Members of the Bikram community wrestle with Bikram’s behavior, their own complicity, and grapple with the question, “Can Bikram the yoga be separated from Bikram the man?”
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Members of the Bikram community wrestle with Bikram’s behavior, their own complicity, and grapple with the question, “Can Bikram the yoga be separated from Bikram the man?”
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.
ERIC JENNINGS: I was struggling to find, is there a way that we can hold on to some level of community, in spite of this?
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: There’s nothing to lose — you know why? Because we never had it.]
TIFFANY FRIEDMAN: He’s just a circus performer. This is his circus, and you can always exit the tent.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Part 5: Reckoning.
JENNIFER BOYLE: Part of me just wonders, is he laughing at us? Was he laughing at us at the time? And just sitting here thinking, “These idiots will believe anything I say just because I’m an authentic Indian yoga guru.” We were all kind of under that spell.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Once your vision of something or someone is shattered. You can’t UN-shatter it. When somebody like Bikram does what Bikram is accused of doing — assaulting half a dozen women– betraying the trust of tens of thousands of people — it’s not always easy to figure out the way forward. There’s a desire for justice, of course, but getting it isn’t always easy, or fair.
The stories of the sexual assaults of Sarah Baughn and Larissa Anderson and Jane Doe 3 and Maggie Genthner and Dana McLellan and Jill Lawler were brought to the people whose job you would think it was to guarantee justice — the Los Angeles Police Department, and the Los Angeles District Attorney — but they decided not to bring charges.
And Bikram denied all the accusations.
Still though the women wanted to force some kind of reckoning for Bikram. So they tried the only other option that the court system allowed — civil lawsuits. Suing Bikram for damages.
ANCHOR: ‘Now a new lawsuit filed this month has a half a dozen women accusing him of sexual assault.’]
[CNN/HLN DAILY SHARE,
YASMIN VOSSOUGHIAN: ANNOUNCER: ‘For five decades he’s built a yoga empire, which right now might be crumbling since five former students accused him of rape, and one accused him of sexual assault.’]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: The six women who accused Bikram of sexual assault and rape have always maintained the lawsuits were not about money, they were about justice and acknowledgment — they were about accountability.
[ABC NEWS NIGHTLINE,
REPORTER: ‘The jury is in and as he left court in Los Angeles today…
BIKRAM: Please don’t bother me. Please.
REPORTER: One of the most successful yoga gurus in the world is now in a hot mess.’
MICKI JAFA-BODDEN: ‘I feel vindicated, I’m elated.’]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: A woman did win a judgment against Bikram. But it wasn’t any of the women who had been assaulted. It was his former attorney, Micki Jafa-Bodden.
[ABC NEWS NIGHTLINE,
MICKI JAFA-BODDEN: ‘My professional relationship ended when I was fired by Mr. Choudhury.’]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: She sued for wrongful termination and sexual harassment.
[ABC GOOD MORNING AMERICA,
AMY ROBACH: ‘A Los Angeles jury hit Bikram Choudhury with nearly seven and a half million dollars in damages to his former legal adviser.’]
[ABC NEWS NIGHTLINE,
REPORTER: ‘More than seven million dollars awarded to one victim.’]
MICKI JAFA-BODDEN: ‘I’m still a little gobsmacked by it, yes.’]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Most reporting focussed on the sheer size of the judgment…and glossed over the fact that none of the $7 million dollars was going to the women who had been assaulted.
In December of 2015, just weeks before Bikram’s trial with Micki began, Bikram and Rajashree filed for divorce. It wasn’t like the divorce happened because Rajashree was denouncing Bikram for what he had done. Many people in the community say they hadn’t really been together as husband and wife for years — but making it official with a divorce ensured that Rajashree would not be liable for damages in Bikram’s cases. And what concerned Micki’s lawyers was that it also gave Bikram a way, on paper at least, to transfer his assets to Rajashree’s name so that they would be protected from legal claims…like the $7 million dollars he was not paying Micki. The divorce settlement gives almost everything to Rajashree. Though there’s no real indication that she actually received any of it.
A judge did order Bikram to hand over much of what remained to Micki — his company, and a fleet of luxury cars. But the company was basically worthless. And his cars were long gone.
AARON OSTEN: ‘He’s got a luxury car collection he moved them out of the state he’s trying to ship them to Dubai so we went in and got orders from the court saying you cannot move these assets any more and he kept doing it.’]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: The six women who accused Bikram of more serious crimes have not been afforded the kind of justice they had hoped for. After endless delays, five of the six opted for small monetary settlements. Only Jill Lawler remains, hoping to get her day in court.
In May of 2017, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Bikram Choudhury. But, not for sexual assault. The warrant was for refusing to pay what he owed Micki Jafa-Bodden.
[ABC WORLD NEWS TONIGHT,
DAVID MUIR: ‘ An arrest warrant issued for a famous fitness expert a master at yoga known around the world. The founder of Bikram Yoga accused of hiding assets and now fleeing the country amid allegations of sex assault.’]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram fled the country, but he may not have to stay away all that much longer. In the fall of 2017 he filed for bankruptcy, which could wipe out everything that he owes and could even potentially clear the warrant for his arrest.
MARTHA WILLIAMS: there are many of us that still communicate with him. I mean it’s not like he’s gone. He’s just sort of left the building…temporarily… I don’t know who knows if he’ll be back in the US. It’s not like he’s some Maharaja or the Wizard of Oz behind a veil, he’s super available.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: I’ve followed him bouncing between Mexico and India and Thailand and Dubai through his daughter’s Instagram account. He’s not hiding, he’s just doing things outside of the United States — including his teacher trainings.
[BIKRAM TEACHER TRAINING VIDEO,
STUDENT: And here you go, we’re right here in Mexico. Aculpoco, this is where it’s all at, Bikram Yoga. Teacher training, it just finished…]
Bikram Choudhury still leads 9-week Bikram Yoga teacher trainings twice a year.
[BIKRAM TEACHER TRAINING VIDEO,
STUDENT: …you wanna be here, because it’s gonna be off the hook!
There were 70 students in the Fall 2017 training. That’s a far cry from his all time high of 525 students. But it’s still 70 people who paid more than $10,000 to study with him…
I went to Mexico to meet him at the training he was holding in a hotel in Acapulco. Before Bikram would agree to a recorded interview, he wanted to size me up with no microphones. His assistant brought me up to his suite, where I was introduced to Bikram’s two kids. And then to Bikram, in his signature skin tight mesh black top and a pair of warm up pants.
“Let her sit next to me,” he said, “I know she’s not going to sue me for sexual harassment.”
I was a little nervous, unsure of being on my own in a foreign country with a man accused of violent crimes, and unsure of where the conversation would go, but Bikram immediately started talking…and never stopped.
He told me he was bigger than Michael Jackson in India, that he cured former Attorney General Janet Reno of her Parkinson’s disease. That his appearance on 60 Minutes in 2005 was the highest rated show in the history of television.
I expected to be able to recognize the man that people say he once was, to catch a glimpse of his compassion, his genius. But I didn’t. It was pure ego.
We went down to the restaurant, where Bikram told me he never eats — even as he was shoving a creamy pasta dish from the buffet into his mouth.
He pulled out his phone and showed me old photos of him in his prime. Young Bikram in his black speedo doing yoga. A t-shirt design his son did for Bikram Yoga. A photo of Britney Spears. In a bikini. It was totally unclear why he even had it.
At some point the bragging shifted from an old man trying to relive his glory days of decades ago to the kind of bragging you use to show your power. He told me “You know, I was India’s first brand.” He said “journalists are responsible for cancer.” He told me he was done with America. He talked about how stupid we are, how we fucked up, how he had sacrificed so much for us and we were too dumb to get it and he was done with us now.
By hour three, Bikram’s monologue had turned to his legal troubles.
“I’m not a saint,” he told me, “I have a girlfriend.” He asked if I’d met Maggie Genthner and then said “I never touched her. She smells.”
There had been a kind of manic warmth about Bikram when we first met. But by the end of the night, that lightness was gone. His stories now were about the women who had killed themselves because he wouldn’t sleep with them. And the one who wasn’t successful in her attempt and broke every bone in her body.
His eyes were dark and vacant. I was in the presence of a person who felt completely gone.
We parted ways so he could deliver his evening lecture. He bounded on stage in front of 70 students shouting, “I’m in a weird fucking mood tonight!”
The next day I got on a plane and went home. Bikram’s lawyers wouldn’t allow him to give me a formal interview. That was the last contact I had with Bikram Choudhury.
JOHN BRYAN: I’m John Bryan, I’m a restructuring specialist.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram Yoga and its affiliated companies are in bankruptcy. Bikram Choudhury still owns the company, but has resigned from all day to day positions.
The person actually in charge day-to-day is John Bryan, the acting CEO. He’s a specialist in distressed assets. A turnaround artist. And he’s trying to find a path forward in the wake of all the settlements.
JOHN BRYAN: Which creditor comes first? Who has priority? Who gets money first? If there’s only a little bit of money to give to creditors who’s gonna get it, who’s not gonna get it?
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: But John Bryan doesn’t see his job as just making sure the Bikram company gets out from under its financial obligations. He thinks he can relaunch the Bikram brand.
JOHN BRYAN: There were hamburgers before McDonald’s and there was chicken before Kentucky Fried Chicken and there was Yoga before Bikram Choudhury, but Bikram did a similar thing. He created a global brand where none existed before.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: He thinks he can help make Bikram bigger and more influential than ever.
JOHN BRYAN: We are going to be all about female empowerment. We are going to be the absolute poster child for how you empower women. That’s what we’re gonna be all about. And we’re gonna show the world that people can come back from these terrible types of problems that this company has had and survive, and not only survive, but thrive and that’s our goal.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: How do you… That sounds like a great goal, but …
JOHN BRYAN: How do we do it?
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: How do you do it with Bikram involved? How could anything with him still involved be the epitome of female empowerment?
JOHN BRYAN: Well… When I say involved, he’s a shareholder and he was the founder. He did some great things. He did some horrific things. With that said we’re never going to leave the fact that he was the founder and built this company… Ray Kroc is still the founder of McDonald’s. Henry Ford was the founder of Ford motor company. Now Henry Ford had some points of view that were anathema to the world, you know what, the name is still on the front of those buildings.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Throughout the country, studio owners are weighing that exact question — do you take Bikram’s name off the front of your building? Do you keep practicing, teaching?
Tiffany Rhodes Friedman, a studio owner in Manhattan Beach, California decided to take his name off her business and walk away from his yoga
TIFFANY FRIEDMAN: I think for me, I wanted to be a great teacher. You know I think when you’re brainwashed, you think you’re changing people’s lives. But ultimately, all that goodness that we think we’re doing, is it really good, or are we just buying into something that’s damaging a whole lot of people? For me, that’s when I had to walk away. I thought I’m in this to help people, to make people feel better, and if I continue to participate in something that is harmful to even one person, then I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it and sleep well at night.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: For studio owner Eric Jennings from Decatur, Georgia, who’s owned his studio since 2002, the decision wasn’t as black and white.
ERIC JENNINGS: There are people who just can’t accept that the yoga is valid anymore because of its association with Bikram, and I understand that, emotionally, but I can’t deny my own experience of the yoga, and seeing what an amazing practice it is, and how profoundly helpful and healing it can be for so many people.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: But he’d seen the pain in his community, and felt like he had to say something.
ERIC JENNINGS: it was enough to cause me to call all my teachers together, and to make a formal announcement that we were distancing ourselves… I published the letter that I wrote terminating my relationship with Bikram Yoga, Incorporated, and I posted that letter on my yoga studio website.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Still, he was initially reluctant to take Bikram’s name off his studio.
ERIC JENNINGS: Largely from fear, because I had created a brand, a local brand, and I was afraid that changing the name would really hurt the business. But when I did finally, a year later, change my name, it was one of the best things that’s ever happened to my studio. People came out of the woodwork to thank me. We had some students that we hadn’t seen for a long time come back to practice at our studio again, who told us we didn’t want to tell you why we left, but we left because we thought you were financially contributing to Bikram Yoga, and so we didn’t want to support that.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Studio owner Val Sklar also struggled with the decision…and after more than 15 years of owning her studio, she broke with Bikram and changed her studio name.
VAL SKALR: My choice is to disassociate and continue to teach this yoga that’s brilliant and to continue to practice this yoga that there’s just nothing like it, and that’s my passion, that’s my belief.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: The choice is more complicated for studio owners than, say, should I boycott this movie because the director is accused of rape? Boycotting Bikram would be like boycotting their own businesses, their own community, their own identities.
Even taking down the name Bikram is hard for some people to adjust to, like studio owner Martha Williams, because that word, “Bikram” had come to stand for a lot more than just the man “Bikram Choudhury.”
MARTHA WILLIAMS: You know Bikram the word Bikram means victory. It’s something that has a larger meaning than just this guy’s name. It is a big giant system of yoga that many many people do and it is a very specific thing.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram is the name of the man, the name of the yoga he claims to have created, AND the name of the entire community of people who came to benefit from and love this practice.
MARTHA WILLIAMS: Looking back you could say well he was in a position of power and he abused his power. And I’m like, who gave him that power? I went to him to learn 26 postures. I did not go to him because I thought he was a guru.
I don’t know, I sometimes think…did I just think he was some sort of necessary evil.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: There’s a phrase I heard so much doing this story:
MARTHA WILLIAMS: Separate the man from the yoga and just move on.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: That expression: separate the man from the yoga…it’s been around a long time…in the advice to trust the process and only take from Bikram what was useful, to ignore the rest of what would come out of his mouth, no matter how terrible. When Jenelle Leat told a senior teacher about the night in his hotel room and was told that it was her responsibility to never be alone with him again. There had long been an attempt to keep bad, fallible Bikram the man separate from Bikram the yoga.
JILL LAWLER: That was like a slogan for when the allegations first came out.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Jill Lawler heard this line, separate the man from the yoga, over and over when she came forward with her story.
JILL LAWLER: And it was an excuse for people to sweep the issue under the rug. They would say, separate the man from the yoga and shut up and do your yoga instead of actually acknowledging that they had been following and worshiping a rapist for so many years.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: For decades this was the way for Bikram’s followers to square his actions with their love of the practice. But perhaps the path forward is not to separate the man from the yoga…but to reconcile them. As Benjamin Lorr points out, that’s a core tenet of the yoga itself.
BENAJAMIN LORR: Hatha yoga is predicated on the resolution of dichotomies resolving these kind of opposites and there’s one etymology of hatha which may or may not be correct where ha is sun and tha is moon and Hatha Yoga is kind of resolving these opposites and Bikram certainly contains those opposites.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: I needed to reconcile those things, too. And in trying to do that, I kept thinking about something else I learned when I was in India, something I heard from almost everyone I spoke with
The very center of Bikram’s identity, the detail he sold all his students on…it’s a lie.
MUKUL DUTTA: He was not a high-level expert in advanced yoga. That at least I know very well.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram was never a child yoga prodigy. He was never a yoga prodigy at all.
He didn’t come to Ghosh’s college until he was a teenager. And he learned weight lifting and massage.
MUKUL DUTTA: Bikram Da was more known as a very skilled masseur.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Mukul Dutta was also a student of Bikram’s guru, Bishnu Ghosh. And he told me one more detail…about all those yoga championships Bikram said he won.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Around what year would the National India Yoga Championship have started?
MUKUL DUTTA: National?
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON:: Wasn’t there a …
JEROME ARMSTRONG: When did the National Yoga Competition start?
MUKUL DUTTA: National Yoga Competition started much later. Much later. That time my master was not alive, that was much later.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: There weren’t national yoga championships until the 1970s after Bishnu Ghosh died, and after Bikram left Calcutta.
Each lie, in and of itself, is simple. Maybe not even all that important. But taken together they change everything. We all believed, without question, that he had grown up a yogi, a gifted yogi, a champion. And everything Bikram had, all his power and respect and authenticity came from this.
There is no pretending Bikram never happened. There’s no erasing his name from the history books. His legacy is spread too far and too wide.
But Bikram Choudhury didn’t make Bikram Yoga the phenomenon he did all on his own.
ERIC JENNINGS: I feel like studio owners, like myself, should share the credit in making Bikram yoga the phenomenon that it became. All credit to Bikram for creating it, and for disseminating it, distributing it, proselytizing for it, but I want some of the credit for making it accessible to the population that practices at my studio.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: There are so many people who have opened studios and taught this yoga and spread it far and wide, to lots of students who never even knew that Bikram was an actual living person…and if Bikram Yoga is bigger than just Bikram Choudhury, then maybe it’s possible for the practice to evolve and transcend his shortcomings as a human being. Maybe there is a way to take the good in what Bikram created and move forward.
That’s what Jill Lawler is trying to do.
JILL LAWLER: I didn’t practice for years, I missed it the whole time, I recently came back and started practicing. It’s a whole new kind of practice for me.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Jill doesn’t practice at studios that still use Bikram’s name or are owned by people who support him. And now when she walks in a studio, she no longer has secrets, people know what happened to her.
JILL LAWLER: And the reason it was hard for me to do it for a few years was because I couldn’t separate the man from the yoga, and I didn’t really want to.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: So Jill had started doing Kundalini Yoga.
JILL LAWLER: I was going every day and I loved it and then I started researching the founder, Yogi Bajan. Guess what? He’s also been accused of, like, similar things as Bikram. And that was really disheartening. I was like, fuck. Is there a style of yoga that isn’t founded by a rapist?
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Stefanie Syman wrote a history of yoga in America called “The Subtle Body”…and she says the problem of sexual abuse is widespread.
STEFANIE SYMAN: Bikram’s scale of abuse I think is notable, but the fact that he abused his devotees is not special. That is true of almost every single Indian guru who came to America. There are very few that you can point to that are clean.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: It’s a huge dilemma for a lot of people who love yoga — how do you make sense of a practice that has healed you coming from a guru who has revealed himself to be a predator?
JILL LAWLER: They both have these founders that are accused of these things, but the yogas both made me feel so good, so am I…deceiving myself by not doing them? Like who’s punishing who kind of thing.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Right now it feels a little like the wild west. This community went from operating under the strictest of confines — only Bikram’s class only Bikram’s way only by Bikram teachers…to an uncertain future where it’s up to them to define what they practice and what they teach — and how. A vast majority of studios have dropped the word Bikram from their name. Almost every studio has broken Bikram’s cardinal rule. There are 60 minute Bikram classes, hot pilates, hot vinyasa, hot you name it. New teacher trainings, that don’t involve Bikram Choudhury, are popping up everywhere. For the first time there is freedom, to take from Bikram what they want, and to leave what they don’t.
VAL SKLAR: He had a profound impact on my life. This is what people don’t understand. He saved so many lives. This yoga saves so many lives. I mean at 28, I was taking three drugs, five years away from a hip replacement, and back then, they weren’t as good as they are now. It’s hard to explain that.
BENJAMIN LORR: At a certain point it’s not helpful to denigrate the success stories of Bikram yoga because if people are coming up to you and telling you that this yoga changed my life for the better and this yoga allows me to walk normally and hold down my job. You should take them seriously. They’re not just crazy eyed cultists. They’re really thoughtful people.
ERIC JENNINGS: I wish life were black and white, and simple, but it’s really, really messy, but that’s the reality that we’re faced with, and we have to find ways to come to terms with both.
JENNIFER BOYLE: It really was such an important part of my life. I just love my body in those postures. I love feeling the shift of the weight on my foot, on my standing foot. I love the feeling of having that perfect contraction in your leg where you’re not hyper extending, and you’re just contracting just enough, and finding that balance in standing bow where it does feel effortless.
BENJAMIN LORR: I mean he’s created a yoga that has healed and helped tens of thousands of people at minimum and that has hurt and destroyed thousands of lives. And there’s no arguing with either sides of those coins.
JENNIFER BOYLE: I do think that the yoga has a huge potential to help people transform and maybe there will be a day when people can do the yoga and not even know that there was ever this creepy fucking dude with a skullet behind it. I think there has to be like, a new era. It’s officially upon us.