We learned last week that 67-year-old Bikram Choudhury, the guru and promoter of “hot yoga,” is being sued for sexual harassment, discrimination, and defamation. Former student Sarah Baughn says Choudhury was her hero until he began propositioning her rather relentlessly. She accuses him of pressing his body against hers while adjusting her pose in classes, whispering sexual innuendos into her ear, ordering her to kiss him in front of other trainees, and assaulting her in a hotel room in Mexico.
Baughn says she resisted his advances. He found others easier to enthrall: Choudhury makes fawning students brush his hair, give him massages, and invites them to have sex with him, according to Baughn.
This weekend, former Choudhury acolyte Benjamin Lorr provides some insights into the yogi’s
cult ardent following. Lorr wrote a book about extreme yoga and the physical and spiritual pains its followers endure on the path to enlightenment.
In an article in the Daily Beast, he calls Choudhury “a dark prince of America yoga” who approaches his students “in Speedo and Rolex, barking orders at his following of millions (19 studios in New York City alone) as they struggle to contort to his demands.” Lorr says the master “charges upward of $11,000 to attend his trainings. He has 40 Rolls Royces in his garage.”
Trappings of obscene wealth aside, let’s ponder the similarities between sex abuse allegation from one cult or religion to the next. Lorr writes:
“Observing emotions,” “working through pain,” “refusing to become a victim” — all potent pieces of advice, cornerstones of a yoga practice built on personal empowerment — can easily be turned into weapons of silence. At the same time, community exhortations to just “focus on the positives” and “remember all the good he has done” provide the justification for their use.
That second part, at least, is how it seems to work in many Christian churches, too.
In Choudhury’s case, the alleged sexual harassment seems to go hand in hand with verbal abuse.
“He once shouted at me, ‘Hey you! Do you have boobs or do you have a dick? I can’t see it!’ ” recalls Naveed Abidi, the owner of a Chicago-based Bikram yoga studio who studied under Choudhury five years ago. He’s still a fan, and an avid defender of the man, because the insults are made with good intentions: “The reason he’s saying it is he just wants to have people get over their egos.”
Calling students all kinds of names, then, is all in a day’s work for the millionaire teacher of ancient yogic truths? Abidi confirms it:
“Every [yoga] teacher knows that Bikram calls his wife bitch. People who know Bikram know it’s nothing new. If he calls you a bitch, you should be happy he’s calling you something.”
[photo by Rebecca Greenfield via the Daily Beast; tip of the miter to Erik Sherman]