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The Bikram Rape Charges: The Power of Speech and the Costs of Silence

in YogOpinions

Be-the-change-speak-truthby Carol Horton, Ph.D.

We’ve heard a lot about “yoga scandals” in the past several years: John Friend, Kausthub Desikachar, and most recently, Bikram Choudhury. Given that five separate lawsuits accusing Bikram of “rape, harassment, assault, discrimination and false imprisonment” have been filed, however, simply labeling it a “scandal” seems insultingly misleading. After all, we’re not talking about a prudish moral panic here: these are serious criminal charges.

There was an enormous amount of outraged discussion and contentious debate over the “Anusara scandal” back in 2012. There has been very little public discussion of the Bikram case, however, at least in the formerly fermenting yoga blogosphere. It’s a curious situation, as the pending charges against Bikram are much more serious than the parallel set against Friend. One might imagine that the level of public outcry would increase in tandem with the gravity of the allegations being made. In fact, however, precisely the opposite is true.

How is the yoga community processing the fact that one of the most popular yoga teachers of our time is facing multiple criminal charges? Are we even processing it at all? Given the deafening silence online, it’s impossible to say. Perhaps that’s OK. It could be that this case is better off being dealt with more privately. Regardless of where and how it takes place, however, the Bikram mess merits serious study and reflection among dedicated yoga practitioners, yoga teachers in particular.

True, the Bikram community has always seemed relatively separate from the wider yoga world, segregated off in its own bizarre 105-degree bubble. To write off what happened there as an alien aberration from an otherwise healthy, balanced, and sane yoga culture, however, would be not only delusional, but destructive. Because it’s precisely that sort of ostrich-like, sticking-your-head-in-the-sand behavior that allowed these pathologies (as well as the many others that we do or don’t yet know about) to metastasize as they have.

If there’s resistance to thinking deeply – and feeling empathetically – into the disturbing details supporting the Bikram rape charges, that’s not surprising. Most of us don’t like hearing distressing news about something that’s personally meaningful and important. Yet if we refuse to hear it – if we push it away, rather than taking it in, processing it, and letting the knowledge of something challenging change and deepen our perspective – we lose an important opportunity to grow stronger, wiser, and more compassionate.

You Can See All the Stars as You Walk Down Hollywood Boulevard



Willful ignorance and not-so-benign neglect also reinforce dysfunctional dynamics present in the wider culture. And we shouldn’t fool ourselves – even if we’ve never set foot in a Bikram class, the problems of that community are connected to those of our larger yoga culture, as well as American culture in general. As Benjamin Lorr observes in his brilliant 2012 book, Hell-Bent: “Bikram found a home in America. Beverly Hills loves an orphan. All those movie stars intuitively recognized one of their own.” And what, one might add, has more of a grip on the American imagination than the glitzy mirages manufactured in Hollywood?

This is not to suggest that Hollywood  – or, for that matter, Bikram himself – is somehow inherently evil. On the contrary, Lorr’s book abundantly illustrates the fact that Bikram created a method that’s cured many people of terrible and often life-threatening afflictions, while giving countless more a renewed sense of confidence, vitality, and purpose. Rather, the point is that there’s a combustible mix of realities in yoga (and Hollywood). Its positive contributions can turn cancerous once unexamined neuroses start spiraling out of control.

The grandiosity, the narcissism, the materialism, the addictive behaviors – as well as the ambition, drive, and fervent belief in the possibility of individual transformation – can be easily recognized as powerful currents in our common social environment. Whether you look at the individual and cultural dynamics involved in the Bikram case through the lens of social science or spiritual philosophy, the same truism can be seen: our lives really are all interconnected.

What happened in the Bikram community can’t be written off as the failings of one nasty man and a few supposedly weak-willed women. While the energetic threads that enmeshed them may not ensnare us as tightly, they are still part of the common fabric of our lives. As such, however, we have the power to reweave them into new patterns.

Even one person willing to see the reality of a destructive dynamic and refusing to play along with it can make a pivotal difference. Sarah Baughn, the first teacher to file charges against Bikram, recounted to Vanity Fair how important it was to find someone in the Bikram community willing to listen to her story without minimizing it. “When she told a fellow teacher about her experiences and ‘he said, ‘That’s horrible,’ period, no buts,” it was “the first time that a fellow Bikramite had responded with such clarity, rather than rationalizing the guru’s behavior or blaming Baughn for it.”

Having her struggles mirrored back to her in a simple, affirming, and non-judgmental way enabled her to take decisive action after years of anguish and self-doubt. “She suddenly experienced the full effect of what had happened to her,” reporter Benjamin Wallace explains. “It was then, she says, she decided to file a lawsuit, to make sure that Choudhury couldn’t do to other women what he had done to her . . . Once Baughn sued, other women came forward.”

Sometimes silence is golden. But sometimes speaking out stops abuse, and may even save lives. Cultivating the discernment to know which is appropriate when, along with the courage to take appropriate action, is a life-long practice. Just like yoga. In fact, if your understanding of yoga extends off the mat and into your life, it is yoga. The more we can turn the challenges of life and the shadow side of yoga into opportunities to deepen our practice, the richer it will ultimately be – both for each of us as individuals, and for the world as a whole.

~

Carol Horton, Ph.D., is the author of “Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body” and co-editor of “21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice.” A Certified Forrest Yoga instructor, Carol teaches yoga to women in Cook County Jail with Yoga for Recovery, where she also serves on the Board. Carol is a co-founder of the Socially Engaged Yoga Network (SEYN), a collective dedicated to sharing the benefits of yoga with underserved communities in the Chicago area. To learn more, visit her website at carolhortonphd.com.

56 comments… add one

  • ejgott412

    Last I heard there were not criminal charges filed, but the victims are pursuing the case in civil court.

  • Yes, my understanding is that they are criminal charges, but they are pursuing it in civil court because the statute of limitations has passed – that is, they waited too long to file criminal charges. I decided to skip over this info for the sake of simplicity and brevity. But, the fact remains that rape is a criminal charge regardless of what court you’re legally able to try it in.

  • mimi1984

    ” (2) Where it is accomplished against a person’s will by means of force, violence, duress, menace, or fear of immediate and unlawful bodily injury on the person or another. – See more at: http://codes.lp.findlaw.com/cacode/PEN/3/1/9/1/s261#sthash.S1gQbNhs.dpuf

    Since the burden of proof falls on the prosecution (the victim of the rape) it’s not surprising that without any forensic evidence, considering they remained silent for a period of time and did not report the rape immediately, the victims would have little to no chance of winning their cases in criminal court. Rape is crime, Bikram is lucky.

  • michael

    These cases should be prosecuted in criminal court. I have read the detailed complaints of these women and watched their interviews. I believe them (and in them). This is not a patrimony case against some celebrity. These are serious and credible charges being pursued in civil court, in part because that is these women’s only recourse. Anyone who thinks Lawyer O’Shea took these cases on without significant investigation (to strong-arm Bikram), knows nothing about the US legal system. That wouldn’t happen in one case against someone as litigious as Bikram. This is 5 cases (so far), 4 detailing similar accounts of grooming and outright rape. Rape case ARE proven in criminal court on the basis of witness testimony and without forensic evidence. Witness Sandusky and the Catholic Church. Many cases such as this are prosecuted many years afterwards. There is a 6 year statute of limitations for rape in California. There is a reason that this statute exists for years. I find it appalling that the DA is not investigating this further. Influence being brought to bear?

  • Thanks for your very informed and informative comment. My understanding was that the statute of limitations had passed, but perhaps that’s wrong. It would be good to find a detailed account of the legal issues involved, but I haven’t seen one – the journalists tend to bury what are to many readers boring details in the larger story without much elaboration.

  • Teresa

    Excellent post Carol. I agree with your assessment that part of the silence is due to Bikram yoga being in its own little 105-degree bubble. But here is another potential reason: The charges levied against John Friend were pretty cut and dry with irrefutable proof that they were true. The charges levied against Bikram are not cut and dry, which is why, I suspect, none of the suits against him are criminal, they are civil. Before the law, someone is presumed innocent until proven otherwise. Bikram has not been legally proven to be guilty of the charges levied against him.

    Having said that, Bikram seems clearly guilty of being a narcissist, but this has already been discussed widely in the yoga community for years.

    I should also note, I personally will not take another Bikram yoga class in the foreseeable future and have urged my nieces, who have tried and liked Bikram yoga in the past, to stay away.

  • Agreed that Bikram has not been proven guilty, and that the cases may be difficult to win due to the fact that the plaintiffs waited so long to file charges, as well as the usual “he said, she said” muddiness of these cases where there were presumably no other witnesses.

    Re Friend, while I personally agree that the charges against him were obviously true (having seen the jfexposed website before it was taken down), as I remember there was A LOT of argument about whether they were until such time as Friend essentially admitted it in a public interview. It was very contentious and he had a lot of very public and outspoken defenders for quite awhile.

    I think that if you read Benjamin Lorr’s very well-researched book, it’s hard to imagine that the charges are not true – although, of course, that’s not enough to convict someone in a court of law. There are mountains of highly suggestive evidence, however.

    What I am suggesting in this post is that people care enough to, for example, read that book and think into its insights. They’re really good, and much more extensive than anything that anyone will ever be able to offer in a short article or online post.

  • Teresa

    Hi Carol,

    Thank you for your response. You are right about the JF scandal chronology. My memory simplified things.

    I think that the charges against Bikram are likely true and I have not read Lorr’s book. I have spent some time in Bikram studios (never a regular practitioner) and saw the cult-like devotion to him as well as the sexualized atmosphere. I also read about Bikram (the person) regularly throughout the years in the yoga media and have even seen some stuff that the Bikram organization has put out. All of it confirmed that he is a megalomaniac and a narcissist. The video from Nightline is also pretty damning (“all the womens love me”).

    I have been disappointed to see that a Bikram studio close by has maintained its allegiance to him. I was also saddened to see a new Bikram studio is opening up in my community. I chalk it up to this: those who are in the Bikram cult-like bubble are going to believe whatever he says. These are people who try to one up one another by trying to do back-to-back classes for more days in a row than the next person. They are in it pretty deep. I hypothesize that there is not going to be the same kind of mass exodus as there was with Anusara because Bikram has tighter control of those within his sphere (this is arguable, of course). Those who are not in the Bikram bubble wrote him off years ago as megalomaniac and a narcissist.

    I think it would be useful to explore the ways in which Bikram keeps people in line (perhaps this is what Lorr’s book does).

  • in my mind

    Thanks for writing this, I have been wondering the same thing. There seems to be much more mainstream news coverage that coverage in the usual suspects of yoga culture outlets. The difference here (in my mind anyway) is that with Bikram this kind of scandal has been an unfortunate foregone conclusion for many years. It was just a matter of time. Bikram never pretended not to be a meglomaniac – it was all right there in the open – folks who knew what they were getting into and did it anyway. The other scandals were (only slightly) more cloaked and therefore more scandalous when the broke. That, or perhaps folks are just plain tired of talking about this kind of nefarious behavior. I know that I am.

  • That may well be . . . which raises the troubling question of what is going on with the so-called yoga community when “this kind of scandal has been an unfortunate foregone conclusion for many years” and everyone simply accepts it as such? Again, we’re talking about rape charges here.

  • John

    As far as I can tell this is an article complaining that people haven’t been jumping to conclusions and rushing to declare judgement online before as yet unproven allegations are confirmed. I agree, it’s unusual behaviour for the web in general and yogis in particular but it’s worth considering the idea it’s a good thing.

  • With all due respect, I think that if you re-read the 3rd paragraph above, you’ll see that this is not a call for internet hysteria. The possibility that it’s better to process what’s happening in private is acknowledged. But, it IS a call to think – and I mean, think with real depth and your heart truly open – into what’s been happening and process it, somewhere and somehow.

  • Dognam

    I agree with John. John is correct here.

    At this point John, I will strike out alone.

    Carol’s, with no due respect, attempt to justify this article, another ‘point and metaphorical yell, “Look a witch!” piece’, in the name of critical thinking is shallow deceit.

    A silence has been broken by the people bringing the allegations and all right-minded people, their friends and communities offer them support in the challenges they have faced and will face in their quest. That is a social silence that needed breaking.

    The other silence chosen by society seeks that trial by the legal system occur before trial by public opinion, or worse, trial by opinionated public. We seek this as one day we ourselves may face a trial. To subvert or undermine the possibility of fairness and facts at trial is a deplorable ill-mannered manifestation of the Internet and social media.

    The people and yoga community most affected require silence and time in which to think without the noisy chitter chatter of rickety opinion machine gunning. That thinking time and quiet discussion is now, hence the general perception of silence on social media and blogs.

    It’s a pity a professor? with a doctorate in social science doesn’t grasp the nuances and needs of timely social silence.

  • Hey Carol,

    It is an interesting thing and one I was curious about. I contacted many of the NZ Bikram Studio owners to find out how they were processing the news of the civil cases being filed. How was it affecting them and their studios. You ca find the resulting article here:

    http://theyogalunchbox.co.nz/how-the-nz-bikram-community-is-responding-to-the-bikram-sex-scandal/

    Part of the silence may be because of the legalities around the case. Part may be because the Bikram world, as you say, has always been somewhat separate from the rest of the yoga world. And partly because Bikram has always been… well, Bikram. Which is not to excuse his behaviour in any way, yet there was perhaps less of a shock at the suits being filed. Based on reading Benjamin Lorr’s book, anyone who had attended a teacher training would have seen the general lewd behaviour of Bikram. I loved Lorr’s book because he was able to investigate the world of Bikram with great understanding and compassion – rather than being separate and judgemental of it all.

  • Thanks so much for your comment and very helpful link. I agree that Lorr’s book is fantastic. If it were up to me, it would be required reading at YTTs . . . there is much food for thought there and it’s applicable far beyond the world of Bikram yoga per se.

  • The “deafening silence” comment is an interesting one. I tend to read the situation the same way, though if you sit down with any regular practitioner who is plugged into the community, they are more than willing to talk about it.

    I blogged about my recent departure from the Bikram community just today. It’s time the dialog was a little more public…

    One issue is that the folks who know about Bikram the man are likely teachers or close friends of teachers. Unfortunately, Bikram has such a tight grip on his teachers (no pun intended) that they are afraid to speak out: they can get fired from their Bikram studios and even lose their licenses if they teach at non-Bikram studios. I know that teachers who blogged about being in training were very careful about what they said about the experience–they didn’t want to get sued.
    I imagine that there are a lot of Bikram practitioners who would like nothing more than to have him step aside…

  • Yes, thanks for the reference; I think it would be helpful to have blog posts like yours be read more widely. I know that the Bikram community is most directly impacted, but the yoga community as a whole is hardly immune to similar problems. So, there are many issues that would be well for everyone involved to consider, and having multiple perspectives helps grow a more informed and less insular conversation. For example, the issues of fear, control, and secrecy that you mention are similar to what went on in the Anusara community before its implosion. Helping people recognize how they get sucked into these totalitarian cultures and how they can best start to free themselves from them would be a hugely important contribution.

  • realregularguy

    Believe me, there is plenty of talk going on about this in the Bikram world. Huge changes are a foot. Now, the quotes that Kara-Leah are there, what’s told to the public. There’s three exactly the same quotes there that many owners or teachers will tell you about the situation:

    1) we’re far away, operate our own place, that’s not us.
    2) this is about Bikram, not the practice
    3)most students don’t even know that Bikram is a person

    Doesn’t matter if you are in New Zealand, or in Boston, you’ll get the same response. It’s just shared talking points to deal with the issue and the public that inquires. But, it’s also sparking a transformation within the community. Those that change will prosper and those that remain the same are going to eventually close.

    The heat is going away. It’s not good for you. It’s getting lowered, 80-90 is good enough. The hot classes will remain, but new 90 minute Master Core Series courses of 40 postures are being added without the heat. The heat should be generated within. The linage of asana’s is being discovered. Ghosh has 84 in the full series. There are many studio owners whom now are going to learn how to teach those advanced series under Tony Sanchez. About 100 did last year, this year over 200. Bikrams’ hold on the studios is non-existent at this point. He’s nearly about to flee the US, and will be holding his trainings in Thailand for now on. Really, the US is saturated with Bikram studios now. The only growth for the 26 posture series in the heat is happening in Asian countries. In places like Portland Oregon, there are only a couple of pure Bikram studios left. So it’s actually going to turn out to be a good thing as the community move beyond Bikram, recovering Ghosh, and, most likely, Tony Sanchez becomes the most established leader of the practice.

  • Thanks so much for your very informed but not widely known perspective. It’s great to see the silver lining in this. Because there really is one: just like with Anusara, there are a lot of talented people who will be able to flourish more fully once they are no longer so much under the control of a sick culture built around an abusive leader who’s lost his way.

  • Michael

    Why do you need another “leader”, realregularguy? To show you how to do some “special lineage” yoga poses? Learn them yourself. They aren’t that complex (know what I’m saying here).
    The point is that you seem to be recreating the same situation that happened with the other “gurus” referenced here by:
    1) Make something simple (a sequence of asanas) seem artificially complex; 2) act like some person has the keys to it; 3) Create a power hierarchy; 4) Watch it all come tumbling down when it gets abused. I’m sure this Tony is a wonderful “leader” and all, but…

    I’m actually more concerned about a culture within the yoga community that enabled (s) and tolerates what appears to be serial rape to occur. I think it goes deeper than how hot the room is. You will no doubt be offended, however there is nothing particularly special about Bikram or Ghosh sequences, aside from people pretending they are “special”.

  • Karen Mulhern

    So true. The pose is not the puzzle. You are. Asana are there to help you discover areas of
    misalignment, blockages of energy, etc.. The poses, for most of us, should be practiced in moderation for maximum benefit. A good teacher should help students understand this. A good teacher should awaken the teacher within. Iyengar states that the yogic definition of intelligence is- “making self-aware choices through informed discernment and exercise of will” and that “we can hope only to develop intelligence once we understand why we are so often prompted to act without it.”

  • Teresa

    Hi Regular Guy,

    You say that most Bikram studio owners and teachers say that the operate independently. Don’t they pay Bikram’s Yoga College of India (and consequently Bikram) fees?

  • Northern Harrier

    I participated in a similar yoga lawsuit some years back and am acquainted with some of the professionals working for these women. I have not directly read the filings-though these are in the public domain if you want to take the time to open a pacer.gov account, find the case # and pay a few bucks to download them. But I do know the crux of the case is based on “undue influence”. Undue Influence has been researched for decades, going back to people like Zimbardo and his Stanford Prison Experiment (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_prison_experiment) and the essence of the research has shown that mind control is a real thing and it has little to do with how smart or self aware you are. Wrong place, wrong time and once you are hooked, it is human nature to stay that way. Its really scary stuff if you get into the research and see just how ubiquitous undue influence is in our current reality. Undue influence is also a newer concept in our federal civil court system-it is currently illegal under US law. But exactly how that is proven and guaranteed as a protection to all of us, is a very heated debate right now. Namely between the incredibly brave professionals who are willing to take on this work (and yes, Baughn’s lawyer knew exactly what she was getting into-I personally spoke on the phone with her before the filing occurred) and the incredibly well funded defense armadas fighting back. By exercising undue influence over someone, many more manipulations and abuses, that are also illegal, can occur. The abuser has unfair access and the victims become toys. Sexual abuse is just one of the many illegal things that happen-taking someone’s life, money, mind, and emotional stability has similar dollar value in the civil system as rape, as far as what can be recovered. Honestly, I don’t know if these women will get a penny and if they do, if the fight will have ruined their lives further, even though they are doing the right thing. The civil system is a brutal, brutal place and dollars serve most of the justice. But regardless, justice has been served in public opinion-there has been very little debate about that. The Bikram community has been rocked, even if we don’t hear about it or see all the signs go away immediately. And I think the ripple effects of these women’s choice will be infinite. Thank you for writing about this Carol-I also have been dumbfounded by the silence, but have not myself taken the time to blog about it.

  • michael

    Thanks for that post Northern Harrier. Very disturbing. No doubt Baughn’s lawyer thought long and hard about taking this on. I have huge respect for her for doing this. The chance of monetary recovery is slim (for what that would ever be worth). Very few lawyers would take this case at all. Your info on “undue influence” is very interesting to me and this case will expose that. I don’t see these women settling these cases and I don’t see Bikram getting them dismissed either. I believe these cases will go to trial, with many ramifications exposing this situation of influence.

  • Thanks for a very interesting, informed, and disturbing comment. I personally believe the charges are true based on having read Lorr’s book and most of the media coverage of the case. (I have had no personal involvement with Bikram yoga.) Given the several in-the-know comments about the brutal legal (and perhaps also extra-legal) counter-attacks on the women who filed charges, I wonder what, if anything, those who want to support them can do to help. I don’t know enough to say, but my best guess is that moral support from concerned outsiders and, much more importantly, defections from Bikram insiders could be worthwhile.

    While I don’t like to criticize others’ choices, personally I don’t understand why anyone who believed these charges are true would support Bikram yoga in any way, including calling your classes or studio “Bikram” – even if no money is being paid for franchising. There are other ways to practice hot yoga and it’s high time for those who love it to explore them, IMHO.

  • michael

    I believe the charges are true as well, Carol. Many people assume that, because the DA has done nothing to prosecute this case (or truly investigate, from what I can gather), that this is not a criminal matter and just a case of “he said, she said”. I have a long and very personal experience with corruption and cover-up in law enforcement, and that changed my view on such matters. I understand how people might take the view that because law enforcement isn’t involved, it is somehow less serious and is something to be “sorted out between the parties in court.” People want to believe that law enforcement protects them.
    Having lived through something similar, I have a profound respect for these women and their attorneys. It is a very sobering thing to wake up and realize that you are in the fight alone, that the very agencies you thought would protect you and “do the right thing” are nowhere to be found. This is also very public now. Thank you for writing about it, this has given a forum for us to support them. Believe me, they are going to need our support.

  • Northern Harrier

    Legal or extra-legal harassment: its really hard to say and if you do, there will be a fight about it with the judge. I do know for a fact that these thug defense counsels sit around the board room and strategize how to make the plaintiffs and their counsel as miserable as possible. And to a large extent, they succeed. Women (and men) who carry a burden like this for the rest of us, I do believe, have something akin to angels that carry them through. Many syncronicities and good luck along the way because a much bigger force is moving them. Perhaps that is Krishna in Arjuna’s chariot for us yoga dorks. What do they need from us? I think mostly just to hear us and know we are out here rooting for them and thanking them. They probably all have PTSD and do not want to know most or any of us in person. And I think we need to encourage this kind of action within the community, and larger world.

  • michael

    All true, Northern Harrier.

  • Dognam

    And there you have it. Any veneer of objectivity has dissolved and the underlying opinion piece fully revealed. Let the people have their time in court, where there may be some attempt at getting to the facts. Save up the “I told you so” and/or “Who would’ve thought” bloggarhroea for after the trial. Internet personality assassination of either side of the allegations) is a sad and sorry manifestation of sad self promoters with a poor sense of timing. The people staying quiet in the yoga community are complicit in professionality. Any comments and opinion pieces, including spurious conjecture about different yoga branches, at this time on the serious allegations that are to be tested are stacking faggots under people painted or accused of witchcraft rather than aiding any critical thinking.

  • Mary

    95%+ of the Bikram studios in the world are not affiliated with Bikram at all, and almost all that have opened in the past few years are not even on his website. Almost no studio pays any money to Bikram (maybe 10 or 20, the rest are not part of a franchise), his only income is from his teacher training. The yoga series is brilliant, and hopefully the truth will come out for all to see. He has absolutely no control of the Bikram community, and he is viewed as a hinderance (at best) by the vast majority.

  • Northern Harrier

    A Bikram lover speaks! I am not a hot yoga girl myself, but I respect that you are.

  • Teresa

    Hi Mary,

    What do you mean by “95%+ of the Bikram studios in the world are not affiliated with Bikram at all”? Does this mean that studios who use the name “Bikram” are not affiliated or do you mean that studios that teach the 26 postures are not affiliated? Just want some clarification.

  • Thanks for the great blog, Carol, and thanks to everyone for such a great discussion. I honestly haven’t been all that surprised by the online silence about the allegations against Bikram. He has freely admitted for years that he sleeps with female students, ostensibly to “save their lives” because he says they threaten suicide if he doesn’t. Of course, this is total bullsh!t, but it’s been common knowledge for a very long time that this has been happening. The community around him has either chosen to ignore it or let it slide. I think the reasons for this are a mixture of people having invested so much in the system, the fear of being ostracized or worse, and the pervasive and misguided “non-judging” philosophy of the yoga community in general.

    With John Friend, many people fell back on the argument that all involved were consenting adults, and I think the misunderstanding of consent is motivating the silence in Bikram’s case as well. As Northern Harrier says above, a teacher is always in the position of power due to an inherent “undue influence.” There is no true consent in a relationship of unequal power. And there is never consent in cases of forcible rape, no matter what the nature of the relationship is. It is telling that it took so long for Sarah Baughan to find someone in the Bikram community who understood the gravity of the situation and held Bikram accountable.

    Bikram has behaved like a dictator in his classes and trainings for decades. It is understandable that his community would not want to cross him. Many of them have invested huge amounts of time, money and emotional capital in being a part of that community. I also think that the larger culture–not just yoga culture–admires his kind of chutzpah. I think that most in Western culture are willing to put up with braggadocio and megalomania because it symbolizes a sort of “can do” attitude that is considered admirable. So even though his antics have been common knowledge for a very long time, people have been willing to toss it off as “just Bikram.”

    I think it is very important that these situations come to light, especially as the Western yoga community continues to grow and evolve. The truth is that there are many, many sincere, ethical teachers out there doing great work, but there are also a whole lot of power-obsessed people out there using yoga as a vehicle to exploit people. We need to continue to educate ourselves, and the more we empower people to speak out, the more the perpetrators will have to start thinking twice about their actions.

  • Hi Charlotte – Great insights, as usual; thanks for commenting. I totally agree with your pointing to the deeper dynamics of this situation – the fear cultivated on the inside, as well as the more widespread misunderstanding of what “non-judgement” really means, and our culture’s willingness to look up to narcissistic bullies for their “chutzpah.”

    The more that we can see the larger story, the more that we can learn and grow from this really horrible situation.

  • Mary

    Hi Teresa. To clarify, I mean affiliation in any financial manner. All Bikram studios as far as I know are run by Bikram teachers, so in that way there is a form of affiliation. My comment was primarily about how Bikram gets his money, and studios are run by ‘normal’ people that just happen to have experienced the benefits of the Bikram series, enough to actually become a teacher and subsequently take the risk to open a studio.
    Innocent until proven guilty is the law of the land, though for sure Bikram has done some very unscrupulous, disgusting, predatory, and perhaps illegal things. Like I said, let’s hope the truth comes out.

  • Teresa

    Hi Mary. Thanks for the clarification. I think studio owners (who have a Bikram Yoga CityX studio) still have to pay Bikram inc. for the right to use the name. Don’t they? If they do have to pay, I am very curious to know how much they do. Do you have any information on this?

  • Mary

    Teresa, as far as I know, only studio owners who sign the ‘franchise agreement’ have to pay Bikram for the name ‘Bikram Yoga X’, not sure how much though it was I think an upfront fee and then monthly royalties. Only a few studios have signed the franchise agreement (out of stupidity, ignorance, or loyalty). Many who have signed the agreement have sought to ‘disenfranchise’, though I do not know how that works. All studios that have been around for 2 years or more only signed an agreement, no money changed hands. Bikram tried to force the existing bikram studios to franchise, it was rejected by almost everyone. Most studio owners don’t want anything to do with him, and wish he would just go away.

  • Teresa

    Thanks for the information, Mary. This is very insightful. Unfortunately, the studios I have been to have all openly embraced him and encourage people to do his TT. I have not been to a studio since these allegations emerged, so maybe they have changed. Even if they are not paying him, I still find it troubling they still use his name.

  • shannon

    It is curious to me how Bikram is viewed/treated. He is clearly a narcisstic sociopath that has taken advantage of vulnerable women for quite some time. This is the classic power structure for abuse and I only hope he is exposed in court and sent to prison. Obviously he chooses his victims- for their vulnerability and neediness.

  • Teresa

    Carol, I started reading Lorr’s book last night. It is very well written, hard to put down and VERY insightful. Thank you for the recommendation.

  • You’re very welcome! Thanks for letting me (and other readers) know.

  • ‘Willful ignorance and not-so-benign neglect also reinforce dysfunctional dynamics present in the wider culture.”

    Yes our culture is one full of abuse towards woman on almost every level from un equal pay all the way to murder. In Canada the government is being pushed to make an inquiry into the 800 aboriginal woman that have gone missing in the last 10 years. If 800 men disappeared like this there would be a manhunt on http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/no-call-for-national-inquiry-in-mps-report-on-aboriginal-women-1.2563854 I just watched a horrific documentary yesterday about gendercide in India and China where families kill their daughters so they don’t have to pay dowries. Husbands kill their wives after dowries have been paid or kill their wives if they are pregnant with girls. Parents kill their dauhter’s for honor. The statistics were incredible with upwards of 100,000 girls killed at birth every year in India to avoid dowry payments. The documentary is called “It’s A Girl” Most domestic violence in Canada and the U.S. is leveled against woman and Canada’s worst mass killings namely Robert Pickton (murdered over 26 woman) and the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal where 14 woman were gunned down in cold blood. Woman take the brunt of almost all sexual abuse and when the perpetrator has power to begin with it often takes a long time to bring them to justice. I watched all the interviews with Bikram and it astounds me that anyone would still practice his form of yoga that he so contradicts (this isn’t crazy wisdom it’s pathology in my books).

    “If you see an injustice being committed, you aren’t an observer, you are a participant.” – June Collwood

    “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” – Elie Weisel.

  • Stewart J. Lawrence

    Bikram is not the disease. He is a symptom of the disease. Even Benjamin Lorr has missold his “goods.” His book, read closely, is an indictment of the entire American yoga guru culture, especially when it becomes fused with the narcissistic pursuit of fame, power, glamour and beauty that characterizes so much of life in this country.

    We have an entire yoga industry that is engulfed by “spiritual materialism” — indeed, that freely extols its virtues, at every turn. This blog site extols its virtues. Chogyam Trunga, no saint, wrote most compellingly about this. Everyone on this site knows this — or should know this.

    “Spiritual materialism is Satanism.” There isn’t much wiggle room there

    Look in the mirror? These are crocodile tears. Bikram will endure. You made him, and it’s going to take a lot more than this to steal his client base.

    Now, if you want to start regulating the yoga industry, let’s talk….It’s hard growing up.

  • maitri

    Great points. Though, regulating the yoga industry isn’t going to change the cult of personality/celebrity that is endemic in our modern society. It’s not just yoga. It’s seen in Buddhism, mainstream media/movies, academia, science, technology, religions, etc: EACH of these ‘fields’ has cult like figures, leaders or those whom others worship. What is admired or taught is somehow confused with the person him/herself, who is made to be larger than life and considered more virtuous and/or the object of emulation rather than reasonable admiration. Our culture is largely stuck, emotionally/psychologically and spiritually-at the adolescent level [This IMHO, of course]. Regulation of an industry may be necessary for consumer protection, but it won’t evolve our perceptual understandings, nor mature us. Maturity we need to do for ourselves. It seems that we just take one hierarchy or institution and replace it with another. This will not result in maturity. Nor in reduction of gender violence or bias. It WILL continue to perpetuate the cult of celebrity and the idea of spiritual hierarchy.

  • Stewart J. Lawrence

    Agreed. Thanks for sharing that, Maitri. There are lots of people already pushing for collective self-regulation — which is really just community self-care — and they are making some important changes. Doubtful you will read about it here.

    Matthew Taylor is starting to handle litigation around yoga injuries — some very horrible cases, just the kind of stuff that William Broad wrote about. He’s also pushing for teachers to learn how to do health screenings and other activities, if only to enhance their “risk management.” The studios getting sued in these cases are getting hammered because they don’t think they have any basic liability and they have taken no preventative steps — they are living in yogic ether, as usual.

    Every yoga teacher who hasn’t sold out or been bought off at this point knows that injuries in yoga are very widespread and getting worse. The Tim McCalls and Eva Norlyk Smith can flak for this flaky industry all they want — it’s all coming out in the proverbial wash anyway. Just wait until someone “strokes out” in a yoga class. I predict that it happens — and in less than a year.

    And it’s not just physical injuries. The issue of “psychic injuries” – one that Horton herself addressed in print before her friends shouted her down and she clammed up — is also getting serious attention at Phoenix Rising and elsewhere. They are creating an entire triage system that allows teachers to intervene when mental and emotional illness appears or when the transference and counter-transference of the pedagogy threatens to reaches the point of serious pathology — for the student and the teacher both.

    However, as you say, in the end, it still comes down to the emotional, psychological and spiritual maturity of all concerned. You really can’t ground a serious wellness industry in narcissistic ambitions of 20-something white girls on a power trip about themselves and their world. You also have far too many old crones without the courage and maturity of their own to stand up to them – even when they know better (They are often the one qualifying them as teachers for a huge fee just to keep their own studio doors open).

    It’s not surprising to me that all of the best work being done ion these areas is being done by the men in yoga. It takes backbone and strength. Cyndi Lauper was right: Girls just want to have fun– often at everyone else’s expense.

  • Stewart J. Lawrence

    The women’s testimony on CBS is not compelling and it will sway no one. I have watched it three times and it gets worse every time, not for Bikram, for the women. Have friends of yours watch it who aren’t living in the yoga bubble. They come off very poorly here. One is left thinking that the women and Bikram deserve each other, which was much the same feeling people had when they looked more closely at the Anusara “scandal” and realized who these senior Anusara women really were, and the Faustian bargain they had struck to try to become anointed by the anointed one

    This is Cult 101. These are narcissistic pyramids that require a base of support, willful gullibility and naivete, combined with a power drive that matches the leader’s at every turn. The women freely admit that they hang out with Bikram alone and even go back to him, hoping it won’t be so bad this time.

    It is simply not credible — which is why the police didn’t pursue it. There are no “criminal charges” here.

  • Stewart J. Lawrence

    If Sarah Baughan had won those yoga championships that she was so desperate to win, we would never have heard a peep about Bikram from her. Zilch. Read Lorr’s book, before she decided to sue? She says she needed to lose those championships. “I needed to be humbled,” she said in the book. Read it. She changed her story.

    Let’s look at all the little yoga cults and their cult-ettes, shall we? Jivamukti? Ashtanga? Carol Horton, care to write about Ana Forrest and her Guardians? Being am anointed Guardian and all?

    Do people really and truly think this emotional and psychological syndrome is a “male” one? Seriously? Predatory behavior takes many different forms, but it still rests, in large measure, on the “will to bondage” of those being preyed upon.

    Even the Bikram women admit as much. I thought he was my Father, my guru. (Okay, that’s your issue) “Bikram, I love you more than chocolate.” (Baughan). Didn’t anyone else cringe upon hearing that? Maybe just a little?

    If you want to “reform” this problem, then break up all these yoga “brands” and expose yoga teaching to genuine public scrutiny. Take it out of this mist enveloped world of pseudo Eastern mysticism, which creates these dark self-contained little universes. Or don’t, and let these creepy codependent power dynamics surface everywhere.

    You don’t have to go far. It’s happening at your local yoga studio. CHeers

  • Theresa

    Stewart, I was at tat Yoga competition in question. I had no dogs in the race, and I did not know Sarah at all at that time. It was 100% obvious that Sarah was the winner on that day. It was obvious. I remember hearing a gasp when she was announced as second runner up. Even if the woman who was declared the “winner” had not stumbled in one of the postures (which she very clearly did), Sarah’s “performance” was heads and tales above everyone else’s. This scandal did not surface until years later, but even back then I know Bikram had rigged the event. The woman who won the event was his little “pet” at the time. I chalked it up to that. I did not know that he also had a vendetta against a young woman who refuse to fuck him or be raped by him. I’m curious: What would you have done? Rolled over?

  • Stewart J. Lawrence

    What is a naive, impressionable 20 year old college drop-out doing in an unsupervised intimate relationship with a “teacher” more than twice her age? Why is she hanging out alone in the man’s house and bedroom, watching TV, brushing the man’s hair, massaging him? Why after an “unsavory” encounter — call it what you want — does she return to that environment, as several of these women freely admit?

    I learned something important from studying the MISA yoga cult in Romania. I learned it from Bivolaru’s lawyer. Yoga cults create these powerful hierarchies around competition. Some people know how to thrive in these systems. Some people don’t, or overshoot and get preyed upon. Either way, there is a powerful will to bondage. It draws in certain kinds of personalities and people in need of certain kinds of emotional and psychological fulfillment. They may get compromised — or rather compromise themselves — slowly, over time. It’s a fusion of domination and consent.

    Carol Horton has written compellingly about the potential for suffering deep psychological injuries in American yoga culture. I highly recommend her article even if she regrets that she ever wrote it. Everyone ignored it when it appeared. She’s also written compellingly about narcissism in yoga — and not just the gurus, which is the tip of the iceberg.

    Here’s the psychological injuries article. It really should be republished -
    http://www.90monkeys.com/2013/08/holding-the-sacred-circle-yoga-teachers-and-emotional-safety-part-1/

    The one thing I would take strong issue with in the article is that she largely blames the students and makes it sound — just as Bikram does, in fact — that the students are willing themselves into co-dependent bondage, and these poor gifted little teaching goddesses, who only want to teach from their heart, what are they to do? Nonsense, it’s a more pernicious and complicit relationship than that. In most cases the teacher is a huge power tripper, and the student is the lamb. This is happening in one fashion or another in every yoga brand/movement/style/clan that I am aware of.

    The only solution, is you either make yoga a private club scene where people can tie each other up and do BDSM if they frigging like – or you stop pretending that these quasi-therapeutic encounter sessions can be handled in an open “public” studio environment without formal licensing and regulation.

    In fact, you can’t really train someone in the “care of the soul.” However, you can certainly discourage those who do not have the life experience, personal maturity, or character development to engage people on a deep level spiritually from EVER becoming teachers — except dog trainers maybe. Churches training people for ministry have 1-2 year “discernment” programs, even before people start their training. How, in the current system, does anyone really know if someone else is “fit” to teach? Because the studio den mother — probably another head case — says so?

    The teacher training system in the US is rotten to the core. It’s driven by money, and it’s already dumping too many teachers on to the market just to teach asana with a semi-human face. Talk to that contemptible buffoon at the Yoga Alliance about his great plans for this area. At this point, I seem to have blanked out his name.

    I see that Carol has fallen silent here. She usually does when the going gets tough.

  • Carl

    Stewart, regardless of what the circumstances are, it is never OK to force sexual contact with another human being. Ever.

  • Stewart J. Lawrence

    It’s not clear that this is what happened, actually. It’s really not, not even form what the women say. But you’re really missing the larger point.

    The entire purpose of the yoga teacher-student relationship in every organized yoga setting is to induce a “power exchange” between the teacher and the student. The pedagogy is designed from the outset to get you to relinquish power to your teacher; it’s not an accidental byproduct, or an overstep. It is precisely what the relationship is intended to achieve. The more honest teachers admit this.

    In theory, you might do this willingly if you really believe the teacher is this benevolent soul who is agreeing to hold your power, alchemically adds his or her own “siddhis” to the mix, so to speak, and then basically, gives the package back to you.

    At its best, this might be like a positive therapeutic relationship, with the attendant transference and counter-transference. At its worst, though, it is like a BDSM relationship gone bad, without a safe word. You will be preyed upon directly, and your psyche and spirit will be feeding the vampire that is your teacher.

    You may feel “empowered” as long as you stay connected, telepathically, but you’re actually being drained. The most advanced teachers are quite adept at managing these relationships with their little flocks. If you have already opened up your third eye and your ethereal body these wannabe masters of the universe, you will feel the presence. Behind the public face of the studio, they are usually actively trying to ensnare you within their web — usually in the guise of “praying or meditating for their students.”

    Do you understand? This is a much more important problem for the mass of yoga consumers than the problem of what the elite narcissistic power-trippers are doing to each other in bedrooms as they struggle to climb to the top of the bondage pyramid.

    It’s what should truly concern all people who care about the creation of a truly democratic spiritual culture — not implanting a spiritual cult movement that combines the worst authoritarian qualities of the Hindu guru system with the most materialistic and ego driven characteristics of Western mass culture, all in the name of creating a loyal flock of sheep-like consumers and “devotees.”

    American yoga is basically a New Age version of Amway performing spandex burlesque.

  • maitri

    It’s what should truly concern all people who care about the creation of a truly democratic spiritual culture — not implanting a spiritual cult movement that combines the worst authoritarian qualities of the Hindu guru system with the most materialistic and ego driven characteristics of Western mass culture, all in the name of creating a loyal flock of sheep-like consumers and “devotees.”-
    Fantastic statement, Stewart.
    I understand what you are saying re: the underlying ‘real issue’. It seems like you are also suggesting that these lawsuits are frivolous and/or disingenuous b/c the women were using their position and attention to climb the ‘spiritual ladder’ for recognition and validation. While I agree that codependency and dysfunction are apparent in these relationships, the bottom line is that the teacher/authority figure is not exonerated from sexual violence, regardless of the other party’s involvement by choice. I think both things are true. Non dualism at its best?

  • Stewart J. Lawrence

    I haven’t seen the televised segment in a while, but I didn’t find their on-air testimony very compelling. Neither did any of the women watching it with me. Perhaps an entire new line of yoga teacher trainers could be developed to help these women primp for their “debut” in court?

    I doubt it will ever get that far. It’s probably up to Bikram whether he wants to throw cash at these women –just to get rid of them. From a business perspective, I would. I’m sure lawyers for the two sides are fast at work.

  • Carl

    I made no mention of any interpretation of events. I simply stated that there is no context in which forced sexual contact is acceptable. Whether or not forced sexual contact occurred in these cases is not for either of us to determine. There is a process in place for that.

    I read the remainder of your argument as being a bit fallacious, in that it is based almost entirely on your own assumption about how and why very disparate individuals engage in a student/teacher, or guru, relationship. You assume motive, assume power dynamics, and assume the nature of the relationship. These factors could certainly exist for anyone, but they could just as easily be a case of you seeing what you expect to see, or assume to be true. You are certainly entitled to your opinion about the most subtle elements of people about whom you have no direct knowledge, but it’s important to understand that it is simply your opinion, which, without empirical evidence, is essentially just a statement about how you view the world.

    I have practiced Bikram for 8 years now, and have experienced none of the emotions or power dynamics that you describe. I believe that the same is true for the many fellow students and teachers I have known over the years.

    Thanks for the reply. Have a great day!

  • Stewart J. Lawrence

    No problem, Carl. For what it’s worth, my “opinion” as you call it is based on my own 15 plus years of experience dealing with yoga power-trippers in a variety of studios and movements (e.g. Anusara, one of the worst) and extensive interviews with yoga practitioners in number of these same yoga movements that have experienced the same challenges over the years.

    There is a very long history of documented abuse in this area, and if you ask around, you’ll hear lots of tales of psychic and emotional “vampirism” in Yoga World

    However, I don’t doubt that little of this is occurring in the Bikram movement, at least at the “street” level. That’s because Bikram yoga is largely devoid of any deep meditative or spiritual content and the opportunities for practicing these more subtle Tantric-based forms of spiritual “mind-control” are few.

    There are many yoga veterans out there who are well aware of these kinds of dynamics, however, including Dr. Horton, and all the great yoga sages — Mr. Iyengar, Chogyam Trungpa and others, stateside — were long concerned about teaching Westerners the most advanced meditative techniques or delving deeply into the Tantra for fear that they would use their knowledge and acquired “powers” to dominate their students and to build “charismatic” empires.

    Trungpa was especially trenchant in these matters, comparing misuse of the Tantra to “spreading atomic radiation that poisons and destroys everything it touches.” He spoke eloquently about it at Naropa in the 1970s. Arguably, he was quite guilty of this himself.

    Dr. Horton began a discussion of this that went nowhere. Of course, it didn’t. It’s the hidden essence of so much of the enterprise.

  • janny

    I always loved Bikram yoga but I had problems with the studio I was going to. The owner was spying on the women when they were changing in the dressing room. He even put a rounded mirror in the lobby so he could see the women dressing. There were curtains to get into the dressing room and when the girls would leave they would go through the curtains and if you were near the door you could see everybody changing. He designed the studio and put his office directly across from the woman’s dressing room. Before he moved into his office, I caught him hanging out with the lights off so he could see the women changing. There was no where to hide that he couldn’t see you. Of course he wasn’t doing anything illegal but it gave me the creeps. He would also run his finger down your back while he was teaching. Anyway, not sure if anybody else cared and some of his students seemed to like the exposure. I just stopped going, but always thought I should have said something to him. I thought I’d see it in the news, that somebody else would complain but the studio is still here and I haven’t gone for years. So I can imagine what has gone on with Bikram.

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