By now we’ve all experienced our own range of reactions to Bikram Choudhury being accused of rape and sexual assault by several women. While some members of the yoga community have been moved to speak out, many more have resorted to staying silent (even though we’ve learned, for a grave a situation as this is, that might not lead to the best solution). A glaring omission to the conversation has been the group of people that may be feeling the effects the deepest: the Bikram community. For various reasons they have not been vocal, but maybe it’s because they haven’t been asked.
With the help of Benjamin Lorr, author of Hell-Bent, we reached out to several Bikram teachers and studio owners and asked them to share their response to what has surely been the shock of the century to the well-oiled Bikram yoga system. Some are struggling with the business side of things – do they keep the “Bikram” name? – while others feel a deep responsibility to their students no matter what. None of the teachers/studio owners we heard from denied there was some truth the accusations.
This is by no means a definitive response from the collective yoga community, but rather intended as an open forum for those within the Bikram community and beyond to speak out freely and share their thoughts, responses, reactions and struggles that are real and valid. We’ve decided to share all of the following responses in full, without edit, provided via email correspondence.
First Benjamin Lorr offers his comments on the current state of events. Lorr’s book Hell-Bent chronicled his experience in Bikram Yoga teacher training in 2010 and was one of the first publications to shed light on what was soon to become Sarah Baughn’s lawsuit alleging sexual assault at the hand of Bikram Choudhury, opening the door for the other women to speak out.
He told us in email:
“There is nothing new to see here except the courage of three brave woman willing to speak out on national television. When interviewing for Hell-Bent, I encountered heartbreakingly similar stories, some from women still unwilling to come forward. Without names attached to affidavits, the lawyers wouldn’t let me publish details, but I hope the take-away from the book was as clear then as now: I have no doubt that Bikram Choudhury is a sexually predatory narcissist. He is manipulative in many ways beyond the sexual, as the book details, most damagingly by coercing silence. And the quicker the Bikram community drops his name from their studios, the quicker I’ll find my way back to those studios to practice.”
Eric Jennings, owner of Bikram Yoga Decatur, speaks on the division of the community into two sides – those who stand with Bikram and those who don’t – though he has chosen not to declare which side he is on. His decision to keep the name of the business as is rests on that it represents the “brilliant Bikram Yoga series and method.”
“The “latest” allegations, alas, are the same allegations that have been troubling our community for the past two years. It pains me every time I see a renewed focus on the lawsuits, which I believe should be decided by the courts and not by the media. The accusations against Bikram are disturbing and have largely divided the Bikram Yoga community into two camps — those who are quick to pile on and accuse him of being a monster and those who protest too much against the accusers and hold Bikram up to be a saint. Any rational person has to admit that the truth is probably somewhere in between. The women behind the suits clearly feel wronged and, as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape, my heart goes out to them. But I will not take sides. The women making the accusations deserve to be heard and to have their stories investigated. Bikram deserves to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise in a court of law.
As for me and my studio, which has been teaching Bikram Yoga for 11+ years, my first loyalty is to my students. My next loyalty is to the instructors who work with me and to my own personal practice. Behind all of that is a loyalty to the brilliant Bikram Yoga series and method. As long as I continue to teach the Bikram Yoga series in accordance with the Bikram Yoga method I see no reason to consider changing the name of my business. It may be true that the negative publicity is tarnishing the brand but the yoga which I have been promoting and practicing for these many years is just as profoundly effective as it has always been and my commitment to it, and to my community of yoga peers, is unwavering.”
Elizabeth Winfield, a former Bikram teacher who was a very active and “beloved staff member” during the 2010 Bikram Yoga Teacher Training, according to Lorr, has taken a decidedly different stance, distancing herself from the community, as well as the man and anything related to him after the accusations hit. She is hopeful that the situation will bring about healing.
“My reaction to Sarah’s allegations, and then Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2 was shock and then outrage….Outrage after I saw people trying to do character assassinations on these girls (and myself for simply posting the info). I also received multiple reports from other women, including a 7 page document from an 18 year old girl that detailed how Bikram had raped her. I know each of these girls personally….they are all the same…the same kind a rapist would go for…sweet, naive, and the kind who would never question their “guru”….I’ve also seen many of Bikram’s behaviors and it became clear to me in my opinion that he is a serial rapist and has been doing this for years (a case reported to me from over 20 years ago)….using the yoga and TT to prey on his next victims. My reaction was simple, I would support the victims by not allowing this to be hushed up (something I knew Bikram and company are very good at). My body would not physically allow me to walk into a “Bikram” named studio ever again. I tried to wear my Bikram logo clothes, and my body had a visceral/vomit reaction. There are 4 stages of grief and every single one of the Bikram community is in varying stages, depending upon their own involvement, entanglement, enlightenment, education, previous experiences, or lack thereof…. 1: denial 2: anger 3: bargaining 4: acceptance/resolution The most difficult thing for me, was to look within myself and wonder WHY I had joined this cult and had overlooked blatantly wrong behaviors….I think the Bikram community on the whole is reaching a tipping point, and I hope one day they all realize they should not have the name of a rapist on their door…anymore than they should call their business after Hitler. I’m happy to see studios slowly stepping away from the fear, control and dogma of Bikram, and offering additional services and becoming more trained as teachers. I do feel that all of the sexual scandals in the yoga community (and the Catholic church, Penn State, etc), is the world waking up to the awareness that sexual abuse is wrong and unacceptable. The more awareness and ability to speak of this in the open will simply allow for more education, prevention and treatment of what I term an illness: sexual dysfunction. I’m hoping for more healing of the sexual chakras in the world….. Sincerely, Elizabeth J. Winfield, Physician Assistant, volunteer medical for BYTT, ex-Bikram yoga teacher….mother of Brandy Lyn, 2010 female yoga champion….”
Joani Nunez, co-owner/director at Bikram Yoga Houston, shares her support for the women who came forward and offers her thoughts on the challenge that lies ahead.
“Of course I can’t speak for the entire community, but I can say that I have the highest regard and deepest respect for those women stepping forward and telling the world about what happened to them, and they have my 100% support. Personally, I am thrilled that the secrets of this community are finally coming to light, because just like an abscess, healing cannot happen until the poison is exposed and expressed, dead tissue excised, and the wound completely cleaned. I believe that all of this is yoga. Yoga isn’t something that happens for 90 minutes on a yoga mat; if you have a genuine understanding of meditation and yoga then all of life becomes your yoga practice. This community and every individual that is a part of it has an enormous challenge to deal with, how we do so speaks to the character of the individuals involved and the community as a whole – if, like they say in recovery circles, “You are only as sick as your secrets,” then the true healing has finally begun.”
Tricia Donegan, owner of Bikram Yoga Lower East Side in NYC, may be one of the most popular Bikram teachers out there, known as Lady Gaga’s yoga teacher and being an overall incredibly vibrant and enthusiastic character in the New York yoga scene. She shared in email that she will be keeping the “Bikram” name on her studio maintaining that “taking “Bikram Yoga” off my sign will not change the power dynamics that allow sexual violence to occur.”
She continued in email:
“‘Bikram Yoga’ is a practice our community believes in because it is healing, and that will go unchanged. At this point, we need to separate the practice we believe in — a practice that improves health and well-being — from the sexual violence Bikram Choudhury has committed.
What’s most important right now is to remember how terribly difficult it is report sexual violence, to support survivors, and work to end sexual violence in our homes, our workplaces, our yoga studios, our communities.”
As we mentioned, this is only a snippet, a snapshot. We invite other members of the Bikram community to use this space as a free forum for sharing comments and open dialogue.
image via Bikram Yoga Lower East Side