Sex scandals in the upper echelons of the yoga world are endlessly compelling: The highest aspirations of body and mind collide with the basest instincts in terrible ways. And the guru worship among some practitioners can add a creepy undertone of cultishness to what would otherwise be run-of-the-mill awful behavior by dudes. The latest high profile sex scandal in the yoga industry centers on a new lawsuit filed against Bikram Choudhury, the 67-year-old founder of the popular Bikram Yoga franchise, alleging sexual harassment and assault.
A 29-year-old former student named Sarah Baughn claims in a lawsuit that Bikram sexually assaulted her and subjected her to near-constant sexual harassment during her time training to be a Bikram yoga instructor in 2005. Baughn, who has won numerous yoga competitions—yes, there are yoga competitions—alleges he tried to torpedo her career out of vengeance after she rejected his advances.
If you've lived anywhere near a critical mass of young urban professionals in the past ten years, you know that Bikram Yoga is the kind of yoga you do wearing skimpy outfits in a sweltering room while sweating away a large proportion of your body mass in a masochistic purge. Bikram Yoga adds hardcore edge to the serenity typically associated with yoga. Bikram Choudhury started the practice in the late 70s as a new immigrant from India. Now, it's a multimillion-dollar business that licenses thousands of standardized franchises around the world, McDonald's-style. Bikram's poses and techniques are copyrighted and he is known to aggressively sue anyone who copies him. This includes a lengthy and controversial legal battle against Greg Gumucio, a former student who founded New York City's Yoga to The People, which is beloved for making Yoga affordable (often donation only) and accessible to normal folks.
In his personal life, Bikram Choudhury can seem like a cartoon version of the celebrity Yogi, but that's because he pioneered the entire concept. His famous clients include Madonna and Ashton Kutcher and three presidents: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. He stores his collection of luxury cars in his Beverly Hills mansion. And for all his claims to higher spirtual planes, ("I'm the most spiritual man you have ever met in your life," he told ABC News) Bikram is also a notorious horn dog and blowhard, the "Walter White of yoga," according to BoingBoing.
"Bikram has his 'bad boy' reputation we've been hearing about for years… so [the lawsuit] is not surprising," Jennilyn Carson, the proprietor of the yoga culture blog YogaDork, explains in an email. "With the power and hubris Bikram wielded (and the stories that have been floating around for years) it was almost expected, like we were all just waiting for it to happen." Carson believes Baughn's accusations may just be the tip of the iceberg.
A fantastic 2011 profile in Details by Clancy Martin describes Bikram's teacher training retreats, during which hundreds of aspiring Bikram instructors pay thousands of dollars to be taught by Bikram, as a combination of the Navy SEAL's Hell Week and an extended orgy.
Here's how Martin describes Bikram leading a class:
He's in a black Speedo, bare-chested, his hair tied in a topknot. His triceps stand out like pistons. Sometimes a woman will brush his hair or wash and massage his feet. He resembles a cartoon genie on his magic carpet. Between cell-phone calls, he barks Bengali-inflected criticisms and corrections into his headset. He speaks only in exclamation points.
"You, Miss Teeny-Weeny Bikini! Spread your legs! You, Mr. Masturbation! Until I say 'Change,' you do not move a muscle!"
Sarah Baughn was taking one of these class in 2005 when, she claims, Bikram began his campaign of harassment and assault. She'd dropped out of college and taken out loans in order to afford the $7,500, nine-week training course with her "hero." But on the fifth day of the course, she says, he propositioned her. He'd been giving her an unusual amount of attention during the class. He gave her his diamond-studded Rolex, which she returned. He then later called her into his office and admitted he was uncontrollably attracted to her:
"What should we do about this? Should we make this a relationship?" Bikram asked, according to the lawsuit. "I know you from a past life, and I have this feeling about you… I have never, NEVER felt like this about ANYONE."
Baughn rejected his advances and reported the incident to the director of the training program, who told her to ignore Bikram. "Separate the man from the teacher," the director said, according to the lawsuit. Bikram's advances culminated in an assault one night, the suit alleges, where Bikram "pinned her against the door, and sexually assaulted her by kissing her neck, chest, and face, and grinding his penis against
her leg." Baughn alleges Bikram iced her out of teaching jobs and otherwise sabotaged her career to retaliate for her rejection.
The lawsuit isn't the first time Bikram's been in trouble; former student Pandhora Williams has sued him over disparaging remarks she said he made during an instructor retreat in 2010, including, "Women are bitches and whores. They're here for one thing, and that's to make babies."
To those who follow the comings and goings of Yoga's power-elite, Bikram's story sounds strikingly familiar to that of disgraced Yoga impresario John Friend. Friend started the super successful Anusara brand of Yoga and was cast by the New York Times as the sort of Steve Jobs of Yoga, infusing corporate values and business cunning into the practice of spiritual renewal. But Friend was also leading a sex cult called the Burning Suns comprised of some of his attractive female employees. When the cult was exposed by a disgruntled I.T. worker, Friend resigned from his company and is now undergoing a lengthy process of rehabilitation. His finances, it turned out, were in shambles as well.
Now yoga insiders are again questioning whether the cults of personality surrounding some of yoga's biggest names necessarily breeds this kind of exploitation. "Are we blowing up these super egos to become more self absorbed than absorbed with servicing hoers with their journeys of self exploration?" asked yoga instructor Sinda Anzovino on the Yoganonymous blog.
But Jennilyn Carson of YogaDork believes the main lesson is that the problems of the real world don't vanish inside the studio. "Sex scandals are not some kind of pandemic specific to the yoga community,' she said. "Sure it's more surprising, but not any more shocking than the Catholic Church or our democratically elected government officials. We should be wary and vigilant about any person in power that people go gaga over, or are subordinate of out of fear."