Australian Director Eva Orner poses for a portrait during the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto, on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019. 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 CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Australian Director Eva Orner poses for a portrait during the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto, on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019. 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 CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

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

Bikram Choudhury’s lawyers have said he never sexually assaulted any of the women suing him

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.

READ ALSO: Surge in requests for help, reports of sexual assault since #MeToo

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

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

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

Just Posted

SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, which causes COVID-19, emerge from the surface of cells isolated from a patient in the U.S. and cultured in a lab in a 2020 electron microscope image. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-HO, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories
Alberta now has 17,743 active cases of COVID-19

Province now has 17,743 active cases

File Photo
Sylvan Lake Community Christmas Eve Dinner cancelled

The 20th anniversary of the Community Christmas Eve dinner is cancelled amidst COVID-19 concerns

The consensus around the Sylvan Lake council chamber Wednesday was the town does not have the ability to properly enforce a proposed mandatory indoor mask bylaw. File Photo
Sylvan Lake town council squashes mask bylaw

The bylaw did not make it past first reading, after a 4-3 vote defeated the motion

Sylvan Lake RCMP are looking for the identity of the suspect who stole from over 40 resident mail boxes. (Photo Courtesy of Sylvan Lake RCMP)
Over 40 mailboxes broken into at Sylvan Lake apartment building

Sylvan Lake RCMP are investigating the incident and searching for the identity of the suspect

Ten-month-old Aidan Deschamps poses for a photo with his parents Amanda Sully and Adam Deschamps in this undated handout photo. Ten-month-old Aidan Deschamps was the first baby in Canada to be diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy through Ontario’s newborn screening program. The test was added to the program six days before he was born. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Children’s Hospital Eastern Ontario *MANDATORY CREDIT*
First newborn tested for spinal muscular atrophy in Canada hits new milestones

‘If Aidan had been born any earlier or anywhere else our story would be quite different’

People line up at a COVID-19 assessment centre during the COVID-19 pandemic in Scarborough, Ont., on Wednesday, December 2, 2020. Toronto and Peel region continue to be in lockdown. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
COVID-19 vaccine approval could be days away as pressures mount on health-care system

Many health officials in regions across the country have reported increasing pressures on hospitals

A logo for Netflix on a remote control is seen in Portland, Ore.,Aug. 13, 2020. Experts in taxation and media say a plan announced Monday by the government will ultimately add to the cost of digital services and goods sold by foreign companies. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Jenny Kane
‘Netflix tax’ for digital media likely to raise prices for consumers, experts say

The government says Canadian companies already collect those taxes when they make digital sales

Gaming content was big on YouTube in 2020. (Black Press Media files)
What did Canadians watch on Youtube during isolation? Workouts, bird feeders

Whether it was getting fit or ‘speaking moistly,’ Canadians had time to spare this year

A teacher places the finishing touches on the welcome sign at Hunter’s Glen Junior Public School which is part of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) during the COVID-19 pandemic in Scarborough, Ont., on Sept. 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Hindsight 2020: How do you preserve a year many Canadians would rather forget?

Figuring out how to preserve the story of the pandemic poses a series of challenges

Team Manitoba celebrate after defeating Team Ontario to win the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Moose Jaw, Sask., Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020. Curling Canada wants Calgary’s Canada Olympic Park to be a curling hub for the season’s top events. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Calgary facility set to become curling hub during pandemic

Curling Canada has provisional approval for Calgary’s hub-city concept from Alberta Health

Ash and Lisa Van carry a freshly cut Christmas tree while wearing personal protective masks at a Christmas Tree Farm in Egbert, Ontario, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020 THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Cole Burston
‘Everyone wants a tree and they want it now’: Christmas tree sales on pace for record

Anticipated demand for Christmas trees has sparked a rush by some to purchase more trees wholesale

Most Read