Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? If his name is Bikram Choudhury, the multi-millionaire founder of “Hot” Yoga, just about everyone these days. In the past year, the 67-year old Indian immigrant who once tried and failed to copyright his signature 26 yoga poses has faced legal battles galore. First there were lawsuits that Bikram himself filed against rival yoga organizations that he claimed were stealing his intellectual property. Now two women, both former students and Bikram teachers, have come forward to sue him, including Susan Baughn, a former protégé who says Bikram sexually harassed and assaulted her from to 2004 to 2008.
In the heavily promoted world of American yoga, in which spiritual and commercial motives are so closely intertwined — industry gross revenues topped $10 billion in 2012 — it’s fitting, perhaps, that Baughn, now 27, seems to have more than one story to tell about her travails as a Bikram superstar. In her current lawsuit, she portrays her former mentor as a serial predator who sought to block her rise to stardom – including a win at the Bikram-sponsored world asana championship — after she repelled his incessant advances. However, in Hell-Bent, an insider account of the Bikram yoga empire penned by first-time author Benjamin Lorr, Baughn makes no such claims about Bikram – just the opposite. She says her time with him was happy and rewarding, and losing the asana championship, which she blames on her own unbridled ego, was a gift. “I needed to be humbled,” she says.
Why the change of heart? We may never know, in part because few legal observers expect Baughn’s case — based on 7-year old allegations that were never actually reported to police — to come to court. But as Lorr makes clear in his thoughtful critique of the collective pathology that has engulfed much of today’s yoga world, many of the followers who end up feeling so “betrayed” by Bikram are the very ones who once revered him the most. Bikram, in fact, is no mere corporate chieftain. He’s a modern salesman-cum-guru, the kind that litters the yoga world from top to bottom, and increasingly features not just outsized male figures like Bikram or John Friend (who fell from grace after a sex and money scandal in 2011) but a bevy of prominent female pop stars like Cyndi Lee, Shiva Rea, Kathryn Budig, Elena Brower and Tara Stiles, many of them former models or dancers, who, like Baughn, seem desperate to parlay their looks and their bodies into yoga celebrity. None has come close to accumulating Bikram’s massive wealth, but they’re just starting out, and with a growing fan base, PR agents and corporate sponsors galore, and assiduous promotion by the yoga trade press, including feminist blogs like Yoga Dork and It’s All Yoga, Baby, apparently they’re well on their way. (Twenty years from now we’ll know if the burgeoning yoga industry has a glass ceiling; it clearly has lots of rock-throwers).
Lorr’s investigation brutally dissects Bikram’s foibles and phobias and how they’ve led to a punishing form of yoga that many in the hallowed world of Hindu mind-body practice refuse to recognize as spiritually authentic. But Hell-Bent actually takes us far beyond everyone’s favorite whipping boy to expose a much deeper flaw in the American yogic enterprise. Lorr finally names the phenomenon about two-thirds of the way through the book when he begins discussing what psychologists have come to call “narcissistic personality disorder,” or NPD. Bikram, Lorr suspects, developed the seeds of NPD as a child prodigy, and ever since, has been compulsively driven to develop a grandiose public personality based on a lethal combination of admiration, blind faith, and fear. But Lorr suggests that the NPD sickness is actually a collective one, in which devotees of Bikram and other high-profile gurus become heavily invested the leader’s personality cult, anxious to bask in and benefit from the same magnetic power, even it means being abused and humiliated in the process.
Lorr himself agreed to participate in the cult of Bikram — on a lark, it seems — by enrolling in the guru’s exorbitantly priced teacher training program, and at the behest of Susan Baughn – yes, the very same Susan Baughn – challenging himself to compete in the asana championships sponsored and promoted – and often rigged, he argues — by Bikram and his wife. By Lorr’s own accounting, he lost a lot of weight and became physically fit under Bikram’s aegis, but experienced no profound inner transformation. In other words, unlike so many other others drawn into Bikram’s orbit – several of them compassionately profiled by Lorr — he never drank the Kool-Aid.
On its face, Hell-Bent fits nicely into the emerging genre of the yoga “memoir,” including a growing number written by men. But Lorr, who’s a genuine reporter, is far less interested in trying to figure himself out – the bane of nearly every other work of this kind – than in actually documenting and reporting on the yoga world around him. Some early parts of the book analyzing yoga’s history (for example, pp. 54-60) are truly exceptional. According to Lorr, what we know as “Hatha” yoga in the West — be it Bikram’s eccentric version or the more mainstream Iyengar or Asthanga variants – has virtually nothing to do with the ancient practice so often extolled by marketers as Hatha’s forebear. Lorr argues that even the great Patanjali, who fashioned the hallowed “Yoga Sutras,” was little more than a skillful archivist and cataloguer who brought together the disparate elements of yoga practice then floating around India into a common system that derived its inspiration not from Hinduism but from Buddhism. (Patanjali’s “eight-limbed” system of yoga based on breathing, meditation, and ethical precepts were largely inspired by the Buddhist “eight-fold” path, Lorr argues).
Lorr suggests that Bikram’s system of yoga resonates with Americans like himself — one-time athletes who’ve grown flabby in early mid-life — who tend to view their bodies less as a sacred vessel than as a vehicle to be driven, mastered and even punished, almost like a human sacrifice. Yet he remains surprisingly agnostic on the question of whether Bikram’s yoga is actually good for you, even as he documents how Bikram and his devotees often ignore basic medical advice about the dangers of rapid dehydration. In fact, there’s already plenty of evidence out there that practicing yoga in extreme heat and subjecting joints and ligaments to an abnormal degree of stretching and pressure can only harm more than help you. But Lorr, who clearly didn’t come to praise Caesar, refuses to simply bury him, either. An estimated 1 million Americans swear by Bikram’s yoga, and past devotees have included a pantheon of Hollywood A-listers, as well as basketball legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar, all of whom swear by the practice. Lorr, in an attempt to explain this phenomenon, suggests that American yoga may be having a collective “placebo effect,” attuning its practitioners to believe that they are achieving psychic and physical benefits from the practice and allowing them to self-program their bodies and minds to do just that. It’s a compelling line of inquiry but one that raises as many questions as it answers. If so many people think their yoga practice is improving their health, or relieving their stress, does it really matter, in such a “feel good” consumer-driven culture, that it might not be?
In the end, Hell-Bent will surely provide succor to those who believe that Bikram’s full-throated embrace of American materialism has damaged yoga’s global reputation. If you didn’t like Bikram to begin with, the book will only confirm your worst prejudices about the man. But the questions Lorr is raising go far beyond Bikram himself. In this modern American Napoleon – who started his yoga empire in his basement and once, naively, it seems, offered his classes virtually gratis – a large number of Americans in search of a demanding work-out regimen have clearly found their champion and task-master. And despite the fierce criticism Bikram has faced for nearly a decade, including charges of criminal safety violations</a> at his studios in Los Angeles and elsewhere, no one has managed to lay a serious hand on him, or put a dent into his expanding corporate operations.
Indeed, Bikram’s not the only yoga megalomaniac current stalking the American consumer. Ashtanga yoga, which prides itself on its ancient Indian roots, but is largely a variant of the same kind of high-stress “power” yoga that Bikram extols, is on the verge of becoming a McDonald’s style franchise operation, thanks to massive funding from the wife of a hedge fund billionaire. When that news broke early last year, no one started picketing outside the funder’s mansion or declaring a holy war against Asthanga’s legendary founder Sri Krishna Pattabhi Jois, another reported sexual abuser of students, whose family brokered the deal.
Who knows, maybe it won’t be a lawsuit or a PR campaign that finally brings Bikram down. Just the oldest and most sacred of American “spiritual” traditions: the free market. But if Lorr’s right, that same free market virtually guarantees that the Bikram phenomenon — in one form or another — will endure.
Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at email@example.com