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The Dark Side of Bikram Yoga

A new documentary trains a lens on the abuses and lies of legendary yogi Bikram Choudhury.

Courtesy of Netflix

You need a strong constitution to attempt a hot yoga class. The same is true even if you only want to watch Eva Orner’s Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, a documentary about the form’s champion, Bikram Choudhury. Both can make you feel nauseated.

The film opens with archival footage of the younger Choudhury—he’s beautiful, boastful, and charming. Stripped near-nude, Choudhury delights chat-show audiences as he gives his sales pitch about the myriad benefits of the particular sequence of yoga postures and breathing exercises he claims to have invented.

We know this is to be the story of Choudhury’s downfall, so the man’s anecdotes ring false. He tells of being flown to Hawaii in the 1970s to minister to Richard Nixon, in danger of losing a leg to phlebitis. After four days of therapy, an utterly healed president was so grateful that he personally arranged a green card for the young yogi. Give me a break.

Choudhury has always presented himself as a great American success story. The immigrant striver made very good. His promise of yoga’s benefits appealed to the star set: Elvis Presley, George Harrison, Shirley MacLaine, Barbra Streisand, Quincy Jones—at least as Choudhury tells it. The guru has sacred status in many cultures, but in the United States, money is our dominant faith. So to spread the gospel of Bikram yoga, Choudhury franchised: Teachers paid for training that was something like benediction, then opened official Bikram outposts across the land. Orner’s film includes footage of Choudhury taking a reporter out for a spin in his Rolls-Royce. It’s hard not to think of the great cult leader/huckster Rajneesh.

Orner does not interrogate the value of Bikram yoga, which is based on 26 poses and breath work executed over the course of 90 minutes in a very hot room. True crime stories sometimes feel like they’re catering to human tendencies to rubberneck (offering a dose of schadenfreude for good measure). But Orner respects Bikram’s true believers. Val Sklar Robinson, a teacher in Pasadena, California, describes Bikram as having saved her from a possible hip replacement. Another instructor credits his method for liberating him from obesity.

By first establishing Bikram’s efficacy and Choudhury’s canny salesmanship, Orner evokes Bikram’s appeal even if you know deep down that the holy man with a garage full of luxury cars is probably not to be trusted. You understand that the man willing to tell a reporter “you’ll never meet another human being on this earth more pure than me” will probably live to regret it. Even though Choudhury’s crimes are a matter of record, Yogi, Guru, Predator is very damning.

At this point, hearing a woman describe violation at the hands of a man more powerful than her is a depressing refrain. That doesn’t make it any less gutting. Larissa Anderson, Sarah Baughn, and Mandeep Kaur Sandhu recount for Orner’s camera their experiences with Choudhury; I will not attempt summary because they deserve to be heard themselves. So does Choudhury, who sputters for a news camera: “I’m the most spiritual man you ever met in your life—but today you are not all educated, smart, intelligent, wise, experienced enough to understand who I am.” It’s a we report, you decide situation, wherein viewers must weigh painful descriptions of harassment and rape against Trumpian bluster. A familiar choice.

We understand precisely who Bikram Choudhury is: a rich, cosseted man who assumed different rules applied to him by virtue not only of his wealth but of the nebulous spirituality of his calling. His acolytes describe students massaging their guru’s feet, as though those sweaty classes were truly encounters with the divine. “A lot of people tell a lot of stories, and that becomes their truth,” says Robinson, the teacher in Pasadena. “I think he has his own truth.”

She is being generous. The journalist Chandrima Pal points out that there was no national competition in yoga in Choudhury’s adolescence, when he claims to have won that title. The Nixon Library cannot confirm that the president and Choudhury ever met. A yogi named Mukul Dutta establishes that it was Choudhury’s teacher Bishnu Charan Ghosh who developed the specific routine we call Bikram.

Choudhury is a loudmouth, and Yogi, Guru, Predator lets him do the talking. There’s audio of him berating students in his classes; there’s tape of him crooning to them after the classes end; there are all those media appearances; and most incredible are the videotaped depositions, part of a wrongful termination suit brought by the man’s former legal counsel. You get the sense Choudhury is just insane enough to have sat for Orner’s cameras, but he couldn’t because he fled the States rather than pay the court-ordered $7 million to his former employee.

The film can only end with a depressing lack of finality. The L.A. County district attorney is not attempting to get Choudhury stateside so that he can pay up or answer for his crimes. He’s still operating his empire, and there was another big teacher training this year in Spain, putting the guru back into contact with the faithful. Maybe they’re still fighting for the chance to massage his feet; maybe they’re still willing to let him do as he likes.

Some feel it’s a moral obligation to disavow the art of flawed men. I don’t altogether agree with that, and Yogi, Guru, Predator complicates the proposition nicely. No Balthus canvas or Woody Allen film ever cured arthritis or obesity. “This yoga is magical,” one of Orner’s subjects says. “It’s a very powerful technique. I’ll never stop doing it. I’ll never stop promoting it.”