A year before the #MeToo era rocked Hollywood, ESPN podcast producer Julia Lowrie Henderson was investigating sexual assault and rape accusations that led to the downfall of yoga guru Bikram Choudhury.
Her research took her across America to India and Mexico, and resulted in ESPN’s dark and eye-opening “30 for 30” podcast series chronicling Bikram’s fall from grace.
The multiple accusations against Choudhury date back to 2013, and while they “made a big splash” then, they faded away from the media spotlight, Henderson said. “When #MeToo launched [in October 2017], there was a point when I kept expecting Bikram’s name to be brought back into that conversation and it just didn’t happen, which I found surprising but made it even more exciting that we were doing this series,” she told TheWrap.
“There does seem to be some shock and recognition that this was a quintessential #MeToo moment, which played out a couple of years before we got to this stage,” she added.
Born in Calcutta, India, Choudhury came to the U.S. in the 1970s where his unique style of hot yoga (in stifling rooms heated to 100 degrees Fahrenheit) attracted famous clients such as Richard Nixon, Shirley MacLaine, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jason Bateman, Raquel Welch and Madonna. He soon became a celebrity — and a millionaire — in his own right, with an estimated 330 studios in the U.S. and 600 worldwide by 2012.
But his empire slowly began to unravel when in 2013, six former devotees came forward accusing Bikram of sexual assault and rape, all of which is investigated in dark and graphic detail in the “30 for 30” podcast series.
Bikram Choudhury and his representatives did not immediately respond to TheWrap’s request for comment on this story or the podcast series.
Watch the trailer here and read the full Q&A with Henderson below.
TheWrap: When did the first sexual assault accusations against Bikram Choudhury come to light?
Julia Lowrie Henderson: The first public accusations came out against him in 2013. [But] Sarah Baughn’s complaint is from 2005 when she was at Bikram teacher training. Of the six women who have come forward, filed complaints against him and accused him of sexual assault, all of them stem from 2005 to 2012. As soon as these young women came forward, it opened a door of other stories surfacing. A lot of them [the accusers] have remained anonymous and private, as some people don’t want to publicly talk about what they went through.
How have these revelations impacted the Bikram community as a whole?
A really large conversation started happening where lots and lots of stories started popping up. It feels like this was a problem that was present and was growing for quite sometime … at least decades. The yoga and wellness industry has seen a number of gurus accused of various forms of sexual assault and misconduct, and everyone has handled it a little bit differently. There have been schools of yoga who have cast gurus off or made them take time off to repent. But Bikram was never asked to step down, there were never any repercussions for him and the community struggled with how to handle these accusations.
How do these cases differ to the sexual harassment scandals that have rocked Hollywood, the media industry and politics?
I think it is just as hard for these women to speak out, if not harder. It wasn’t necessarily a welcoming place for women to come forward, that is part of why it remained secret for such a long time. Yoga and wellness are about self transformation and the person who is responsible for that is imbued with all sorts of power so there is a whole other level of fear speaking out against them, which made it incredibly difficult for these victims to know what to do after he [allegedly] assaulted them.
Bikram had a perfect system where when he was holding teacher trainings for nine weeks and everyone was staying at the same hotel. He would lecture late into the night, then he call on young women to massage him and brush his hair. It was a classic grooming technique but he normalized something that crossed the line — making abnormal behavior normal. While it is not necessarily commonplace for people to massage their elders, when your guru is asking for it like it is totally normal and acceptable, it quickly becomes normal and acceptable. The lines also become super blurry when you are doing something in hot room [as in a Bikram class], wearing as little as possible with your body on display, bending, stretching and twisting.
There are still many Bikram Yoga studios open with his name and image on them (I drive past one in Los Angeles every day). How has the company still been able to function?
There are a couple of things at play, Bikram’s character was so eccentric that the media didn’t really know how to deal with him. I think that built a shield where there was a disconnect that protected him. Despite all the things that happened, the bad press never permeated the community as they believed in what he was doing … they got used to difficult headlines not getting under their skin. That coping mechanism helped them protect themselves when these really terrible and criminal headlines started popping up. His company is now in bankruptcy, and while the vast majority of the studios have over time lost his name, not all of them have.
What do you hope will be the result of sharing Bikram’s story and the accusations against him?
I hope that people hear the story and think about, not just continue on automatic pilot. We do need to be cognizant of what is happening in our world, make conscientious choices and ask more questions. In the last episode of the podcast, we grappled with dilemmas such as “how do you protect and preserve what is good in this? If you really do believe in the secrets of the posture and the benefits of the practice, can you keep that and let go of the bad?” That is definitely something the Bikram yoga community is deep in the throes of grappling with. I have had people describe it as like the Wild West now, as anything goes. For a long time, the rules were so strict (90-minute classes, 26 postures, sticking to the script), if you did anything else, he would shut you down. Now there is no one looking over the studio owners’ shoulders, so they are doing hot Pilates or 60-minute classes. There is a moment of diversification where hopefully this community rediscovers it’s identity.
Where is Bikram now?
He is in Mexico, Acapulco, hosting a teacher training course … as no criminal charges were ever filed against him, of the six cases of sexual assault and rape, five settled out of court. He has filed for bankruptcy and fled the country because there is a bench warrant for his arrest as his former legal adviser, Minakshi Jafa-Bodden, filed a sexual harassment and wrongful termination lawsuit, and was awarded a $6.8 million judgment that he hasn’t paid. He can’t come back into the country because of that warrant but we will see what happens with the bankruptcy, it could potentially resolve his debts and the warrant.
Do you think he will ever face more criminal lawsuits related to sexual assault and rape accusations?
I have a feeling that the bankruptcy will make that complicated, the first stage is everyone’s last chance to put their claims in and if not, forever hold your peace. Our country really does struggle prosecuting in cases like this, but it is not impossible that there is someone out there who has evidence and has a story that would be compelling enough to bring criminal charges.
The “30 for 30” film series “OJ: Made in America” won an Oscar, why did this story work so well as a podcast rather than as a film or TV series?
Bikram’s image is so easy to describe, and sometimes hearing his voice resonates even more. I think podcasts are a really good way to tell sensitive stories, there is something very honest and rare about letting the victims tell their stories rather than bringing a camera into it.
All five episodes of the Bikram “30 for 30” podcast series can be found on the ESPN App, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn and wherever podcasts are available.