Exposing the Yoga Master

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“If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first person in the history of the world,” said Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the 2012 movie “The Master.”

The movie is a psychological drama that is said to be inspired by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.

Though the celebrity-filled religion of Scientology is never specifically mentioned in the movie, many facets of the religion—such as their core belief that man exists as a spiritual being, an immortal one that has lived, and will continue to live, through countless lifetimes—can be seen in the ideologies of Dodd’s words.

Below is a dialogue between Dodd and a nonbeliever:

John More (JM): Some of this sounds quite like hypnosis. Is it not?

Lancaster Dodd (LD): This is a process of de-hypnotization, if you will. Man is asleep; this process wakes him from his slumber

JM: I still find it difficult to see the proof with regards to past lives that your movement claims. . . You’ve also said that these methods can cure leukemia.

LD: Some forms of Leukemia. In being able to access past lives we are able to treat illnesses that may have started back thousands even trillions of years.

JM: Trillions?

LD: With a tee, sir.

JM: [chuckles] Earth is not understood to be more than a few billion years old.

LD: Well even the smartest of our current scientists can be fooled, yes?

JM: You can understand skepticism, can you not?

LD: Yes. Oh, yes. For without it, we’d be positives and no negatives.

JM: Good science by definition allows for more than one opinion, doesn’t it?

LD: Which is why our gathering of data is so far-reaching.

JM: Otherwise you merely have the will of one man. Which is the basis of cult. Is it not?

Removed from the context of the rest of the movie, More’s argument sounds undeniably truthful; his skepticism reveals the cult’s flaws.

Cult leaders are desperate to trick you into joining. They are after your obedience, your time and your money; they use sophisticated mind control and recruitment techniques that have been refined over time.

But this dialogue is hidden as a five minute scene in an otherwise supportive cloud of brainwashed followers.

Throughout the movie—with few subtle hints to Dodd’s incredulous flaws—we are positioned inside his cult, and view his actions and intentions from the perspective of his loyal followers, who he refers to as his children, many of whom he has sexual intercourse with.

When I saw this movie for the first time, I was weary of Dodd’s intentions. A few times, I called him “evil.” My friend, on the other hand, could not understand my interpretation of his character.

“He truly believes he is helping these people,” my friend said, while eating from a tub of Talenti gelato.

This, I said, was a valid argument. Joaquin Phoenix’s character did, after all, gain an amount of self-control that seemed near impossible in the beginning of the movie.

Then Dobbs said his final quote of the movie, which is the quote I opened this article up with.

“Well, that was weird,” said my friend. I think he finally understood.

When one is immersed inside a cult, when the only people one surrounds themselves with are other “followers,” the mind and will may be completely taken over by logic presented by the members and leaders.

Cult leaders are desperate to trick you into joining. They are after your obedience, your time and your money; they use sophisticated mind control and recruitment techniques that have been refined over time.

After seeing the effects of such mind control, I began questioning whether I have been the victim of a cult-leader, despite the fact that I have never considered myself as having a specific religious affiliation.

The closest I have come, I believe, is yoga.

I do not want to argue that yoga is a cult, for the benefits of such a routine and community are not even close to the detrimental effects that some victims of cult-hood experience.

But I have been told that certain schools and styles of yoga (Ashtanga and Bikram, to be specific) are “cult-ish.” So, I did some research to check in with myself.

And, oh, my, God.

I have only practiced hot yoga a handful of times, and the few times I did decide to bring the torture of the experience upon myself, I was surrounded by the same people, give or take a few, each time I went. They were perfect, and polished, and seemed to enjoy the pain.

Me, on the other hand, I spent much of the classes lying in child’s pose, counting the seconds until the teacher said “final shavasana.”

It was something of the anti-yoga experience.

I do understand its benefits, though. It teaches you—and forces you—to practice self control with the breath. If you can control your breath in a 105-degree room while contorting your body into positions that resemble knotted pretzels, you can surely carry that control over into other stress-filled situations, such as at work, school, in the subway, or the bedroom.

My recently-made association between hot yoga and cult communities has nothing to do with the practice itself; it has everything to do with its leader and founder, Bikram Choudhury.

According to Choudhury, 72, any other style of yoga “is shit.”

Red Flag #1.

Fact: All other yoga is not shit.

Choudhury is a small man from Calcutta and is often pictured in the media in black silk shirts, sporting either his diamond-crusted Rolex or his Rolls Royce.

The articles that accompany his images, though, are not as glorifying:

Yoga Guru Bikram Choudhury Settles Sexual Harassment Suit with Student

Bikram Choudhury is not the Donald Trump of yoga. He’s worse.

Yoga guru Bikram Choudhury must pay $6.4 million in punitive damages, jury decides

Red Flags #3, 4 and 5.

Let’s start with the sexual assault charges: The most recent charge made against Choudhury was filed by Minakshi Jaffa-Bodden, his former legal advisor.

The woman said she noticed something was wrong soon after starting Bikram classes, as her instructor would choose the most devoted students to “brush his hair and massage his body.”

According to an article published in Jezebel, Jaffa-Bodden claims that she became aware of earlier allegations of sexual assault and harassment during a multi-day training conference and was threatened deportation for her and her daughter if she continued to pursue further investigation.

In March 2013, Jaffa-Bodden says that she was forced to resign by Choudhury himself. He apparently made her sign a resignation letter by threatening her physically.

According to Jaffa-Bodden, Choudhury created a hostile work environment, rife with sexism, homophobia, racism, and threats of violence. According to the suit, he referred to his female employees as “bitches” and treated African-American students differently, saying “these blacks just don’t get my yoga.”

He also allegedly had words about his gay students: “AIDS is caused by gays, it is the truth, but these fucking asshole guys love me, they love Bikram.”

One of the earlier accusations that Jaffa-Bodden was investigating was finally brought to light in 2013.

Warning: The following story, which was originally published in the International Business Times, contains explicit and horrifying details.

According to the complaint filed at the Los Angeles Superior Court by one of Choudhury’s former students, Choudhury, 67, pursued her for years and ruined her career as a Bikram yoga teacher when she refused to have sex with him.

Choudhury reportedly told his student: “My wife is such a bitch, you have no idea. She is terrible to me. She is so mean. You have to save me.”

The woman said she noticed something was wrong soon after starting Bikram classes, as her instructor would choose the most devoted students to “brush his hair and massage his body.”

Allegedly, Choudhury first propositioned his student in 2005 at a teacher training seminar, telling her: “I know you from a past life. We have a connection. It is amazing. Should we make this a relationship?”

She refused and avoided Choudhury, but his pursuit continued. She says that on one occasion, he pushed her “down toward the floor after pulling her arm and leg apart and opening her body. [He] pressed his body into hers and began whispering sexual things [until] she collapsed into sobs”.

The detail of having devoted students brush his hair and massage his body was also explained by another former student and once right-hand man, Greg Gumucio.

Gumucio and Choudhury first met in Los Angeles in 1996. Gumucio had quit his job as a Seattle radio announcer and moved to L.A., somewhat on a whim. He’d taken only three Bikram classes when his sister convinced him to enroll with her in the teacher training program.

While attempting to stand in the half-moon pose, Choudhury approached Gumucio from behind and asked “What the hell are you doing there?”

Gumucio smiled and responded: “Well, I’m here to do your teacher training.”

“Good luck,” Choudhury said, giving him a look of slight disgust before moving on.

It was not uncommon for Choudhury to be seen with girls brushing his hair and massaging his body as he lectures, said Gumucio. So one day, while struggling through class, he decided to take matters into his own hands and told one of the girls he wanted to take over.

According to Gumucio, Choudhury was impressed. They started to build a friendship.

They spent vacations at each other’s homes and Choudhury entrusted Gumucio with supervising and managing his studios.

Soon, though, they started to drift apart and Gumucio left Choudhury’s reign and started his own studio franchise called Yoga To The People (YTTP).

At first, Choudhury didn’t care about Gumucio’s endeavor, but once Bikram studios started suffering due to students’ migration to YTTP—which charged $8 per class as opposed to $15-$18 per class—he decided to take legal action.

In 2011, Choudhury sued Gumucio for copyright infringement, unfair business practices and breach of contract.

“I always forgave my students, like Jesus,” he says. “But I reached a point where I have to protect my regular legal schools.”

The legal saga continued for years, with a Court of Appeals finally affirming in 2015 that Choudhury’s sequence of 26 yoga poses and breathing exercises is not entitled to copyright protection.

“Because copyright protection is limited to the expression of ideas, and does not extend to the ideas themselves, the Bikram Yoga Sequence is not a proper subject of copyright protection,” Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote on behalf of the three-judge panel.

Even so, Choudhury still has his loyal supporters.

According to an LA-weekly article that highlights the rise and collapse of the relationship between Choudhury and Gumucio, for many Bikram students, there is a sense of profound respect and admiration for their yogi.

“They believe that followers must respect the lineage and leader of the specific style of yoga they practice. Without properly trained teachers, students won’t get the proper benefits. And if the Bikram method is allowed to be diluted, a great tradition will be lost.”

“He’s not a businessman,” said Tricia Donegan, owner of a Bikram studio in NYC. “He’s a terrible businessman. He’s not copyrighting to make money. He just wants everyone to do his product the right way, because it is the right way.”

In 2012 Choudhury held a conference in Boston. As he stood at the front of the room, dressed in his black silk suit, a rhinestone-studded tie and a diamond-encrusted Rolex, someone yelled “Brainwashing!” from the audience.

“Brainwashing!” yelled someone from the audience.

Choudhury laughed.

“Nobody in the world ever did this,” he continued. “Nobody built a family like this.”