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How Netflix’s Bikram documentary enlightens us about the wellness industry

TextAmelia Abraham

The new film about the yoga ‘guru’ charts lies, sexual assault, and rape allegations – it’s both a #MeToo story and a portrait of a wellness scammer at work

It’s hard to imagine a time when yoga wasn’t a common place fixture in the Western wellness landscape, but Netflix’s new documentary about Bikram yoga, Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, directed by Eva Orner, shows us that this wasn’t always the case. Telling the story of Bikram Choudhury, the Indian immigrant and “guru” largely credited with bringing yoga to America and other Western countries, the film follows the explosion of Bikram yoga from a practice favoured by a handful of wealthy celebrities to a US-wide franchise – “McYoga”, as some called it. 

After setting up his own studio in Beverly Hills, Choudhury began to run yoga teacher training schools that worked a lot like a pyramid scheme: you had to be recommended by your studio teacher to enter the exclusive training, making it feel like a privilege, then you had to fork out around $10,000 for the nine-week course. At the end, you had to be approved by the “guru”  to open your own studio. He licensed 650 outlets across the world at the height of his success in the early 2010s. 

The documentary explores our obsession with the most punishing kind of yoga as a practice: Bikram yoga aka hot yoga takes place in a room with the temperature turned up to 41 degrees celsius (which, as the documentary shows, leads some people to fall into dehydration, pass out, or be sick). However, it’s also about a spiritual leader who grossly abused his power –  Bikram Choudhury has been accused of lies, sexual assault, and rape. He’s seen calling his devotees ‘fat’ or ‘bitch’, and speaks to the multiple women who have filed allegations against him. One report in the film explains how he used the training courses as a means to trap women in hotel rooms. Another chilling report describes how he allegedly raped one of his mentees in his own home, while his wife and children were sleeping upstairs. 

Choudhury has denied all claims against him (even after watching the documentary), and still hasn’t faced his charges in criminal court, making the documentary itself another example of the media taking on the responsibility of exposing alleged sexual abusers. But there are other questions thrown up by the Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator documentary, too. One is about how blindly we accept what we are told by the wellness industry.

Let’s be clear: the sexual assault survivors in the film (and those not featured in the film) who were allegedly abused by Choudhury should have done nothing differently and did nothing wrong: they put their trust in a leader, a friend, a “guru”, and he abused it. But separating the #MeToo aspect of the film from the scammer aspect of the film for a moment, we are left with the story of an opportunist willing to spin a web of lies in order to build his wellness business. Choudhury claims that he was a three times India youth yoga champion, that he “cured” Richard Nixon with Bikram and that he sleeps one hour a night. In fact, Choudhury comes across so warped and deluded in the documentary, it’s unclear whether he actually believes the lies himself. 

The wellness industry – and “industry” is the key word here – lends itself well to scamming. For centuries, people have turned to quack doctors, new forms of spirituality or unproven alternative therapies either for self-improvement or to cure themselves of a particular ailment. And why shouldn’t they? Expecting a doctor to be certified, or backed by science, is really just a construct of Western medicine. Plus, of course, who are we to judge what helps people who are in need? 

“What is most shocking about the documentary is not that he was a man who abused his power. It’s that some of his yoga practitioners, featured in the documentary, continue to be devotees, or defend Choudhury’s brilliance and, even more shockingly, he is still teaching yoga courses”

Yet, perhaps it is this need that explains why there are many high profile cases of wellness scams; our desire to get “well” making us more vulnerable. Take Belle Gibson, who was exposed in 2015 for tricking the public into believing that she had cancer in order to sell more copies of her book, which focussed on the diet plan which she said had cured her. Or Brittany Dawn, the Texas fitness coach who transformed herself and then was accused of fraud in 2019 after taking money from her followers but not delivering on her courses. Or even Goop, who have been sued for making false claims about their jade vaginal eggs and levelled with multiple accusations of giving unauthorised health advice. Ruby Tandoh has documented how she discovered wellness diets when she had an eating disorder, and how it did not make her well

Choudhury’s schemes arguably took advantage in the same way: people in the film talk about how they discovered Bikram yoga when they were suffering injuries, or having difficulties with their mental health. Their so-called “guru” took a sacred practice, offered it up as a potential cure, and capitalised off it, using any means necessary to squeeze as much money as possible out of his followers, until he was dressed head to do in designer clothes and driving Bentleys. 

The thousands of people who forked out for his classes or training courses, without questioning the ethics, the price tag, or the business model, are in some ways all of us. Looking at the $4.2 trillion wellness industry to achieve health or enlightenment. As well as seeking justice for Choudhury’s victims, Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator reminds us that, as the wellness industry continues to grow, sometimes, we really do need to interrogate what we’re buying into. 

But what is most shocking about the documentary is not that he was a man who abused his power (that is disgusting, but sadly we’re too used to it by now). It’s that some of his yoga practitioners, featured in the documentary, continue to be devotees, or defend Choudhury’s brilliance and, even more shockingly, he is still teaching yoga courses. This demonstrates the power of an abusive leader, yes, but also the enduring power of pseudo-spirituality shrouded in clever marketing.

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