In 2014, when survivors first came forward with accounts of how Bikram Choudhury had sexually assaulted them at a yoga teacher training session, the news rattled people in the yoga community. Now, in the wake of #MeToo, the stories paint an eerily familiar picture: A powerful man takes advantage of his gatekeeper status to prey on vulnerable young women who were committed to their craft.
Julie Lowrie Henderson, a reporter and producer for ESPN's 30 for 30, practiced Bikram daily for close to seven years, and managed a Bikram yoga studio in New York City. As a practicer, she knew firsthand what drew people to the militaristic series of 26 yoga poses done in a heated room, and sensed that there was something complicated to unpack. "There were layers and bigger picture issues of identity and fallen heroes, narcissism, and cultish personalities," Henderson says. "All centered around this complicated character." So, she created an investigative podcast for 30 for 30, which premieres this week.
The five-part, serialized podcast chronicles the rise and fall of Bikram yoga, and includes emotional interviews with detailed testimonies from survivors. During teacher training programs, survivors say Choudhury would single out people, and tell them they were so beautiful he couldn't keep his hands off them. The "chosen" ones had to massage his body while they watched an instructional video, and then he would bring them to his hotel room and rape them.
Unlike many other industries that have experienced a reckoning in the #MeToo era, this one came long before people were really ready to talk about sexual assault in the mainstream. "In the moment of #MeToo and #TimesUp, a lot of people are finally seeing accountability placed on people who have done wrong," Henderson says. "Unfortunately, this story is about someone that's not the case yet for."
Most Bikram yoga studios have disbanded and renamed their companies, but some still practice his technique. Choudhury, on the other hand, has been sued by six women who say he sexually assaulted them; and, in 2016, a court awarded $6.5 million in damages to Choudhury's former legal advisor, in connection with a sexual harassment suit. Choudhury’s lawyers have denied the allegations, and he has fled the country to avoid paying the damages. In May of 2017, a judge issued a warrant for his arrest and set bail at $8 million. Today, he still leads teacher trainings twice a year around the globe.
Ahead, Henderson told us how the culture, intensity, and powerful figure of Bikram yoga contributed to its downfall.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What do you think draws people to Bikram yoga, besides the fact that some people enjoy it?
"Bikram has a lot of hooks, which I think is how it got to be so huge... Bikram as a practice is all predicated on intensity. It’s like actually a controlled and communal suffering. You go into a room that's 105 degrees; you do exactly what the teacher tells you; you don’t debate; you don’t deviate; you don’t leave the room; you drink water only when they tell you you can.
"There's a real intensity about it that I think attracts certain types of people. It fills a need that they have, because yoga will veer into the spiritual. It's about self-transformation, the thought of bettering yourself, and karma. It can become really powerful, really addictive, and it can really convince people that are doing it to give obedience. It can make people that are benefiting from it feel like they owe something to the teachers that are bringing it to them, and then ultimately to the man who’s responsible for Bikram."
The descriptions about students having to massage him were awful. With something like yoga, where the teacher-client boundaries aren't always clear, do you think the norms of the practice allowed him to get away with assaulting people?
"The massage became his grooming technique: It's how he identified victims, and how he normalized really abnormal and dangerous behavior. It was confusing, because it was weird and maybe eccentric, and no one really had a vocabulary for what to do about it. As a part of American culture, we don’t go massaging our elders and our teachers, but all of a sudden people are in the presence of a person who’s demanding obedience, who has complete authority, and who is your guru. If [Bikram is] asking for something, there's an inherent unspoken understanding that it’s okay, and that message gets verbally reinforced at training. Students are told to not question Bikram, to just trust the process and listen, and not to argue, and not to question."
The teacher trainings sounded like they were brutal. How did that environment keep people silent?
"It’s just a matter of being so exhausted and sleep-deprived that your defenses are down, [and] you’re not thinking clearly. Teacher training is entirely about that: It’s sold as it’s going to be intense, it’s rigorous, and the idea is you’ll be broken down so you can be rebuilt. People are there for that mission and excited about that mission, but it leaves them for most of those nine weeks in a really vulnerable state, where if you have someone in charge who wants to cross lines and act on his darkest desires, he can do that."
Bikram as a practice is all predicated on intensity. It’s like actually a controlled and communal suffering.
Julie Lowery Henderson
What's the current state of Bikram? Are people still practicing it?
"Bikram studios do exist, but their numbers are vastly diminished, and the majority of studios have lost his name. Most studios at this point have started experimenting with other things they can do to bring in students and make money off of a hot room. Someone described it to me as a Wild West: They went from having so many rules, to now they can do whatever they want, and they're trying to figure it out and stay afloat. Bikram fled the country, and there's a warrant for his arrest. Right now he’s out of the country, but still doing his thing. And he’s also filed for bankruptcy."
You started reporting this before #MeToo. Do you think the #MeToo movement inspired people to talk about what happened?
"I expected there to be kind of a huge shift: I thought a lot more people would be willing to talk, but this is still a community that's really guarded, has a lot of shame, and wants to maintain some privacy about what's happened.
"Slowly, people are realizing that a lot of other groups, and people, and communities are now also dealing with these same demons, and these same questions of complicity, and trying to reconcile things they love with a fallen hero. #MeToo helped give us some clarity and focus, and double us down on why we had thought this was such an important, resonant story."
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).