Time and time again we see the abuse of power by men, particularly through the sexual assault of women. The insidious crime that relies so heavily on the belief of one story against another is made almost impossible to consider when the accused has a cult-like following, larger than life persona, and delivers a service that thousands cling to as the saving grace of their lives. Yoga: ancient and beloved by millions, yet taught by a predator.
Bikram Choudhury popularised a particularly brutal version of yoga in the 70s and 80s in the US. Peaceful grace may have been the historical approach, but this charismatic man wanted it to hurt. “I will kill you,” guffaws Choudhury, as he paces among his students dressed in little more than speedos (as are his students). Flamboyant and dominating and with the thermostat cranked up to 105F (41C) – ostensibly to replicate the Indian climate from which yoga originates – Bikram’s classes are packed with people sweating profusely and bending through their exhaustion in ways they never thought possible.
Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator crafts the story of Bikram's alleged sexual abuse. Bikram, through archive footage, interviews, and as told by those who knew him, is painted as a raconteur: his confidence breaking through any reservations that his students may have. Virtually everyone in the documentary is at pains to point out how much yoga has actually benefited them, both physically and mentally. Bikram’s abrasive and often abusive nature smacks strongly as any cult leader you care to mention. By grinding people down, the exhilarating relief that comes from success and subsequent praise is a drug that is hard to resist.
After 25 minutes of scene-setting, director Eva Orner systematically covers the allegations of sexual abuse from several women, including rape. “I didn’t want anyone to know”, says victim Larissa Anderson. Although she alleges she was forced into sex under Bikram’s own roof whilst his wife and children slept upstairs, the pain is in her face as she recalls begging silence from her friends because of being entirely beholden to him for her livelihood.
Where the ancient Indian practice of Yoga and the mighty commercialism of the US meet, what starts as breathing and flexing exercises becomes a highly lucrative franchise arrangement. Bikram’s megastar position meant that anyone who could open a studio with his name was guaranteed strong income. And how do you get approval to bear his logo? By paying $10,000 to attend a 9-week teacher training course along with hundreds of other students as taught by the man himself. When completion of the course and personal approval from Bikram are pre-requisites to getting a business lease signed, any chance of refusing him becomes minute.
Be prepared to leave this documentary thoroughly depressed. Bikram may have lost a civil lawsuit to the tune of $7million but according to him, he is broke and anyhow has fled the US, paying not a penny. Most of his accusers have been forced to settle civil cases because the District Attorney has declined to pursue criminal charges. And to this day he is still running his teacher training courses in Mexico, Spain, and other countries. “Why would I assault anyone when a million women would queue up willingly?” he asks, as Orner cuts to him stating within a legal deposition meeting that the four things he has always hated are, “cold weather, cold food, cold heart, and cold pussy.”
The parallels of alleged abuse from such figures as Harvey Weinstein are apparent, coupled with a narcissist self-delusion of infallibility that you may see replicated when the leader of the free world chortles at the idea of impeachment. As the documentary closes and tearful students find it hard to criticise the man who taught them the most important thing in their life, it is clear that Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator is an exercise in how, despite centuries of human evolution, powerful men in all professions continue to exert their dominance and call it your free will to obey.
Words by Michael Record