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

An Australian Take on the “Jois” Controversy

Tudor Jones, via The Telegraph

The Australian newspaper The Sunday Telegraph is running a story today on Sonja Tudor Jones, The Vanity Fair article, and Ashtanga in general. Strap yourselves in–it’s a bumpy ride. It’s always good to read descriptions of the practice that come from the outside, I think. The article is full of misunderstandings that range from slight to funny to “what?!” but seems to be trying really hard to give an overview of the problem. Of note is the reporter’s perception that Tudor Jones seems oblivious to the implications of the Vanity Fair article. Here’s a quote from her:

“Not everyone is going to like what we’re doing, and we know that,” she says. “Our goal is to start a meaningful conversation about Ashtanga yoga and invite discussions about how it can help people achieve a fit mind and body. There is no controversy – everybody in the Ashtanga community feels a special kinship, closeness and love for the Jois family. My support is from love and love alone for Guruji and his family.”

The online version is titled, “Peace, love and misunderstanding.” It’s sweeping in scope–maybe “sprawling” might be a better word. But it’s a perspective to be aware of, I think.

Posted by Bobbie

A Few More Words on the Vanity Fair Article

Steve’s posted his thoughts on the March Vanity Fair article titled, in full, “Yoga for Trophy Wives: The Fitness Fad That’s Alienating Discipline Devotees,” with the online title, “Who’s Yoga Is It Anyway?”

I have a just a few things to add. As you might guess, it’s about the title.

A few friends have asked why in the world Vanity Fair would care about the Ashtanga world. The answer, of course, is it doesn’t. It cares about “57-year-old Paul Tudor Jones II,” who “runs the multi-billion-dollar hedge-fund empire Tudor Investment Corp.” and, apparently, his “trophy wife.” I don’t know about how they feel about that title (“trophy wife,” not “II”) on the east coast, but out here it’s an insult.

Granted, journalists rarely get to write the titles for their articles–editors to that. This one seems to be designed to sell magazines and get web hits, since I’m not sure it makes sense. Technically, it means Ashtanga is alienating me, as a “discipline devotee.” Not so, Vanity Fair.

But, really, I’d like to address “Who’s Yoga Is It Anyway?” and Sharath’s comment, “Everyone has their own rights to share the knowledge with others. Nobody owns this.”

Standing on the porch of the Mercantile in Mt. Shasta with Tim last summer, I said to him how much I admired Guruji for his choice of name for the practice. He didn’t name it after himself. When Sharath Ragaswamy changed his name to Jois, and the word got out that the studios would be called Jois Yoga Shala, I got nervous. This was beginning to feel like branding. When I heard from the Millers last summer how things were going down with the opening of the studios–the things reported in Vanity Fair–it began to act like branding. Branding means ownership, by definition. And often leads to declarations and exertions of power without acknowledgement of equal worth.

So my thought is this: How different it would have sounded if Guruji had not said, “Ashtanga yoga is Pananjali yoga,” and had said instead, “Jois yoga is Patanjali yoga.”

Posted by Bobbie