From the opening scene of the Netflix documentary Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, there’s a clear directive: Let’s nail this guy. Director Eva Orner, who won an Oscar for her work as a producer of Alex Gibney’s 2007 documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, takes a deep dive into the history of alleged sexual predation by one of the biggest names in yoga, Bikram Choudhury, the founder of what is known as “hot yoga.”
An immigrant who settled in Beverly Hills in the 1970s, Choudhury was among the first Indian teachers to bring yoga to the United States, and his hot yoga classes flourished among a word-of-mouth following that included celebrities like Shirley MacLaine and Quincy Jones. He went on to launch the Bikram yoga studio franchise, which ultimately made him a millionaire. And the teacher training required to open a franchise ultimately guaranteed him a steady pool of women to prey upon.
Part of a crop of #MeToo-themed films screening at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, the doc centers on chilling accounts from victims who say that Choudhury sexually assaulted and, in some cases, raped them. Piecing together news clips, social media video posts and insider footage from his packed yoga classes, Orner juxtaposes Bikram’s narration with that of his victims.
The first third of the film is about how Bikram views himself. Imagine Donald Trump as a yogi, and you get an idea of his level of megalomania. It’s also about how his students went from revering their beloved teacher to fearing him. Longtime students like Val Sklar Robinson, who eventually became a Bikram yoga studio owner in Southern California, recount stories of miraculous results that came from doing the Bikram practice. In the doc, Robinson says she avoided hip replacement surgery because of her intensive Bikram yoga studies. Part of what Orner wants the audience to understand is exactly how powerful this larger-than-life figure was in the eyes of his students, many of whom came to his classes desperate for guidance and seeking help with the medical conditions that dogged them.
As the film progresses, it shatters the heroic image of Bikram in painstaking detail. The footage that Orner was able to secure is impressive, particularly the many clips of Bikram teaching his classes wearing only a black Speedo and a Rolex. These vignettes are a disturbing window into the mind of a man who displays a well-honed ability to manipulate, mainly through verbal abuse masked as “teaching.”
It is hard not to make comparisons with Dream Hampton’s Emmy-nominated Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, which aired in January; both works pertain to the cultlike following of a celebrity with a history of sexually targeting young women. But even just in the world of yoga, at least four other prominent male teachers have been accused of sexual misconduct, according to a July 2019 article in The New Yorker.
But Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator could stand to connect the dots a bit more. While Hampton made sure to include psychological experts to put R. Kelly’s abuse into context for a broad audience, Orner assumes a shared knowledge of the dynamics of abuse. It’s wise to focus on the first-person accounts from victims, but she misses the chance to educate the audience on the particularities of how abuse operates within the specific guru-student relationship.
Additionally, even though much of the narration in the film comes from survivors of Choudhury’s abuse, the doc is so concerned with taking down Bikram that it overshadows the victims’ stories at times. We hear what drew these women to Bikram, what he did to them, but we know little about where they are now or how they have survived.
The bitter pill that Orner wants us to swallow above all else: Bikram has gotten away with his alleged crimes, and it’s not unreasonable to think that he may never be held accountable. Despite being found guilty in a civil case where he was ordered to pay almost $7 million, Bikram has avoided paying by fleeing the country. There’s still an active warrant for his arrest in California, not to mention multiple sexual-misconduct-related lawsuits pending against him, but his exile unfortunately provides legal cover.
What lingers after seeing this documentary is certainly a residue of disgust and rage, but also the gnawing feeling that on some level we’re not all that different from these women. Who hasn’t taken a yoga class and been enamored of the teacher? Orner succeeds at evoking a deep sense of empathy for the survivors of Choudhury’s abuse, and although that’s not the same thing as justice, perhaps it’s a place to start.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Production company: Pulse Films
Director: Eva Orner
Executive Producers: Emma Cooper, Marisa Clifford, Thomas Benski
Producers: Eva Orner, Sarah Anthony
Director of photography: Jenna Rosher
Editors: Kimberley Hassett, Forrest Borie
Music: Cornel Wilczek, Pascal Babare