A Netflix documentary reveals the sordid story behind the dazzling success and dizzying fall of the founder of Bikram Yoga, discovers Indira Kannan.
Photograph: Kind courtesy Bikram Yoga/Facebook
Yoga guru Bikram Choudhury did what America famously allows, inspires and invites immigrants to do — pursue the American Dream.
He identified an opportunity, used his talents and hard work to meet a demand, sold his product admirably and sat back to watch the millions roll in.
The trouble is, as a new Netflix documentary directed by Oscar-winning Australian film-maker Eva Orner points out, the dream was built over the nightmares of many.
The title says it all: Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator. The film tracks his career in the United States, from the time he arrived in the early 1970s to the current decade when he fled under a cloud of accusations, civil cases and pending payouts.
The focus of the documentary, however, is on the last descriptor in its title and on lobbying for justice for Choudhury’s alleged victims.
Their charges are serious: from rape, sexual harassment, and physical and verbal abuse to emotional manipulation. Orner gets many of them to give first-hand accounts of their experiences.
IMAGE: Bikram Choudhury attracted thousands of followers with his unique style of yoga. Photograph: Kind courtesy Bikram Yoga/Facebook
By the start of this decade, allegations had started to emerge about the flamboyant guru. His saga had all the elements of a potboiler — the young, exotic immigrant who made good and became a huge celebrity in California, the state where stars are born.
He tasted early success when Hollywood stars tried his regimen and swore by it. Soon he was a familiar figure on national television, often appearing unselfconsciously in the same outfit he taught in — a black Speedo or briefs almost smaller than the title of Orner’s documentary.
He loved to show off his Rolex, mansion and fleet of luxury cars, as evident from the archival clips featured in the film.
None of his interviewers challenged any of his tales, of winning non-existent yoga championships in India, or a grateful President Richard Nixon gifting him his green card after he cured a persistent problem during a stay in Hawaii.
Orner says she could find no records to prove Nixon ever met Choudhury. She also travels to his hometown Kolkata to verify his claims of inventing his signature asanas.
In fact, his attempt to copyright asanas was denied by a US court and also vehemently opposed by the Indian government a few years ago.
But Choudhury had arguably done more than anyone to fuel yoga’s explosive rise across the US.
He devised a routine consisting of 26 asanas and two breathing exercises, all to be done in carpeted rooms maintained at 40 degrees Celsius.
He franchised a growing chain of Bikram Yoga studios; the teachers would have to be trained and certified by him, each paying over $10,000 for gruelling nine-week teacher training courses, often held at lavish resorts.
Orner shows footage where Choudhury, perched on a throne with a personal air conditioner behind him, instructs, mocks and berates hundreds of sweating students, who nevertheless idolise him.
Those sessions were often the setting for much of Choudhury’s abusive behaviour, as detailed by Orner’s interviewees.
The guru would order some chosen female students to come up to his suite, where they were harassed, assaulted or raped.
One of them says she was raped in Choudhury’s house, even as his wife and children slept upstairs. By their own accounts, they didn’t complain because they were overawed, intimidated, helpless or simply didn’t want to jeopardise their investment and future careers.
Many also genuinely believed in the healing powers of his hot yoga. Nobody doubted Choudhury’s mastery of the ancient Indian discipline.
Choudhury left the US after his long-time lawyer Minakshi Jafa-Bodden won a civil suit against him for wrongful termination and sexual harassment that ordered him to pay her damages of $7 million.
He has also faced several other civil suits, but has denied all the accusations and claims he is nearly bankrupt. Surprisingly, however, he never faced criminal charges.
Choudhury continues to operate in other countries like Mexico, where he organised a teacher training camp in Acapulco last year, as shown in the film.
This is a story of a man who owed his phenomenal success to his knowledge of yoga, and his downfall to behaviour that ran entirely counter to how a true yogi should live his life.
Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator will stream on Netflix from November 20.