Toronto film festival 2019: ‘Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator’ movie review

Looks like Bikram yoga may not be hot for much longer.

Bikram Choudhury, the famous founder of the sweat-soaked practice, has come under fire in the U.S. for sex abuse allegations over the past few years, though his branded technique is still being taught in studios around the country. He’s also still personally teaching massive classes abroad – but his days as a guru may be numbered if victims continue coming forward.

In just the few days since the scorching Netflix documentary “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, six additional women have reached out to Aussie director Eva Orner to say they, too, were abused, she told a screening audience at the festival on Thursday afternoon. “Women have to speak up, and men have to support them,” said Orner, whose documentary chronicles the rise of Choudhury as a celebrity yoga guru in America, dating back to the Nixon presidency. In one of the Indian yogi’s many dubious claims, he actually says the president was one of his first American clients – and gifted him his green card as thanks.

Choudhury went on to become one of the key people to popularize the practice of yoga in the U.S., claiming that his special series of 26 poses and two breathing techniques would cure just about every ailment under the sun. He did it while cranking the heat in his classrooms up to punishing extremes (though, Orner shows in class footage, he would sit on a throne in the middle of his gigantic Beverly Hills classroom with a personal air conditioner blowing on his head).

Unlike many soft-spoken, New Agey yoga practitioners, Choudhury had an outsize personality and an impish and sometimes downright bullying style that appealed to hardcore exercise enthusiasts, who didn’t mind being called “chickens–t” and “bitch” and having their fat mocked while trying to contort themselves into his poses. On the contrary, one adherent after another gushes in the documentary about the magical, life-changing properties of Bikram yoga – and of Bikram himself. “He could look in your eyes and you just feel he could see into your soul,” says one teacher who remains close to him.

But like many a wealthy guru, Choudhury was able to abuse the faith his students put in him, as several key female students attest. Those who took his weeks-long teacher training courses paid many thousands of dollars to be sequestered at an L.A. hotel with him for weeks on end, sweating for long hours in the classroom every day and depriving themselves of food and sleep. They were wiped out, says one student, which made them ripe for being preyed upon. An Indian woman who had traveled to the U.S. to train with him says he asked her for a massage in the middle of the night – eventually asking her to “massage” his groin.

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A former yoga teacher tells of being nearly raped by Choudhury before she elbowed him aside and dashed out of the room. Another wasn’t so lucky, and claims Choudhury raped her while she was a guest in his house – with his wife and two children asleep upstairs. His trainees didn’t speak up initially for fear of professional exile, they say: Having invested so much money in the training, they needed Choudhury’s personal permission to open studios bearing his name.

Orner’s documentary takes some satisfying turns as Choudhury is eventually hit with charges from one woman he’s wronged, his former lawyer, Micki Jafa-Bodden- but, like a true charlatan, he turned tail and fled. The film’s sobering coda includes huge group photos from his continuing teacher training courses around the world – the latest is from Spain, this year, and shows Choudhury in the middle of a huge throng of scantily clad young students, many of them female.

Orner says she hopes more women worldwide will come forward, and that they can reach out to lawyers who are already working with women who’ve accused Choudhury of abuse, including California attorney Carla Minnard. She also hopes anyone running a Bikram studio will change the name to simply “hot yoga.”

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“It’s shocking to me,” she said after the screening, “that people still keep the name.”

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