Bikram Choudhury: The other side of success

A new documentary on hot yoga guru Bikram Choudhury premiered at the Toronto film festival reveals the dark side of the famous yogi.

Bikram Choudhury, entertainer, stream of bodies, good health, 44th Toronto International Film Festival,
File photo of Bikram Choudhury giving yoga lessons in one of his studios in the US.

Bikram Choudhury was a born entertainer. His salty language and showy yoga postures brought a stream of bodies, obsessed with good health, to his sprawling studios in the US. Many lost weight and gained confidence, helping him build a big empire across the world. Decades later, shocking tales emerging from his Bikram studios speak of a dark side filled with abuse and systemic corruption.

Bikram: Yogi, Guru and Predator, a new documentary film on the yoga master premiered at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival earlier this week, helps shed light on the rise and fall of a yogi revered by his followers across the world. Directed by Australian film-maker Eva Orner, the film shows several accounts of betrayal of trust and abuse of power behind a successful institution.

It was difficult not to be drawn to the charm of Choudhury, the yoga teacher dressed in a black speedo and sporting a Rolex watch. When he reeled off the names of his first followers, it was also tough to ignore his influence. “Elvis Presley was my first student. My second student was president Richard Nixon and the third was George Harrison,” Choudhury, who came to the US as an immigrant from Kolkata in the early ’70s, would tell Americans who thronged his Bikram studios.

The long list of followers, often boasted by the yogi, also had Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Quincy Jones. He looked at a body and said what the person could do and couldn’t. Americans, who loved his style, flocked to Bikram’s Yoga College of India in Los Angeles. “Try to look at the light in the hills,” Choudhury told his students in his first studio in the Beverly Hills. It was instant success that created more and more Bikram studios across the US.

From a podium in the vast space of his studio, adorned by dozens of his own pictures, Choudhury conducted his yoga sessions for men and women who came to attend his training programmes. It was tough and expensive, but people still came and stayed. Many said they were cured of ailments. Choudhury had a big role in popularising yoga in the West with his brand of hot yoga that relied on 26 postures and two breathing exercises.

Choudhury told his fans that his “26 Plus 2” technique was his own invention — a claim challenged by yoga teachers in India like Mukul Dutta in Kolkata. Dutta says Choudhury lifted the postures straight from a book on yoga by Bishnu Charan Ghosh, a renowned yogi who founded the Ghosh’s School of Physical Education in Kolkata. Choudhury was a student of Ghosh’s school before he became a yoga teacher and went to the United States.

Choudhury’s alleged appropriation of the yoga postures of his master, however, matter little compared to the allegations of sexual harassment by his former followers. Orner’s film shows revelations by Choudhury’s one-time devotee Sarah Baughn, who brought serious charges against him years before the MeToo movement. Another former follower to accuse Choudhury of sexual abuse was his long-time lawyer Micki Jafa-Bodden. An Indian-origin follower says, in the film, she resisted the advances of Choudhury in the studio. There were many more.

Choudhury, who faced six cases of sexual harassment, settled four of them. In January 2016, a US court awarded seven-and-half million dollars to Jafa-Bodden. Choudhury, however, fled America soon after the court verdict. “No criminal cases have been brought against Choudhury,” says Orner, who produced Taxi to the Dark Side — the story on the torture and death of Afghan taxi driver Dilawer by American soldiers in Bagram air base in Afghanistan. Taxi to the Dark Side, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2007, helped raise awareness against torture and violation of Geneva Convention laws governing human rights in armed conflicts.

“The Harvey Weinstein trial and Choudhury’s own cases show how easy it is for people like them to get away after doing everything they did,” said Orner at a Q&A session after the screening of Bikram: Yogi, Guru and Predator in the Toronto festival’s documentary programme. “There are his absolute supporters who do not believe in the allegations. I believe this film might encourage more people to come forward,” says Orner. “Men need to step up and encourage women in their fight.”

“This film uncovers a lot of things about Choudhury’s biography that do not match facts,” says Thom Powers, the TIFF Docs programmer. “Viewers will be able to separate him as an individual from the positive things that they get from his yoga,” adds Powers. “The film raises important questions about how much trust we put in our political and spiritual leaders.”

(The writer is a freelancer. Views are personal.)

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