Sunday, October 01, 2023 | Rabi' al-awwal 15, 1445 H
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Years back, while exchanging e-mails with my dear American friend Deanna and while discussing yoga classes she asked if I’d ever tried something called hot yoga. Never hearing of it before I asked what it was and she answered that it was yoga done in a room where the temperature is raised and you end up sweating buckets. Jokingly, I replied that I could simply practice outside during summer and get the same affect with bonus fresh air.

I remembered this conversation while watching the documentary Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator (2019) that talks about Bikram Choudhury the Indian-born American yoga instructor.

Bikram was born in Kolkata in 1944. He studied yoga at a young age and won the National India Yoga Championship as a teenager for three consecutive years. His lucky break came in 1971 when he emigrated to the US and opened his first yoga studio in LA.

Bikram founded Hot Yoga, where he performed 26 yoga postures along with 2 breathing techniques in a heated room of 40˚centigrades. These postures were selected out of 500 poses created by his master Bishnu Charan Ghosh, who passed away in 1970. Later, he’ll try to copyright these postures and fails. On TV interviews, he claimed that he had helped treat President Nixon and that’s what got him the green card. Other celebrity clients included Elvis Presly, Sherly McLain, and Madonna.

In the 1990’s Bikram started offering 9-weeks teaching training courses, where only a few selected teachers would manage to affiliate themselves with him and offer his Hot Yoga course. The course costed around $10,000 and was very demanding physically, mentally, and emotionally. It was conducted in conference halls in hotels, where hundreds of students had to endure hunger, lack of sleep and no restroom breaks.

The footage of these trainings shows Bikram in his trademark black Speedos, walking around correcting postures, hurling abuses, cracking jokes, and singing. The vivid picture of Bikram the charming yoga teacher starts changing slowly when many former students -who were interviewed for the documentary- start revealing other traits that they’d experienced first-hand: narcissism, megalomania, and sexual harassment. In 2013 two of his former students filed lawsuits accusing him of sexual assault and rape.

These were followed by another lawsuit by his head of legal and international affairs who sued him for being fired illegally in 2016. Unfortunately, Bikram denied all allegations and managed to use his Indian passport to flee to an unknown destination. Director Eva Orner succeeds in compiling footage and interviews that describes skilfully the rise and fall of Bikram.

While watching the documentary there were many questions running in my mind: Why did the students keep up with his abusive behaviour? Was the money charged for the course enough to silence them?

What’s with the Americans always falling victims to cult-like environments and their charismatic leaders? And most importantly, why tolerate an indecently dressed man in Speedos for the sake of yoga? The image that Bikram built slowly shatters as his lies are exposed and so is the multi-million industry he’d built. However, the distressing part is knowing that Bikram still trains and had conducted two teaching trainings in Mexico and Spain in 2019. Being an old yoga practitioner, I found the whole experience shocking and put-offish to anyone with no yoga experience. But it goes to show humans’ capability of corrupting even the purest spiritual practices.

The movie was premiered at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival. It is worth watching, bearing in mind that Bikram is an anomaly in a world full of humble, dedicated, and trustworthy yoga instructors. Available on Netflix.

Rasha al Raisi is a certified skills trainer and the author of: The World According to Bahja.

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