Bikram Choudhury: a Hot Yoga Controversy

Bikram Choudhury was born in 1946 in the city of Calcutta, India. At the age of four, he began to learn about the practice of yoga and eventually became an understudy to Bishnu Ghosh who acted as his mentor. Choudhury became immersed in the practice and was on his yoga mat four to six hours every day. This dedication became overwhelmingly evident when at the age of thirteen, he was recognized at the National India Yoga Championship.
The swift success of Bikram Choudhury experienced at his young age came to an immediate halt at 17 when he experienced a weightlifting accident. Doctors were certain he would not be able to walk again, but Bikram placed his fate in the hands of his mentor. Bishnu Ghosh helped him to a full recovery over the following six months. Bikram then immigrated to the United States in the early 1970s, and it was not long before he would capitalize on his talent and open his first yoga studio in 1973 in Beverly Hills.
Bikram Yoga is toasty! The style is practiced in a room heated to approximately 105° Fahrenheit. In other words, if you didn’t know your shins and elbows had sweat glands, that is one of the first things you will notice during the practice. Those who practice this style of yoga believe that a heated room will allow for a deeper stretch while preventing injury. Bikram Yoga consists of a set of 26 poses and two breathing exercises. There are over 500 certified Bikram studios across the globe, and over 3 million people who love to sweat for 90 minutes.
Choudhury was instrumental in popularizing yoga in North America. By introducing yoga into Western culture, the exercise spread like wildfire. However, no success story stays afloat without a scandal. The majority of the controversies surrounding Choudhury’s career revolved around multiple sexual harassment lawsuits – all of which Choudhury has fervently denied.
The first lawsuit against Choudhury was filed in 2013, and it alleged sexual harassment, defamation, and discrimination. The most recent lawsuit was filed earlier this year and founded on similar claims. The plaintiff alleged that during a 2010 training course, the student was with the 69 year-old Choudhury, massaging his feet, when he put his hand on her thigh and then attempted to sexually assault her by forcing his hands into her pants, reported CBC News.

Lawyers for Choudhury refute the claims made against their client. A statement was issued to media outlets that “Mr. Choudhury did not sexually assault any of the plaintiffs.” The statement continues that the plaintiffs’ claims “are false and dishonor Bikram Yoga, and the health and spiritual benefits it has brought to the lives of millions of practitioners throughout the world.”
Bikram teacher training is obligatory for anyone who wants to teach Bikram Yoga. It’s a nine-week boot camp, featuring two 90-minute classes six days a week, plus anatomy lessons, posture clinics, and meandering Choudhury soliloquies. Choudhury’s teacher training involves him donning a black Speedo, bare-chested, his hair tied in a topknot. His triceps stand out like pistons. On occasion, a woman from the training will be selected to brush his hair or wash and massage his feet. He speaks only in exclamation points. He tells people to stick with the pose and to not move a muscle until he gives you the cue to move to the next pose. You must seek permission to go to the bathroom; no one may wear green – a color Choudhury hates – and the entire experience is intensified by deprivations of food, water, and sleep.
Now the founder of the hot yoga phenomenon is in more heat after attempting to sue Florida-based Evolation Yoga for teaching what he claimed was his signature sequence of poses. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California ruled that Choudhury’s sequence of poses were not in fact protected under copyright law. Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw ruled that, “copyright protects only the expression of this idea – the words and pictures used to describe the sequence – and not the idea of the sequence itself.” The court compared the Bikram Yoga sequence to recipes in a cookbook, and decided that, “even if a particular cookbook is protected under copyright law, the recipes it contains are not,” which ultimately threw Choudhury’s case out of court.
This is just a little background into the charges and ongoing saga that Bikram Choudhury is facing, from his intense teacher trainings, to sexual assault scandals, to him suing other studios for copyrighting his poses. While the courts have come out and said that yoga poses cannot be copyrighted, Bikram is still looking for justice. Meanwhile, we are all left with the question is this how yoga should be embodied by one of the most well-known yoga figures? We’ll leave it up to you to decide…

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Kasia Litwinski

Kasia is a corporate gal who loves to hop into Crow Pose as soon as she gets off work and onto her yoga mat. She especially loves hot vinyasa yoga. With a background in Political Science and Communications, Catherine loves to be loud and uses quotes for advice. Take for example: “Let your love be so big and pure that it shifts the energy in the room.”

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