Filmmaker Eva Orner charts Bikram Choudhury’s rise and fall in “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator” in a Nov. 21, 2019 story. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Documentarian Eva Orner on the ‘pre-#MeToo’ fall of the guru behind Bikram Yoga

TORONTO — Bikram Choudhury built a hot-yoga empire on his ability to heal. And as filmmaker Eva Orner sees it, that’s what makes the pain left in his wake so devastating.

The Australian director’s Netflix documentary “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator” charts Choudhury’s rise and fall as the speedo-clad founder of the global Bikram Yoga franchise.

The documentary features interviews with some of the six women who have filed sexual-assault lawsuits against Choudhury since 2013, several alleging rape. Four of the cases have been settled, according to the documentary.

Choudhury’s lawyers have said he never sexually assaulted any of the women suing him and prosecutors had declined to bring charges in their cases. None of the allegations have been proven in court.

In a sense, Orner says the story isn’t about Choudhury, but the women who “risked everything” to speak out against him.

“This is a pre-#MeToo story in a post-#MeToo world,” Orner said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival this fall. “I have so much admiration and respect for them, and I feel like this is their story and this is their film.”

After emigrating from India, Choudhury became a pioneer of the burgeoning fitness scene in Los Angeles in the 1970s, said Orner, putting “yoga on the map” with his signature 26-pose sequence performed in rooms heated up to 38 C.

Boosted by Choudhury’s self-mythology as “the bad boy of yoga,” Bikram spawned hundreds of studios worldwide, counting several celebrities among its legions of followers.

Orner said the ascetic regimen also appealed to people who felt something in their lives needed fixing, whether it be a physical injury or lack of spiritual direction.

“There’s also a lot of people that a predator would pick on, which is sort of weak people who need help,” she said. “It healed them, so then they’ll be beholden to him.”

Many yogis paid $10,000 to learn from the master at training courses that were required to teach the technique or open a certified Bikram studio.

Held at hotels around the world, the weeks-long program pushed students to their limits, and some suffered exhaustion and dehydration from the non-stop exertion in the sweltering heat.

One former pupil in the film describes Choudhury’s persona as a “cross between Mother Teresa and Howard Stern,” alternately serenading his disciples and berating them with obscenities and personal insults.

“The problem is that (gurus) are set up to be beyond human,” said Orner. “They’re idolized. People want to do anything to get in their favour.”

In her view, this power dynamic set the stage for what has become a familiar story in the #MeToo era.

“What he did was he picked out these very young, vulnerable girls and went after them,” she said. “People knew about it for a long time, and people didn’t speak.”

In 2017, a California judge issued an arrest warrant for Choudhury after he was ordered to turn over business revenues to pay a $6.8-million judgment won by a former legal adviser in a sexual harassment and wrongful termination lawsuit.

The award was won by Minakshi “Micki” Jafa-Bodden, who claimed Choudhury sexually harassed her and wrongfully fired her for investigating another woman’s rape allegation.

While he appears to have fled the United States, Choudhury continues to hold teacher-training courses abroad, including a seminar in Spain earlier this year.

But the community he cultivated was shattered by the scandal, said Orner. Some factions have severed ties with Bikram to start their own yoga ventures, while others continue to teach under the guru’s banner.

Orner recalled an interview with a former teacher who believes Choudhury’s accusers, but through tears admitted that when the women first came forward, it felt like they were trying to “publicly annihilate my father.”

“That’s what a strong hold Bikram had on young, vulnerable people,” Orner said. “He felt such a loss. He still feels it. His community was taken away from him.”

“Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator” is now streaming on Netflix.

—With files from The Associated Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Westerner Park audit finds ‘gross operational mismanagement, gaping holes and lack of controls,’ says councillor

Two councillors question audit’s conclusion no inaccuracies were presented to the governance board

160 new COVID-19 cases reported in Alberta on Tuesday

Province now has 1,571 active cases

Lack of nurses stressing Red Deer hospital staff, says union

‘We don’t have enough nurses to do the work that’s required’

Reports of horse fever confirmed in central Alberta

Alberta horse owners are on the alert for the spread of a… Continue reading

QUIZ: Do you know what’s on TV?

Fall is normally the time when new television shows are released

Saskatchewan premier sets campaign in motion for Oct. 26 election

Saskatchewan premier sets campaign in motion for Oct. 26 election

Deficit on track to hit $330 billion with COVID effects lasting years, says PBO

Deficit on track to hit $330 billion with COVID effects lasting years, says PBO

Alberta’s disaster risk assessment plan in poor shape: auditor general

Alberta’s disaster risk assessment plan in poor shape: auditor general

Former Conservative MP Rob Anders facing multiple charges of evading taxes

Former Conservative MP Rob Anders facing multiple charges of evading taxes

COVID-19 cases rising among US children as schools reopen

COVID-19 cases rising among US children as schools reopen

Disney to lay off 28,000 at its parks in California, Florida

Disney to lay off 28,000 at its parks in California, Florida

Trudeau pledges extra $400 million in humanitarian aid to fight COVID-19

Trudeau pledges extra $400 million in humanitarian aid to fight COVID-19

Montreal restaurateurs ‘in shock’ after provincial government orders 28-day closure

Montreal restaurateurs ‘in shock’ after provincial government orders 28-day closure

Most Read