The Bikram Scandal and the Shadow Side of Yoga

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I didn’t particularly want to read the entire Vanity Fair story on the Bikram rape cases. I’d read the online excerpt, and found it sordid and depressing. Why pursue it further? I wasn’t psyched to learn more about yet another yoga scandal whose horrific details make what had only recently seemed shocking (e.g., the Ansusara debacle) seem disconcertingly banal. Nonetheless, when I saw the magazine cover staring back at me in a supermarket checkout line, I decided to buy it. With a sinking feeling of morbid curiosity driven forward by the ingrained habits of a zealous researcher, I reluctantly shelled out my $4.99.

Still feeling like more negative news what not what I needed, I promptly read the article that evening. Already knowing the basic situation, it didn’t add anything really new: rather, it fleshed out the details of a system of psychological, emotional, and sexual abuse that had metastasized to the point of multiple cases of alleged criminal conduct. Nonetheless, reading it felt as emotionally deflating as I’d expected. My curiosity and sense of thoroughness had been satisfied. But that didn’t bring any satisfaction or pleasure. Rather, it left me feeling disturbed, dissatisfied, and distracted by yet another wave of negative feelings about yoga culture.

 

Return of the Repressed

I suspect that I’m not alone in feeling like I’ve learned more than I want to know about the shadow side of yoga during the past two years. It’s peculiar to look back and recall how quickly things have changed. Only a short time ago, it felt like virtually any controversial, let alone disturbing information about yoga had somehow been censored from public view. Nothing but cloyingly positive affirmations of the transformative, beautifying, and bliss-inducing powers of yoga filled the air. A good number of people got fed up with the falsity of this pastel-colored discourse, however. Many started posting more honest commentary online. A new conversation opened up as the yoga blogosphere grew more and more robust.

As the world of yoga discourse expanded, however, more and more damaging information, as well as negative thoughts, feelings, and experiences started circulating. Talk about the return of the repressed! While mainly salutary, this newly opened pipeline of less-than-sunny yoga news also grew wearisome over time. At least, it did for me. (While I can’t speak for anyone else, my guess is that I’m not alone in my sense of critical exhaustion and outrage fatigue.) To be sure, I genuinely appreciated the new wave of honesty and openness, and had a good bit of critical commentary to add myself. But I hadn’t anticipated just how much disturbing information was out there to learn, or how I would feel once I’d learned it.

Of course, I also added to my own personal pile-on by digging up old stories that help put contemporary issues in a larger context (obsessive researcher drive, again). Much of what I found out didn’t reassure me: No, yoga scandals are not a new development. No, such problems are not confined to Western cultures. No, “traditional yoga” was not ethically purified, either.

I started to feel like I knew too much about the shadow side of yoga. My revulsion to what I’d learned started interfering with my practice. I found myself wondering if it might not make more sense to switch to sitting meditation combined with some alternative physical workout instead. I started to feel that much as I’ve enjoyed my own asana practice, I really didn’t like yoga culture very much. Perhaps it was time to consider a new direction. Perhaps I didn’t want to have that much to do with yoga, after all.

 

Stuck

Not wanting to add to the negativity overload problem, I’ve avoided sharing these feelings up until now. Instead, I’ve been waiting for them to pass. The rational part of my brain reasoned that with time, I’d buck up to the fact that yoga (like the church, like politics, like everything else) has its share of corruption; get over my sense of disillusionment and revulsion; and move on to celebrate the dimensions of the practice that are meaningful to me. Logically, it seemed obvious that this was the mature thing to do.

It also seemed inevitable given that my nascent plans to drop asana practice never materialized. The fact of the matter is that nothing else makes me feel as good in body, mind, and spirit as yoga (to trot out what now seems like a tired cliché to my wearily jaded ears).

The problem, however, is that this weight of troubling knowledge – story after disturbing story of emotional manipulation, mind control, sexual harassment, and even rape – hasn’t fully lifted. It keeps gnawing at my mind. It’s like I’ve eaten something gnarly that I’m having a hard time psychically digesting. My litany of things I don’t like about yoga culture won’t shut up and go away. It’s like having a really annoying song stuck in your head. You don’t want to have it there on repeat. But try as you might, you can’t make it stop. Even when the volume’s turned down, if you listen closely, you can hear it faintly playing in the more distant corners of your psyche. And the longer it goes on, the more draining and enervating it feels.

 

Breaking Silence

A few days ago, however, I read a short post on Yogadork that inspired me to break my self-imposed silence. Basically, the post was a (polite) rant of irritation that the yoga blogosphere has been largely silent on the Bikram lawsuits, even now that a major magazine has published a feature article on it:

This Vanity Fair article on Bikram’s rape accusations hit the interwebs last week with, well, not much fanfare. Maybe it’s because it’s holiday time and no one wants to hear about it  . . . or maybe it’s because we’re already desensitized to yoga scandals, especially ones involving Bikram Choudhury, to the point that it’s not news anymore.

Maybe it’s not news, but it should be. Because when the yoga community is all wrapped up in debating whether or not teachers can have sex with their students, there are some real injustices and seriously heinous crimes going down. In the past few years, five women have come forward and filed lawsuits against Bikram Choudhury, with charges of sexual harassment and rape.

I’m not saying you must have this on your mind 24/7, nor do you have to get on your soapbox or write a 3000 word dissertation making a case for either side, but ignoring it really isn’t a way to make progress either . . rape is NOT OK. Sexual harassment is NOT OK . . . if you ask me, avoiding the conversation, whether Bikram is guilty or not, is exactly what’s wrong with the wanderlusting, Rumi-quoting, all-encompassing love and light attitude that seems to pervade the yoga community.

BOOM. The author’s dismay at having five sets of sexual harassment and rape charges filed against one of the most successful yoga teachers of our time pass by without comment hit home. After all, I’d been following the story, but keeping silent about it too. Perhaps needless to say, that wasn’t because I was caught in some “wanderlusting, Rumi-quoting, all-encompassing love and light” vibe . . . on the contrary, it’s been precisely that combination of ungrounded, pseudo-childish lite-ness and creepy, sinister, Bikram sex scandal-style shadow that’s been making me feel like maybe I should distance myself from the yoga world altogether.

 

Moving Forward

I do believe, however, that it’s possible to cross the flood of dark knowledge about the shadow side of yoga that’s been unleashed and come out stronger and wiser on the other side. Since I’m not giving up asana practice, I’m working on it. Hopefully, others out there doing the same. Maybe, a new synthesis is brewing that’s more mature, grounded, and real than what’s come before – an understanding that can openly recognize the shadow side of yoga, while working compassionately to balance it out with a stronger light.

Regardless, for me the only thing to do is to keep practicing anyway. At this moment, sharing my sense of dismay, disillusionment, and disorientation feels like part of my way of doing that. Because it doesn’t feel right to simply sweep multiple rape charges under the rug and move on to celebrate the joys of yoga. Even if it’s simply to bear witness to the heartbreak that so many have suffered, the reality of the problems that keep generating scandals needs to be acknowledged, in the yoga world as elsewhere.

Ideally, this will spur meaningful reform so that there are fewer such problems in the future. Even if that doesn’t happen, however, it’s important to do it anyway. At least, that’s my feeling. I’m curious to hear what others think.

 


26 Comments

  1. Angela Dancey

    I hear you and share your confusion and disgust. But these things aren’t happening because of yoga, they’re happening because of PEOPLE. Unfortunately, we can look at any sector of society–institutions, practices, groups–and find similar activities taking place. Does that mean we should withdraw from them? Absolutely not. Yes, this knowledge about the capabilities of humans to exploit and harm others is difficult to come to terms with, especially when it’s in the context of a supposedly healing discipline. But turning away is not the answer. I feel strongly that continuing to practice from a place of genuine feeling, compassion, and love is the only way to address these issues and, hopefully make a difference, as you suggest. Namaste!

    • chorton

      Agreed. But I would add that while “yoga” doesn’t make this or anything else happen, “yoga culture” does have an effect on those who are part of it. It is just like a family system: if there is a strong pattern of norms and behaviors that effectively tells everyone to keep silent about difficult issues, then it’s very, very challenging to break the pattern – even individually, outside of the group. Hence my agreement with the Yogadork blogger who felt that there was something really problematic about the fact that five rape and/or sexual harassment lawsuits have been filed, and yet, there appears to be a general silence about it. That said, I get that it can be hard to know what to say, and unpleasant to even think about it. Yet, I feel that if no one does it, that’s a problem. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • Marc

        This is just humans being human though. Just look at Bill Cosby, 30 women and the man still gets standing ovations. This is a dark age in a dark world, yoga is the light. Bikram is not a yogi, there is nothing yogic about owning rolls royces and standing in a sofa wearing for stupid speedo. Asanas are but a small component of Yoga ; some of the most advanced yogis in the world don’t even spend time on them (Indian Sadhus are all about tapas (austerity) and mental control. Good article, I share your disgust and anger, but we must never give in to it.

        • Marc

          Wearing *some* stupid speedo…. I just finished a TTC… tired lol.

  2. MiamiLotus

    Shining a light on the shadow behaviours of illustrious yoga teachers should have some beneficial outcome, in theory, anyway.
    It seems to me that the conversations around meaningful reform around in the commercial yoga world fade away once the initial shock/scandal/yoga blogsters find the next scandal to focus on. Over the last few years there have been a few, so I guess in part, that’s understandable.
    The community/alliances/yoga studios/seem very reluctant to address this issue and establish a standard that could insure that any yoga teachers who are compromising their position of trust with their students in either a sexual, emotional or verbal manner would realize immediate consequences, once allegations are presented and investigated thoroughly.
    How this is implemented remains to be decided, but until perpetrators of abuse know their behaviour will not be tolerated by their yoga community members, it’s going to continue.
    Surely, the many intelligent minds and informed yoga practicioners within our diverse yoga communities can at least begin to have more serious discourse in this area.

    • chorton

      Not sure if you saw this, but Yoga Alliance is working on a code of ethics: http://yoganonymous.com/sex-ethics-and-a-call-to-action-for-the-yoga-profession/. I’ve talked with Kerry Maiorca, who is leading the effort to produce an initial draft, and am confident that she will come up with something serious, solid, and meaningful. It hasn’t been released yet, though . . . when there is something enforceable on the table, then maybe a more serious conversation will start.

      There also appears to be a lot of opposition to having any sort of general code governing teacher-student relationships, however. To some extent, I think that it’s simply due to the fact that people are worried about unreasonable and draconian standards (e.g., a blanket prohibition on teachers ever dating anyone who’s been one of their students. Of course, no one is proposing anything like that.) There are also some serious disagreements about the wisdom of any sort of shared ethical standards, let alone regulations, however. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

      • MiamiLotus

        Thanks. I have not had any recent updates about what is happening with this challenging topic for the yoga community. Yoga is not easily regulated due to the historical and philosophical roots of the practice. Abuse can happen in any community, not just the yoga world. Hoping that all of us, as keepers of these traditional practices, can allow for change when it it’s required.

      • Hi there. I am new to the Yoga world and I just finished my Teacher Training Program. I am also a licensed massage therapist. I was surprised that there wasn’t focus on duel relationships. In massage school, there was quite a bit of time spent on why dual relationships (i.e. therapist and client as opposed to therapist and client/friend/counselor/lover)are very bad for business. There should be a very clear, defined role as teacher and student only. When we don’t set clear boundaries for ourselves, or Yamas (restraints) we are NOT really teaching Yoga. I hope that instructors of Yoga can shine some light on this subject and really move it to the top of the list as far as importance. Even in 200 hour training, there are certain principles of Yoga that should be focused on with greater importance. It is this aspect which will help the public realize that Yoga is more than exercise. If it isn’t, then it’s not really Yoga.

  3. Micahel (Bo) Dumont

    I think the most important thing to remember is that yoga people are first and foremost “people”. That means they are good, bad, and every flavour in between. It’s hard to hear about the horrible things that people often do to each other, but shining a light on the darkness is the only way that it can ever be dispelled. It’s good to realize every once in a while that “our” practice is in no way different than any other path. Thinking that yoga is somehow above and beyond another path, and free from darkness is a polarizing and unbalanced view.

    Namaste

    • chorton

      Agreed and that’s an excellent point.

      Looking back on the evolution of my own views: I had previously assumed that yoga would be more free of these serious (as in, legally actionable) scandals because of its current structure – that is, with students coming to a 90-minute class and then going back to their regular lives, it didn’t seem to be a set-up for cult-like dynamics such as you would find in a live-in ashram or whatever.

      And of course, for the casual student, that was and is true. But what I hadn’t thought into was the dynamics of the inner circles and teacher trainings, which are much more intense and intimate. Also, I was naive about how common questionable-to-abusive teacher-student relationships really are.

      Also, I was influenced both by my experience of yoga as a healing practice, and by my previously more exclusive exposure to that way of working with it.

      And, all of that was unconsciously colored by a sort of wishful thinking that yes, this path would somehow be purer or safer than others. Your point is well taken.

  4. Thank you for your words. I truly believe that yoga has brought the topic of rape and sexual harassment to this level of consciousness so that we can begin to change and heal what has been ignored for much too long…..people don’t talk about it, people ignore it, the Bikram community will tell you…”just focus on the yoga”…this is turning a blind eye and will not help anything…..Rapes, sexual assault need to be discussed and prevented…sometimes yoga involves MUCH more than just the physical asanas….

    • chorton

      Yes, at this point, integrating this knowledge in our understanding of yoga is part of the practice itself, I think. Harder than working on your next kick-ass arm balance! but ultimately more meaningful, or at least, so I would hope.

  5. allise

    Hello Carol,
    Thank you for the article.
    My dog groomer’s son has told me that he has been saving up 10,000 to attend a Bikram teacher training. He wants to be a Bikram yoga teacher ‘when he grows up’. I explained to his mum that perhaps this wasn’t the best career move for this young man, was she aware of the problems with Mr. Bikram’s organization and teaching ‘methodologies’?
    NO, she was not aware.
    Heads Up:
    Not everyone knows about this fellow and his crimes (alleged crimes and etc.)
    More said about all this the better! Louder the better. Parents too need to have an understanding that all Yoga isn’t the good kind, in fact, all yoga should be scrutinized by parents whose children are busy with ‘the yoga world’, including the rife problem with eating disordered young people and yoga culture.

    Thank you again.

    • chorton

      $10K is so much money . . . it blows my mind that Bikram could get away with charging that rate, let alone on top of everything else. Glad that this mom talked to you ahead of time!

      You might also want to suggest that she and her son read Benjamin Lorr’s excellent book, “Hell Bent,” which explores Bikram yoga and its culture. It was published pre-scandal but is not dated, as it’s a really well-researched and thought out book. (In fact, I don’t doubt that its publication helped inspire this cascade of lawsuits, although that’s only speculation on my part.)

  6. Bravo. I’ve actually been wondering about you and your silent voice, so I’m glad to see this. I echo all the same sentiments. I’ve even pondered, gasp, an entirely different career. I get a lot of criticism too for being “negative” about the scandals, which is code for talking about them. But here is my response: My feet are on the ground, my head is on my shoulders, and my heart is brave enough to face the shadow side of yoga and still love it.

    • chorton

      Thanks, Michelle! I love your one sentence response to those who would have you keep quiet. Strong and to the point, as per usual!

  7. julian walker

    such sweetness to the ear, your willingness to express the bitterness you feel at this toxicity carol!

    it echoes my long standing concern, which i know you share, that a healthy spiritual community and yoga scene requires the kind of shadow work, psychological honesty and grounding in reality that can dismantle the ubiquitous tendency toward spiritual bypass.

    spiritual communities attract vulnerable people, people seeking healing and belonging, people who have often found the mainstream culture too painful or empty, too traumatizing, people wanting more out of life —be that powerful experiences, mentoring, a more holistic way to think of themselves, immersion in the mysteries of the exotic and ancient, or a teacher figure to idealize as all knowing and perfect in contrast with a broken and disappointing world.

    people like you (and writing like this) perform a vital function in helping our demographic to consider the necessity of re-working how we create and participate in such communities, and how we address the shadow that is usually being bypassed in the name of meeting some of these unconscious needs —with inevitable bad consequences.

    what seems most important to me is that the community of teachers, writers and thinkers who influence those they train, mentor and hold space for, have their consciousness raised about these very issues. we can inquire into how to not perpetuate them, but instead create modern, integrated, savvy ways of addressing the underlying issues more honestly.

    authoritarian, charismatic, narcissistic leaders do very well in a culture where regression is championed:

    * don’t think critically
    * submit your ego to the teacher’s wisdom
    * believe in something you don’t understand as part of the revealed truth only the higher ups truly have access to
    * any criticisms you may have of the organization or teacher are just your unenlightened ego
    * your emotions not only have no real place in your practice, but are an obstacle to the higher truth you are seeking

    variations on these core ideas, formulated in less obviously manipulative ways, are celebrated as somehow representing key principles of yoga and spirituality instead of the opposites i think we would do well to suggest:

    * cultivate critical thinking as a tool for mental clarity
    * soften your ego defenses through compassion and inquiry, but build healthy ego strength that has good boundaries and self-worth too
    * practice not to confirm any beliefs but to keep inquiring and seeking freedom from self-delusion of any kind
    * healthy organizations should have systems in place for open dialog and egalitarian conflict resolution
    * cultivate emotional intelligence and awareness so as to be more integrated, courageous and honest

    well, i started off just wanting to say – great job, and ended up writing my own mini-essay! please take it as a high compliment. i am glad you are in the world and on the radar in our community. though we don’t agree on everything, i see you as an invaluable ally.

    • chorton

      Thanks so much for your thoughts, Julian. I am honored. Needless to say, I totally agree. Your bulleted points in particular are super-helpful; they really hit their targets perfectly.

    • Point perfect, Julian!

      Of course, the kind of critical thinking you are championing is in short supply in the so-called ‘yoga community’ because of myriad cultural/social conditions. That is to say, the anti-intellectualism so pervasive in american ‘culture.’ This coupled with mis-understandings and mis-applications of teachings about “right speech” create a strong impulse towards self-censoriousness and self-doubt. Then, the structures of hierarchal and authoritarianism get added in and dysfunction is the result.

      The irony is our sangha has found structure and praxis in the most ancient (buddhist) texts that other buddhist and yoga teachers have called everything from “radical” to “unwieldy” and “too influenced by western political philosophy!” Those structures include:
      Council-type meetings open to all members (and actually the wider public as well)
      Consensus decision making processes
      Sitting in a circle all on the same physical level
      Beginning Anew practices designed to work with inevitable conflict
      and other practices all dating back to the sangha at the time of the buddha!

      Anyway, thank you Carol! I’d been on retreat and didn’t know about the Vanity Fair article until just I just got back!

  8. Hey friend,

    Probably no coincidence that I was thinking about you and our conversation about the shift in our attention lately; the quietude of our public discourse. A title went through my mind; “Acceptance: Resignation or Indifference?”. I may actually use it.:)

    As some of your readers pointed out, these issues are largely issues of behavior in general. Yoga is the vehicle that attracts our attention: Are we victimized by clothing companies or covers of magazines or people who feel free to represent themselves as messiahs? I might be callous and say ‘only if we choose to be’ but it’s not that simple.

    I agree with Julian that many vulnerable seekers come to yoga and those who call themselves teachers or leaders in the (difficult word for me to put with yoga) industry have to be accountable for their behavior. And since there is often no one to be accountable to it is up to the writers, the journalists and bloggers to call attention to transgressions.

    When I was studying journalism in college my mentor pulled a bottle of bourbon from his desk drawer during a meeting. He said,” you think you want to be a journalist? This is journalism; trying to drown the memory of what you just witnessed.” Now why did I just remember that?

    Rock on muckraker. It’s got to be done.

    • chorton

      Thanks H. And I want to get that bourbon in Kentucky and drink it in Nashville – this spring!

  9. Kerry Maiorca

    I appreciate your speaking out on this in such an honest way, Carol, and thanks for the vote of confidence on the work we’re doing via YA.

    It cannot be said enough: rape is never okay and there must be a channel through which to address serious issues of sexual misconduct in the yoga community. Articles like yours are a step in that direction, because this stuff can’t continue to happen if we as a community empower each other to look at it, say it’s not okay, and decide what we’re willing to do about it.

    I’m hopeful that this conversation continues to move away from the sensationalized stories of a few celebrity yogis, to a larger conversation about everyday ethics and how they come into play every time we interact with our students. No matter how big and glitzy this “industry” gets, teaching yoga is still about the humble pursuit of helping students to become happier, healthier, more conscious beings. To me, that’s the light that shines through all this darkness.

  10. Scott Campbell

    If I was to make a point about your article it would be something similar to Micahel’s point above. That said, I also think most of what is talked about as “Yoga” is just an Indianized flavor of pop culture – a kind of mass hysteria where for the most part confusion reigns and is like a boat (unconsciousness) tossed about on the sea of ego. Is it really any surprise that base drives are manifest? My experience is that yoga is in essence about self-realization and I haven’t yet seen it better explained than Patanjali’s take that it is the process of removing the crap out of our field of consciousness and what is left is the self. I usually see the opposite going on where folks think of themselves as going on a search for the true self (much like what you describe in your blog post Yoga, Postmodernism, and the Search for the “True Self”). This may seem like a distinction without a difference, but again in my experience I find it easier to go astray in the latter as opposed to the former. It also makes sense if one accurately locates self-realization in non-dual reality.

  11. Andrea Crnogaj

    To me, my yoga practice has nothing to do with the people who practice yoga. I would never consider giving up my practice, because some people used yoga as a means and an excuse to abuse others.
    One thing I learned in my teacher training was: practicing or even teaching yoga doesn’t make someone automatically a good person. I’ve seen questionable human beings of all colours and variations, especially amongst the teachers.
    You will see abusive behavior everywhere, where people are in a position of power. Not getting corrupted by power seems to be a very hard thing. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not defending anyone and I think that abusing power is really despicable.
    But why the hell do we think that people practicing yoga should be different from people in general ? It’s the same mixture of characters everywhere. Sad, but true.
    I’ve connected with many really special, kind, loving human beings through yoga.
    And I have met real scumbags.
    The latter will never get me off my yoga path. They will never stop me from trying to be the best person I can.
    I will always use my clear mind and my gut feeling to observe the people around me and decide who I let in my life.
    And I will always give all my love and support to those who have been abused.

  12. I took the Bikram training in 2001. Bikram was out of control then. He’s gotten away with bad behavior for so long he’s escalated. I survived the training by cutting a lot. Most nights I signed in and left rather than endure his awful rambling, toxic lectures.

    Yoga is so much more than physical exercise. Bikram gave people what they want, he entertained them. But yoga is not one size fits al. Not everyone should do the same pose in the same way, and some people should bend their knees in forward folds or use a strap or block.

    I would like to see a movement away from yoga as entertainment. I would like to see people connect to yoga as a doorway into higher consciousness, as meditation in movement, as an 8-limbed path that includes ethical behavior.

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