Documentarian Eva Orner on the 'pre-#MeToo' fall of the guru behind Bikram Yoga

TORONTO — Bikram Choudhury built a hot-yoga empire on his ability to heal. And as filmmaker Eva Orner sees it, that's what makes the pain left in his wake so devastating.

The Australian director's Netflix documentary "Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator" charts Choudhury's rise and fall as the speedo-clad founder of the global Bikram Yoga franchise.

The documentary features interviews with some of the six women who have filed sexual-assault lawsuits against Choudhury since 2013, several alleging rape. Four of the cases have been settled, according to the documentary.

Choudhury's lawyers have said he never sexually assaulted any of the women suing him and prosecutors had declined to bring charges in their cases. None of the allegations have been proven in court.

In a sense, Orner says the story isn't about Choudhury, but the women who "risked everything" to speak out against him.

"This is a pre-#MeToo story in a post-#MeToo world," Orner said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival this fall. "I have so much admiration and respect for them, and I feel like this is their story and this is their film."

After emigrating from India, Choudhury became a pioneer of the burgeoning fitness scene in Los Angeles in the 1970s, said Orner, putting "yoga on the map" with his signature 26-pose sequence performed in rooms heated up to 38 C.

Boosted by Choudhury's self-mythology as "the bad boy of yoga," Bikram spawned hundreds of studios worldwide, counting several celebrities among its legions of followers.

Orner said the ascetic regimen also appealed to people who felt something in their lives needed fixing, whether it be a physical injury or lack of spiritual direction.

"There's also a lot of people that a predator would pick on, which is sort of weak people who need help," she said. "It healed them, so then they'll be beholden to him."

Many yogis paid $10,000 to learn from the master at training courses that were required to teach the technique or open a certified Bikram studio.

Held at hotels around the world, the weeks-long program pushed students to their limits, and some suffered exhaustion and dehydration from the non-stop exertion in the sweltering heat.

One former pupil in the film describes Choudhury's persona as a "cross between Mother Teresa and Howard Stern," alternately serenading his disciples and berating them with obscenities and personal insults.

"The problem is that (gurus) are set up to be beyond human," said Orner. "They're idolized. People want to do anything to get in their favour."

In her view, this power dynamic set the stage for what has become a familiar story in the #MeToo era.

"What he did was he picked out these very young, vulnerable girls and went after them," she said. "People knew about it for a long time, and people didn't speak."

In 2017, a California judge issued an arrest warrant for Choudhury after he was ordered to turn over business revenues to pay a $6.8-million judgment won by a former legal adviser in a sexual harassment and wrongful termination lawsuit.

The award was won by Minakshi "Micki" Jafa-Bodden, who claimed Choudhury sexually harassed her and wrongfully fired her for investigating another woman's rape allegation.

While he appears to have fled the United States, Choudhury continues to hold teacher-training courses abroad, including a seminar in Spain earlier this year.

But the community he cultivated was shattered by the scandal, said Orner. Some factions have severed ties with Bikram to start their own yoga ventures, while others continue to teach under the guru's banner.

Orner recalled an interview with a former teacher who believes Choudhury's accusers, but through tears admitted that when the women first came forward, it felt like they were trying to "publicly annihilate my father."

"That's what a strong hold Bikram had on young, vulnerable people," Orner said. "He felt such a loss. He still feels it. His community was taken away from him."

"Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator" is now streaming on Netflix.

—With files from The Associated Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 21, 2019.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press