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

Burns Lake breaks temperature records amid cold snap

It’s no surprise that the ongoing blast of winter broke a handful… Continue reading

Disrespectful that Horgan won’t meet during northern B.C. tour: hereditary chief

Na’moks said he was frustrated Horgan didn’t meet with the chiefs

BC Green Party leader visits Wet’suwet’en camps at heart of pipeline conflict

Adam Olsen calls for better relationship between Canada and First Nations

Coastal GasLink repeats desire for meeting with hereditary chiefs

Coastal GasLink says they’re ready to meet with the hereditary chiefs at their convenience

Ranning Charlie acquitted of all charges

The charges included sexual assault

VIDEO: Soldiers trade rifles for snow shovels to help dig out St. John’s

A state of emergency is set to extend into a fifth day

Warm ‘blob’ could be behind mass starvation of North Pacific seabirds: study

Unprecedented death toll raises red flag for North American marine ecosystems

ICBC to bring in ranking system for collision, glass repair shops

Change comes after the much-maligned auto insurer has faced criticism for sky-high premiums

‘It was just so fast’: B.C. teen recalls 150-metre fall down Oregon mountain

Surrey’s Gurbaz Singh broke his leg on Mount Hood on Dec. 30

B.C. woman crowned the fastest female marathon runner in Canadian history

Malindi Elmore ran an incredible 2:24:50 at the Houston Marathon

Alberta bulldog breeder ordered to refund B.C. buyer over puppy’s behaviour

Tribunal ruled a verbal agreement to send a new dog superseded the written contract

Man dies in backcountry near Nelson’s Whitewater Ski Resort

The victim was found unresponsive in a tree well Friday

Cariboo Memorial Hospital on the mend after cold weather wreaks havoc

Burst pipes and water leaks cause three different incidents

Most Read