Wednesday 22 November 2017

Sex and the Swami: the yoga got too hot

The loss of a multi-million dollar case turns up the heat on Bikram Yoga's founder, writes Sarah Caden

FEELING THE HEAT: Bikram yoga founder Bikram Choudhury. Photo: Johnny Nunez
FEELING THE HEAT: Bikram yoga founder Bikram Choudhury. Photo: Johnny Nunez

Sarah Caden

In 2010, when yoga guru Bikram Choudhury was asked if he had sex with his students, he didn't deny it, but made a characteristic joke about his magnetism instead. "Only when they give me no choice!", he replied. "If they say to me, 'Boss, you must f*** me or I will kill myself,' then I do it! Think if I don't! The karma!"

The karma is a bitch, although until recently, Bikram Choudhury must have regarded the system of cause and effect as his friend. Until lately, his payback for a Kolkata childhood of poverty can have been read as the multi-millionaire adulthood of adoration and celebrity that he has enjoyed in America. He endured a hard-knock life, he worked hard at yoga and was then inspired to spread the word to the West. His heated yoga, Bikram, named for himself, took off like a rocket in America and spread worldwide, achieving cult-like status by the dawn of 21st Century. For cult-like status read: worth millions and with a self-styled idol at the helm.

As Bikram put it himself about a standard pair of flip flops: "Bikram yoga is so big - this is a bathroom slipper you buy [for] $2 in Kmart. But you put 'Bikram' on it, it'll sell for $35 in a second."

Bikram Choudhury believed that the universe was on his side, though last week the law turned against him.

Last week, an American court ruled that 69-year-old Bikram must pay over $7m to his former legal adviser, Minakshi "Miki" Jafa-Bodden. She worked for Bikram for two years up to early 2013, when she says she was suddenly sacked on the heels of investigating allegations of sexual misconduct against the guru. Jafa-Bodden said she was shocked by the large size of the judgment and Bikram, who pled poverty throughout the trial, must be horrified too. Not just that he will lose such a portion of his fortune, nor that there remains six outstanding sexual assault charges against him, but because his karma has turned.

Bikram Choudhury grew up on yoga. At the age of 13, he was All India National Yoga Champion, an achievement that not only boasts his prowess, but also deals with accusations that he subverted yoga from a spiritual pursuit to a competitive sport. In 1970, he left India to spread the word of yoga around the world. In Japan, he found the winter so cold that he shivered through his practice and felt too stiff for many poses, and discovered that using space heaters allowed for greater flexibility.

Bikram Yoga is mostly about the heat, but its founder also set it up as a sequence 26 specific yoga poses, with two breathing techniques, that he said made for the ultimate workout. Many have pointed out that these poses have existed since ancient times and were simply appropriated by him, but Bikram claims to have put them together in a near magical formation that allows him to claim some sort of intellectual ownership over them. And this, perhaps, was the start of his trouble.

Well, that and the fact that once huge money became involved, it all got a bit ugly. He led classes from a stage, where he sat on a throne-like seat wearing nothing more than Speedos and a Rolex or other diamond-encrusted timepiece. He boasted about his fleet of sportscars, his celebrity fans - among them, allegedly, Clinton and Madonna, and he claims to have cured Richard Nixon of phlebitis.

By charging well over the odds for workout gear, cups, mats and accessories, and up to $30k for the right to open a studio bearing his name, Bikram raised yoga to more than just an exercise class. Followers who trained to become Bikram teachers paid up to $12k for the privilege, often returning to the costly courses annually - though it was reported that the hot- yoga hook-ups were part of what kept them coming back. Journalists who had access to classes led by Bikram himself reported on how he called out students from the stage. "Mr Masturbator!" he shouted on one such situation. Or, "Miss Teeny Weeny Bikini! Spread your legs!"

Now, anyone who ever attended a Bikram class knows that the attire is unlike that in any other exercise environment. Sure, you'd be too hot in anything more than shorts and a vest, but too tight and too short are the Bikram order of the day.

The men are nearly worse than the women and the poses seem designed to really put each practitioner intimately in the face of the others. And it's only if you read or watch Bikram himself putting people through their paces that you start to wonder if this is deliberate. His style is to draw attention to body parts and talk about how the practice has sexual benefits. With him as the prime example of such prowess. Which can go wrong, of course.

Bikram's failed attempts to stop people setting up Bikram studios without paying him and his failed attempts to trademark "his" yoga have been bad, but the sexual charges against him have been worse. The former simply limits a very rich man from becoming even more rich. The latter could ruin him. Jafa-Boden, who won her sexual harrassment case against Bikram last week says that he touched and talked to her inappropriately. Worse, though, are the allegations that came with her suit that he used staff to procure women for him, and, separately, that he used teacher-training courses as a means of finding women to "assault and/or rape". Bikram denies all charges. But he was also laughed out of court last week as he pled poverty and claimed that his fleet of sportscars had been donated to the "Bikram auto engineering school for children".

Bikram's pursuit of money might have been distasteful to yoga classicists, and the big-man sex talk might have been a turn off, but actual sexual assault is near impossible to survive. Even if you believe you're bigger than all that.

"From pope to president to prime minister, billionaire, superstar, novelist, sportsman, athlete, hooker, street boy, they say, 'Bikram, you changed my life, you saved my life,'" once said. "I have balls like atom bombs, two of them, 100 megatons each," he informed Business 2.0. "Nobody fucks with me."

Karma might be a bitch, but hubris has also caught up with Bikram.

Sunday Independent

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