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The dark story behind Bikram hot yoga, and its founder: Bikram Choudhury.

Warning. This post deals with sexual assault and might be triggering for some readers.

“Welcome to Bikram’s torture chamber, where you’ll kill yourself for the next 90 minutes.”

Those are the words celebrity yogi, Bikram Choudhury, would say at the start of every Bikram Hot Yoga class he taught – and it’s not hard to understand why.

The practice is extreme, with a series of 26 poses and two breathing positions taken over a 90 minute period – all while in sweltering 40 degree heat.

According to Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, a new Netflix documentary directed by Eva Orner, that delves into the darker side of the practice and its founder, participants would often faint or vomit in class.

And it wasn’t just the physical conditions making people uncomfortable.

According to Oprah Magazine, Bikram Choudhury refused to allow bathroom breaks and was known to mock participants for their weight and appearance while parading around in nothing but a speedo and his Rolex.

But this behaviour, it seems, was the very tip of the iceberg.

In recent years, disturbing allegations of sexual assault and rape have been made against Bikram Choudhury.

Who is Bikram Choudhury?

Born in Calcutta, India, in 1944, Bikram began practising Hatha yoga in his early twenties.

In 1971, he emigrated to the United States, opened studios in California and Hawaii, where he began to teach his own style of yoga. The 26 posture series was developed by piecing together existing sequences, and the 40 degree heat was supposed to mimic the Indian climate.

Bikram Yoga expanded rapidly across America and in the 90s gained a celebrity following, with Madonna, Lady Gaga and David Beckham all claiming to be devotees.

Bikram was also known to brag that he had taught US presidents, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

In 1984, Bikram married Rajashree Choudhury, a National Yoga Champion.

A darker side to Bikram.

Through teacher trainings, costing $14,000AUD a pop, as well as licensing, Bikram has reportedly amassed a fortune of $110mAUD as well as fleet of 43 luxury cars.

And it was through these lucrative nine-week training sessions, which took place in hotels, that Bikram was able to get closer than ever to his students. Even after spending a fortune on the training, students were only allowed to open a studio with Bikram’s permission, their professional advancement was entirely in his hands.

In the documentary, women attendees allege that a range of abuses happened at these trainings.

Sexual assault allegations.

Former student, Sarah Baughn, was the first woman to come forward and accuse Bikram of sexual assault. In court documents she filed at the Los Angeles Superior Court in 2013, she wrote that Choudhury “attacked her, pinned her against the door, and sexually assaulted her by kissing her neck, chest and face, and grinding his penis against her leg”.

In the documentary, Baughn explains the psychological and emotional manipulation Bikram used to gain her trust and to pressure her.

He told her he believed they had met in a former life and they shared a special connection, made her believe she could never be successful in the world of yoga without him.

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“I wanted to be a teacher, so badly, and I wanted to be a good teacher. The way that they shaped that world for us – we grew to understand that the only way you could be a good teacher was through him,” she said.

Eventually, this led to Baughn going to Bikram’s room for a late-night meeting, where she alleges Bikram sexually assaulted her.

Larissa Anderson, 22, inspired by Baughn’s courage, also came forward, detailing her own experience of sexual assault at Bikram’s house.

Anderson got into Bikram yoga through her boyfriend, becoming close with Bikram. But when he and her boyfriend had a falling out, Bikram told her to pick sides.

This led her to leaving the movement for a time, but when she returned, her friendship with Bikram resumed.

One night, she was having dinner at his home.

After his wife Rajashree went to bed, Anderson claims that Bikram tried to kiss her. When she protested, he raped her.

According to Vanity Fair, Anderson’s lawsuit reads: “Larissa could not find her voice to cry out for help… Defendant forcefully spread Larissa’s legs apart and ejaculated. It did not last long.”

Describing the rape on the documentary, Anderson said: “I felt like my physical body was completely limp, totally numb”.

Anderson said she confided in a friend the following morning, but told no one else as she wanted to continue her yoga training. She said she ‘felt like her life would be over’ if she left it.

Not long after she alleges Bikram raped her, she completed her training and Bikram approved her opening a yoga school in his name.

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Anderson and Baughn’s allegations of sexual assault were not the only ones filed against Bikram.

In 2016, ABC7 news reported a total of six rape and assault cases were filed in civil court against Bikram in the last decade, but no criminal charges had been brought against him, despite lawyers’ urging of Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office to pursue such charges.

Four of the cases have been settled, including those brought by Baughn and Anderson. Bikram has denied or pleaded the fifth on all allegations made about him.

Minakshi Jafa-Bodden

In 2015, Bikram’s former lawyer, Minakshi Jafa-Bodden filed a lawsuit against him, claiming her employment was ‘abruptly and unlawfully’ terminated.

Jafa-Bodden, 47, said the yogi was a sexual predator who had preyed on his young female devotees. She alleged she had been wrongfully dismissed for investigating allegations against him of sexual harassment and assault.

In an interview with The Times, she said: “He can be very charming when you first meet him but that didn’t last. There were allegations of rape and assault. Perhaps the first complaint was a surprise but then I began to see a pattern. When I refused to cover up his alleged crimes, he became abusive, calling me a f***ing bitch”

Jafa-Bodden was awarded $6.7million by Los Angeles superior court. She also received the 700 franchised Bikram Yoga studios around the world and Bikram’s fleet of 43 cars.

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She told the Mail on Sunday: “Bikram is no longer the boss of Bikram Yoga. I am. I’ve been to hell and back but the jury has spoken. Bikram has tried to conceal assets and has fled America but justice will be done.”

In 2016, Bikram returned to India and the following year he declared himself bankrupt. In May 2017, Los Angeles police issued a warrant for his arrest as he’d left the country without paying any of the compensation owed to Jafa-Bodden.

Where is Bikram now?

Bikram, now 72, has previously denied allegations he has sexually assaulted anyone. His spokesperson said Bikram has sent a letter to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings saying, “I strongly urge you to consider immediately withdrawing the Netflix smear documentary.”

According to the film, Bikram is still running teacher training courses in Spain and Mexico.

Yoga studios all over the world are distancing themselves from Bikram.

One Melbourne based Bikram Yoga school recently confirmed this opinion in an email sent to the studio’s mailing list, writing:

Dear Clients and Friends,

“In light of the recent Netflix documentary and the allegations surrounding Bikram Choudhury, we would like to make the following comments.

No Australian Bikram Yoga Method studio, including ours, pays any money whatsoever to Bikram Choudhury or any of his businesses.

Neither myself, or any of our instructors, condone or support the alleged behaviours of Bikram Choudhury in any way.

We love this 26 sequence yoga method taught in a 39-40 degree Celsius room. We continue to call this Bikram Yoga as it is the name of the original hot yoga and identifies us from other styles of hot yoga which are sometimes taught using a flow method, or in a less heated room.

We would like to thank you for your continued support.

This email is simply to quell any uncertainty recent media hype may have provoked. As always feel free to contact us with any further concerns.

Yours faithfully,”

Upon contacting this Bikram Yoga Method studio, Mamamia received the following response:

“I have expressed my opinion in my newsletter and I have nothing further to say. All best for the upcoming festive season. ”

While not condoning the alleged actions of the founder of the yoga style they teach, they, like many other studios around the world are still happy to teach the Bikram Hot Yoga method in his name.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

Shona Hendley, Mother of Goats, Cats and Humans is a freelance writer from Victoria. An ex secondary school teacher, Shona has a strong interest in education and is a passionate animal lover and advocate. You can follow her on Instagram. 

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