Ever since allegations of sexual assault and rape were brought against Bikram Choudhury (the man), Bikram (the yoga) has suffered. Spanning across the country, and world, the Bikram Yoga empire, an enormous network of studios and practitioners who have dedicated hours and years to this brand, is now left to decide where, and with whom, they stand. Whether or not Choudhury is guilty of the crimes alleged, yoga studios are already choosing to jump ship and disassociate themselves with the Bikram name and organization, while others have decided to stick with it.
Important questions arise for studios and practitioners alike. Where does the loyalty lie – with the man or with the yoga? Can the name and practice be separated from the man? Should it have to be?
For Bikram yoga studios, it’s an ethical AND an economic decision.
Arguably the most popular name in yoga, everyone’s heard of Bikram, even people who’ve never practiced yoga. The Bikram name – what once drew new students in, sometimes purely because they’d heard of it before – could now possibly be turning people away after all of the bad publicity around the style’s founder.
One studio that’s recently taken the leap is Bikram Yoga Decatur, which changed its name to the reassuring Still Hot Yoga. Eric Jennings, the studio’s owner, made the announcement via their website stating: “since early 2013 there have been six lawsuits filed against Bikram Choudhury and Bikram Yoga, Inc, which contain very different, and disturbing, accusations, including sexual discrimination, sexual harassment and rape. We ended our legal affiliation with Bikram Yoga, Inc. in March 2013, just weeks after learning of the first of these lawsuits and at the same time we stopped referring people to the Bikram Yoga Teacher Training program.”
Jennings told the local news that he couldn’t know if the Bikram name was hurting his business, but the decision was made because, “I can’t bear the thought that even one person may choose to stay away from us out of fear of association with or support of Bikram Choudhury or his company.”
It’s still a slow transition, however. Though the name was officially changed, the URL and facebook page still read “Bikram Yoga Decatur.”
On the other side of the mat are those who still feel connected to the practice, despite the man.
Zeb Homison, director of the Bikram Yoga studio in Lawrenceville, said he’s sticking with the name for now.
“I’ve always been much more connected to the yoga than the man,” Homison told Pitt News. “He spread a powerful form of yoga all over the world, and you’ve got to give him credit for that, but I’ve never held him on a pedestal.”
Homison also noted that a lot the students don’t even make the connection that it’s an actual man.
“We’re out here doing good work and helping people … and most of my students have a great time coming to the studio and don’t even know he’s a man, let alone that he’s out there [allegedly] doing weird things,” Homison said.
But the bubble of blissful ignorance could soon change once the cases go to trial and press continues to build around the accusations. At some point it may be actually become a disadvantage to keep the Bikram name.
According to David Kwasnick, partner and chief creative officer at Pittsburgh marketing agency Gatesman + Dave, maintaining the Bikram name and connection could be a bad business decision in the long run.
“I think if you don’t change the name, it’ll hurt you, especially being associated with a man with allegations like that against him,” Kwasnick said.
Kerrie Kauer is a former Bikram student who is now a visiting scholar and part-time lecturer at Pitt and researcher of the connection between yoga and feminism. Kauer predicts it will be an ethics issue dividing the Bikram community. “So if people try to disentangle, then they might be OK because the man is very different from these 26 postures,” Kauer said. “But I think a lot of people will see it as more of an ethical issue.”
For those studios who are still hanging onto the name, Kauer suggests that they’re holding out for the courts to decide. “I think at this point, people are feeling that he is innocent until proven guilty,” Kauer said. “It’s just now going to trial, so some people are not willing to remove his name because he hasn’t been proven in a court of law.”
There may be another reason why they’re not so easily dropping the name that has helped them build such a strong network. What happens to the community when the unifying name disappears?
“There’s a whole community all across this country and all across the world, and I hope if something does happen, we can all stay together as a community,” Homison said. “And if that involves changing a name or stepping down as head of the community, I hope we can show some solidarity.”
Assuming Bikram is found innocent maybe not too much will change at all. Decisions will be made based on a personal (and maybe ethical or economical) basis. If found guilty, there could be a whole mess of things to deal with starting from the very foundation of the Bikram Yoga brand that will have to find a way to go on surviving without him.
Has your local Bikram studio changed its name or considered it? Let us know.