If you’ve ever taken a Bikram Yoga class, one where you go through a sequence of 26 poses and 2 breathing exercises, done in a room that’s so hot that you might pass out midway through class, then you’re taking a class started by Bikram Choudhury. The new documentary Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator examines how Choudhury built his yoga empire through lies and some pretty reprehensible behavior towards the women he was teaching.
BIKRAM: YOGI, GURU, PREDATOR: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Until recently, Choudhury had been running teacher training sessions in massive hotel conference rooms in various U.S. cities. In this training hundreds of people — mostly women — who are looking to become Bikram teachers twist and sweat to Choudhury’s often expletive-laden instructions for nine weeks.
Why do we say “until recently?” Because Choudhury has been sued for sexual assault or sexual harassment by five different women, and he fled the country after losing a wrongful termination suit filed by Minakshi “Micki” Jafa-Bodden, his head of legal affairs. In the documentary Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, director Eva Orner looks at Choudhury’s humble beginnings in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, and his claim that he helped President Nixon with his leg issues, leading to a green card and a thriving Beverly Hills-based business with dozens of celebrity clients.
To say that Choudhury was flamboyant is an understatement. Photos and recordings from teacher training sessions show him sitting above his students on an air-conditioned loveseat while his charges sweat it out. But in interviews with Bikram Yoga teachers, his program works; it helps people be stronger and healthier, and Choudhury was so charismatic, that the people who trained with him became fiercely loyal. That was until he forced himself upon various female students. Orner talks to Jafa-Bodden, instructors that were loyal to Bikram through the controversies, and two of the women who sued him for assault, Sara Baughn and Larissa Anderson, as she tries to paint a picture of a man who built his empire on a mountain of lies.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: The “rise and fall” genre of documentaries are rife with examples that are similar to Bikram, even if they don’t involve sexual assault. The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley is a good recent equivalent, since it follows much the same path about how Elizabeth Holmes built Theranos on lies and empty promises.
Performance Worth Watching: Hearing Baughn and Anderson recount their experiences with Choudhury is chilling. It’s always amazing how a man with so much influence uses that power in ways that feed into his baser instincts.
Memorable Dialogue: During a pre-trial deposition, Choudhury tries to berate Jaffa-Bodden’s lawyer by saying “You can train a donkey for a hundred years, and it can never be a horse. That’s your problem.” During another deposition he said he doesn’t like four things: “Cold weather, cold food, cold heart, and cold pussy.”
Sex and Skin: There’s plenty of shots of sweaty, scantily-clad students who are in incredible shape and amazingly flexible, and there are descriptions of how sexually-charged the training gets after a few weeks, but that’s just for context. Choudhury’s misconduct is what’s front and center here, and his behavior is disgusting, to say the least.
Our Take: There’s something that’s deeply unsatisfying about Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator. It could be that there isn’t really a satisfactory sense of justice at the end of the movie. It’s not a spoiler to say that Choudhury is still teaching his classes outside the U.S., in India, Europe and elsewhere. He hasn’t paid a dime of the judgement against him in Jaffa-Bodden’s suit, nor has he had to answer to the sexual assault and harassment suits. The Los Angeles DA’s office refuses to charge him with a crime. His wife filed for divorce, but Jaffa-Bodden feels its a sham divorce to protect his assets. So you don’t get any sense that Choudhury has gotten his comeuppance, which is always a welcome postscript to documentaries like these.
But we also wanted to hear more about Choudhury’s history of lies and what in his Calcutta upbringing would have led to him being such a con man. We even find out that the “26+2” sequence was stolen from the yogi he studied under in the 1960s. Much of the film, though, was devoted to how effective Bikram Yoga was and how cultishly loyal the people who took his teacher training sessions were to him.
Listen, we are fine with “cult of personality” character examinations, but there isn’t any context about how Chaudhury came to this point where he fashioned this massively successful business and flashy lifestyle. Was he a fabulist as a kid? Did he make up stories? When did he realize that, through his charm and forcefulness he could get so many people to be loyal to him? Did any of the people that Orner interviewed ever think back and wonder if they were being sucked in by a cult mentality?
None of this is really examined in the film, just the surface celebrity he garnered combined with how popular and intense the teacher training was. But the film is still worthwhile because of the descriptions of assault that are given by his former students. It shows yet again how a man crazy with power can physically and emotionally assert themselves over women he thinks are subservient to him. And it also shows that, even when you stand up to that power, the results of that can be unsatisfying, mainly because that person in power can use that power to get away with his misconduct.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator is a bit long and overly surface considering the depths to which Chaudhury lied to build his empire. But the accounts of the assaults he committed are enough to keep a viewer’s interest.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, VanityFair.com, Playboy.com, Fast Company.com, RollingStone.com, Billboard and elsewhere.