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Bikram: Me Too Yet Again

Bikram #MeToo

Media moguls, Hollywood stars, Olympic doctors, sports coaches, priests, politicians (left, right, and center), Buddhist teachers, Indian gurus and yogis, are all mighty trees felled by the hatchet of the #MeToo movement in recent times. Strongmen have all wielded their patriarchal power—what they considered their god-given rights—over the lives of women and children (and the earth). But thanks to the growing willingness of women to speak truth to power, a global conversation about sexual violence and gender balance has sprung to life and continues to expand.

The latest of these grimy exposures can be found in the Netflix documentary, Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, which documents the allegations of sexual misconduct against Bikram Choudhry, the founder of Bikram yoga. In the “paternalistic” yoga culture, it is presumed that the teacher knows what is best for his students, who simply follow whatever the teacher says, even if it means ignoring their own intuition that something isn’t right. Other influential yoga teachers, like Patthabi Jois, Manouso Manos, and John Friend, have all been accused of some form of sexual assault, from inappropriate sexual touching of students’ bodies during class, all the way up to, as in the instant story, rape.

It’s everywhere in the “spiritual world”

These yoga teachers join a long list of “spiritual” teachers who have abused their power and authority, who think that the rules don’t apply to them. 

Amrit Desai, the founder of the Kripalu Centre, had to resign over sexual allegations as the spiritual director of his own ashram. The charismatic leader Osho (Bhagwan Shree Ragneesh) was known as the “sex guru.” Accusations of sex with devotees have cropped up relentlessly over the years about Swami Muktananda, Swami Satchidananda, Swami Rama, Swami Kriyananda, and Sai Baba, not to mention Buddhist lamas and teachers like Sogyal Rinpoche and Lama Norlha. Even more disturbing are rumors swirling about both living and deceased teachers at what was formerly the leading publishing company in the US of all things spiritual. 

Yes, the list of those in my field who well deserve to be in the #MeToo spotlight is long and disappointing. How can so many supposedly “enlightened” spiritual teachers sexually abuse their followers? More importantly for us, however, is how we delude ourselves about abuse when it’s right square in front of us, in our families, in our office, in church, or even happening to us.

Women, still, are relentlessly trained by the culture to allow men the upper hand. “Obey” may have been taken out of modern marriage vows, but it’s still implicitly there. The voice of authority is most often male, and women, if they have any sense, do not routinely confront men head-on.

Perhaps you are new to the spiritual scene, and your expectation is that everyone is pure, holy, a worthy vessel of Spirit—especially your teacher. He oozes charm, claims a special connection to the divine, and inspires devotion. You can just feel the power radiating from him. He is in command, and you listen to what is said, especially to you personally. And if he touches you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, or invites you to maximize your spiritual potential and receive “secret teachings” by sharing his bed, in your zeal to be a good student, to advance, and yes, because it makes you feel special, you capitulate.

So back to Bikram: in terms of the basic facts, Choudhury’s story is all too familiar. He is largely responsible for yoga becoming commonplace in the United States, as he franchised his Los Angeles studio into a global network. At the height of his influence in the last 20 years, he was the darling of talk shows and media in general. His movement was called “McYoga,” as he made a fortune franchising his method.

As he rose to prominence, Bikram franchises became very desirable; Choudhury would hold massive nine-week training seminars around the world. According to litigation on file, he used these seminars as his way of finding, grooming, and forcing himself upon women whom he then raped.

Hopefully, the film will force Jackie Lacey, LA District Attorney, to stand up for women and bring Choudhury to justice, as well as encourage each one of us to confront truth in our own lives where ever we find it.

Deborah King