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

Surrey councillors wary of ‘streamlining’ environmental development permits process

Mayor Doug McCallum notes B.C. government only agency that can issue environment permit

Lost season ‘disappointing’, but White Rock Renegades eager to play outside competition

South Surrey softball organization president hopes inter-city play is a few weeks away

City buys century-old East Delta church

St. Stephen’s Church to be renovated and restored, used as community services and programming space

Oh baby, what a birthday gift: $2.8M raised to help Surrey boy with rare disease

‘We are very thankful to everybody,’ Aryan Deol’s father says

COVID-19 exposure at Surrey rave prompts warning from Fraser Health

Party was held at Royal Beauty Supply in Whalley

B.C. records 30-50 new COVID-19 cases a day over weekend, no new deaths

Many of those testing positive were identified by contact tracing for being linked to other confirmed infections

Five B.C. First Nations call out Canada for ‘discriminatory’ food fish practices

West Coast nations say government ignoring court-won right to chinook and coho

Salmon arrive in larger numbers at Big Bar landslide

Arrival follows historic hihg-water levels that halted migration runs

B.C. marine ecologist wants Canada to sink its teeth into shark protection

Gulf Islands scientist says top predator under shocking threat from human behaviour

Rent-relief program becomes new front in fight between Liberals, opposition

Opposition trying to draw parallels between decision to have Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. run program and the WE controversy

Ottawa sets minimum unemployment rate at 13.1% for EI calculation

Statistics Canada says the unemployment rate was 10.9 per cent in July

$45K in donations received after couple’s sudden death in Tulameen

Sarah MacDermid, 31, and Casey Bussiere, 37, died August long weekend

Famous Yukon-based bhangra dancer brings movements of joy to Long Beach

Internet-famous dancer is exploring Vancouver Island, visiting the B.C. Legislature and more

Most Read