A quiet turmoil surrounds the Bikram Yoga community in the aftermath of several lawsuits filed this spring that accuse Bikram founder Bikram Choudhury of sexual harassment and rape. But while most of the discussion is taking place behind the scenes, there are a handful of teachers and studio owners who are publicly separating themselves from the Bikram name.
Stephanie Dixon, owner of the former Bikram Yoga Summerlin in Las Vegas, recently changed the studio’s name to Summerlin Yoga and is in the process of phasing out Bikram classes from her class schedule.
“I don’t condone that type of behavior, and it’s not what I want to represent,” Dixon told Buzz, noting that such a change was a big risk for her business. Choudhury was accused of rape, sexual battery, false imprisonment, discrimination, harassment, and other counts in lawsuits filed against him in May. Two months earlier, former Bikram student Sarah Baughn, filed a similar lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and sexual assault. All three lawsuits were filed in Superior Court in Los Angeles.
After making the programming change in response to the Baughn lawsuit, Dixon noticed a drop in studio attendance, but says it's climbing again because a wider variety of classes is pulling in a more diverse group of students.
The fear of losing their livelihood could be at the heart of why few studio owners or other members of the Bikram community have chosen to come forward to talk about the allegations publicly, Dixon said, noting that several Bikram studio owners across the country have contacted her and asked for advice about transitioning away from Bikram Yoga.
Mark Balfe-Taylor, a former Bikram teacher who helped another Las Vegas studio, Bikram Yoga Southwest, transition out of the Bikram tradition in 2008, is helping Dixon revamp her business model. “If you’ve invested in a Bikram studio, you’re trained in one style, in one methodology, and therefore [if you want to leave the Bikram tradition], all of your teachers are left jobless, not able to work elsewhere, and are in a situation where they have to get other training,” Balfe-Taylor said. “It’s not a cheap investment, so these people are left high and dry.”
Bikram teacher trainings range from $11,000-$15,000 according to BikramYoga.com, and Bikram studio owners must pay an initial franchising fee, then ongoing royalty fees, technology fees, and other fees.
Balfe-Taylor sees this tide change as an opportunity. He developed Revitalize, an alternative sequence to Bikram’s 26 poses, and he’s also working on a teacher training program geared toward Bikram teachers and studio owners who want to distance themselves from Bikram. “I just want to let people know there’s another option,” he said. Balf-Taylor also said he hopes that by offering more than one style of yoga at former Bikram studios, it will begin to bridge a gap between hot yoga and traditional yoga communities.
Balfe-Taylor isn’t the only one offering an alternative to the Bikram style. Pernille Tjelum, the director of be Hot Yoga in Edmonton (formerly Bikram Yoga Edmonton) recently broke ties with Bikram as well. She also developed a sequence, called Core 32, which she says studios are free to use. She hopes to license the be Hot Yoga brand to other studios that want to transition away from Bikram. Of course, there have been many teachers to leave the Bikram tradition through the years. Former Bikram teacher Tony Sanchez developed an alternative to Bikram Yoga when he parted ways with Choudhury in 1983, though the sequence Sanchez teaches is derived from the same Ghosh lineage as the Bikram sequence minus the external heat. Sanchez began training teachers in 2012.
Meanwhile, active discussions about the future of Bikram Yoga have been ongoing in private forums online, say several sources. Closed message boards for Bikram teachers are buzzing with discussions about how to move forward and what steps people can take to maintain the integrity of the practice, said Benjamin Lorr, the author of Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga, a book released last year that some have credited for opening up the dialogue on sexual harassment in the Bikram community.
The focus on the yoga instead of the allegations is an indication that, despite his attempts to own the rights to his sequence and the Bikram name, Choudhury might not be a significant part of the practice in the eyes of many students and teachers. “I think in many ways this response is a testament to the fact that many in the Bikram community never looked to Bikram Choudhury as spiritual leader and don't see him as an essential part of the practice,” Lorr said.
David Kiser, owner of Bikram Yoga Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina, agrees. “The yoga goes way beyond the man, and the practice is pure and simple,” Kiser said. “Nothing Bikram the man does can change that.”
But Kiser also feels that those teachers distancing themselves from Bikram Yoga due to the allegations are jumping the gun. Most people in the Bikram community are assuming innocence until proven guilty, he said.
They might have a long wait. According to court documents, the next hearing for one of the lawsuits filed in May is scheduled for October 23, 2014.
At Bikram headquarters in Los Angeles, it seems to be business as usual with classes, teacher trainings, and studio licensing continuing as scheduled. The organization did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but a statement posted to BikramYoga.com in March said the accusations are false.