In the time it takes to complete a hot yoga class, Netflix is giving viewers a whole new perspective on the man who popularized posing in a 100-degree-plus room.
The streaming service's new documentary “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator” (available now) telegraphs how Bikram Choudhury, the eponymous founder of torturous yoga classes, allegedly created a cycle of abuse where his victims felt obligated to stay silent.
The nearly 90-minute film begins as an appreciation for Bikram (he’s usually referenced by just his first name) and the classes he led. But it quickly takes a turn, peeling back the layers of the perennially sweaty and Speedo-wearing instructor who accused of brainwashing his students and allegedly uses his power over practitioners – especially women who aspire to teach Bikram Yoga, a certification he bestows upon them. The film features a group of women who saw Bikram as a father figure, and allege that he sexually assaulted them.
Choudhury's representative accuses the film of resurfacing old material, saying financially motivated lawyers are behind the smearing of Bikram's name. The yogi "totally refutes all the allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment presented in the film and is deeply upset by the continued character assassination," his spokesman Richard J. Hillgrove VI told USA TODAY in a statement.
Before becoming the subject of Netflix's new film, Bikram was the focus of a "60 Minutes" special in 2005, and last year was the subject of an entire season of ESPN's 30 for 30 podcast about his behavior. Director Eva Orner's "Bikram" documentary screened in September at Toronto International Film Festival before its Netflix release.
Who is Bikram Choudhury?
Bikram Yoga is a style of exercise class that rose to popularity in Los Angeles in the '70s, and by the late '90s had gained celebrity acclaim. Indian yogi Bikram Choudhury, 75, is the guru who brought the exhausting series of 26 yoga postures in a heated room to the U.S. He's known for yelling in class, singing to students and curing his followers' body ailments.
Bikram created a huge franchise of hot yoga studios that bear his name (though some have been renamed since allegations against Bikram were made public).
What got Bikram into legal trouble?
As the film details, six rape and assault cases were filed in civil court against Bikram in the last decade, but no criminal charges have been brought against him, despite lawyers' urging of Los Angeles District Attorney's Office to pursue such charges. (This is something that Orner hopes to change.)
Four of the cases were settled. One was brought by former yoga teacher Sarah Baughn, who alleges in the documentary that Bikram attempted to force himself on her in his hotel room after a teacher training seminar.
Baughn said she spoke out in 2013, five years after the alleged assault took place, because she overheard her daughter say she wanted to teach yoga like her mom, and Baughn couldn't bear the thought of her child experiencing what she had.
After Baughn publicly told her story, yoga teacher Larissa Anderson decided to come forward with her allegation of being raped by Bikram in his home.
He’s been compared to Harvey Weinstein
Fallen movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was in a position of power when he allegedly assaulted more than 80 women, often in his hotel rooms, who knew speaking out could harm their film careers. (He has maintained the encounters were consensual.) Bikram is accused of doing the same thing with women pursuing yoga careers, and has denied or pleaded the fifth on all allegations made about him.
Bikram’s pattern of alleged abuse, as explained by accusers in the documentary, often included these components: He asked students to come to his hotel room late at night during teacher training; he had a Bollywood movie playing loudly; he asked for a massage and then requested a more sexual massage or forced himself on the women who refused his advances.
The women say they were scared to come forward because they knew Bikram had the power to start or end their careers. Anderson said she settled her claim out of court, because “my option was to go to court and get re-traumatized and he wasn’t even going to be there. Or settle and move on.”
Bikram lost the one civil suit that went to trial
In 2015, Bikram was ordered to pay more than $7 million in compensatory and punitive damages to his former lawyer Micki Jafa-Bodden, who said he unfairly fired her and sexually harassed her. But Jafa-Bodden's lawyer says in the film that her client has yet to see the damages she was awarded.
Where is he now?
The documentary notes that Bikram continues to conduct teacher training out of the country, including earlier this year in Mexico. Hillgrove confirmed that he taught in Acapulco recently, saying that “Bikram’s obligation is to help people keep their jobs and believes it’s his duty and obligation to maintain them financially. They are the ones that run teacher training programs worldwide."
The yogi also continues to attend third-party seminars to speak. Hillgrove noted that his upcoming India Legacy Tour 2020, which starts in January, "is simply a tour and does not involve teacher training."
Bikram, who left the country in 2016 without handing over proceeds from his global fitness business, remains a fugitive in the U.S. A Los Angeles County Superior Court issued a warrant for his arrest in 2017.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bikram Yoga founder is under fire in a new Netflix documentary. Why?