WILLIAMS: You know, when someone opens a studio or they open a franchise if you think about a franchise you think McDonald’s or Starbucks and clearly there is infrastructure and information and some kind of boilerplate formation that you would form your studio or mimic it afterwards or at least advice. But there was none of that.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Studio owners like Martha Williams in Minneapolis got none of that because, despite everyone always talking and writing about Bikram’s hundreds of studios, they didn’t actually belong to Bikram. They weren’t franchises. Instead, there existed this ill-defined trade between studio owners and Bikram himself centered around their ability to use Bikram’s name.
Eric Jennings — who met Bikram and hated him and then loved him and then went to training, eventually decided after training, like so many others, to open his own studio.
ERIC JENNINGS: When I opened my studio in Atlanta, I was a absolute nobody in the Atlanta yoga community. So if I were to open Eric Jennings yoga studio at that time, I don’t think I would’ve had any ability to draw customers. But Bikram had created this brand, the first hot yoga brand. And so, it was mutually beneficial for him to allow me to open a Bikram yoga studio, because I was increasing his visibility, I was increasing the Bikram yoga footprint, I was helping him to grow his brand, the benefit was was tangible, but it wasn’t directly financial.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Val Sklar went to teacher training in 1998, and opened her Pasadena studio that same year.
VAL SKLAR: There was no money involved going his direction. There was no franchise agreement. There was no affiliation agreement.
MARTHA WILLIAMS: We’ve never paid a franchise fee or sign something an agreement to that end to be affiliated with him.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram left millions upon millions of dollars on the table by not properly franchising. But what Bikram got instead of money — was control.
ERIC JENNINGS: My recollection is it was a three-page contract, and it was primarily concerned with ensuring that I would use Bikram’s legal language and terminology when referring to the yoga, for example, my business name had to be Bikram’s yoga College of India – Decatur.
I had to refer to my classes as Bikram yoga. I had to agree to only teach Bikram yoga, and to not teach other styles in my studio. I had to agree to only hire certified Bikram yoga instructors, and I had to agree to have carpet in my yoga room, and mirrors on the wall.
VAL SKLAR: Carpet, mirrors, certified Bikram teachers, 90 minute classes. That’s it.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: And even more important to Bikram than the mirrors and the carpet and the 90 minute classes, was that every class had to be taught exactly the same way.
ERIC JENNINGS: The dialogue.
MARTHA WILLIAMS: The dialogue.
ALEX WHEELER: The dialogue.
[BIKRAM YOGA DIALOGUE,
FEMALE TEACHER: Interlace all ten fingers underneath your chin
BIKRAM: All ten finger, interlock position. Underneath your chin.
FEMALE TEACHER: Pull up on your thighs.
BIKRAM: Concentrate. Meditate, with me.
FEMALE TEACHER: And please begin to inhale.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: It’s called the dialogue, but it’s really Bikram’s monologue. It’s based off a transcription of Bikram teaching a class. Down to the broken English and out of date phrases.
ERIC JENNINGS: One of the more widely known and ridiculed phrases is when we’re in a forward bend hugging our abdomen against our legs he describes it as like a Japanese ham sandwich.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: The dialogue was what Bikram hammered home at teacher training, and to new studio owners. It let Bikram be everywhere at once, let his words be the words that every single Bikram student would hear.
ERIC JENNINGS: It’s like the IKEA approach to yoga. the dialogue, as faulty as it may be, was brilliant in that it allowed him to really mass-produce a particular approach to a yoga sequence, and I think that really was the most revolutionary thing he did.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: This was Bikram’s real innovation — the sameness of the sequence — the mass production of yoga. And this is what allowed Bikram to spread his yoga much farther than Ghosh ever did.
[BIKRAM YOGA DIALOGUE
MALE TEACHER: Inhale, arms up over the head.
BIKRAM: Put your hands, palm together. Nice and tight grip.
MALE TEACHER: Palms together, interlace fingers, release index finger. Nice tight grip.
BIKRAM: No gap.
MALE TEACHER: Stretch up to the ceiling, go right and left a couple times.
BIKRAM: Right and left and right and left and right and left
ERIC JENNINGS: People would disparagingly refer to Bikram yoga as McYoga, and I understand that that was meant as an insult, but I also understand that that was largely consistent with Bikram’s intention.
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘Why not? What’s wrong with that? I eat Big Mac. That means is getting more popular, spreading out all over like McDonald’s.’]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: For a lot of people, this Indian yoga guru was maybe embracing the American way a little too much.
[ABC NEWS WORLD NEWS TONIGHT WITH PETER JENNINGS,
JUDY MULLER: ‘The very concept of selling a spiritual practice has offended some traditionalists. Yoga is based on five principles including don’t be greedy.’]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: It became a question of authenticity — whether Bikram could be both a yoga guru and a wealthy businessman.
[ABC NEWS WORLD NEWS TONIGHT WITH PETER JENNINGS,
PAUL KEEGAN ‘America’s changing yoga it’s turned it from a spiritual discipline into a fitness routine and a marketable commodity.’]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: This eastern practice was quickly becoming big business in mainstream white America — like billion dollar industry big business. By the early 2000s, nearly 20 million Americans were doing it. Madonna wrote a song called “Shanti Ashtangi”on a record that went on to sell 16 million copies…It was Americans who were fueling the yoga industry and driving its growth…but it was hard to stomach a guru who flaunted his wealth and his power the way Bikram did. It was hard to stomach a guru who behaved more like a spoiled American than what was thought of as a real Indian yoga guru.
MARTHA WILLIAMS: Our idea that he’s some kind of spiritual teacher. That’s where your own perception gets in the way of you thinking it’s good or bad for him to have a Rolls Royce or 12 or 20 or whatever. You know that’s so American to have that kind of wealth and kind of flaunt it in a way. And I think the only reason why it was wrong for him was because he was a yoga teacher
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: As his brand grew, what felt like exponentially, it exposed the essential tension in Bikram’s empire — on the one hand, he had all this control and power. But on the other hand, looked at as a business, what he had built was an absolute mess.
CHAD CLARK: My name is Chad Clark. I worked for Bikram personally for several years. I worked for many studios around the country
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: When Chad Clark first tried Bikram Yoga in 1999, he was anything but a yogi.
CHAD CLARK: I was 235 lbs I had a 19 inch neck, I had 19 inch biceps, I looked like I played for the NFL because that’s what I thought health was.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: But the yoga helped an old back injury and so he decided to stick with it, which is how he found himself walking into Bikram Yoga NYC in Manhattan
CHAD CLARK: The first thing I noticed was an acrid smell of formaldehyde from a electrical device melting. Now, I had been an electrician I knew right away that they had a serious issue. I said to the girl at the desk, “Is the owner here because I smell smoke?” She was like, “Shh shh keep it quiet. No one wants to know about that.”
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Chad could smell their thermostat starting to burn. Because even as Bikram yoga studios started popping up by the hundreds around the globe, that fundamental question of how do you keep a room at 105 degrees for hours on end had never been answered.
CHAD CLARK: No one had any clue how to build a hot room. It’s not like you just turn the heat on. It doesn’t work. You have to have special thermostats. You have to have special equipment that can take higher return air temperatures.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: But studios didn’t have all that special equipment. They were built out by plumbers and electricians devising work arounds to trick thermostats to stay on and sustain temperatures far higher than they were designed to run at. Which was exactly what Chad had to undo at Bikram Yoga NYC.
CHAD CLARK: I renovated, repaired, brought things to a reasonable level of safety.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Word soon got around that Chad was Mr. Fix It. A reputation that preceded him when he arrived in L.A. for teacher training…Bikram put him to work immediately.
CHAD CLARK: Everything was completely illegal. The entire facility was a hair’s breadth away from constant disaster.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Chad became indispensable to Bikram. And not just because of his technical know-how. When Chad began traveling around the country, visiting studios and advising them on their construction, Bikram gave him a second job — To be his spy.
CHAD CLARK: He would send me out to go visit other studios and record them or tell him if they were teaching but, or anything different or anything else. If there was anything deviating, he would call them up and say, “I’m taking away your right to use Bikram. You can’t teach Bikram anymore.”
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: If studio owners crossed Bikram, he would do everything in his power to cast them out of the community. He’d publicly denounce them. He’d take their studio names off the official directory on the Bikram Yoga website, and strip them of their right to operate.
CHAD CLARK: I remember being there thinking, “Bikram’s like Jabba the Hutt with all his little minions around him whispering in his ear, “Oh, she did this. Oh, Susie’s teaching 60-minute classes in New York. Oh, Bikram. Let me tell you this.” He cultivated this.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram wanted to make sure that no one was changing his yoga. Or challenging him. Not even his wife, Rajashree.
CHAD CLARK: With Bikram’s organization if you asked Rajashree and she said yes, most of the time Bikram would counter-mandate because he didn’t want her to have any power.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Because of his ability to solve the problem of heating studios, Chad began to unintentionally build up a great deal of power in the Bikram community.
CHAD CLARK: I was also devising systems that could be used that would cost anywhere from a thousand bucks on up to 30,000 for studios to take the design
I made my own thermostats. I made my own line of thermostats.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Which made him a very popular and desirable commodity among studio owners and would be studio owners, whose businesses literally depended on what he was doing.
CHAD CLARK: The students during the training, were asking when I was going to give a talk on heating. And, Bikram got so jealous when they were nonstop “When’s Chad going to give his talk? “When’s Chad going to give his talk?” Then Bikram finally says, “Chad is never going to talk. He’s never giving any talk so forget about it.”
I took class one day. It was a Saturday at Bikram’s place. He calls me in his office, He said, “I want you to get all your equipment.” And, I had a sizeable amount of mechanical equipment, furnaces and so forth, “out of my warehouse tomorrow or I’m keeping it. And I don’t ever want you to come back,” so I left.
He doesn’t want to share the light with anyone else under any circumstance. He’s the only person to be in the light. If anyone else is in the light, he leaves the stage.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram Choudhury was always watching. Not only were there people like Chad who would spy at Bikram’s behest, there was a powerful unspoken force within the community. The word that a lot of people used was “Big Brother.”
Everyone knew that if word got back to Bikram about someone straying from the dialogue or strict 90 minute classes, that Bikram might sue you. Or excommunicate you. Studio owner Alex Wheeler knew exactly how it went
ALEX WHEELER: The fear tactics. It was pretty simple for him in a lot of ways. He would take a leader in the group and cut their fucking head off and everybody would fall into line.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: I don’t know that I ever fully understood the depth of this while I was working at my yoga studio. After a couple of years, I was getting really good at the practice. Everyone was telling me what a great teacher I was going to be, I was even running the studio for my boss while she was on maternity leave. But I hadn’t gone to teacher training yet. In the meantime, though, I suggested that I learn the dialogue myself so that in case of an emergency, I could just lead the class. But when I brought this up with my boss, she made it clear that this was NOT an option. It wasn’t even something we could discuss. I remember being really hurt by that, taking it personally, thinking it was somehow about me. But it wasn’t about me. My boss understood the ramifications, I didn’t. I didn’t appreciate that someone would inevitably tell Bikram and she would be cast out, just like Tony, just like Chad.
[ABC NEWS NIGHTLINE,
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘Students cannot open the mouth, get the fuck out of here.’]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram understood the power he wielded. That he could decide to functionally close a studio or ruin someone’s career. That you could only have a career in the first place if you paid $10,000 and came to him to get trained. That you had to survive whatever he threw at you, not let him steal your peace, all just to get his blessing to teach his yoga.
And in 2006, when teacher trainings moved out of the limited space of headquarters and into enormous resort hotels, with Bikram occupying a private suite…that power and what he did with it, went to some very dark places.
Places so dark that most people weren’t even aware they existed, places where he ruined more than just careers.
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: Welcome to Bikram’s torture chamber to kill yourself for next 90 minutes.]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Jenelle Leat was wide eyed and innocent and just 21 years old when she went to teacher training to study with Bikram.
JENELLE LEAT: Imagine what it’s going to 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: And when she left training, she wanted to come back.
JENELLE LEAT: After seeing the staff members that were at my teacher training, I saw that you know, they knew a lot of people, they knew a lot of the visiting teachers that would come in. They were really well respected and they were on the inside, and I wanted to do that. I wanted to– I wanted to be on the inside.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Jenelle wanted a future in the Bikram Yoga world. And she understood right away that it was a network, and success or promotion would depend as much upon working that network as it would on ability. So a couple of years after training she applied to be on staff, and she got in
JENELLE LEAT: you’ve been chosen out of this group of people and you’re one of the select few Bikram has handpicked you. It’s just the wording I remember feeling so special and I remember feeling very lucky and like, it was just a big achievement for me to be picked.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: She felt like she’d been picked by Bikram himself.
JENELLE LEAT: You know, my idea of him was he’s on this pedestal, and he’s this supreme being.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: But before she left, a friend, who was also a studio owner and had been at training as a staff member herself had an unexpected warning
JENELLE LEAT: “I want to tell you that when I was on staff …Yelena this other girl She just called me one night and she said I don’t know what just happened, but Bikram invited me to his room and like he tried to kiss me,” and I can’t remember 100% exactly what she said if it did happen or something like this. You know, “he invited me to his bed,” this kind if thing.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Her friend felt compelled to warn her because when you’re on staff you’re required to spend a lot of time with Bikram. Sometimes alone. But Jenelle was not expecting to hear something like this, and, more importantly, it wasn’t something Jenelle was ready to hear.
JENELLE LEAT: I just didn’t really want to believe it.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: And so she didn’t, she filed the story away, and off she went to training. This time as one of Bikram’s staff.
JENELLE LEAT: And, so, I was in the office and I was doing work and I got a call.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: The call was from her roommate.
JENELLE LEAT: “Jenelle, we’re watching movies in Bikram’s room why don’t you come?” As soon as she said that, there was something inside of me that went red flag.
It was very late. It was like 10pm or something like this and I was like, “It’s really late I got to get this stuff done,” she goes, “It won’t be long. Just come up and it’ll be fine.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: The way her roommate kept insisting made Jenelle feel like if she said no, it was going to be a problem.
JENELLE LEAT: So I was like, “Ugh. Okay.” And he’s staying in this big huge massive suite with multiple rooms and kitchen and high ceilings, and already I felt weird, but I just chalked it up to the fact that it was Bikram and I viewed him as this celebrity I guess, and it was just us girls and him.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Jenelle was one of four women watching movies with Bikram in his suite that night — her roommate Judes, another staff member Ilke, and Bikram’s niece Manali were also there.
JENELLE LEAT: And he was getting Manali to massage his feet and everything, and then he would say, “Manali that’s enough. You’ve done it for long enough. Judes you can do it now.” So, everyone would happily do it and I’m sitting there thinking like, “I don’t want to do that. I hope he doesn’t ask me. I hope he doesn’t ask me. I’ll feel so uncomfortable.” Slowly he dismissed Manali. “Oh Manali, you can go. You can go. It’s getting late, and then dismissed Judes, so it’s just me and Ilke. I don’t even think he knew my name. It was just like, “You come over here. Come over here and massage feet.” Eventually he dismissed Ilke, “Okay, you can go.” And ah, I just knew. I knew that I shouldn’t be there. He wanted me to you know massage further up his calf so, “Okay, massage my calf, now my knees.” All the while he’s just intermittently putting in these sort of subliminal messages, about how he can never be alone and he always needs to have somebody with him, and how all the good yogis they get really good massages, and it’s really important, and as he’s slowly telling me to massage further up and further up and further up. And at one point he is telling me to massage like right up in his groin. I still could … As much as in my head I’m screaming like, “What the fuck are you doing? This is not good. You need to leave,” I just couldn’t.
And I’m also in my mind going, “If I leave he’s going to kick me off of being staff and if I’m not on staff, then everyone’s going to know.
and I care about being a teacher and I love being a teacher and I really respect the job, and I am very proud and so I didn’t want to lose any of that….and so further up, further up. Eventually I’m feeling his testicles and He’s talking about it’s really important to get the perineum massaged and it releases a lot of tension, and it’s really healthy for you and just speaking so matter of fact about these things. And eventually he got up and he was like, “I’m going to go to bed and I just need a massage. I need a massage to fall asleep.” I reluctantly in my mind I’m going, “Okay. I’m just going to massage him and that’s okay, that’s okay. I can do that.” and I’ve already gone through the whole scenario in my mind, “I can never tell anybody about this.” So, you know, he proceeded to walk towards his bedroom and so I followed and it was dark in the room. There’s no lights on, but I could still see his silhouette. He takes his pants off in front of me and he’s fully naked, and then he gets in bed. When he did that I was shocked and I didn’t know what was going to happen. He proceeded to get in bed, get under the covers and he’s like patting on the bed like, “Come and get in.” I thought to myself, “Okay, I’m just going to sit up. I’m not going to get laid down. I’m not going to get in the covers. I’m just going to sit up and I’m just going to like massage his shoulders until he falls asleep,” you know, because he’s still just really making a point of saying, “I can never be alone. Even when I fall asleep I need somebody to be there.”
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Eventually, Bikram did fall asleep. Jenelle stayed on the bed, on top of the covers, frozen, her mind racing.
JENELLE LEAT: I’m sitting there bug eyed. I’m assuming by then it was probably like 2 am or something like this and so I thought, “Okay, I know that he’s asleep for sure. I’m going to get out of the bed and I’m going to go to the couch and I’m just going to wait there until I see that it’s 7 am, because I know at 7 am I need to go into the office. I need to print out some paperwork. I need to bring it to the sign in for the morning class and I need to get all that ready.”
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: At 7am, Jenelle went straight to the office. And while she was there getting everything ready for the morning class, one of Bikram’s senior most teachers walked in.
JENELLE LEAT: And she says, “How are you doing?” I just felt like, it just came out of me I said, “Yeah, I’m pretty tired. I was in Bikram’s room all night by myself. And she just looked at me right away she knew. Like I knew she knew and at that moment Judes came in the office, and Judes, you know “Hey guys, how’s it going?”
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Judes sat down between this senior teacher and Jenelle, but her head was down and she wasn’t looking at either of them. The senior teacher looked right at Jenelle.
JENELLE LEAT: She said, “When you girls are asked go to Bikram’s room, you can never go in there alone. You always need to buddy up. You always need to be with somebody,” and Judes is like, “Oh yeah, no worries. Of course.” She’s really bubbly about it and she kept doing her thing.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Clearly, Jenelle wasn’t the first young woman who had talked about an uncomfortable or inappropriate incident with Bikram. She looked right at the senior teacher who mouthed the words.
JENELLE LEAT: She’s pointing her finger at Judes and she goes, “She doesn’t get it.”
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: But the senior teacher did get it. And it became clear to Jenelle that there were secrets. There were people who knew what was going on. There were people who didn’t. There were people you could tell. There were people you couldn’t. And there was a protocol, as unsatisfying as it might be, for how to deal with the problem.
JENELLE LEAT: Basically instead of stopping the man from doing what he’s doing, or somebody saying something let’s just make sure that, all of these women are buddying up so that we can be safe against this man, instead of saying anything to anybody. You know, that was the defense. That was the way to deal with the situation.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: But that kind of solution — women talking amongst themselves, going around the real problem — can only hold for so long.