I often comically confess that I started my yoga practice at 14 because I wanted to look like Sharon Stone (even though I'm a brunette... and 5'3").
What I often leave out of the joke is that yoga has become the bedrock of my life. While I did use it primarily as a fitness program until my late-20s, since then, it has become the way that I manage my mental health, meet friends, and practice spirituality. As someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety from a young age, I know that yoga has helped me live as happy and as healthy a life as possible. It's why I have set this mission to bring yoga to other people who may be suffering.
Recently, though, I have had to face the fact that my beloved practice of yoga has a dirty secret.
I had heard rumors about sexual assault and impropriety by certain yoga instructors, but I had always assumed the offenders were a minority and had, until recently, not sought additional information.
Then I watched the Netflix documentary Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator. Even now, months later, it's hard to describe how I felt watching this documentary. Devastated does not seem too strong a word. Mostly for the victims, but also a little for myself, as it would forever change how I viewed yoga.
While I would encourage you all to watch the documentary, I will summarize it briefly. Like many of the other famous gurus, Bikram came to the U.S. and became a superstar, creating a yoga brand and opening schools across the country. He is the founder of Bikram Yoga (or, as it has been rebranded by his former students, hot yoga).
Along with his fame and fortune, he used his position to sexually assault and rape his students (I'll add allegedly here so that I don't get sued).
One of the many things that struck me watching the documentary was how he behaved exactly as cult leaders do. There is one young man in the documentary who talks about how Bikram told him to "hide his fat belly." Later, as the young man continued the training program, Bikram told him how great he was. This young man was just one example. Bikram regularly insulted and cursed at his students.
This is exactly what abusers and cult leaders do. They beat down their victims (who are already pretty beaten down) and then build their self-esteem... with one small problem. The source of the self-esteem comes entirely from the abuser, who becomes a god in the eyes of the abused. I don't think it's extreme to point out that Manson did the exact same thing.
Thus, Bikram successfully created a cult of passionate followers who believed he alone held access to salvation. They proselytized to others and (many) defend him to this day from his detractors. I am disgusted to report that he still has a teacher training program in Mexico and that students from all over the world flock there to hear his teachings.
If Bikram were the only villain of this story, I would have watched the documentary, horrified, and moved on with my life.
But, he's not. Not by a long shot.
If you're interested, gird your loins and take a look at this document:
which lays out the various crimes leveled at many gurus worldwide. I had to give myself a break from reading the evidence for my own mental health, so I give you this resource, compiled by Dr. Uma Dinsmore-Tuli and her team, with a massive trigger warning. The crimes range from run-of-the-mill hypocrisy and profiteering to (again - please - massive trigger warning) child abuse and rape.
From the evidence I have read, it seems as if many of these gurus behaved exactly as Bikram did, creating a cult of passionate devotees and using that position to perform (again, allegedly), horrific crimes agains their fellow humans.
What has struck me reading and viewing the first-hand accounts is how easily I could have been victimized. When I became a yoga devotee in my 20s, I was desperate for ANYTHING that would make me feel better. My anxiety and depression had spiked, and I was suffering through a number of massive life changes. Luckily, I found kind yoga teachers who guided me down a new path with no hidden agenda. If I had found myself walking through the doors of a different studio, who knows what could have happened.
With that in mind, I want to share another resource from Dr. Dinsmore-Tuli and her team, "13 Warning Signs." While these are aimed at yoga studios and ashrams, I think this is just good advice for analyzing any organization.
It's important to me to reveal this secret to my students (along with these resources and more to come) because you all have the right to know the bad along with the good. I also want my fellow humans to be on-guard, particularly when someone tells you they can save you.
The fact is, yoga is not a brand. It's a state of being, and everyone has a right to it. I'd add to this, you are perfect just as you are, and no one needs to save you. Yoga is just one more tool to add to your kit to make life a bit more livable.