As a die-hard yogi since the age of eleven, I was quick to judge the idea of the new Netflix documentary Bikram as being unfair. I was concerned that it would unjustifiably taint the name of yoga; an activity which, in my eyes, is capable of positively transforming the world. However, Bikram yoga is a breed of the sport that I had heard a lot about and never tried, having only dabbled with the traditional variation of Iyengar yoga and then devoting myself to the more rigid practice of Ashtanga. I was vaguely aware that Bikram was a type of eponymous yoga that involved a fixed sequence and heat to achieve powerful results, however I had no understanding about the man himself or his impact on the practice. In spite of this, yoga is something which I view as being a healthy and beneficial practice, therefore I was optimistic in deciding to watch Netflix’s most recent expository offering, but it opened my eyes up to the other side of yoga, the side of yoga which should not exist, let alone be tried.
The documentary explores the creator of Bikram yoga, a man named Bikram Choudhary, now 75 years old, who brought the series to the Western world in 1971. The yoga consists of a 26-posture sequence in a room of 41°c, intended to replicate the climate of yoga’s origin, India. The practice lasts 90 minutes and encompasses two kinds of breathing exercises. Everyone featured in the documentary sings the practice’s praises, saying that it made them want to share the gift which had given them so much.
This power, however, was not just solely down to the effective structure of the series, but more so, perhaps, down to its teacher. Bikram was, as former studio owner, Patrice Simon notes “like a lion […] a force”. Another yoga teacher, Val Sklar Robinson, goes further to say that “he saw potential in you that you might not see [yourself]”. Throughout the documentary, his effective teaching style and series is highlighted and praised, even when his darker side is explored. The consistency of this praise made a part of me eager to try out his practice and see if it appealed to me in the same way that it had appealed to so many others. But this was only fleeting.
It is apparent straight away that Bikram is a strange and abrasive character. The clips exhibit him parading around his classes scantily clad in no more than a black pair of speedos, coupled with his firm voice dictating the class “welcome to Bikram’s torture chamber, where you’ll kill yourself for the next 90 minutes” which speaks to the sheer difficulty of the practice. Another of his former students, Jakob Schanzer, underlines Bikram’s forthright nature, noting how he told him to suck in his stomach as he did not like “to see the jiggle jiggle”. From the outside, these examples deter me from wanting to experience his teaching, yet also intrigue me as to why these people continued to exalt him at this point in the documentary; these ‘quirks’ appear to be part of the reason as to why America was so taken by him.
In this vein, Bikram yoga is described as ‘McYoga’; an all-American practice which went very much against the grain. There was no chanting and, although originating in India, it blossomed in Beverly Hills where its traditional roots were disregarded for the physical benefits which could be gleaned. He wholeheartedly approved of this name, having already become incredibly wealthy, boasting a collection of ostentatious cars and pairing a Rolex with his characteristic speedos during class. This yogi was one the world had never seen before.
It transpires that Bikram was and potentially still is a sexual predator, having been accused of raping several of the women he taught. One of the main difficulties for these women was that they were forced to continue with the practice in order to become yoga teachers, as the only way to become a teacher of Bikram is to go through its creator directly, leaving them trapped within his system. Sarah Baughn, a former student who suffered at his hand in this way, says he asked her to be in a relationship with him while already married and assaulted her later on when she resisted his predatory advances. Another, Larissa Anderson, was raped by him at his family home while his wife and children were upstairs. She did not feel able to tell anyone or do anything about it due to it being her life’s mission to become a teacher and having already made many sacrifices along the way. This deterred me even more from the practice, I wondered why anyone would want to be part of it if it belonged to an avaricious predator who was unsafe to be around.
Another noteworthy moment that Bikram recognises is his relationship with his former legal counsel, Micki Jafa-Bodden. When she got wind of the sexual allegations made against him and suggested to his wife that he step down, she was forced to resign and had her visa and car taken from her; Bikram ruined her life. Micki decided to go to court against him. Although she eventually won the case, she has still not received any remuneration as he fled the country instead of facing the legal consequences and has still not been charged criminally.
The documentary ends with recent images of him teaching in Spain 2019. For some reason, he is still teaching yoga after many testimonies against him and after this court case exposing his immorality. Yet this is where the true conflict lies, he brought the western world an ostensibly very effective type of yoga and an equally effective, albeit abrasive teaching method which has caused many to overlook his significant flaws. This is revealed at the end when Patrice Simon expresses her desire for him to make a “comeback” as his yoga is “magical”. Interestingly, the documentary demonstrates how this is not actually his own yoga, but rather a form of yoga invented by his guru in India. Mukul Dutta testifies to this, having shared this guru in the past. Dutta appears to be deeply offended by Bikram’s theft of the practice and use of it in his own name rather than the name of its true creator. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me and inhibits me from trying the practice myself; even if it is valuable, there is nothing I can see that is moral in its origins.
If Bikram yoga calls to you, whether that be because you want to see if you can push yourself to your limit with the powerful sequence, or whether you want to understand why so many continue to revere the practice in spite of the claims against it, I urge you not to. Bikram yoga was founded on greed and lies. Its legal owner is someone who is fraudulent, dogmatic and predatory which, for me, corrupts the practice and outweighs any physical benefits which could be reaped. I think I will stick to Ashtanga yoga, and I feel angry that this man has tarnished yoga’s name.