As I waited in line for the US premiere of Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator at the Hamptons International Film Festival on Saturday, I was reading The Program, Toni Natalie’s new memoir about surviving NXIVM. It was a funny coincidence, given the clear similarities between hot yoga pioneer Bikram Choudhury and New Age cult leader Keith Raniere. Both are charismatic manipulators who offered healing and empowerment to their vulnerable, mostly female followers, only to psychologically, financially, and sexually prey on their devotees while raining ruin down on anyone who threatened their empire. But while Raniere has been convicted of racketeering and sex trafficking (his sentencing date was announced earlier this month), Choudhury is still teaching his trademark brand of hot yoga to starstruck students– a fact that is not lost on filmmaker Eva Orner.
“It’s a pretty chilling story in this current climate where we’re all waiting to see what happens with Harvey Weinstein,” Orner told an audience at Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater.
Orner’s previous documentaries– Out of Iraq and The Network— deal with conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. But this one is set in sunny California, where the director took hot yoga classes in order to seek out subjects who had survived Bikram’s infamous teacher trainings. The documentary features footage from the marathon classes, during which the guru, dressed like a skinny sumo warrior in nothing but a black thong, alternately encourages and verbally accosts his students, calling them bitches and chickenshits as they sweat through his signature sequence of 26 poses.
One student, who weighed around 300 pounds at the time, says he was told to “suck that fat fucking stomach in, I don’t like to see the jiggle jiggle.” He recalls Bikram demanding that students “put a cork in your pussy because you’re not allowed to pee.” As a result, at least one of them ended up retreating to a corner and pissing into a bottle, to their guru’s approval.
The documentary kicks off with high-energy Jane Fonda workout vibes and plenty of laughs– according to one former student, Bikram sees himself as “a cross between Mother Theresa and Howard Stern”– but things soon turn dark. Presiding over his sweat-drenched minions from the comfort of a raised throne cooled by personal air conditioning ducts, Bikram might look like a clown, but he’s a “dangerous clown,” according to a lawyer who represented Minakshi “Micki” Jafa-Bodden, Chodhury’s former legal advisor. In 2017, Jafa-Bodden was awarded $6.8 million in damages for charges including unlawful dismissal and sexual harassment, but failed to collect the money when Bikram promptly fled to India. Jafa-Bodden, who is interviewed in the film, says her troubles began in 2011, when a former student sued Bikram for racial discrimination, alleging that he kicked her out of his training program after calling her a “black bitch.” Jafa-Bodden says that when she expressed concern about the suit to Bikram’s wife Rajashree, she was told, “Be careful; think about your daughter, don’t rock the boat, let him have his girls.” (Rajashree subsequently divorced Bikram, taking some of his 43 luxury cars with her.) As punishment, Bikram threatened Jaffa-Bodden’s visa, cut off her lights, and repossessed her car, her lawyer says in the film.
This extreme vindictiveness was also typical of Keith Raniere. And like Raniere, Bikram bragged about needing almost no sleep (supposedly less than an hour per night), systematically deprived his followers of it, and had them live in close quarters with him at all times. During their nine-week, $10,900 teacher trainings, students were required to stay in a hotel where Bikram occupied the presidential suite and watched Bollywood movies with them late into the night. There, he allegedly coerced women into giving him erotic massages. One of the women who sued him, Sarah Baughn, recalls being forcibly kissed in his hotel room and later raped in his kitchen as his wife and children slept upstairs.
Bikram, who hasn’t faced criminal charges, has denied the civil charges, famously saying, “Why would I have to harass women? People spend one million dollars for a drop of my sperm.” The documentary features exclusive footage from a deposition in which he repeatedly pleads the fifth when asked whether or not students ever masturbated him. More than once, he verbally unleashes on Jafa-Bodden’s lawyer.
During the q&a, a woman who said she attended one of Bikram’s early teacher trainings in the mid-90s said that although she “never heard of anything sexual,” Bikram “called us in to massage him the very first morning of the class.” She recalled Bikram hoisting her into a standing bow pose that caused her to rip a tendon. His response: “Your injury is a gift from the gods.”
“He would lambast people in my training program,” said the woman, who didn’t identify herself by name. “They’d cry and they’d sit there humiliated and I’d say to them, ‘Why do you stay?'”
Orner had a theory about why so many students ignored or put up with their guru’s abuse. “I think a lot of them were really enamored with him,” she said. “I think a lot of people had their lives changed by him and the experience of teacher training, whether they were healed physically or they had abuse issues or they were depressed.”
Indeed, the once overweight student credits Bikram with putting him on the road to physical fitness, and tearfully says that when his female friends came forward with their accusations, it was “like they were trying to publicly annihilate my father.”
That student’s initial disbelief was typical of the pre-#MeToo era, Orner noted. “You have to remember that these women spoke out in a time when it wasn’t easy– I mean, it’s never easy– but when it was really not easy. They were vilified, they were threatened, they lost their livelihoods, they lost their community, and they pretty much got nothing out of it.”
Donna Rubin, another early Bikram student who attended the premiere, told Orner that she found the allegations “very upsetting,” as the owner of a studio that once bore Bikram’s name. She changed the studio’s name to Bode in 2015, and insists that she was never an official franchise of Bikram. “If anybody has any common sense, you spend one day with him and you know that he’s crazy, and you know that you would not listen to anything he says.”
Still, as we noted last year when Williamsburg studio YO BK expanded to Greenpoint, others continue to describe their hot yoga as “Bikram yoga,” even though it has been revealed that he got his signature sequence of poses from a guru in India.
To Orner, the matter is simple: “If your yoga studio has the name of a rapist on the building, maybe you should think about changing it. It’s not that hard.”
Asked whether Bikram has seen her film, Orner replied that it got a lot of press after its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last month. “He knows about the film and he’s obviously not happy.”
“Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator” will play at DOC NYC on Nov. 8.