The film shows how founder Bikram Choudhury fostered a cult-like community to help keep his terrible secrets.

By Faith Brar
November 22, 2019

Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, a new Netflix documentary, exposes the dark origin of Bikram yoga, a practice that's gained global recognition since the 1970s, before its founder, Bikram Choudhury, ultimately filed for bankruptcy in 2017.

The rise and fall of the still-popular form of yoga stem back to Choudhury, an Indian immigrant who opened his first studio in a basement in San Francisco back in 1973. Over the years, Choudhury's practice quickly gained popularity, and he went on to open 650 studios in the U.S. alone, according to Huffington Post. (Related: Are Hot Yoga and Fitness Classes Really Better?)

Known for pacing around the room during class while wearing nothing but a black speedo and large Rolex watch, Choudhury had an unforgettable presence. In his 90-minute classes, attendees would go through a cycle of 26 strict postures and two breathing positions, all in 105-degree heat. Choudhury's classes were said to foster a cult-like atmosphere, training many people to worship his presence while he mocked their appearance and weight, according to the documentary.

The practice, as Choudhury taught it, was also extreme. People often fainted or vomited during his classes, and Choudhury apparently did not believe in bathroom breaks. As uncomfortable as that sounds, some people actually enjoyed being pushed to the limit: After attending her first class, Patrice Simon, a former Bikram yoga teacher who was interviewed for the documentary, said she remembered thinking, "It felt so good." (Related: I Needed to Give Up Bikram Yoga to Recover from My Eating Disorder)

While some felt positively influenced by Choudhury's teachings, Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator shines a light on the manipulation tactics he used to rise to fame, as well as the lawsuits and allegations of verbal and sexual abuse that have been brought against him. The documentary lays out how Choudhury preyed on women in his teacher-training courses (getting Bikram-certified apparently cost $10,000, BTW) until, after his accusers came forward, a 2016 civil court ruling ordered him to pay more than $6 million in damages. Even though Choudhury denies all of these allegations, he fled to India nearly four years ago, where he still operates several yoga studios. (Related: Why Hot Yoga Makes You Feel Dizzy)

Nevertheless, the yoga community here in the U.S. continues to enjoy his practice (now referred to by most as simply hot yoga or 26-2, for its 26 poses and two breathwork patterns). Some people seem to gravitate toward the mental discipline and physical intensity of the classes, and there's some limited research to support its benefits: One study review suggests hot yoga could potentially improve glucose tolerance (better ability to process sugar), blood lipid profile (a measure of cholesterol and fats in the blood), and bone density.

That said, if you're keen on disconnecting from the practice because of the controversies surrounding Choudhury, that's totally understandable, too.

Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator is streaming on Netflix now. Watch the gripping trailer below: