Netflix Bikram Doc Exposes the Rot at the Core of the Yoga World
Is Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, now airing on Netflix, a good documentary? Sure, but it’s pretty much the same as any other documentary, style-wise. It’s got talking-head interviews, plenty of found footage, and shots of newspaper clippings. But it doesn’t matter when you have a story this juicy to tell.
The film flat-out accuses Bikram, the richest and most famous yoga teacher of modern times, of being a serial rapist. It also exposes him as a fraud. He stole his 26-pose yoga series, which made him rich and which he unsuccessfully tried to copyright, from his guru in India. And he built his entire career on lies. An attorney repeatedly refers to him as an “idiot,” and the film leaves no doubt that she’s right. Bikram is an idiot, and a fool, a charlatan, a mountebank, and an amoral scumbag who thousands of people around the world worshipped, and continue to worship, as a God.
Late in the film, we travel to India, where a journalist compares Bikram to the kinds of scam artists you find hanging around the coffeehouses of North Calcutta. He’s an urban type, a preternatural bullshitter, only he used his bullshit to persuade Shirley MacLaine that he held the secrets of the universe at the center of his little black Speedo. The documentary is a jaw-dropper, and if you’re at all interested in yoga, you’ve got to see it for yourself.
A Shala Of Cards
I’m definitely interested in yoga. In fact, I’ve written three books on the topic. I practice at least five days a week. Yoga is the moral center of my life. It’s kept me fit, youngish, and sane, and was a key component of my recovery from drug addiction. Yoga’s principles of self-reflection, self-mastery, and kindness to others, combined with Buddhist ideas of non-attachment, form the foundation of my spiritual life. I take a few classes a month at my friendly neighborhood yoga studio. And then I unroll my mat at home, quietly, for anywhere between 20 to 90 minutes a day, and practice using a website for which I pay $18 a month. It’s a modest and inexpensive way to stay sane. I recommend it to everyone.
But the Bikram documentary reveals that organized yoga in America is a giant mound of sacred cow dung.
When I first started practicing, more than 15 years ago, the yoga boom was beginning to peak. The American yoga world sat seemingly solid on a foundation of four pillars: Iyengar Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, the new American form Anusara Yoga, and Bikram Yoga. Anusara fell first, as its founder John Friend had to resign in disgrace after an employee leaked that he was dipping into the pension fund and leading a Wiccan sex coven. Patthabi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga, died, and Mr. Iyengar died soon afterward. And then the sex scandals really started. It made what Friend did seem innocent by comparison. At least his contacts were all consensual.
Bikram may be the wealthiest and showiest of modern yogis, but his sexual behavior is no outlier. Iyengar himself kept his nose clean, but only in the sense that Joe Paterno did at Penn State. In April, his right-hand-man, Manouso Manos, resigned after the national body overseeing Iyengar Yoga revealed a pattern of sexual abuse of his students. “One woman said her yoga teacher, Manouso Manos, stuck his toe into her vagina through her tights while she was in a seated pose,” according to KQUE in San Francisco.
Last month, New York Times reporter Katie Rosman did a thorough investigative piece about unwanted touching during yoga classes, and included this story about Patthabi Jois: “He would get on top of me, make sure that his genitals were placed directly above my genitals, and he pushed my leg down to the floor and he would hump me.”
Charming. I did my teacher training in Ashtanga Yoga, which revered Patthabi Jois as a kind of saint. This is nothing to respect. This is nothing to worship. It’s certainly no tradition of which I want to be a part. Plus, Ashtanga Yoga is too hard.
The only difference between Bikram and these guys is that Bikram, according to the documentary, took his sexual contact extracurricular. The movie alleges that he raped women in hotel rooms and in his own house. It’s more than a subtle difference, but all these stories of late have ripped open the veil. Modern yoga is an endless catalog of manipulation and abuse.
Big Yoga is having its reckoning moment. And the Bikram documentary is the capstone. But that doesn’t mean we should stop practicing. Yoga offers benefits for people who are willing to do the work. Like Christianity, it features many sincere teachers and humble places to practice. But it also attracts egomaniacs, con artists, and criminals. Beware of anyone who claims that they alone can lead you into the light. Because as this Bikram documentary shows, there’s often darkness at the end of the tunnel. The bloom is off the lotus.