by 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.