Bikram Choudhury, an Indian immigrant who brought yoga to Beverly Hills and beyond in the 1970's, was a larger than life figure. He taught classes in sweltering hotel ballrooms, hectoring his students as they twisted and pushed their bodies, stalking the room in a black speedo and large Rolex watch. In a new Netflix documentary from director Eva Orner and produced by Pulse Films, one student describes Bikram as "a cross between Mother Teresa and Howard Stern."
Orner describes him differently in the title of her film. Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator examines the ways in which he managed to be all three of these things, bringing healing to some, while preying on others. The documentary charts Bikram's rise to fame and fortune, his development of "hot yoga", and allegations that, for decades, he sexually assaulted and raped young women who saw him as a mentor.
Bikram was a master promoter: he regularly told the entertaining (and dubious) story of saving Richard Nixon from having his leg amputated and claimed to be a world champion of (non-existent) Indian yogic competitions. He built a fortune by branding studios with his name. To operate a Bikram studio, you had to complete one of his multi-day teacher training courses. Held at hotels around the country, the course cost as much as $10,000 and provided Bikram with his hunting grounds.
The documentary lays out the ways in which Bikram and a small group of insiders created a system that enabled his abuse to remain a secret until students finally began to break ranks and come forward with stories of rape, assault, and homophobia. In 2016, amid several legal judgements against him, Bikram fled the country. While his victims wait for the day they can hold him responsible, the guru continues to operate yoga studios in India.
A powerful examination of the dynamics of power, money, and trauma, the film shines a light on a villain who hid in plain sight as a healer. Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator begins streaming on Netflix 20th November.