“Alright everyone, happy Tuesday. Thank you for joining me in class today,” Frank King says, standing on a wooden box that doubles as a podium. He stands before a group of scantily clad, sweaty men and women, crammed together in a room about the size of a New York City studio apartment. He’s heated the space to over 100 degrees, and King himself is shirtless, wearing skin-tight cycling shorts and guiding his class through the two breathing exercises and 26 yoga poses that make up the “sacred geometry” of Bikram Yoga.
He’s one of the eight instructors at YO BK, a studio on Williamsburg’s Broadway that offers three types of hot exercise classes, including power yoga and hot pilates. Bikram yoga, though, is the most controversial.
If Harvey Weinstein were a yogi, many people suggest, he would be Bikram Choudhury. When he was profiled for HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, he told sports journalist Andrea Kremer that the women accusing him of sexual assaults were “trash” and “psychopaths.” He says Bikram yoga is more addictive than cocaine—you can kick a drug habit, he reasons, but you can’t stop loving his yoga. “Why would I have to harass women?” he asked Kremer. “People spend one million dollars for a drop of my sperm. Are you that dumb to believe those trash?”
Choudhury says the dozen women who have accused him are all lying, but remains in hiding, reportedly seen in places like Thailand and Mexico. If he returns to the United States, he’ll be arrested.
In light of the controversy, many studios have strayed from using “Bikram” when practicing the moves. They refer to it simply as hot yoga. YO BK’s founder Kate Davies, though, isn’t afraid of the name, and will be using it when the studio opens a second, bigger location in Greenpoint this Fall. “It’s very separate from my business,” she says of the allegations. “And it’s important for students to know what they’re getting. We’re Bikram teachers, and we were certified by Bikram. We went to the Bikram training and I honor that lineage.”
In 2006, Choudhury’s yogi prime, 650 yoga studios worldwide bore his name. He had celebrity clientele, a fleet of luxury cars, and a palatial California home. Michael Jackson, Jeff Bridges, Shirley MacLaine, Barbra Streisand and Raquel Welch were devotees. He amassed an estimated $75 million fortune.
And then 2013 happened. Choudhury’s lawyer, Micki Jafa-Bodden, saw several lawsuits cross her desk, alleging sexual harassment and rape against her guru—allegations he completely denied. But then the yoga mogul declared bankruptcy, fled, and left a multitude of victims/creditors in his wake.
Davies herself went to the Bikram yoga teacher training program in Los Angeles in 2013, and King went in 2013. Both insist on its therapeutic capabilities, and spoke positively of the retreat.
“I think that where the controversy really came in is that he named his yoga after himself, and that’s where it gets confusing and complicated,” Davies says. “What we teach is Bikram yoga. But I’m glad that we get to offer two other classes as well that are completely different.” The studio’s Inferno Hot Pilates classes, for instance, channel a nightclub atmosphere with disco balls and party music.
The appeal of Bikram yoga is, admittedly, easy to understand. The poses are specifically designed to enhance both strength and flexibility, and a 60-minute class almost completely removes any lingering fatigue, mental haziness, or illness. It’s a rigorous hour (as Choudhury often promised), but Yo BK has created a calming and encouraging environment with a variety of ages, body types and skill levels. The classes are often composed of equal groups of men and women, and are truly relaxing. King, in the class I took at no charge, asked our names once, and referred to us all by first name throughout the class, both complimenting and advising his pupils.
The room was full, and many of us were bending even further into our poses to avoid touching our neighbors. “Bikram is amazing because you don’t do anything on your hands and wrists,” Davies says. “So even though it’s super hard, it’s also super therapeutic, and it’s great for people who come in with injuries in the shoulder, the spine or the knees.”
YO BK’s forthcoming Greenpoint studio will allow Davies to introduce more classes and, presumably, build on her base of a few hundred members. Auto-renew membership will go up from $119 monthly to $159 monthly upon the opening of the new studio, but the membership allows pupils to alternate use of the two. The 40 weekly classes will increase to 60, alongside the 60-day challenge, wherein members attend a class daily for two months and, upon completion, sign their name on the wall of the studio to inspire other members. There are frequent fundraising classes benefitting Yoga for Africa, and a three-year anniversary party to thank loyal patrons as well as celebrate the new studio.
The fundraising class on Oct. 27, accompanying the third anniversary party, will auction off memberships and host two Kenyan teachers. “It’s just time for us to get involved in more charitable foundations. We’ve always done fundraising classes since we’ve opened, but really the impact is limited if it’s just one event,” Davies said. “Our goal is to raise $10,000.”