In light of multiple lawsuits against Bikram Choudhury alleging sexual assault and rape – there are six, presently – the Bikram Yoga community is now left to figure out what next. This post is intended to open a discussion forum, to create a dialogue and to bring to light any questions, concerns and thoughts held by Bikram studio owners, Bikram practitioners and the general yogasphere.
There’s been a lot written about the accusations (you can read more about the lawsuits here, here, here). A recent piece in the New York Times highlights a major problem facing some Bikram Yoga studio owners who wish to distance themselves from the namesake. “I stopped sending people to training. I changed the name,” says former Bikram studio owner Tiffany Friedman. She was “appalled” by the “cultish”ness of Bikram teacher training and recently renamed her Bikram studio Haute Yogi Manhattan Beach.
“I saw how people really wanted his favor and wanted him to shine a light on them and wanted to believe he was a guru and had all these powers. It was heartbreaking,” Friedman told the NYT.
As a whole, though, the Bikram world has remained largely silent. There have been no audible rallies for either side. No facebook pages, no petitions, no impassioned blog posts, no campaigns to express support for the man, nor the exodus from the franchised pack, which is surprising if only because many practitioners of Bikram are so fiercely devoted and loyal that one might assume there would be an Anusara-style response of Bikram proportions. The first lawsuit was filed in 2013, and since then five more women have come forward with formal accusations. And yet, mum. In fact, the majority of Bikram studios have chosen to basically ignore anything that’s going on beyond their steamy carpets even though the name of their business is tied to a man notorious for his outlandish, offensive mannerisms who will soon be going on trial to face rape charges.
It may be denial.
“A lot of people have blinders on,” said Sarah Baughn, 29, a onetime Bikram yoga devotee and international yoga competitor whose lawsuit against Mr. Choudhury in 2013 was like an earthquake among followers of his style of yoga. “This is their entire world. They don’t want to accept that this has happened.”
There is the possibility of his innocence and the judicial limbo that may be keeping people generally quiet, besides that Bikram’s legal team is well-known for being quite powerful and aggressive in defending his business, which is intimidating in and of itself. Bikram’s lawyers claim there are “thousands of Bikram yoga teachers, studio owners and practitioners who have conveyed messages of support and encouragement.” They’ve also said in a statement that the claims “are false and dishonor Bikram yoga and the health and spiritual benefits it has brought to the lives of millions of practitioners throughout the world.”
Regardless of the convictions, the charges themselves could place, and in some cases have already placed, a heavy toll on the Bikram empire.
But, again, no one really wants to talk about it.
When we put out the call for Bikram studio owners and practitioners to speak up and share their thoughts, we could almost hear the locust poses buzzing in the distance. We reached out to Bikram Yoga studios in NYC and the response we received was just as chilly, ranging from, “No comment at this time,” by the Marketing Director of Bikram Yoga NYC to a referral to an interview from last year where Tricia Donegan, owner of Bikram Yoga Lower East Side, shared her thoughts on the scandal. We checked in with Donegan who confirmed that, indeed, nothing much has changed from last year.
In the interview from March 2013, Donegan, explained how day-to-day operations at the studio are pretty much same old. When asked if she felt the need to distance herself from Bikram Choudhury or stand behind him as a community she responded: ”We need to be able to separate the practice we believe in—a practice we believe improves health and well-being—from the issue of sexual harassment. Stopping the yoga will not change the power dynamics that allow sexual harassment to exist.”
While that wasn’t really a straight answer on whether or not the yoga can be separated from the man, we feel for teachers like Donegan who are somewhat stuck between a rock and a sweaty place, who believe in the yoga they teach so strongly that, to them, the only clear option right now is to continue doing what they’re doing. Until something else happens and they can’t anymore. This something could be the conviction of their leader and the subsequent dismantling of his massive empire. We saw it happen on a much smaller scale with John Friend and Anusara. (Note: Friend was never sued by any students for sexual harassment or rape.)
Bikram Choudhury has 300 yoga studios in 40 states and Washington, D.C., with 600 studios worldwide, as of 2012. He still makes money from his franchised studios and from the strenuous teacher trainings that cost trainees upward of $10,000 that he still leads himself. This drops the question of ethics and action (or inaction) square into the laps of studio owners and teachers who pay for the Bikram name. Then there are the thousands of practitioners who have benefitted from Bikram Yoga and wish to continue the practice, but might not want to associate with the Bikram name. What do they do? What do the studio owners who have built their businesses and livelihoods on Bikram Yoga do now?
Maybe the answer is nothing at all? Last year, Eric Jennings, owner of Bikram Yoga Decatur expressed his commitment to the yoga despite the negativity around the brand:
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.
Or maybe the answer is for the Bikram Yoga community as a whole to take a huge step to the left of Bikram Choudhury the person and get rid of the name entirely, as Benjamin Lorr suggests. Lorr is author of Hell-Bent a book which touched on some of the troubling behind the scenes experiences as a Bikram teacher trainee, including some sexual harassment. We asked for his thoughts regarding the latest rape lawsuit news and the question of “what next?” His response via email:
Hopefully the latest allegations will finally move the Hot Yoga community to take action. As I made clear in Hell-Bent, I believe Bikram Choudhury is a predator. He is effective and dangerous precisely because he uses yoga’s best qualities to manipulate and control people who believe they “owe” him for the genuine life-changing benefits they receive from an asana sequence. The sexual assault allegations are merely the most grotesque and prominent examples of this behavior.As for the question ‘What now’? It’s the same as last week, last month, last year. Take his name off your studio, get his face away from your brand, and for god sakes don’t send your students to his training. I’m not entirely confident in the criminal court’s ability to untangle rape and sexual assault claims stretching back decades being made by women who were too fearful and enmeshed in his community to come forward while there was still physical evidence. But I am confident that we as a community can cut him off economically and deliver a small amount of support and justice while these cases and their civil counterparts proceed. Once that basic step has been accomplished, a natural rebuilding process can occur.
The questions are many, but the heaviest looming have to do with what the Bikram Yoga community – the teachers, studio owners, practitioners – will choose to do next. Do they carry on with business as usual as if nothing is happening? Do they band together and reclaim the yoga from their troubled guru? Do the students continue their practice under the Bikram name or will they move on, forcing studio owners to do the same? This, maybe more possible than ever since Bikram Choudhury lost his fight to copyright his 26 pose yoga sequence.
Will there be a revolution? We hope that in the very least there will be a discussion, a forum for honest and open dialogue so that people do not feel intimidated by or fearful of coming forward whether it be to express support, disappointment, confusion, personal experience or otherwise.
We’d like to start that open, honest and respectful discussion right here. Silence speaks volumes. Words and actions speak louder.
Petition Calls for Bikram Choudhury to Resign and Be Removed from Yoga Brand in Light of Rape Charges
- Another New Rape Suit Against Bikram Choudhury Makes It the Sixth, and It Keeps Getting Worse
- Judge Rules Bikram Choudhury Will Face Most of Rape Allegations, Case Will Go To Trial
- Big News: Federal Court Rules Bikram Can Not Copyright Asana Sequence
- John Friend Returns to Declare His Own ‘Epic Comeback Story’ – To Be Bigger Than Anusara Ever Was