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Bikram Yoga Teacher Urges Collective Action In Open Letter to Bikram Yoga Community

in YD News

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A letter from a Bikram Yoga teacher addresses the greater Bikram community, calling on them to drop their fears, to speak up and sign the petition asking that Bikram Choudhury step down, shedding light on the shift that is happening within the Bikram yogasphere. Shared Tuesday on the newly created The Request for Bikram to Step Down in Respect of Ethics and Yoga facebook page (echoing the title of the Change.org petition) the letter from Emily Lifshitz points to the collective ”silent consent” of students, teachers and studio owners who have refrained from taking action or voicing their opinions after multiple rape and sexual abuse allegations have been brought against Choudhury.

“This is a pattern of behavior that is incredibly disturbing no matter how much you love Bikram the man or the yoga,” Lifshitz writes, appealing to those who are either afraid or unmoved to lend their voices in support of Choudhury’s resignation and consequent ousting as Bikram Yoga’s leader.

She addresses the legitimate fears that some may have by doing so: “We fear that if we admit the man is flawed, that our yoga must be flawed too, the way we practice, the way we teach, the lessons we have learned and the profound changes many of us have seen in our lives are somehow void. We fear if we take away the man, somehow we lose the yoga, we lose who we are collectively.”

But reassures that by collectively taking action there is hope: “I think if all these silently dissenting studio owners and teachers came forward with one voice, we would be a force to be reckoned with, a genuine alternative.”

The facebook page also shares links to copies of the lawsuits which are viewable online: the Sarah Baughn complaint filed March 7, 2013; Jane Doe No. 1 filed May 7, 2013; Jane Doe No. 2 filed May 6, 2013; Jane Doe No. 3 filed November 25, 2013; and the most recent Jjill Lawler suit filed February 13, 2015.

Just last week, a few days after the sixth lawsuit was filed against Choudhury, we had asked the yoga world to join in conversation and open dialogue since the Bikram community was notably silent on the matter. Since then, a discussion has opened up, a petition was started and a shift is starting to happen. However, despite the lawsuits and recent increased media attention, Choudhury’s calendar remains booked with seminars and trainings abroad through June 2015 and there has been no official statement from Bikram Yoga, Inc.

In addition to the Change.org petition, which, at time of this post’s publication is at 466 signatures, another petition was created demanding that the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office take the accusations of rape and sexual abuse seriously and conduct a full investigation of Bikram Choudhury. The petition can be found here.

The full unedited letter from Bikram Yoga teacher Emily Lifshitz can be read below.

“I am signing the petition demanding Bikram Choudhury to step down, and I hope other Bikram studio owners, teachers, and students will too.

The past few years have seen an ever-growing number of women come forward with accusations of rape and sexual abuse – many have come forward, all with their own experiences of abuse, and it is a pattern that we cannot deny and should not tolerate. It’s sad that all of us who have gone through teacher training turned a blind eye to his rambling “lectures” that are deeply discriminatory towards women, people of color, and the LGBT community. Bikram is a hateful, hurtful person who has no place as a leader of a yoga community.

It’s hard: on the one hand, this is the man who brought us the yoga practice that we love and for many of us has completely transformed our lives; but on the other, we have a man who we can see has a history of boastful discrimination and a clear pattern of sexual abuse. This is a pattern of behavior that should not be excused by the wonderful yoga he gave to us, or any personal stories of likeability and connection: this is a pattern of behavior that is incredibly disturbing no matter how much you love Bikram the man or the yoga.

Lately, an interview from 2013 has been floating around as a “defense” of Bikram, or at least a defense of the Bikram community staying the course and not rocking the boat – we share it to reassure ourselves, a collective pat on the back. Unfortunately, in the time since the interview, the Bikram community hasn’t supported the women who have come forward – in fact, the victims have been ostracized and actively harassed. The Bikram community hasn’t separated the man from the yoga – Bikram still has thousands of teachers who are loyal defenders, willing to turn a blind eye to his behavior. The so-called “senior teachers” have been the most loyal – some to the point of obstructing justice – and there has been a severe lack of leadership. We haven’t taken ownership of the yoga or our practice. “The man is not the yoga” is an empty platitude when we refuse to address the man.

There are many studio owners and teachers who have quietly turned away – changing the names of their studios or offering their teaching at non-Bikram studios. Our community is the poorer for losing their voices, because theirs is a voice we need to hear. There are many studios now offering abridged versions of the 90-minute series, or styles of yoga in addition to the traditional Bikram method: and we are the poorer for not hearing their voices. There are many of us regular Bikram yogis – good people – who see the Kool-Aid for what it is but have silently just kept on going, teaching, practicing, keeping his name on the door, and giving our silent consent to his behavior.

I think if all these silently dissenting studio owners and teachers came forward with one voice, we would be a force to be reckoned with, a genuine alternative.

But so far, we haven’t. It’s shameful that this petition doesn’t already have thousands of signatures already. And why? I’m sure there are many reasons, but I think the biggest one is fear.

We fear that if we admit the man is flawed, that our yoga must be flawed too, the way we practice, the way we teach, the lessons we have learned and the profound changes many of us have seen in our lives are somehow void. We fear if we take away the man, somehow we lose the yoga, we lose who we are collectively.

We have seen how Bikram has exiled even his most beloved students and sued studios and teachers who have dared to venture out on their own. It’s not just Bikram’s wrath we fear: some of his most loyal defenders are also the loudest: we fear being publicly ostracized by people we disagree with (and maybe even dislike) because maybe the other people we do like in our community will distance themselves from us too out of that same fear.

And if we’re ostracized from the larger Bikram community, we feel that we’ve lost something important.

We fear that we will split into factions, that we will disagree on theory and practice or how to train our future teachers, we fear that we will be left without leaders and inspiration. We fear that we will lose our history. We fear without a central leader we can rally around, we will fall apart. We collectively don’t know who we are without Bikram, and that’s a problem. It’s scary to be groundless, to not have the answers readily given, to go into the unknown, not knowing whether the ties that bind us together now will hold through the storm. We are attached to things as they are, and avoiding a transformation that must happen, and will happen, whether we want it or not.

The studios and teachers who have dropped his name are doing just fine. These studios and teachers are still loved by others that remain in the Bikram community. These studios and teachers are still loved by their students and continue to attract more. So what are we so afraid of?

We have hidden behind a “wait and see” attitude too long. We are actively hiding behind a false compassion, an “idiot compassion” – compassion without clear wisdom. Idiot compassion is enabling, it is selfish: it avoids confronting the problem because we fear possibly painful change while enabling the other to continue their destruction. True compassion isn’t always comfortable: it is gentle and loving, but it is also strong and firm, and yes, sometimes painful.

If we as a community were really interested in being yogic or compassionate, if we really think that our yoga practice applies “off the mat”, we would stand up to Bikram and those who have helped him in his destruction. We owe the victims of his sexual abuse our compassion and support and we owe it to ourselves and our students to create a safe environment.

And to the most loyal of his supporters: if you love Bikram – not the yoga, but the man – you will want to help him. Maybe helping him avoid responsibility for his actions in civil or criminal court will help him materially, but in enabling him to continue on like this, you are denying him the chance to see his mistakes and fix them, to hit rock bottom and then have the chance for a new beginning.

I urge the Bikram community to sign this petition. Until now, we have all been afraid to stand up, to raise our hands without the others. Stand up and own your yoga.”

——

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24 comments… add one

  • IMHO

    Emily, perfectly said! I can pretty much assure any Bikram studio owner or teacher who is afraid of getting sued for defying him that he has much bigger problems at this point, and that he will not waste his time or money going after them. It is highly likely that he will pay large sums of money to the six plaintiffs either by way of pre-trial settlement or post-trial damages, and that it will come directly out of his own pocket, because insurers do not cover intentional acts such as sexual harassment. All studios and teachers should drop the name, because many of us absolutely will not patronize any studio or teacher that operates under the name “Bikram”, and, like you said, those who already have dropped the name haven’t suffered.

  • Asananine

    Your assurances aside, if he can sue he likely will. This directly cuts into his revenue. Proceed cautiously and do not rely on yoga blogs for legal advice, mine included.

  • IMHO

    Good point, Asananine, but Bikram wouldn’t have a valid legal claim for what I’m proposing, which is:
    a) change the studio/class name to something other than “Bikram” — i.e., no trademark infringement –; and
    b) continue to teach the 26+2 poses (as insipid as they are), or some variation thereof — i.e., no copyright claim, because yoga sequences are not protected by copyright law.
    Sure, he can file a frivolous suit as he has done in the past, but his cash is now going toward lawyers defending the six claims pending against him.

  • Asananine

    Agreed, but frivolous or not it can be costly to defend. He has deep pockets and an in house attorney. Not the case for most yoga studios.

  • IMHO

    Looks like that Bikram in-house attorney thing didn’t work out so well, considering she was the very first to get a judgment against him: http://www.rt.com/usa/330520-bikram-yoga-lawsuit-damages/

  • Hello Bikram Yoga Teacher, Thanks for sharing this usefull article
    Can you also have some yoga tips for Safe Detox Program

    Thanks

  • Rosa

    I be always very grateful To Bikram,his teachers and his technique.
    The consistency that anywhere you go in this planet The Bikram studio will be teaching exactly the way he planned.
    That, you will never see in other disciplines like Pilates,where everyone one drop a creative change.
    He has share an amazing technique to the world.Yoga has and will be always around.They are hundres of asanas
    The fact that you get a routine well put and plan with the heat factor for your health benefits,that is priceless.
    I dont know what my body will be without my Bikram sesions.

    God bless Bikram,his teachers and students.!!

  • Ed

    Be careful what you wish for. John Friend stepped down while still holding the trademarks for Anusara, today the organization is half of what it once was (can’t find but one person who was in my TT there today) while John still takes a cut and is on to filling weekends with sycophantic teachers willing to pony up hundreds to learn the “next best thing ever you can teach in your classes” (“to take the place of the last best thing you paid thousands to me to “teach” you and to also send your students to my workshops”, multi-level marketing the Amway way). I would be surprised to find that Bikram didn’t trademark his yoga school. So he resigns and uses his wealth to go after anyone who doesn’t pay up for the “rights” to use the name – Bikram. Good luck.

  • Diane

    Context plays a huge part in shaping our opinions on the 60 minute variation and on the court cases. It’s different if you work for a studio who shaped your opinion because they were a senior teacher school who pressured Bikram to make a franchise in order to pressure new schools away from their established school(s). Then they refused to join the franchise. Allegiances have been broken between Bikram and some senior teachers/older studio owners and it has everything to do with older studio owners not getting what they wanted out of Bikram and protections by a franchise. Some Senior teachers abandoned Bikram not only because of personal differences but because he would not be their puppet and draw the franchise agreement the way they wanted. There’s a lot not documented publicly about those stages of the Bikram community.

    Sure, it would be great if Bikram trusted a group of invested individuals to lead the Bikram Yoga global schools affiliation/franchise and teacher training. But considering the lack of trust in both directions, why would he hand the torch to people who’ve abandoned, manipulated and backstabbed him? Reading his actions I’d guess he’d rather keep his name to himself and keep his legacy in his family, like Ghosh did. Perhaps he’s waiting for a new batch of invested owners and eligible knowledgeable teachers to prove they’re ready to polish brass for him so he can retire.

  • IMHO

    Diane, I’m not a Bikram insider, but it sounds like you’re describing ordinary business negotiations, not manipulation and back-stabbing:

    * Party “X” seeks to impose a new franchise fee on existing licensees “Y”, much to the latter’s surprise and chagrin.
    * Y seeks assurances from X that no new licensees “Z” will be allowed to enter the already saturated markets currently occupied by Y.
    * X demurs, Y demurs and no X-Y agreement is signed.
    * Z enters the saturated markets.
    * Y goes rogue and drops the X logo, continues to peddle X’s wares or some variation thereof.

    Incidentally, I think the “brass” you’re referencing may be X’s knob.

  • Henry Wallace

    Does anyone know how many perfectly consensual relationships Bikram has had with all of these spiritual “climbers” that he trains to join in the fruits of his empire? I get the impression there are quite a few? All Jumpin’ Johnny Friend had to do was wave is magic wand and a gaggle of women — many of them married — clutched it to their breast — and nether regions?
    We actually don’t know how many because no one;s asked the senior lieutenants — Elena Brower, Amy Ippolitti, Christina Sell, among others, as well as lesser acolytes to come clean about what their “seocial” relationship actually consisted of?

    Many of these rape charges are very difficult to sustain convincingly because the women freely admit that they returned to him after he supposedly “raped” them. Arguing that you felt suborned in a relationship and didn’t feel you could leave is not that compelling since you freely entered into the relationship. If you joined a cult that’s really on you. Ask the Anusara dweebs.

    Every time I hear the Little Baughn-Baughn Girl talk about how she used to tell Bikram he “was better than chocolate,” I am tempted to conclude — like most sane observers would — that ALL of these people — man woman and child — truly deserve each other?

    Forgive me for holding the plaintiffs to a higher standard than they are capable of holding themselves.

    If I were Bikram, I deny everything, say these women demanded special privileges, and when he refused, cried rape. End of story. Otherwise, take a polite settlement and go away, Honey.

  • IMHO

    Hank, you make a strong case — in your nutty way — that the Anusara nymphs were willing participants in a yoga-community-turned-cult.

    The Bikram plaintiffs, on the other hand, likely felt coerced by their teacher’s implicit — and then explicit — threats to render worthless their $10,000+ investments in training. Although $10,000 is a pittance to people of our stature, Hankmeister, that’s the simplest and most logical explanation.

  • Henry Wallace

    A very good reason to start regulating yoga, especially teacher training. Any industry that has grown to this size needs to have regulatory authority of some kind — ideally, self-regulatory Take this faux-”licensing” away from these yoga “brands” and place it in the hands of a licensing body comprised of the entire yoga community and/or in association with public authorities.

    Strengthen the standards and weed out the psychologically unfit. Personally I would establish age (no youngsters) and prior training requirements. It might take 10 years to become a full-fledged licensed yoga teacher. We would have a lot fewer teachers, and a lot less predation and emotional and psychological dysfunction of the kind that is currently rampant within yoga.

    There are lots of possible modalities — and it’s time to start discussing them. Veterans like Matt Taylor and the people at Phoenix Rising have musing about these issue for years. So have many others. It’s time to make the discussion broader and more visible — and to get out of Ostrich Pose.

    In the end, this is not about one man and one experience. It’s a “teachable moment” for all of yoga. Women need to start pretending that yoga patriarchy is the problem. American yoga is the problem.

  • Asananine

    New name same old “Spewart”, with the Anusara teacher fixation and veiled misogyny. Nice innuendo. Make an unfounded accusation, followed by “we don’t know because…no one’s asked…” Follow that up with useless and vitriolic speculation as to the motives of the Bikram victims.

  • Henry Wallace

    You probable ought to consult a dictionary and actually look up these words before you use them so tendentiously. Hence, your name?

    “Personal accountability” is practically a shibboleth in the American yoga community. Then again, that would assume it was a deeply held principle to begin with.

    There are no victims — only volunteers. Which are you?

  • IMHO

    Huck, spelling is paramount (“probable” changed to “probably” from one post to the next) when admonishing commentators for their perceived sophistry. Otherwise, didacticism decays to mere irony.

  • Henry Wallace

    You probably ought to consult a dictionary and actually look up these words before you use them so tendentiously. Hence, your name?

    “Personal accountability” is practically a shibboleth in the American yoga community. Then again, that would assume it was a deeply held principle to begin with.

    There are no victims — only volunteers. Which are you?

  • Asananine

    Sorry, I don’t accept the premise of your question.

  • Hank

    In other words, you don’t UNDERSTAND the question and instead of looking stupid, you sneer down your nose using a term such as ‘premise’ in the incorrect context. Dumb dike.

  • Henry Wallace

    The same people who decry the horrible predations of Bikram Choudhury are the very same people who cry the loudest about the horrors of “regulating” teacher training.

    Why, if we don’t have our little Hindu-inflected girls clubs, who will we be? We’ll lose our sacred spiritual lineages! Our identities! We will be reduced to some standardized brand of “American” yoga!

    No, you’ll lose the ability to create these mist-enveloped cult empires that provide a pyramid for power and abuse that extend from the very top to the base.

    Build in collective accountability — to yourselves and to “consumers” and weed out the unfit who attracted to these “settings” for the wrong reason to begin with — probably 50% of the people here now?

    Toto, I don’t think we’re in Delhi anymore. No Dorothy, we’re in fucking Kansas.

  • Seriously?

    “Henry Wallace” you don’t make any sense outside of throwing around insults that pretty much insinuate you hate women and know nothing about ethical relationships between teacher/student, power/powerless. Many of these young women were groomed by Bikram and his associates. Bikram absolutely grooms these women before (allegedly) raping them, and I have no doubt that he used his power to keep them from running away or speaking up. And it is absolutely possible for a woman to enter into a “consensual” relationship and then have it turn into something abusive, including rape. It is incredibly hard to speak up from an abusive relationship, never mind get out, and we should support those women whether they went into it consensually or not. Abuse is abuse.

    “Diane” – I don’t know much about all the business discussions and internal politics amongst senior teachers, but speaking as a teacher, the only reason teachers/students have no idea what happened in terms of the franchise/business is because studio owners/senior teachers insisted on keeping all discussions secret. We desperately wanted to be included but “it didn’t concern us”. Whatever politics go down around Bikram are a mystery because none of the people around him are brave enough to speak out – all we see from here is a bunch of bobbleheads.

  • Nice post. Thanks for sharing.

  • sarah

    Thank you for shedding light on a topic that is so easily shrugged off and swept under the rug. My only wish is that people will come to the realization that A. What Bikram did was not ok & B. That things inevitably need to change as time proceeds and many people are keeping their heads in the sand and doing nothing about anything because they are gripped in fear and feel threatened. Its time to wake up and re-open your mind to the possibilities. I have a question…?
    With what is happening with Bikram and the Copyright of the Bikram series situation, why is it that Bikram Teachers teaching at Bikram affiliated studios are still NOT allowed to teach at any other studio? Is this still a rule or guideline in effect from Bikram Teacher’s “contracts”? Can anyone answer that for me? Thank you

  • RealityDude

    I read this article several months ago and it has been on my mind ever since. I can only speak for one middle aged heterosexual male who has been sweating it out in the hot room for five years but the reality is (drum roll please)….most men who take Bikram classes (or any yoga class for that matter) think about sex in and out of most postures. It really is hard not to when so many attractive women wearing very little bend and flex all around you. The difference between most men and Bikram is that most men think about it but don’t act on it. The one victim not mentioned in all of this is his wife who remains by his side and quietly suffers knowing the reality of everything happening around her. I feel sad for her and wish her the strength to survive all of this. It is easy for me to say screw Bikram as my life savings is not invested in a studio or teacher training and tied to his success. I wasn’t present when the alleged rapes occurred so I can’t say who is right and who is wrong here. I will continue to support my studio knowing that my owner/teachers are victims as well and they have done nothing wrong to justify me walking away due to something they had no involvement in as well. A narcissist will always be a narcissist and it would take a divine miracle to get Bikram to see his faults and own up to them. As an optimist, I tend to believe in miracles…Peace

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