An old joke: How do you know if someone does Bikram yoga? Don't worry, they'll tell you.
Devotees of the technique, which involves doing 26 specific poses in a heated room, were traditionally vocal about their passion for the practice. But in the wake of the new Netflix documentary, Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, people are starting to clam up about their former enthusiasm.
The documentary focuses on Bikram Choudhury, the practice's founder. It tracks Choudhury's rise to successful yoga guru — one who charged up to £7,743 ($10,000) per person for teacher trainings. And the film charts, in painstaking detail, his fall.
They came in a trickle, then a tidal wave: the allegations of sexual assault and rape from women who trained with Choudhury. The documentary airs interviews with some women, as well as video footage of Choudhury verbally abusing students. Finally, after losing a case in civil court over wrongful termination and sexual harassment, Choudhury fled the U.S. in 2016 — without serving any time, or paying the legal damages of £5.8 million ($6.8 million) the court determined he owed. (Choudhury has said he denies the allegations.)
The documentary is fascinating, if stomach-turning. But it brings up an interesting question. What do you do when something you love was created by a monster?
This isn't a new query. Whether it's possible to separate the artist from his art is a topic that's been grappled with more and more lately, as increasing visibility toward issues like sexual assault have brought huge numbers of high-profile people into the spotlight.
Therapist Gabrielle Applebury tells Refinery29 that going through trauma like this can lead to to “a range of incredibly confused feelings.”
“Unfortunately it’s very common for an assaulter to craft a very likable public identity,” Applebury says. “Many are even beloved public figures. This crafted identity can make it easier for the assaulter to manipulate their victims and continue to prey on others, knowing that the public may not believe their victims, or that survivors may feel too nervous or ashamed to report the assaults.”
“For me, he was a guru,” says Mandeep Kaur Sandhu, one of the women who came forward about Choudhury's inappropriate behaviour, in the film. “He was a teacher who was gonna make me perfect.”
It's impossible to over-emphasise how difficult it can be to speak out against a person you once held in such high regard — and in the aftermath, to develop a new relationship with a practice that had been so deeply intertwined with that person.
Some followers decided they couldn’t teach the practice any more. Former student and Bikram teacher Jakob Schanzer, for example, says in the film that he thought of Choudhury like a “father.” Still, he ultimately decided to quit the practice for good. “[I had to] fully come to terms with the fact that I can’t teach it anymore," he says. "It was really hard."
Even those who didn't witness Choudhury's darkness first-hand have been affected. Donna Rubin and Jen Lobo founded a Bikram studio in New York City in 1999. (They stress that while they did take Choudhury's teacher training, they never paid him studio fees or had an official franchise agreement.) After the allegations against Choudhury they decided to rebrand to distance themselves from any affiliation with him.
“We were horrified when we found out,” Rubin tells Refinery29. “How can it be that this person who created this beautiful thing that is healing and helps so many people, did these things?” Lobo says.
The two ultimately decided to rebrand and rename their studio Bode NYC. Now, they offer classes outside of the traditional Bikram method.
“In the end, it was a pretty easy decision to rebrand,” Lobo tells Refinery29. “As details came out, we realised: This is real bad, and we cannot be associated with this… There was no way that we could continue to carry the name.”
Lobo and Rubin say that you’re in dangerous territory any time one person wields too much power. They say that with their revamped studio, they hope to take yoga in a direction that’s for the people, and by the people.
“At this point in time, we all have to fend for ourselves and not look up to gurus any more,” Rubin says.
“But we can still own our practices, and embrace the beautiful parts of yoga that are supposed to help heal you,” Lobo adds.
“Today, we’re guru-less,” Rubin says. “And we’re better for it.”