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Osho and Bikram yoga
Illustration Marija Marc

Can the yoga world move past Osho and Bikram’s shady legacies?

Bikram hot yoga and Osho kundalini remain trendy yoga practices – but with allegations of exploitative dealings and criminal connections, yogis and practitioners are struggling with turning their backs on their teachings

TextMattha BusbyIllustrationMarija Marc

If you’ve felt sweat streaming down your body at Bikram hot yoga, or experienced the natural ecstasy of Osho kundalini classes, you’ll know why these practices continue to attract students to yoga centres across the world. These sessions remain fashionable despite the increasingly controversial legacies of the trail-blazing but deeply flawed gurus explored by two viral documentaries, Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator and Wild, Wild Country.

The shows propelled the two already-influential teachers to new levels of infamy as they shedded further light on the darker sides of the men’s lives. But, in spite of the obvious health and wellness benefits of their practices, are people following their teachings turning a blind eye to the crimes committed within their empires as they both amassed fortunes?

“The first woman who told me that she was raped by Bikram preceded the sentence with, ‘But I love him’,” Benjamin Lorr, author of critical Bikram history Hell-Bent, tells Dazed. Following countless interviews which set out how the predator groomed his victims into feeling indebted to him, he adds: “His crimes were enabled by the tremendous amount of trust and connection that people felt to his yoga.”

Bikram led gruelling teacher training courses for $10,000 a head in sweltering conference halls at US hotels heated to 120 degrees while he accumulated a reported fortune of $75 million. While the rigorous 26-posture practice, which he nicknamed “McYoga” due to its consistency, created minor miracles among some, the God complex he fostered helped bring a steady stream of vulnerable people into his orbit. Some of whom he viciously exploited – he has been accused of multiple rapes and cases of sexual assault.

“(Bikram’s) crimes were enabled by the tremendous amount of trust and connection that people felt to his yoga” – Benjamin Lorr

“If it was me I’d get his name off my studio,” says Lorr. “That seems like a no-brainer. He’s a scumbag, but he was a father figure in some ways to many people. He gave them something to believe in, and they want to honour that.”

So too did Osho, via his dynamic, trauma-releasing movement sessions, bizarre classes where participants speak gobbledygook, anti establishment outlook and so-called ‘free love’ ethos which, in a libertarian spirit, rejected the regulation of relationships. This reportedly led people to have sex “like baboons” at the ashram. “Both of these figures cultivated cult-like followings through very specific techniques,” says cult researcher and co-host of the Conspirituality podcast, Matthew Remski. “In Bikram’s case it is a more formalised process to become a parrot of his content; while the behavioural and social control at a place like (Osho’s Oregon ashram) Rajneeshpuram is much tighter but the ideology is much looser.”

A year before the release of the Bikram documentary, the series Wild, Wild Country kept viewers spellbound with almost fanciful, yet sinister, tales of salad bar chemical warfare (which caused 751 people to contract salmonellosis and left 45 in hospital: the largest bio-terror attack in US history) and several murder plots as an increasingly paranoid clique of the tantric master’s devotees sought to seize control of the area around their commune, Rajneeshpuram, and build up their weaponry.

But after living inside his relatively high-fee sanctuaries – where he was known to have sex with a number of female followers – ex-disciples’ recollections are mixed and some have said the various forms of therapy helped them overcome deep-rooted fears.

“I was just in pure heaven,” former follower, Rakasa Lucero, tells Dazed, “and hell sometimes because, of course, how can one give up one’s misery?” The portrayal of the cult in the documentary, she adds, did not resonate with her experience; while she also suggests the reports that Osho had sex with extraordinary numbers of women may be overblown. “I never heard directly that there were a lot of women around him (sexually),” she claims. “But if we did have a lot of sex, whose business is it, and who's judging?”

However, others have told of requiring stays in psychiatric hospitals to rebuild their mental health and alleged pressure to participate in group orgies. “The lingo at the ashram was ‘say yes’ and ‘say yes to life’,” ex-sannyasin, a follower of Osho, Roselyn Smith told Win McCormack for The Rajneesh Chronicles: the True Story of the Cult that Unleashed the First Act of Bioterrorism on US Soil. She claimed that women who refused to participate were criticised as “selfish” and “frigid”.

The Observer has reported teenage girls were “often initiated into sex by visiting group leaders” and that one victim allegedly justified being raped multiple times as a method “to confront her terrors”. But Osho, who often wore a diamond-studded watch and then went by the name Bhagwan (Hindi for God), sought to obfuscate the truth over whether orgies were taking place. “I believe that sex is everybody’s birthright,” he said in 1985. “It is fun. There is nothing serious about it. No orgies are happening here but I’m not prohibiting them. It is up to the people. If they feel like having an orgy – so far, so good.”

Another ex-sannyasin waxes lyrical of Osho’s positive effect on his followers. “He had a very high frequency of love that was extremely healing and brought the people that were open to it to have a profound understanding of their essence and purpose in life,” Martha Ballesteros tells Dazed. “His legacy is the work he did with each one of his disciples individually and the transformation they experienced. There are thousands of examples of that around the world. His work continues. His legacy is the people who were close to him and even the people who today practice his teachings, understand them, and whose lives are changed for the better.”

She acknowledges that both predators and healers were attracted to the 64,000 acre ranch-convent. “All kinds of people gathered around him: some remarkable seekers, healers, highly spiritual people. But there were also the predators, the manipulators, the power-hungry individuals. The world was truly represented there, in light and darkness.” Osho did not have control over everything and was not an active part of the corporation, she adds. “There were intrigues and power trips around the top management circles. Power-hungry people do anything to win and move ahead.”

She adds of the ceremonies and group activities: “Those rituals opened possibilities for our evolution and prepared us for the journey of ascension... Osho created genius meditation processes that help people let go of energetic blockages from painful past experiences, gain awareness of their ‘inner witness’, and connect to the natural source of bliss that lies under all those layers of negativity and suffering.” Being touched on the forehead by Osho, meanwhile, “felt like being transported to a different dimension”. Walking beside him, she notes he seemed to float instead of walk and could cause people to enter extreme states effortlessly. However, she left Oregon when she saw the first guns as the community militarised. 

Remski, a cult survivor, takes a dim view of life at the commune. “There were hundreds of children who went to Rajneeshpuram schools who were essentially neglected,” he says. “If ex-sannyasins have gone on to work in the New Age and wellness sphere, it’s much more beneficial to frame their experiences as transformative rather than traumatising.”

Osho, whose birth name was Rajneesh Chandra Mohan Jain, died in 1990 aged 58 of heart disease in India after he was deported from the US, and a coterie of his followers control his estate amid infighting, with reports last month alleging his will was faked; but Bikram Choudhury, 77, is still alive and teaching, somewhere.

Recently it emerged he is selling intellectual property including the name “Bikram yoga” after filing for bankruptcy following damaging sexual harassment and assault cases that saw him flee the US. Ultimately, Lorr – whose book sparked heightened scrutiny of the yoga guru – suggests there is much more people can gain today from Rolls Royce collector Osho’s teachings than fellow car enthusiast Bikram’s.

“It’s easier to cut Bikram out because of his crimes,” he says, though many studios – with the notable exception of global chain Fierce Grace which among others has devised its own hot yoga sequences – have not. “He cherry-picked 26 poses from an 84 asana sequence by the yogi Bishnu Ghosh and it’s unclear to me to what extent he added original ideas. It’s different with Osho, he was more of an original thinker.” 

Thus, Lorr continues, the fall of Osho – whose books remain totems of spiritual thought for many – was more tragic, as he increasingly used drugs such as valium and members of his inner circle like secretary Ma Anand Sheela took key decisions (Osho’s acolytes maintain it was her, the subject of a new Netflix documentary, who masterminded the dastardly plots of bio-terror and attempted murder). 

“There is a greater gulf between the original ideas and the shell person he became,” says Lorr. For Bikram, however, “his depravity follows from the way he behaved and taught. There is a one-to-one connection; the fact he extended his narcissistic impulses into the sexual arena is no surprise.” Remski adds that one cannot market the Bikram method without promoting and validating the Bikram personality, such is the degree to which they are inextricably entwined – as anyone who has effectively been bullied in a Bikram class by the instructor for making a mistake will testify.

“You could forget Harvey Weinstein produced Shakespeare in Love but there’s no way you’re going to forget Bikram Choudary created that series of postures,” he continues. “You can’t separate the man from the method, or the personality from the content.”