Update Consent

The True Story Behind Netflix's Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator

The Revolting True Story Behind Netflix's New Documentary Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator

For some, hot yoga is more than an exercise, it's a path to enlightenment. But the true story behind the man who brought the practice to the United States is a twisted tale of a leader who garnered a cult-like following, and then used his power to allegedly prey on the women who took his classes. Netflix has released Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, a documentary from director Eva Orner that explores how Bikram Choudhury used the practice of hot yoga to become an idol to some and an alleged abuser to others. From garnering famous clients like Raquel Welch and Martin Sheen during his rise to fame in '70s-era Beverly Hills to hot yoga's explosion in popularity in the '00s, the doc will chart Choudhury's rise and his eventual fall as some of his former students came forward to accuse him of rape, sexual assault, and harassment.

Read on to delve deeper into the story behind the shocking allegations that led to Choudhury's downfall — and to find out where the disgraced yogi is today.

Image Source: Netflix

Choudhury's Beginnings

Bikram Choudhury was born in Calcutta, India, in 1944, and as reported by The New Yorker, he claims that he was trained by the yoga master Bishnu Charan Ghosh in his youth. He also claimed that Richard Nixon (who the yogi said he cured of phlebitis) brought him to the United States, per a report from The Guardian. What we know for sure is that he eventually taught yoga in Japan and San Francisco before he opened a studio in Beverly Hills in 1973. It was there that his Bikram yoga (also commonly known as hot yoga) began to garner a celebrity following.

Hot yoga takes place in a steaming hot studio where for 90 minutes students are taken through 26 poses and two breathing exercises. It's a punishing experience that many of Choudhury's followers find rejuvenating and life-changing — but the extreme conditions also allowed the yogi to lead his classes with a disorienting mix of humor and verbal abuse. He was known to single out one person to take the brunt of his punishing verbal attacks during class. Still, he was praised for being an attentive teacher, and according to an episode of ESPN's 30 for 30 podcast, he would sometimes end classes by singing Indian lullabies. In the podcast, writer Benjamin Lorr said that Choudhury "healed and helped tens of thousands of people at minimum" but he has also "hurt and destroyed thousands of lives."

Image Source: Netflix

How Hollywood Made Choudhury Famous

Choudhury's arrival in Beverly Hills attracted numerous celebrity followers in the '70s, including M*A*S*H star Loretta Swit, Shirley MacLaine, Candice Bergen, and more. Even children would come to the classes, including Jason Bateman and his sister Justine, who accompanied their father. Justine told ESPN that before the sessions began, the yogi would call a child on stage with him to massage his shoulders. The practice of choosing students to come on stage and massage his shoulders or feet and brush his hair continued throughout his career — and allegedly became a part of his predatory behavior.

The yogi was aware that his celebrity fans were the key to his success, and as more famous faces appeared in his classes, he became wealthier and more influential. In 1998, Madonna visited Oprah Winfrey's talk show and declared her love for yoga, and in the podcast, one of Choudhury's former students Jimmy Barkan said that's when the yogi's business exploded. In the '90s, Choudhury capitalized on his growing success by starting teacher training courses so that he could control who taught Bikram yoga. It cost $10,000 for the nine-week training program that would allow attendees to teach hot yoga at their own studios. It was during these sessions that the dark side of Chodhury's influence began to emerge.

Image Source: Netflix

The Allegations Against Choudhury

It was during his teacher training sessions in the 2000s that Choudhury's reputation as a cult-like figure began to be recognized as dangerous. In 2013, six of the yogi's students came forward and accused him of rape and sexual assault. At least one of Choudhury's accusers has chosen to remain anonymous to protect their privacy. In a May 2018 interview with The Wrap, 30 for 30 producer Julia Lowrie Henderson said that the complaints arose between 2005 to 2012. The women alleged that during the nine-week sessions, he would take advantage of them and groom them for abuse. "He would lecture late into the night, then he called on young women to massage him and brush his hair," Henderson said. "It was a classic grooming technique but he normalized something that crossed the line — making abnormal behavior normal."

Minakshi Jafa-Bodden served as Choudhury's legal adviser beginning in 2011. It was her job to clean up the yogi's messes from allegedly failing to pay his hotel bills to allegations of racism and homophobia. "He would pick on someone in the crowd. If someone got up to go to the toilet, he would say, 'Where are you going? To change your tampon?' He uses profanities, he's antisemitic, he's homophobic," Jafa-Bodden told The Guardian. "He'll say things like, 'Blacks don't get my yoga.' And once he starts on his tirade of profanity, he doesn't stop. Once he's picked on you, then you've had it for the entire class."

His transgressions allegedly went far past verbal abuse. Jafa-Bodden claims that the yogi held professional meetings in his hotel rooms, and on one occasion asked her to get into bed with him. In 2013, his student Sarah Baughn came forward with her allegations that Choudhury sexually assaulted her at one of his training camps in 2008. Another one of his students, Maggie Genthner, accused him of raping her twice and forcing her legs into yoga positions. Throughout it all, his legal adviser was expected to make the allegations disappear. At one point, Jafa-Bodden advised him to stop inviting students to his hotel rooms, and she claimed he went in front of an entire class and said, "My lawyer tells me I can't have a girl in my room. So I'm now going to have two!"

Image Source: Netflix

The Fallout

Choudhury's abuse and harassment of Jafa-Bodden continued to escalate until she filed a lawsuit against him for "unfair dismissal and sexual harassment," per The Guardian. In 2016, a jury unanimously ruled that Jafa-Bodden had been the victim of "sexual harassment, nonpayment of wages, and wrongful dismissal." By that time, the yogi had left the United States and refused to return, so the judge ruled Jafa-Bodden would be put in charge of his intellectual property and receive all of the profits from his franchise of studios would go to her. Meanwhile, the Bikram Yoga company filed for bankruptcy in 2017, citing the $16.7 million owed to women who filed civil suits against the yogi. A warrant for Choudhury's arrest was issued in May 2017 after he failed to pay Jafa-Bodden, but at the time his whereabouts were unknown.

Meanwhile, Choudhury has denied all of the allegations against him. In 2016, a TV journalist asked him about the allegations at one of his training sessions in Mumbai, and the yogi responded, "Why do I have to harass women? People spend $1 million for one drop of my sperm. Are you that dumb to believe those trash?" Despite the civil suits filed against him, Bikram yoga remains hugely popular — as does its founder. Choudhury is still teaching training programs that attract students across the border in Mexico. Per The Guardian, he told the same journalist, "this yoga is worse than cocaine. You can get rid of cocaine, but once you're used to this yoga, you can't stop."

Image Source: Netflix