Bikram Choudhury is not the Donald Trump of yoga. He’s worse.
Donald Trump, meet Bikram Choudhury. Bikram, meet the Donald. Are you two the same person? Are the same acidic demons burning away your respective souls? So it would appear. If nothing else, you two should start dating, like, immediately.
Have you heard? It’s not easy to out-Trump Trump, but here is Bikram, a man of laughably gargantuan ego and sickening ethical decrepitude, a man accused for many years – perhaps you’ve already heard? – of sexually abusing and harassing dozens of female students and teachers (30 have come forth, so far, along with six formal lawsuits), a man soaked to the marrow in bizarre self-aggrandizing bile, giving an interview like no other to justifiably stunned veteran sports reporter Andrea Kremer, over on HBO’s Real Sports.
It’s a conversation to make hearts curdle and spirits wilt. Bikram is in a state. A black and vindictive fury. He has clearly gone full Trump, and well beyond, saying he feels “sorry” for his accusers and calling them all “trash,” before declaring (in true Bikram fashion) how he can have 5,000 women lined up at any moment to have sex with him (four of whom, he claims, have committed suicide because he wouldn’t do so), boasting how he could sell a single drop of his sperm for one million dollars.
He is being quite serious, if you can call it that. And naturally, before the interview is over, he becomes upset at the questioning and storms off, reportedly calling Kremer herself “the same trash” and “a piece of sh-t psychopath.”
It all happened in India, where Bikram fled and the only place where he still holds teacher trainings (his US operations are on hold while the lawsuits play out and the turmoil dies down; in January, after years of accusations, Bikram was finally ordered to pay $6.4 million in punitive damages, so far). His wife has reportedly separated from him. His mansion in Beverly Hills is empty, save for the housecleaner. No word on the fleet of 40 Rolls Royce’s, Bentleys and Ferraris.
So far, so Bikram. Little new here. Bikram and his wildly warped ego have been uneasy fixtures in the yoga world for decades, beginning in the ‘70s relative modesty and then, as his fame and “hot yoga” brand caught hold and made him rich, quickly devolved into something altogether more horrifying, more bombastic and surreal, as reports of his shameless sexual indiscretions continued to emerge, the lawsuits took hold, his empire recoiled and whatever remained of the man turned, once and for all, into beast.
So, what’s changed, exactly? Why is this story so striking now, if his abuses have been going on for years? After all, there already exists a thoroughly excellent Vanity Fair article, circa 2013, detailing Bikram’s rise to megalomania, his persona’s tortured charms, along with all the accusations (to that point, anyway) against him. What’s changed?
Just one thing: Bikram himself. In 2013, Bikram refused to be interviewed for the Vanity Fair piece. He has rarely spoken in public about the allegations against him.
Until now. This time, you get the man in full.
It’s jarring and disquieting, in turns. Like Trump, Bikram is now on record, in his own voice, hissing into the ether about the evilness of women, his God-like power over them, and his own fatuous prowess. He freely trashes women en-masse to elevate himself. His famous quote about having “balls like atom bombs, two of them, 100 megatons each,” once childishly amusing, has revealed its sadistic core.
There is something deeply unnerving in hearing a fellow human, particularly one who claims to know something of the divine, expose himself this way. Like watching someone stab himself in the heart with a rusty nail, over and over again, and enjoy it.
But it’s actually worse than that. Because here is where all the jokes, the yoga community’s endless embarrassment, the man’s homophobic quips and racist jabs, his tacky displays of wealth and laughable braggadocio, it all crumbles into a pool of bitter dismay.
Here is the final veil, lifted. Like Trump’s gleeful declaration that he freely grabs women “by the pussy” whenever he wants, this is sexism writ violent, and not a little unhinged. Like Trump and his trolls, it’s nothing short of rape culture incarnate, only this time appearing in a guise to which many are unaccustomed: that of spiritual “master.”
Perhaps that’s a distinction worth unpacking a bit further. Because, unlike the Donald, it’s possible, when talking of spiritual work, to believe that a teacher’s personal behavior, as repellant as it may be, isn’t relevant to the larger path of personal enlightenment.
Put it this way: In some (highly forgiving) views of the guru tradition, it’s believed that the guru can be a divine conduit, a truly aligned transmitter of clear and empowered, helpful wisdom, and still be a total, unmitigated jackass in the “real” world. The teachings – which come not from the guru per se, but from his/her mystical insights and transmissions – and the guru’s individual “human” actions (which can range from saintly to abusive) are not to be taken together. The medium is definitely not the message.
Translation: Just ignore the desperate sexual predator. The practice is what matters, and Bikram’s technique has, inarguably, brought many people great joy, strength, healing. It still does. This is undeniable.
But then again, his vicious abuse of his role has also brought tremendous pain, emotional and physical distress, a venomous divisiveness to a community that prides itself on humble self-realization, personal responsibility and, well, a deep sense of community.
Can you separate? Where does the teacher end and the teaching begin? Is it simply a matter of separating the successful “product” from its cretinous creator, the inspiring book from its monstrous author? After all, this is nowhere near a new conundrum: Bikram is merely applying the same tactic used by corrupt gurus throughout the ages – not to mention celebrities, politicians, institutions and organized religion (the Catholic church has used this technique for centuries). They all have been known to leverage their power, their massive personas, their wealth and fame to overwhelm, to manipulate, to threaten and coerce followers to do their bidding.
It’s an understatement to say Bikram tears at the very limits of the respectful, exonerating guru view. But this view also might, at least partially, explain how so many thousands of Bikram devotees and studio owners could be so duped, so misled, so unwilling or unable to see the truth, for so many years (and many still are). In fact, many loved – and continue to love – their guru, ferociously, deeply, unquestioningly.
Funny thing, blind devotion. Tragic, too.
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