What do you do when your Guru falls from grace?
On 25th May an arrest warrant was issued for Bikram Choudhury — because he had failed to pay a large civil settlement owed to a victim of sexual assault, of which he was found guilty in 2016.
Bikram Choudhury is the man who created the 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises that I have practised and taught for over ten years
In 2015 he was charged with six counts of sexual assault and rape. At the beginning of this 2016 he was found guilty of one of them.
I fell in love with the hot yoga series when I was 18 years old. In the last 10 years I have built a community within it, I even became a yoga teacher. As a standup comic I have combined teaching the practice wherever I travel with my stand up career.
On the day I found out I nearly just turned around and walked home - it didn’t seem right practising Bikram Yoga. Or any day thereafter. Why practice Bikram’s yoga, he’s proven himself time and time again the less than stellar guru I thought him to be when I started practising back in 2004. And for some reason today was the nail in the coffin for me. There’s a warrant out for Bikram Choudhury’s arrest after he’s refused to pay the settlement for sexual harassment suit brought against him in 2016.
It’s been a gnarly four weeks for me (and the world). Week one; my grandmother died. Week two; my uncle died. Week three; the Manchester bombing. Week four; my Guru is going to be arrested. It was the fourth piece of bad news that had me sitting in a bar with my boyfriend crying.
“You knew he was a bad guy,” Tom said, as I choked back tears. “You knew that when six women came forward as sexual assault victims.” “Yeah, but I just…I thought he at least paid the settlement.” The last thread I had to hold onto had been taken away. I assumed he’d paid the settlement. And by paying it I assumed he took responsibility for the crimes he’s committed. And that didn’t mean that I thought he should be forgive, and it didn’t diminish what allegedly happened to those women — but somehow it had allowed me to separate the man from the discipline he invented.
But he hasn’t owned up to any of it. Not legally and I doubt personally.
I don’t know Bikram Chouhury well. I’ve met him once before I went to Teacher Training in the fall of 2008. Like all Bikram teachers, I spent nine weeks at his training course taking his class nearly every night followed by taking notes at the lectures he’d give till midnight about yoga, self-realization, and sometime just old stories he’d like to tell. He can be incredibly charismatic. When he’s excited he’s almost childlike and it’s endearing and makes you forget the times he says something homophobic or sexist. I’ve always likened Bikram to a conservative older family member; yeah, some of his ideas are archaic and just wrong, but he grew up in India in a different time period, he can’t help it. At least that’s what I told myself. But I was wrong. The man has made millions of dollars in the US as a yoga Guru if he’s smart enough to do that, he’s smart enough to have compassion and understanding.
There were over 300 people at my teacher-training and through the years Bikram has met and taught thousands and thousands of people. I don’t think he’d recognize me today, let alone know my name. But Bikram Yoga has always been there for me. As my life has become more transient as a travelling stand-up comedian, it’s been what I return to when I feel I need to take better care of my health. It’s also what I turn to in a time of crisis. My dad died; I took yoga. I moved to London and needed to meet new people; I took Yoga. When I travel for comedy I try and find a studio to practice at and sometimes I teach. Though I don’t practice at the regularity I once did, Bikram Yoga has been the glue that’s held me together. And though Bikram and I don’t have a personal relationship, I’ve spent close to ten years of my life standing on podium in a sweaty room in front of strangers saying “Bikram says…” like it was The Gospel according to Luke. “Bikram says lock your knee.” “Bikram says how can you hold on to money love or happiness if you can’t hold onto your own foot?” “Bikram says the key to self-realisation is through a healthy body.”
Like many other abusers Bikram is incredibly likeable when he wants to be. And like all abusers he uses that to manipulate those around him. As a practitioner and teacher I feel manipulated and hoodwinked.
What he allegedly did to those women was selfish, cruel and inexcusable. And when the allegations came out the community started to change. Studios stopped using his name to advertise. At one time Bikram Studios only offered his series exclusively and now they’ve started offering other forms of yoga to diversify. His actions fractured a community. But we did not break. We could pick up and carry on.
But if Bikram goes to jail what does it mean for us, the teachers and the studio owners that have spent so much time, money and sweat learning and living this particular yoga? Will people still want to take the 90 minute series? Will people who’ve never taken yoga look past a failed Guru and see the community that has sprung up around him.
The community I’ve met teaching and taking classes, has taught me so much through the years and I look to those people for inspiration and strength on a regular basis. My friend Dionne is now teaching in Africa and is one of the most positive people I’ve ever met, even when life has dealt her some hard blows. My former boss Erik still welcomes me back to teach in New York whenever I’m visiting. Teaching in New York I taught my friend Sharon’s first class. Now she’s a teacher and I think of her every time I practice and see my water tattoo that nearly matches hers. When I was in Melbourne for The Comedy Festival I taught and took class for studio owners named Susan and Michael. They were an older couple who told me over breakfast, “We’re glad we found Bikram Yoga because we found something we can do together forever”.
I wound up taking that Bikram class the day I found out there was a warrant for his arrest. During a particularly humid class the teacher said, “I don’t ask for much, I ask for everything.” I loved that. The ballsyness to ask a room full of tired sweaty people for everything. Because that’s what your yoga practice deserves. That’s what you deserve to give yourself. Everything. It’s just a shame Bikram couldn’t give us everything. In fact he didn’t give us much. He gave us a heated room and a sequence of 26 postures and two breathing exercises. We built the rest.
Bikram created Bikram Yoga, but the man himself has had very little to do with my own practice and the emotional, physical, and social benefits I’ve gotten from it. It’s my practice, not his. And it always has been.
Abigoliah Schamaun is a standup comic and Bikram yoga teacher based in London. Her writings have appeared in Time Out, The Scotsman, and YogaDork. You can find out more about her at abigoliah.com