It’s been four years since June 21 was pegged International Yoga Day by the United Nations. Obviously, yoga has been practiced across the world for ages now, but it has certainly undergone a revolution in the United States over the last few decades. One of the earliest infusions in the West can be credited to Bikram Choudhury’s Bikram Yoga.
Indian yoga champion Bikram Choudhury brought his practice to the United States in the early 70’s, quickly gaining fame and attention for the uniqueness of his Hatha Yoga style. He began by teaching a technique of doing 26 postures repeatedly in a heated room of 105-degree Fahrenheit.
Bikram Yoga expanded exponentially and currently, they have over 500 studios worldwide. This style of yoga attracted not just celebrities like Jennifer Aniston, Ashton Kutcher, George Clooney, and Lady Gaga but also U.S. Presidents including Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Richard Nixon.
Choudhury’s fame came at a price. Since 2013, several women accused him of sexual harassment, suing him in the process. Insiders close to him claimed he was racist and homophobic. The accusations against him kept piling up. Minakshi Jafa-Bodden, who worked from 2011-2013 as Head of International and Legal Affairs of Bikram Yoga, claimed she was fired abruptly. In her time working with Choudhury, she was a victim and witness to his perverse behavior.
Jafa-Bodden filed a lawsuit against him and the court awarded her over $7 million in actual and punitive charges. Choudhury’s alleged deeds were catching up to him. Telegraph details the account of Sarah Baughn, a Bikram Yoga teacher who was the first to speak out against Choudhury and his sexual harassment of her. In 2015, his wife of 31 years divorced him.
Clancy Martin’s GQ story, “The Overheated, Oversexed Cult of Bikram Choudhury,” does a deep dive into the man’s work and approach not just to his yoga techniques but the brash methods with which he teaches them, especially to women.
Choudhury hasn’t remained free of scandal for years now but the question remains, can the man be separated from his brand? Bikram Yoga is certainly suffering despite still having a steady stream of teachers, classes, and practitioners. In November 2017, Bikram Yoga filed for bankruptcy because it faces around $16 million in legal judgments. Bikram Yoga College of India has also filed for bankruptcy.
However, it hasn’t slowed down Bikram Yoga either. In Spring 2018, it organized a Bikram Yoga teacher’s training program in Acapulco, Mexico, where it was believed Choudhury has fled to live. His whereabouts have been unknown since an arrest warrant was issued for him in May 2017. It was also believed for a while in 2016 that Choudhury, after losing his Los Angeles home to his wife in the divorce, left the country to resume active Bikram Yoga work in India, settling in the hill station Lonavala.
Some of the Bikram Yoga studios in the U.S., meanwhile, have continued to embrace the legacy while some have changed names to avoid scandals, like Bode NYC, whose website states they were formerly called Bikram Yoga. The company’s social media handles do not hesitate to promote Choudhury, his sayings, and his photos. Bikram Yoga is very much in existence even if it is struggling to thrive the way it once did.
Choudhury certainly helped put yoga and hot yoga on the map, reaching thousands of people across the country. In doing so, he emerged as somewhat of a leader in this field but he was in no way the only one. Yoga had spread far and wide in the country and that meant other studios and teachers were also on the rise. It did not make Choudhury happy.
In 2002, he tried to copyright yoga asanas (postures) he taught when rival studio Yoga to the People, founded by his former work associate, opened up shop next to a Bikram Yoga studio in New York City. The United States Copyright Office issued that asanas are universal and can be practiced by anyone, stating that Choudhury could not copyright them. He tried something similar a few years later against Evolution Yoga, which was also started by a former colleague. The result of the case did not change, which meant other yoga studios could also practice hot yoga, hatha yoga, and the 26 postures Choudhury claimed he wanted to copyright.
Choudhury’s repulsive conduct and his ideologies of homophobia and racism have tainted his reputation forever, as it should. However, while we debate his contributions and whether or not we should support Bikram Yoga when we don’t support the man, it’s crucial to remember not to paint all Indian yoga teachers with the same broad brush. Choudhury is not the sole representative of the practice.