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Bikram’s Rape Accusations Are Too Big To Bury

in Yogitorials

vanity-fair-bikram-yoga-scandal

Trigger warning: mention of rape, sexual harassment, and links to graphic descriptions.

This Vanity Fair article on Bikram’s rape accusations hit the interwebs last week with, well, not much fanfare. Maybe it’s because it’s holiday time and no one wants to hear about it, maybe it’s because you have to subscribe to get the whole article (unless you march out to grab the physical magazine when it hits stands, which hardly anyone does anymore) or maybe it’s because we’re already desensitized to yoga scandals, especially ones involving Bikram Choudhury, to the point that it’s not news anymore.

Maybe it’s not news, but it should be. Because when the yoga community is all wrapped up in debating whether or not teachers can have sex with their students, there are some real injustices and seriously heinous crimes going down. In the past few years, five women have come forward and filed lawsuits against Bikram Choudhury, with charges of sexual harassment and rape.

I’m not saying you must have this on your mind 24/7, nor do you have to get on your soapbox or write a 3000 word dissertation making a case for either side, but ignoring it really isn’t a way to make progress either. Details of sexual harassment, abuse of power, and rape are hard to take in any form but when it comes to yoga, many of us don’t want to believe any of it could be true, because in yoga, we are asked to let everything go, to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and open, and there’s a certain trust we put into our teachers and yoga environments to support all of this vulnerability, even if it’s just holding the space.

So hearing about a major, and yes, well-respected yoga teacher/yogapreneur accused of exploiting students, targeting weaknesses and overstepping that sacred boundary between teacher/student, guru/disciple, power-hungry overlord/servant is understandably on the ‘Things I never want to talk about or hear about ever’ list.

But, here it is, my part in keeping this in the yoga news cycle, because rape is NOT OK. Sexual harassment is NOT OK. If you think we shouldn’t be talking about this in the yogasphere, that’s fine. But if you ask me, avoiding the conversation, whether Bikram is guilty or not, is exactly what’s wrong with the wanderlusting, Rumi-quoting, all-encompassing love and light attitude that seems to pervade the yoga community.

Besides that, on the practical side, Bikram, the man and the yoga, play a major role in many people’s lives today from practitioners to teachers to studio owners to people looking to try yoga for the first time. The empire has been on shaky legs already and this whole thing could have a greater impact than we can anticipate.

He is an outrageous person, but the accusations aren’t, and shouldn’t be considered as such. Maybe not much more can be added to the conversation at this point, but this is just too big to bury under “Oh that’s just Bikram.”

image via Vanity Fair

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10 comments… add one

  • Bob Stearns

    I agree that discussion of this topic should not be buried. The allegations as detailed thus far reveal the power-hungry overlord and servants (students). There have been times when rape and other forms of abuse existed in our predecessor yoga communities, but as humans we have come too far to submit quietly and obediently to this kind of treatment as some form of spiritual suffering to make us more worthy of being yogis. It is about our personal growth and not domination. Rape and abuse do not contribute to our personal growth and are antithetical to what yoga is about.

  • River

    In the short time that I’ve been really, REALLY reading about “all things yoga” I’ve seen this story and unfortunately, at least 2 others involving high-placed yoga people. I’ve just about completed yoga teacher training, and I would like to be PROUD to tell people that I teach yoga. Not to worry that, when I tell them, they get the wrong impression of yoga teachers.

    This is a profession. A lifestyle, yes to be sure. But a PROFESSION with standards that need to be upheld. As a woman, I find the “Oh, that’s just Bikram” comment completely condescending and ill-fitting the ideals of yoga. Is it supposed to be “Oh, that’s just Blah Blah Male Yoga Person” all the time??? What does that say about what we’re trying to teach our students (and teach our teacher trainees): we preach respect for living beings. We preach peace and wholeness of self.

    But to excuse the men with a “boys will be boys” comment like that is Just. Not. Right. It’s not right “yogically” and it’s not right in a human, civilized society.

  • Thank you for keeping the conversation going. As I teacher, I believe it is my responsibility to protect my students, especially the most vulnerable among them. Providing a safe environment to practice is foremost. In my opinion, Bikram has violated all that I hold as my sacred duty to my students. We may never be able to stop people like him completely, but if we sit idle, then we are complicit.

  • Lori Kidder

    Well said Ms. Penny.

  • Thanks for keeping the conversation going. This is an issue that should be kept out in the open. It is absolutely not okay for teachers to exploit and manipulate their students. This has been going on for a very long time with Bikram. It was in 2002 that I read this about Bikram in Inc. Magazine:

    “Bikram says he himself was actually blackmailed several times into having sex with students. ‘What happens when they say they will commit suicide unless you sleep with them?’ he says. ‘What am I supposed to do? Sometimes having an affair is the only way to save someone’s life.’

    Sorry, but this is one of the most ignorant, narcissistic statements I’ve ever read. Even if his “blackmail” claims are true, which I personally doubt, any teacher worth his/her salt would call a student on such manipulative behavior.

    I think one of the roots of the problem—and I think this issue is complex and has many roots—is that we still really don’t understand yoga here in the U.S. In Western culture our gurus are celebrities. We admire celebrity, and Bikram has all the trappings. We equate charisma and celebrity with worth, so people think that if they can increase their own self worth by getting close to celebrity. Note how the press never fails to mention the celebs that follow Bikram, as if that elevates him somehow. So many people—like Bikram’s inner circle and the people he and others have victimized—are willing to compromise their integrity in order to be close to celebrity. People in their inner circles feel special, and maybe within reach of yogi stardom themselves.

    Traditionally, yoga was about going against the grain. Yogis eschewed things like celebrity and wealth, knowing that accumulating things—wealth, accolades—does not lead to freedom. Here, we want our yoga to go with the grain. It’s easier that way. We can gratify our egos a thousand times a day. Seeing through the emptiness of that requires much more of us.

  • Ann

    When a student is suicidal and asking for sex with a teacher the teacher should take the student to the hospital or get other outside help.
    The student may genuinely feel they will die if they aren’t ‘that special’ to the teacher. It is usually not manipulation when a student is feeling this way. It is being vulnerable to someone who exerts power over the student.

  • Thanks so much for this post. I think you are completely right and hope that your call to action motivates others. It definitely lit a fire under me: after reading what you had to say, I was moved to write out my thoughts about why I’d been keeping silent on this and how I really felt about it. You can read about it here: carolhortonphd.com/the-bikram-scandal-and-the-shadow-side-of-yoga/. Thanks again.

  • Bravo. I agree, and when I see yet another yoga teacher who is about love and integrity and transformation ignoring all the rest, I want to scream. My feet are on the ground, my head is on my shoulders, and my heart is not afraid to face the shadow side of anything.

  • I’m a man, who is also a Yoga teacher. I hold the relationship between student and teacher to be sacred, never to be crossed in any type of physical relationship. Never to abuse emotionally or spiritually. Period. If a relationship that is mutual develops, I would no longer be able to teach that student. It wouldn’t be ethical, professional, or fair to other students in the class. I have taken multiple adjustment clinics, just so that I can learn how to touch students in an appropriate manner. I find it difficult enough as a man in Yoga to be accepted in a predominately woman’s world. Finding a “Yoga buddy” seems to be out of the question. It has given me a greater appreciation for what women have had to adjust to in similar situations.

  • Finally this conversation is being held and yogis are speaking up and also holding teachers accountable. I have watched in amazement for years as Bikram gets away with inappropriate and abusive language, emotional and physical abuse and dangerous adjustments. I do not understand why people did not hold him accountable long before this but I guess there was the threat of losing their tuition payment or being shunned from the Bikram gravy train.
    Students in Bikram trainings are sleep deprived, kept in unbearable heat and forced to memorize a Bikram script verbatim. There are photos of him on the web standing on people in forward bends and acting like he is Jesus on the cross or a surfer on a wave. Women that have taken his training have told me that he uses really disgusting language, put downs and arrogance about his atomic balls etc. Now the truth reveals that he rapes people too and apparently there were many in the organization who knew it and did nothing. It sounds like a cult to me.
    The book Hellbent by Benjamin Lorr gives an inside story of how sick and controlling this man is. Is Bikram yoga just a fitness exercise since its seems to be only about the asana or physical poses? Certainly nobody takes this man as any kind of spiritual teacher or leader to be followed.
    I was molested by Pattabhi Jois in a workshop I did on Maui over 20 years ago. He touched me inappropriately numerous times by groping my vagina region while I was in forward bends. The teachers assisting just looked the other way and when I moved his hand, he just smirked at me and called me a ‘Bad lady.’ Years later he sat on one of my students while she was in plow pose and strained her neck ligaments. It took over six months to heal. He tried to get me to do a pose I had decided to leave out and I said no I am not doing it. He again called me a ‘bad lady’ and I told him he was a ‘bad teacher.’ Afterwards everyone was kissing his feet and I left the room and never wanted to be in his presence again.
    It seems that many people who do yoga are trying to move away from western religions seeking what they believe to be esoteric knowledge from the east. Unfortunately the patriarchal double standards that exist in our religions permeate the world of yoga as well. Why do we want to worship yoga gurus and teachers especially when they violate our boundaries or others? In my book, nobody is closer to god than anyone else.

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