As regular viewers of Samantha Bee’s weekly show are aware, Bee is a devotee of SoulCycle. And as the exercise chain itself declares, “SoulCycle is more than just a workout. It’s a sanctuary.”
One of the oddities of urban life these days is that everybody has a “sanctuary” and the case has been made that certain extreme-fitness routines are the equivalent of secular religions. Many people attend fitness classes with a deep devotion. Full disclosure: I’m a Pilates person, the reformer branch, take a class every week and traipse to the gym to exercise most days of the work week. I’m not immune.
Thus, part of the picture painted in Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator (streaming on Netflix Canada) doesn’t surprise me, at all. The revelations about Bikram Choudhury are shocking to anyone, mind you. The actions of the founder of the very successful Bikram Yoga empire are laid out as a true-crime story. However, there isn’t exactly a satisfactory ending to the story. The upshot, which you should know going in, is that he got away with it.
The documentary – made by Eva Orner, an Oscar-winner for Taxi to the Dark Side – is no masterpiece of filmmaking or storytelling. It’s plain, straightforward and feels like one long news report with lots of factual reporting. At some point there is bigger, deeper work to be done on the appeal of the coiled, angry masculinity of Choudhury. For now, let’s say a monster is revealed. A dangerous narcissist, Choudhury is accused of sexual harassment and rape. Most of the allegations came several years before the #MeToo movement emerged, which may explain why the story told here has been an under-the-radar scandal.
There are two strands to the story. First, there are the accusations and witness accounts. Then there is the phenomenon of Bikram Yoga itself, indelibly tied to the public persona of Choudhury. We see footage from cheery morning TV news shows in the 1970s and 1980s that chronicle Choudhury’s rise to fame with stories of his youth and his expertise that turned out to be nonsensical self-created public relations. The footage is a reminder that in the pre-Internet era it wasn’t so easy to check on claims made by charlatans.
Born in India in 1944, Choudhury established his personal style of yoga and branded it in Los Angeles by claiming to have helped Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon. His charm and drive got him the attention of celebrity devotees, including Shirley MacLaine, Quincy Jones and Raquel Welch. As with so many strange cultural phenomena that originate in Los Angeles, his teaching filled some mercurial need – some emptiness in comfortable lives being lived in a very pleasant setting.
What made Choudhury wealthy and powerful was his use of mass teacher-training workshops. These cost about US$10,000 and you had to do it in order to open a Bikram Yoga studio. We see extraordinary footage of hundreds of people, mostly women, being coached by Choudhury, who is clad in a tiny Speedo, in extremely hot hotel ballrooms. It’s a startling curiosity, this footage. While it’s an inescapable fact that the style of yoga helped many people, there is something both comical and sinister about the highly sexualized circumstance.
We also learn that Choudhury was no ascetic. He had luxury cars and wore the most expensive clothes when he wasn’t striding around in his tiny swimsuit. He amassed a fortune of about US$100-million. And yet we see him declare in interviews, “You’ll never meet a human being on earth more pure than me.” A lawyer who represented one of his victims says, “He’s a clown in a lot of ways because he’s an idiot. But he’s a dangerous clown.”
There is nothing funny about the treatment of the victims. Teaching Bikram Yoga and using the brand name was dependent on the approval of an alleged abuser. Believing the victims and engaging in any skepticism about Choudhury’s purity meant being pushed out of the Bikram Yoga business. As for Choudhury, he fled the United States and kept a low profile, but only for a while. The doc ends with startling revelations about what he’s doing now.
It’s an appalling story, this one. In part because there’s a mystery at the heart of it – why did so many people become devoted to the monster and how did he get away with his lies and crimes? But you might as well ask, “why do people need sanctuary?”
Also airing this weekend
The 47th Annual American Music Awards (Sunday, 8 p.m.), ABC, CTV) is the big entertainment shindig this weekend. The AMAs are usually more loose and fun than the Grammy Awards, too. Ciara will host. Post Malone has the most nominations, with seven, while Ariana Grande and first-time nominee Billie Eilish have six. Taylor Swift will receive the artist-of-the-decade award.
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