What is it about yoga gurus and sex scandals? The two seem to go together like down dog and sun salutations, with at least 10 of note rocking the often cultish world of yoga devotees over the past few decades.
Among the most egregious and upsetting examples remains that of Bikram Choudhury, 70, the guru and founder of Bikram yoga, who, since 2013, has been charged with sexual harassment, assault, and rape by six former students. Earlier this year, he was ordered to pay more than $6 million to a former adviser over a sexual harassment and termination case. While the father of “hot yoga” doesn’t frequently grant media interviews, he did sit down with Andrea Kremer of HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel in India recently, and what came out of his mouth almost — almost — made Donald Trump seem tame.
(It’s a comparison that did not go unnoticed by Gumbel, who introduced the Choudhury segment as one that “echoes events unfolding in our presidential race: a wealthy celebrity with an out-of-control ego, accustomed to having his followers fawn over him, stands accused of using his power to coerce, bully and force women to engage in unwanted sexual conduct.”)
For the segment, interviewer Andrea Kremer traveled to the outskirts of Mumbai to see Choudhury on one of his grueling, self-led, nine-week teacher trainings, which draw masochistic adherents from all over the world, who pay upward of $12,000 for the privilege.
We see those folks taking hellish classes with their guru in rooms of 105-degree heat, sitting in smaller rooms for lectures by the bikini-wearing leader, and being yelled at and insulted by him (“You look like you’re pregnant!” “Stop eating!”). Kremer asks him about his tough style, to which he admits, “I try to kill them. They don’t die. I own — I torture them. … I love it.”
She also asks if he has any regrets about anything he’s said to people. “Of course not,” he responds. “Why should I? I have to yell, scream, shout, ‘You fat ass. What the fuck’s wrong with you? What’s wrong with you? You don’t listen to me. You dumb — you dumb fuck.’ Because she doesn’t listen.”
Kremer also speaks with three of Choudhury’s rape and sexual assault accusers, including Jill Lawler, who was 18 when she took all of her college savings and spent it on a Bikram yoga training with its creator. “He knew that he was in a position of power, and he manipulated me and took advantage of it,” she tells Kremer, explaining how the boot camp would use torture-like techniques of sleep deprivation (sometimes induced with forced Bollywood-movie watching). “You kind of lose your mind, you know?”
Lawler recounts how she was eventually plucked from the crowd and summoned to Choudhury’s hotel room, where she says she was raped for the first of many times. On some level, she explains, “I felt like I owed him,” and “Like, he was my guru. He was — I can’t even explain. Like, I really, really loved him. You know? I really, really did.”
Another accuser, Sarah Baughn, who was the first to file a lawsuit against Choudhury, says that she tried several times to kill herself after his attempted rape; a third, Maggie Genthner, says that, while she was being raped, Choudhury called her “an idiot — over and over again.”
Choudhury offered horrifying responses to Kremer’s line of questioning regarding the three women. “Lie, lie, and lie,” he says, before a sickening exchange in which he says he has no reason to sexually assault anyone. “If I need women, I can make a line — the most beautiful, famous, rich women in the world. If I have to sleep with women, then I have to sleep, you know, 5,000 girls every day.”
A clearly astounded Kremer asks, “Five thousand women a day want to sleep with you?”
He answers her in the affirmative, adding that four different women killed themselves because he would not have sex with them. “Why I have to harass women?” he asks. “People spend $1 million for one drop of my sperm. I can make million dollars a day every drop. You are that idiot or dumb to believe those trash?”
Kremer asks if the women are “the trash,” to which Choudhury concurs, adding, “I pick them from trash and give them life,” going on to call Baughn a “psychopath.”
Choudhury then leaves the interview abruptly, and when Kremer eventually asks if they can continue, turns his insults on her, yelling down to her from a balcony in the building where the interview has taken place. “You think you know yourself? No, you don’t. You are the same trash,” he tells Kremer. “You’re born in the s***. You live in the s***. You die in the s***. I don’t want to discuss this s*** anymore, because you guys are nothing but piece-of-s*** psychopath.”
Back in the HBO studio, Gumbel admits he’s tried Bikram yoga and liked it, and asks Kremer if she believes it’s morally OK to continue after seeing Choudhury in action.
She calls it a personal decision, asking, “Can you live with knowing that he’s the founder of this brand of yoga and still do it?”
“In a word,” Gumbel tells her, “no.”