A former Bikram yogi's thoughts on the "yoga guru" who assaulted students
Trigger Warning: Sexual assault content
I finished ESPN’s “30 for 30” podcast on Bikram feeling ashamed.
The podcast tells the story of Bikram Choudhury, a "yoga guru" who is accredited for creating Bikram yoga — a series of 26 postures performed in a hot room that was all the rage in the late '90s-'00s.
This trailer published on Entertainment Weekly gives you an idea of how fucked up the story is. Not filtering my language here because that's what it is. Fucked. Up.
I felt ashamed that almost every day for two years, I was part of a movement led by this man I knew so little about, and who abused his power to assault vulnerable women attending his trainings.
When I first tried Bikram yoga, I thought it was weird and gross. But the celebs did it to get skinny so there I was. The carpeted room smelled of old gym socks and it was hot. Really hot. I compared my body to everyone else’s and spent the entire 90 minutes staring into the mirrors practicing self-hate.
I continued to be an “occasional drop-in” because at the time I couldn’t afford a membership. I was 100% in it for the pain, fueled by a desperation to be thin. To disappear. When I got to my lowest point, and my lowest weight, I let go of this self-hate ritual and started my journey toward becoming whole again.
I certainly wouldn't call myself a yogi at that time.
A few years later I made my way back to the heated studio. After tons of therapy and treatment including EMDR, brain training and practicing more gentle forms of yoga (without mirrors), I was ready.
This time, I found a studio that didn’t have carpet (my least favorite part). It had already separated ties to the “Bikram” name though at the time I didn’t even think about it. I didn’t know much about the Bikram Choudhury, only what I learned through his dialogue that was performed in every class and the stories from my teachers who had done his training.
To be honest, I didn’t research or question the man at all. I just enjoyed the yoga and was completely ignorant to its background. It made me feel good, helped me look at my skeletons and physically did wonders for my balance and flexibility.
It was the Bikram yoga practice that led me to yoga teacher training. I wanted to share this gift of yoga with the world. All I saw was light and love and I was ignorant to the darkness behind it all.
I ended up leaving the Bikram yoga practice for a few reasons. I was craving variety. And music (there’s no music in Bikram yoga). I was adding other yoga classes to my schedule but for months my ego still held onto the daily 6am Bikram yoga classes I had been attending. I felt like if I let them go, the world wouldn’t see me as a dedicated yogi. I wouldn’t see me as a dedicated yogi. I needed this practice to prove myself somehow. It was like my church, and I couldn't miss a service.
Around then, the sexual “misconduct” allegations against Bikram Choudhury hit the news and I decided it was time to part ways. I don’t recall the word “assault” being used at that time.
Still, I didn’t look too far into it. To be honest, I was selfish. I was protecting my own ego. I didn’t want to believe Bikram yoga was founded by a predator. I didn’t want to believe that the same practice that brought me so much healing in the aftermath of my own sexual trauma was created by a rapist. The little information I knew was enough to tip me over the edge and move on toward the styles of yoga that were more interesting to me.
And so I shut the door to Bikram yoga. I wrapped myself in the comfort of privilege and ignorance and continued to carry on in my perfect yoga world filled with light and love as if nothing happened. That was irresponsible of me.
I was particularly shook by Jill’s story, one of the many women who came forward. After her assault she developed an eating disorder. She lost herself to yoga and bulimia for years. The very yoga that helped me heal from sexual assault and bulimia introduced the same trauma and addiction into hers. I was in the car when I listened to her story and I had to pull over I was so overwhelmed with emotion. She’s my sister. We share a common story — the same pain and the same method of coping ... the same emptiness and feelings of worthlessness and guilt. A large pit formed in my stomach knowing that I played a small role in someone else suffering the same way I suffered. It’s still there.
People in the podcast said to “separate the man from the yoga.” Which sounds wonderful but I’m not sure that’s possible for me. There’s no denying that the yoga brought me and countless others healing and strength. But there’s also no denying that the man who created it is a monster. Knowing what I know now, I can’t do that practice anymore. I know some, including some of his victims, are able to separate it and I’m glad for them. I just don’t think I can.
I feel icky for being dedicated to his yoga. But I also don’t regret it because I wouldn’t be who I am today without it. It’s a difficult place to navigate and I still don’t have the right words to express the place I find myself in.
I do know this: I will never step foot in a studio associated with his name again. A place that in any way helps support his ego and his pocketbook. That’s something I can do now. A very small thing, but it’s something. I will not help preserve the legacy of a rapist.
To all the women whose lives he tried to ruin: I’m sorry. I’m sorry for your pain and suffering and I’m sorry that a community you believed in turned their back on you. You deserve so much better.
Yoga should be a sanctuary. A safe place to show yourself. To be vulnerable. To explore the inner workings of your mind, body and soul. A place to sort through trauma, not endure more of it.
There is no guarantee for safety anywhere if you’re a member of a marginalized group. Even in yoga.
My hope is that we can do better. That this #MeToo movement is more than a moment. That we all stop ignoring unacceptable behavior. That we stop saying things like, "Oh, that's just Bikram" as if touching someone without permission is ever just an acceptable trait a person possesses no different from having brown eyes or wearing a size 9 shoe.
I’ve tried to conjure up some final thoughts. Some actionable statements or learnings or insights. But honestly as Bikram remains a free man despite all the charges, all the evidence, all the lies, all the pain, I don’t have any profound closing thoughts other than this: This is fucked up. We can do better.