I’ve always been highly skeptical of men who do Yoga, particularly those who teach it. While Yoga is no doubt a very healthy endeavor, the industry promotes guru worship and a weird type of spirituality that rivals Hipsterism in its annoyingness. That’s why this isn’t surprising (from Gawker):
The latest high profile sex scandal in the yoga industry centers on a new lawsuit filed against Bikram Choudhury, the 67-year-old founder of the popular Bikram Yoga franchise, alleging sexual harassment and assault.
A 29-year-old former student named Sarah Baughn claims in a lawsuit that Bikram sexually assaulted her and subjected her to near-constant sexual harassment during her time training to be a Bikram yoga instructor in 2005. Baughn, who has won numerous yoga competitions—yes, there are yoga competitions—alleges he tried to torpedo her career out of vengeance after she rejected his advances.
The Gawker article outlines some worrying characteristics of the LA residing, Indian immigrant, portraying Choudhury as the prototype of the modern day ‘guru’ – an ego maniacal narcissist who believes his own bullshit:
Bikram’s poses and techniques are copyrighted and he is known to aggressively sue anyone who copies him. This includes a lengthy and controversial legal battle against Greg Gumucio, a former student who founded New York City’s Yoga to The People, which is beloved for making Yoga affordable (often donation only) and accessible to normal folks.
In his personal life, Bikram Choudhury can seem like a cartoon version of the celebrity Yogi, but that’s because he pioneered the entire concept. His famous clients include Madonna and Ashton Kutcher and three presidents: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. He stores his collection of luxury cars in his Beverly Hills mansion.
The truth is that any activity that promotes the concept of a ‘guru’ is bound to have these types of scandals. You can see it play out in the Catholic Church, where priests are viewed as untouchable spiritual leaders with profound insights and a holiness that the masses can only aspire to. The leader worship gives wide berth to sexual predators who bank on their authority giving them a free pass to do as they please. Given Yoga is a highly physical activity that is mostly practiced in revealing clothing (a characteristic of the ultra hot and sweaty Bikram style), it is not surprising that it lends itself to some quite serious cases of sexual harassment. Details.com gave the following description of a typical class at a Bikram Yoga instructional training retreat:
He’s [Bikram Choudry] in a black Speedo, bare-chested, his hair tied in a topknot. His triceps stand out like pistons. Sometimes a woman will brush his hair or wash and massage his feet. He resembles a cartoon genie on his magic carpet. Between cell-phone calls, he barks Bengali-inflected criticisms and corrections into his headset. He speaks only in exclamation points.
“You, Miss Teeny-Weeny Bikini! Spread your legs! You, Mr. Masturbation! Until I say ‘Change,’ you do not move a muscle!”
It’s hard to tell if these directives are intended for anyone in particular or if Choudhury is just working the crowd. He keeps up a patter of bawdy, sexually suggestive, often male-bashing banter throughout the session.
Having worked in the fitness industry myself, these types of characters are not rare, particularly in Yoga. I know of a ‘guru’ in a particular (and quite prominent) subset of Yoga/Martial Arts who routinely made inappropriate advances towards women and had a reputation of being a gigantic sleaze bag. As far as I know, he still has people flock to his classes around the country, and continues to hit on women without repercussion. I used to teach Krav Maga and boxing in Los Angeles – a city where people flock to trendy gyms in search of the next big workout phenomenon, and felt distinctly uncomfortable with the assumptions impressionable students had about me. I taught because I enjoyed it, but have never considered myself a ‘guru’ given I am still training and learning myself. It would have been incredibly easy to take advantage of the position I carved out for myself, both monetarily and, well, you know, in terms of the opposite sex…but that wasn’t why I was in the industry and I always strived to remember that.
People like Bikram Choudhury aren’t Yoga instructors – they are cult leaders who use their profession to manipulate weak people into giving them money and feeding their gigantic egos. Unfortunately for Mr Bikram, it appears he misjudged his victim who got into yoga not to worship him, but to actually learn the art itself – something Choudhury probably forgot a long, long time ago.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.