Bikram yoga's moral dilemma

30 for 30 Podcasts: Bikram - Trailer (1:45)

In 30 for 30 Podcasts first serialized story, reporter Julia Lowrie Henderson delves deep into the complicated world of Bikram Yoga to find out how a community responds when its guru falls from grace. All five episodes available May 22 (1:45)

Tiffany Friedman fell in love with Bikram yoga in 1999.

She had just had a daughter, and was running the office for her husband's dermatology practice when a Bikram studio opened down the street from their home in Manhattan Beach, California. Her husband bought her a membership.

She left each class in a state of zen, depleted and happy after 90 minutes of fiery movement. As a former professional dancer and competitive gymnast, she appreciated the added challenge of practicing in a studio heated to 105 degrees. "I absolutely loved that it was hard," Friedman said. "And that it pushed me to my limits. One of the most amazing things was, the next day, feeling muscles that I didn't even know I had."

Most yoga delivers a buzz, but Bikram offered something else: a rigid parameter that made measuring progress easy. In many yoga practices, the sequence varies from day to day, depending on the teacher, on their whims. But not Bikram. Every class was identical: 26 postures performed twice, always in the same order, always inside a heated and carpeted room, and always in front of a mirror. The strict rules came from founder Bikram Choudhury himself, no variations allowed.

The one part that could change from class to class, however, was how you executed each posture. In Bikram, when focusing on your reflection in the mirror, you're encouraged to compare yourself to just one person: the previous version of yourself.

Friedman began regularly practicing at Bikram Yoga Manhattan Beach. She wasn't alone. In Los Angeles, as well as around the country, hundreds of thousands were falling in love with Bikram, including celebrities such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Madonna. The popularity of the yoga was due, in part, to its predictability. Just like McDonald's, you could walk into any Bikram studio and know exactly what was on the menu.

The daily offerings at Bikram Yoga Manhattan Beach eventually took a toll on the studio. Years of sweat had accumulated in the carpet; the building was old and rundown. And so one night, in 2008, Friedman sat down with her husband, and the two decided to buy, and renovate, her home studio. A few months later, Bikram Yoga Manhattan Beach reopened, with Friedman as co-proprietor. When her co-owner eventually moved back to Hawaii, Friedman had to become Bikram certified. So in 2010, in San Diego, she attended a 200-hour training taught by Bikram Choudhury himself.

And that's when Friedman realized the yoga she adored was created by a man she couldn't abide.

Within the yoga community, and among people who follow the practice, Bikram Choudhury is alternately seen as a disgusting sexual predator, a power-hungry narcissist, the inevitable product of yoga's westernization, a guru, or any combination of the above.

Some know nothing of the man, only his yoga sequence. Still others are just now being introduced to him.

The most concise description of the 74-year-old is this: He's the yoga version of Harvey Weinstein. Both built empires (at its peak in 2006, Choudhury had 650 eponymous yoga studios worldwide). Both were viewed as career-makers (Choudhury could approve, or veto, a teaching license or studio application). Both created corporate frameworks that allowed them to prey on women (Choudhury hosts months-long "teacher trainings" that draw hundreds of devotees). And both have been accused of a range of sexual misconduct, including rape (Choudhury has settled millions of dollars' worth of civil suits, and a list of a half dozen women have come forward with allegations against him).

But before he created this mess, Choudhury came to the U.S. offering a solution for how to make the human body healthier. Choudhury landed in California from India nearly 40 years ago. In yoga, lineage is revered. From whom did you learn? And from whom did they learn? In the U.S., yogis with roots in India are seen as exotic and authentic. And Choudhury possessed these credentials, along with an idea about how to hook Westerners on yoga. He came to Los Angeles by way of Japan, where he'd been running an outpost of India's famed Yoga College. While there, patients would come to the college with aches and pains -- a bad shoulder, a strained lower back -- and Choudhury would prescribe a posture to realign the body, to eliminate the pain.

Soon, a young Choudhury recognized this process as inefficient. Why see one person at a time, prescribing one posture, when he could teach the full complement of postures to a group of people? He set about designing a sequence that worked every muscle, every organ, every system, and he cranked the heat, supposedly to mimic the climate in India, and to allow the body to loosen faster.

Then he came to America.

Choudhury opened the first Bikram studio in San Francisco in 1973, then another in Beverly Hills shortly after. Over the next decade, he built a cult following, spearheaded by celebrities such as Shirley MacLaine, and soon he was expanding the business. As students inquired about diving further into the practice, Bikram created teacher trainings. The natural next step was adding additional studios, allowing teachers who'd completed training to open their own Bikram spaces. But during the scaling process, Bikram made many business mistakes. He didn't patent his 26-posture sequence, and he didn't construct a proper franchise licensing system. Instead, Choudhury attempted to rule with scare tactics: threatening lawsuits if anyone stepped outside the lines.

Years later, in a patchwork attempt to fix these early errors, Bikram copyrighted his book, "Bikram's Beginning Yoga Class," and told teachers and studios this covered him the same as a patent. (It didn't.) The power he attempted, and still attempts, to exert over studio owners rarely has the power of law. "He had weird requirements -- like having carpet -- and if you didn't follow them, he'd call you screaming," says Stephanie Schestag, who owns Bikram Yoga Downtown in Los Angeles. "He treated people like s---. But the truth was he was like the Wizard of Oz -- it was all a smokescreen."

Many studios never challenged his authority, viewing him as a guru meant to be followed. Others acquiesced to his bullying, fearful of his wrath and his team of lawyers. But a small number challenged his dominion over yoga and his supposed "copyright" over the choreographed sequence. And in 2013, in the U.S. Federal Appeals Court for the 9th Circuit, in Bikram's Yoga College of India v. Evolation Yoga LLC, the court ruled that Bikram's sequence was not copyrightable. The court's written decision compared Bikram to other repeated movements, such as churning butter or drilling oil: "Successions of bodily movement often serve basic functional purposes. Such movements do not become copyrightable as 'choreographic works' when they are part and parcel of a process."

Despite these early structural errors, Bikram yoga thrived. The business continued amassing wealth. In the early years, a Bikram teacher training held in Los Angeles might have drawn a couple dozen people. By 2010, when Choudhury was at the height of his power, he charged $10,900 per student, and 380 forked over the sum to join him in San Diego, including Friedman. (The quick math: nearly $4.15 million gross for that single teacher training.)

Choudhury had created a yoga empire.

But a vast chasm always existed between Choudhury's words and actions and how these words and actions have been interpreted. Yoga can be contemplative and spiritual, but Choudhury never was, and never even pretended to be. He acted haughty, drank Coca-Cola, ate fast food, wore a Rolex, and told the young women who attended his teacher trainings that nothing made him special other than their determination to think him so.

Of course, that must sound like precisely what a spiritual teacher would say. Young women attended his trainings eager to learn from "the guru" himself. This adulation he allegedly exploited, physically and emotionally -- many times over. "If you look at his values and his lifestyle there's nothing spiritual about it," Schestag says. "The cars and the watches and allowing people to fawn all over him -- it's disgusting."

In 2012, in a story for ABC's "Nightline," Choudhury showed off his collection of Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, of which he owned approximately 40. The fact the business could amass this kind of wealth, despite how poorly it has always been run, proves the timeliness and cleverness of the yoga. And also proves what a cash cow it could have remained had its creator walked the straight and narrow.

"If you look at his values and his lifestyle there's nothing spiritual about it. The cars and the watches and allowing people to fawn all over him -- it's disgusting." Stephanie Schestag, owner, Bikram Yoga Downtown in L.A.

The whispers about Choudhury's behavior began in the late '90s; the formal accusations -- the civil lawsuits -- in 2011. In 2017, there were six separate lawsuits in the California courts. Choudhury had allegedly violated women under his tutelage, the accusations ranging from racial discrimination to gay slurs to harassment to rape. Choudhury settled a number of lawsuits. Then in 2016, a California judge ordered Bikram to pay $6.8 million to his former attorney, Minakshi Jafa-Bodden, who had sued him for sexual harassment. In the wake of that judgment, Choudhury allegedly packed up his Beverly Hills headquarters and returned to India. And when he failed to pay, a judge issued a warrant. As of today, if the former yoga tycoon comes back to the U.S., he'll be arrested.

A few months later, in November 2017, Bikram Choudhury Inc. filed for bankruptcy, citing nearly $50 million in liabilities, including court judgments of nearly $17 million against him. Despite this, Choudhury is still running teacher trainings abroad, to which young teachers continue showing up, craving his brand of enlightenment, whatever that might be.

Choudhury has previously denied allegations he has sexually assaulted anyone. ESPN made multiple attempts to contact Choudhury for a "30 for 30" podcast series that details his story and the accusations made against him (to listen to the entire podcast, click here). The podcast's host, ESPN's Julia Lowrie Henderson, met with Choudhury for about three hours for an unrecorded interview in Acapulco, Mexico, in November 2017 when he was there for a teacher training. He agreed to a recorded interview that he then scheduled with Henderson. But the next day when she arrived for the interview, his assistant said his lawyers had told him not to do it. Although Choudhury is generally steering clear of media, he's still holding teacher trainings about twice a year, including one that's taking place in Mexico as of this story's publication.

Choudhury's moral character is dubious, possibly bankrupt. But should that matter to the thousands who swear by the art and not the artist? Should those practicing Bikram yoga stop because of Choudhury's alleged misdeeds? And what of the studio owners, like Friedman, who've poured life savings into businesses grounded in the Bikram sequence -- what responsibility do they bear?

Over the past few years, more than half of Choudhury's studios either closed or dropped "Bikram" from their name. Many rebranded as the more generic "Hot Yoga," even though most casual yogis don't know Bikram is an actual man. Many use the term "Bikram" to describe any kind of yoga practiced in a heated room. It has essentially passed from proprietary brand to generic dictionary term, similar to Q-tip or Kleenex.

Another misunderstanding is that Choudhury financially benefits from every Bikram studio. Not true, says Schestag. According to Schestag, who also worked with a lawyer for Bikram Inc. from 2003 to 2008, Choudhury made most of his money from teacher trainings. Some studios pay Choudhury a fee, but not all. And not Schestag's. Even so, some of Schestag's customers, unaware the studio doesn't financially benefit its namesake, have expressed anger that Bikram's name still hangs on the shingle. "There are people with too much time on their hands who don't even understand what's happening here," Schestag says. "Someone will go to court to prove that the name 'Bikram' is genericized. But I don't want to be the person who goes to court.

"To me, it's like Pilates. I don't associate the yoga with the man."

Christie William is sitting at her kitchen table, sipping on a mug of hot tea.

The 71-year-old owns Bikram Yoga Encino, outside of Los Angeles. Like Schestag, she also has no intention of changing her studio's name. William bought the studio, at which she had practiced since the late '90s, after the founder died suddenly about a decade ago. She first discovered Bikram yoga when she was 49 years old, after raising kids. "I experimented with other kinds, but for me, Bikram was the best one. It works -- mentally and physically. I just believe in this yoga, for me and the people who come to my studio."

In 1998, William was one of only 32 teachers at an early Bikram teacher training in Los Angeles. Most in attendance were young women searching for purpose and community. But William was married and had already raised kids -- she'd seen plenty of life. She was there for the yoga, not for a guru. "I just separated it," she says. "I took what I needed from it and left the rest and saw it for what it was. I never was surprised about any of [the accusations]. The handwriting was on the wall. I can't imagine getting involved with him and being surprised. It's all so odd because the yoga is so wonderful."

When the allegations against Choudhury began piling up in 2013, William sat down with her husband and discussed whether she should change the studio's name. They decided it unnecessary. "It wasn't Christie's yoga, it was Bikram yoga. Around my studio, no one was aghast about it. They wanted the yoga and didn't get involved in the politics. People who get riled up seem to get riled up about everything. Some people are riled up about something all the time. The truth is, I don't want to be angry all the time. I'm in the gray about a lot of things. And I'm OK with that."

For Tiffany Friedman, there was no gray area -- not at first.

After attending that teacher training in 2010, and witnessing first-hand Choudhury's interactions with young women, then especially when the lawsuits began, the 45-year-old wife and mother began distancing herself from Bikram. First she added a 60-minute class to her schedule -- a big no-no in the Bikram world. Choudhury himself called and ordered her to toe the company line: only 90-minute classes, only in 105-degree heat, only on carpeted floors. She refused. "Bikram told me he would ruin me and I wouldn't have a studio," she says. "The dollars don't matter at the end of the day if you're selling your soul. And yoga teaches you to listen to yourself."

Friedman changed the name of her studio to Haute Yogi. She eliminated any classes that promoted Bikram's sequence. "My instant reaction was, 'I can't be associated with this name.' My job as a teacher is to get people to listen to the small vibrations of themselves. How could I do that and ignore this?"

The rebranded business lost students and a teacher, all of whom were dedicated to the specific Bikram method, which Friedman initially wiped entirely from the studio.

For some, the question of whether to keep using the Bikram name is ridiculous, the result of the obsessive moralizing of the "far-leaning left." The term du jour is "virtue signaling," an opinion intended to display moral correctness about a topic. But others are sincerely grappling with whether they should support products created by people with questionable personal behavior. We see it everywhere: an unsavory musician's new album, an accused director's movies, an arrested athlete's return to the field. Do we listen to that music? Do we support that team?

This dilemma is not a modern invention. What's new is the number of people with enough information to contemplate it. Before the internet and the dissemination of mass media, only the whisper network sent word of a painter's, or writer's, or athlete's supposed indiscretions. Today, those who know (or believe they know) can run into the millions.

For these public moral dilemmas, a ring of influence exists. At the center are those who actually know the bad actor, in this case Choudhury, and who have power over him because he ostensibly cares what they think. This includes people such as his wife of 31 years, Rajashree (who divorced him in 2016), and closest business partners, such as Gregory Gumucio, who left Choudhury to start Yoga to the People in 2011. The next layer in this ring includes studio owners, who seemingly can punish Bikram by severing their business connections. Then there is the outermost layer, in which everyone else resides, and the only power they possess is to shame people on the inner layers who aren't using their influence in a "preferable" way.

And we often do this without allowing a fair hearing about their decision, without considering the cost of their decision. For many on the outside, Bikram yoga holds no meaning, and has never held any. So if removing his name brings justice -- in whatever small a dose -- it seems a no-brainer. But what if we asked ourselves how our opinion might change if applied to a creation we actually felt connected to?

Take, for example, a favorite song. Now imagine the artist of this song is accused of something unsavory. But still, when that song plays, you are transported to a memory, back to your youth, or a favorite person, or a lost time. The song is no longer about its chords and words, but what happens when you hear them. So for you, the cost of removing this song from every playlist isn't negligible; you'd be excising a memory, a piece of nostalgia. Plus, it's unlikely you associate the song with the man (or woman). In the years since its recording, you've probably applied your own meaning, independent of original intention, and independent of who he (or she) is and what they've done.

Many Bikram practitioners articulate a similar experience: It's no longer about Choudhury; it's about what they've made from his creation.

Eventually, Friedman realized this -- that she'd thrown the baby out with the bathwater. "I've gone through a time of not uttering his name," she says. "I removed him completely. But that leaves an emptiness too. I think we need to have a conversation about what's happened. I don't need to pay homage, but I also can't erase him from the history."

Today, Haute Yogi offers "Bikram Method" on its schedule -- in varying time lengths. Friedman would prefer yoga studios band together and decide on a new name for Bikram, so students can continue practicing the effective sequence without honoring Choudhury. Friedman herself has started practicing again. After a cancer diagnosis, and a year of treatment, and lymph-node removal, she has returned to the heated sequence. "I go back and forth about what is and isn't bulls--- about the series," she says. "Everyone is trying to find things that work, and work within their body, and for me the sweating seems to process the swelling in my arms faster. And my students are happy to see me back in the room."

Drawing personal moral lines is necessary. Yes, we must exert what personal power we have to make the world a better place. But we also must allow that our personal moral line cannot be mapped onto someone else's.

"When I first started Bikram, he would come in and say, 'Looking in a mirror for 90 minutes is really hard,'" Friedman says. "I was just sitting with myself, learning this foundation, these principles and practice. I learned not to look around and analyze other people's poses. I needed to worry about what was inside me."

Ironically enough, insight into how to process the Bikram question -- what's the "moral" response -- exists right there, within the practice itself.