The list of students is impressive – Richard Nixon, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Quincy Jones, Barbara Streisand. The presentation is visually arresting: a seemingly ageless man, clad only in fitting black Speedos, lectures, persuades, exhorts and insults men and women sweating it in an artificially heated room. The impact can be measured in millions of dollars, Rolls Royces, television appearances and a franchise that is spread across the United States and other parts of the world.
The rise of yoga entrepreneur Bikram Choudhury was stunning, as was his fall. In 2013, the India-born instructor was accused of raping and sexually assaulting women who had signed up for his intense, nine-week teacher certification courses. Some of the allegations ended up in court, and in 2017, Choudhury fled the United States. He remains a fugitive from justice.
Some insights into Choudhury’s collapse can be found in the documentary Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator. The 86-minute film unpacks the myth behind the man through footage from his yoga sessions, archival interviews, and conversations with former students and some of the women who have accused Choudhury of rape and assault. (Choudhury declined to be interviewed for the film.)
Going by what Orner and her team have uncovered, “Bikram Bunkum” could have been another title for the documentary. Choudhury’s early years were spent in Kolkata, where he trained under the renowned Hatha Yoga practitioner Bishnu Charan Ghosh. Choudhury claims to have invented a whole new way of practising yoga, but a former student of Bishnu Charan Ghosh points out that most of his methods were purloined from his guru.
Another claim, that Choudhury was gifted a green card by former American president Richard Nixon for healing his thrombosis, is also refuted. Choudhury tells his students that he sleeps for barely an hour every day – a statement that needs no debunking.
Orner’s previous credits include The Network (2013), about the workings of a prominent television station in Afghanistan, and Chasing Asylum (2016), about Australia’s policy towards refugee seekers. Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator was premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and was screened at the Mumbai Film Festival in October. The documentary has been acquired by Netflix, and will be available on the streaming platform from November 20. In an interview, Orner tells Scroll.in about her interest in Bikram Choudhury and what the documentary says about the Me Too movement.
What was the starting point for the documentary?
A development executive from a UK-based production company first approached me about doing a film about Bikram Choudhury. She had seen my last film at the London Film Festival and reached out. She had been an avid Bikram practitioner and had moved to a non-Bikram hot yoga studio in the wake of the allegations.
She shared a few articles with me and asked if it was something I would be interested in. I knew a little about Bikram. I did some initial research and knew pretty quickly that there was a film to be made.
I think what got me so interested is that Bikram was a man who had gotten away with it. And this was pre MeToo/TimesUp. After MeToo occurred during the production period and with it came the outing and reckoning of so many powerful men, the fact that Bikram got away with his crimes was even more relevant and chilling.
How challenging was it to get his former students to talk to you? Did people back out over fear of counter-litigation?
It’s always challenging to gain people’s trust and have them open up to you. I was a stranger and not from the Bikram world. I did a bunch of Bikram and hot yoga classes to familiarise myself with the yoga so I could understand what made it appealing to people.
Most people in the film were somewhat guarded upon first approach. They warmed up to me after a few conversations and meetings. And in some cases, I had them watch some of my previous work, which gave them confidence in me.
Some of Bikram’s staunch supporters either didn’t respond to my emails and calls or declined to participate, which was not surprising. And some people with ongoing cases were unable to talk to me. There were a few people who backed out at the last minute, which was disappointing but understandable. Participating can be cathartic, or in some cases, it can open up old wounds.
What were your own impressions of Bikram Choudhury?
I have to say I was never a fan. About 20 years ago, a friend asked me if I wanted to do a Bikram class. I saw a picture of him in his Speedo and knew it wasn’t for me and declined. He seemed a bit cheesy and creepy to me, to be honest.
I used to practise Iyengar and some Ashtanga yoga. Bikram yoga never appealed to me. I enjoy the sweat and exercise component of yoga, but I also like the more relaxing, meditative, spiritual side, and I didn’t see that in Bikram yoga.
That said, I can understand, to some extent, what people were drawn to. I have metal staples in my knee from an old injury, and it can be quite painful and after a 90-minute hot yoga class, it definitely feels better. The yoga works and has healed many people. On the reverse side, I have met a lot of former Bikram students who have told me they sustained terrible injuries doing the yoga.
What does Bikram Choudhury’s rise say about the culture of celebrity worship that flows from the entertainment industry in California? Would he have been just as successful on the East Coast?
I think the support of celebrities really helped put Bikram on the map. And in the film, we have many celebrities over decades touting the benefits of Bikram yoga. When Bikram arrived in Los Angeles in the ’70s, California was the epicentre of health and fitness, so it likely benefitted him to be here rather than on the East Coast. He was very connected to the idea and mythology of Beverly Hills, which was his home for many years.
Is Bikram Choudhury, in some ways, a modern-day cultist who used the health route rather than spirituality to gather a loyal following whom he could then treat as he saw fit?
I’m not an expert on cults, but I do think a lot of the techniques Bikram employed are found in cults. The tight-knit community, the isolating environment of teacher training. Exhausting students from constant yoga, long lectures, not enough food and hydration, keeping students up all night and then luring a select few to his hotel suite in the early hours of the morning.
A common mantra Bikram and his teachers used to tell students was, “Trust the process.” It’s all pretty textbook.
He had a hold over people for various reasons. Often because the yoga had cured them of an ailment or injury, helped them lose weight, get over an addiction. They were beholden to him and thought him responsible for their new, better lives.
For Indian viewers, the yoga teacher’s origins in Kolkata are perhaps the most absorbing bits of the documentary. Was there more information from his early days that could not be included because of time constraints?
There was. According to interviews I conducted with journalists and yogis in Calcutta, Bikram came to yoga late. Bikram went to Japan before the US to teach Bishnu Ghosh’s yoga to the Japanese. He was sent as he was the only one of Bishnu Ghosh’s students who was single, and they couldn’t send a married man. He was given a crash course in the yoga before he left because at that time, he was primarily a stunt performer and masseur. He taught a lot of American expatriates in Japan and it was through contacts in Japan that he came to America, not through President Nixon as he tells the story.
When it comes to deciphering the truth about Bikram’s life, it is quite hard to tell what is real and what is fiction. He has lied about so many things.
Has Bikram Choudhury reacted to the documentary after its premiere in Toronto in September?
I haven’t heard anything, but he definitely knows about the film as I approached him twice to do an interview through an intermediary. I never received a response. I am told that he reads press about himself, so I assume he has seen some of the reviews and press about the film and I imagine he is not happy about it.