Are we seeing the beginning of the end of Bikram?

It looks like a tough week for Bikram Choudhury.

His legal troubles — including accusations of rape — are getting a treatment familiar to the Ashtanga world: the pages of Vanity Fair. Remember that?

I wasn’t going to highlight the Vanity Fair piece — a little too beyond our scope — but then I saw a related piece in the New York Times, and it feels like maybe, just maybe (emphasis on the maybe), the pasasana is starting to tighten on Bikram. Here’s a bit from the Vanity Fair online excerpt:

Choudhury regularly makes outlandish, non-F.D.A./F.T.C.-approved claims for his yoga. Wallace reports that in a 2012 sworn-testimony video, and therefore under penalty of perjury, Choudhury claims that Harvard University is erecting a “Bikram building in their campus.” Kevin Galvin, a spokesperson for Harvard University, responds, “We checked with our capital-projects group and can confirm that no new ‘building’ in the usual sense of that term is under construction funded by Mr. Choudhury or by a donation in his name.”

A handful of studios, including Larissa Anderson’s, have dropped Bikram from their names. “It’s just really clear that there’s some serious issues going on, and I didn’t want to be part of it,” says one studio owner who says she found it distasteful to brush Choudhury’s hair when she attended teacher training, and who decided to rename her studio after the Baughn suit was filed. Then, when the three other suits were filed, she decided to phase Bikram yoga out of her curriculum altogether. “When more of the sexual allegations came out, I couldn’t teach the series anymore and so I started slowly taking the classes away. I can’t call myself a yoga teacher and then protect Bikram and put money in his pocket.”

But it was the Times piece, “Modo, a New Version of Bikram Hot Yoga, Is Growing Popular,” that really caught my attention. That despite my many protestations about the Times’ influence and import. From the piece:

Moksha is not the first Bikram breakaway, but it is perhaps the most successful. Today there are 64 studios, and another 15 are to open next year.

In the United States, where the name Moksha already has been used by multiple Indian restaurants, a Las Vegas jam band and unrelated yoga studios, the studio owners in October voted to christen themselves Modo, a made-up word that stands for “the way or the path.” Bikram, whose founder publicly has referred to teachers of all other types of yoga as “clowns,” has some 500 studios worldwide. Mr. Williams said demand is showing no signs of cooling. (He dismissed years of published reports claiming at least 1,000 studios as “exaggerated.”)

Modo’s Manhattan location — students wearing recycled-bottle-cap capri pants can chaturanga on recycled-tire floors between vine-covered recycled denim walls — opened in a former D.J. school in the West Village in 2012. The freewheeling upstart yoga quickly has become a favorite of models, performers and fashion types, who praise its ability to strengthen, reduce stress and detoxify without the boredom (or time commitment) of Bikram.

Jenni Quilter, 33, said she had been to too many New York studios where “yoga just feels masochistic, like self-purification slash punishment, where no one’s eaten for five months and everyone’s in Lululemon.” She thought Bikram was too cultish, and was wary of Modo, but promptly bought a membership after her first class.

I don’t want to jump to any too early conclusions, and it isn’t as though I’m anxious for this story to head one way or the other. The timing of this attention and the thrust of the Times story just seem … worth watching. In part, it is because Bikram might be the biggest yoga teacher at this point in the West, in terms of mainstream recognition. So … the twists and turns are noteworthy for those living in that mainstream world.

Posted by Steve

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In other yoga news: Bikram accused of rape in pair of lawsuits

OK, enough folks are picking this up that it seems legitimately out there.

According to Courthouse News Service, Bikram Choudhury has been accused of raping two students in their separate lawsuits filed this week. Both are using the same lawyer. Here’s a link to the story, which has all the salacious details you could want.

These suits follow another filed back in March in which a student claimed Bikram made unwanted sexual advances on her. That plaintiff has been named: Sarah Baughn. The two students in these new suits are unnamed as they are victims of alleged rape.

Bikram Yoga College of India also is named in the suits. The suits were filed on Monday and Tuesday of this week.

So why pass this on? Well, we do try to keep you informed of major yoga news stories as well as more minor Ashtanga ones. We think it is useful to be aware of what’s going on in the wider yoga world, even if it is just so you can be an informed yoga practitioner. (But also so you don’t get blindsided by a friend with news you ought to have known!)

In Bikram’s case, in particular, the dynamic of the guru is so front and center that it is hard to ignore when such news happens. (Not to mention there is the whole string of other yoga teachers who have had some sort of “fall.” Not to say Bikram has fallen yet. These are just accusations.)

And you may have noticed the comment made on our last post, about how people are getting fanatical about Sharath. So I don’t think the whole guru thing isn’t relevant to Ashtanga. While I’ve heard overwhelmingly positive stories about Guruji, we all know some people didn’t react well to him. Problems evolving from the guru-student relationship happen so much it feels like it’s almost enough to say, “It’s natural.” One follows someone, trusts them, and that can either grow in good or bad ways.

The reason to keep people informed of when it does go wrong is to help others not get swept up into something that doesn’t serve them. It’s part of that discriminating mind we’ve talked about. It is important to surrender, to see what that is about and what the effects are, but it is equally important to maintain a sense of right and wrong.

The history of gurus seems to suggest that sense can get lost — as it can with lots of things.

Posted by Steve

‘I want to take over the whole yoga world,’ and other tales from yoga coverage

I know not every one of our readers is a fan of my occasional quick-hit, here’s-what’s-happening, link-heavy posts. I bet even fewer of you are fans of my tendency to over-hyphenate.

But two stories just landed in my inbox that I feel absolutely compelled to pass on to you, for three reasons:

  1. I’m swamped busy, so I don’t have time for the exploration of the core of the Yoga Sutras I’ve been planning
  2. I’m hoping we can get away from the music posts (which are, of course, my own fault)
  3. These both are the types of stories that drive me crazy with two EEs (and perhaps also fill me with dark delight, with two EEs if you want)

So… here’s your next yoga messiah:

While his teaching style may appear laissez-faire, the 32-year-old party boy-turned-national champ is a man on a larger mission. Sitting on a bench in the lobby after the class has ended, almost naked save for mini-shorts and two white towels draped over his impeccably sculpted torso, Mr. [Jared] McCann elaborates on his plans to liberate yoga from the autocrats and the scolds. “I want to take over the whole yoga world,” he says.

That from a piece in the New York Observer, through which, I think, all new yoga messiahs have to pass. McCann is a two-time yoga national champ and the NYO caught up with him teaching a super secret special class at Yoga to the People, aka the folks who were in the copyright lawsuit with Bikram. (Not to be confused with the folks who are in a lawsuit with Bikram over sexual harassment.)

Obviously, the bravado of the above quote is one that raises my eyebrows. But in keeping with the democratic nature of YTTP, McCann does seem to have some redeemable desires:

While Mr. McCann advocates for a less cliquish and more democratic yoga environment—one that replaces the dictatorial demands of a healthy lifestyle with the directive of listening to your body—he is also passionate about improving the quality of teaching in a system that he feels has become ragged with incompetence. In this way, Mr. McCann could be the poster child for a more enlightened yoga practice. “I just want the quality to be better,” he says.

McCann, coincidentally enough, is about to open his own New York yoga studio. But what I love about this piece is how it weaves in more yoga cliches than 14 issues of Yoga Journal. Here’s a sample (all direct quotes):

  • Mr. McCann comes to yoga from an unusual perspective, to say the least. He spent most of his early twenties indulging feverishly in food, booze and drugs with his Wall Street boyfriend. (Yeah, no other yogis took that path!)
  • So, like many New Yorkers, he sought spiritual refuge at the sanctuary most geographically proximate to his house: in this case, a hot yoga studio. (The writer passed Econ 101.)
  • As he began to increase his focus on yoga, gradually, Jared began to party less and turn his gaze inward. (Hey, it can be a cliche and sadly true, right?)
  • He doesn’t believe in one-size-fits-all yoga; he believes that the first commandment should always be to listen to yourself. (Is that yoga 101?)
  • Mr. McCann, on the other hand, is what you might call a Renaissance yogi. He has trained with an eclectic roster of teachers in a variety of styles, blending them to create his own unique form.

Navigating through such descriptions is part of the hazard of mainstream media getting on a yoga story. (You can insert any specific topic in that sentence and it is true for those who follow that topic closely: train collecting, gardening, home brewing, etc.)

The key to McCann’s planned takeover of the yoga world (I don’t see anything in the piece that hints to the irony of someone breaking off from Bikram to do this) is his eclectic history, apparently.

“I’m not reinventing the wheel, I’m just creating my own style of yoga based on a lot of lineages that are already out there,” he says. While Mr. McCann currently teaches these hybrid classes to his friends, he plans to offer them widely at the upcoming studio. “We’re going to bring the best together in one place,” says Mr. McCann, who is in the process of shopping around for a location.

I love that he doesn’t have a location yet for the studio, although he does have a name and a big piece in NYO. Oh, and a bit of backing:

He hopes that by opening his own center, he’ll be able to make space for his friends who have been shuttled through the system from studio to studio, and to raise the bar when it comes to teaching and training. And while his studio is being enabled via a generous investment from a venture capitalist friend, he doesn’t mince words about the financial straits of his profession. “I would like to actually make yoga teaching a serious job and not this thing where you have to be part yoga teacher, part prostitute to pay the rent,” he says.

I know I’m being a bit hard on McCann. A lot of what he says about teacher training and the spread of yoga — basically that anyone in 10 days can become a yoga teacher and that is leading to more potential for injuries under undertrained guidance — strikes me as spot on. But the bravado of creating one’s own system rubs me the wrong way. And I so want to connect it to the same well from which springs his participation in yoga competitions.

The second story out there is one I especially want our bartender yogi friends to pay attention to:

Yoga instructor Reagan Wilson wakes up Sunday’s post-party sufferers at Cobra Club bar with a set of soothing twists, stretches, Bloody Marys and mimosas.

“Hangover yoga,” which she’s been teaching since January, offers a chance to “let go of the embarrassing photos you took last night,” to detoxify, and to numb your pain with a new round of free booze.

Yes, “hangover yoga.” Wilson, it turns out, not only teaches yoga but bartends on the side. And the class comes with a free drink. Apparently, she recommends imbibing after. (Amateurs!) The class focuses on detox poses such as twists and ones to ease that morning-after headache.

Strangely, I may feel a headache coming on now… for which I’d recommend Tim Miller’s latest.

Posted by Steve