ED NOTE: The story about Bikram Choudhurey’s arrest sent our servers into meltdown. Here’s the backstory we published two years ago when the allegations of his impropriety where first raised.
PAULA CARRASQUILLO took her first yoga class in the autumn of 2011. A website-content developer, wife, and mother, she had decided to try Bikram Choudhury’s wildly popular brand because she thought it could help her right knee, which had been injured in a car crash and never healed. She read testimonials online of how Bikram Yoga in particular had fixed broken bodies in ways that scalpels sometimes can’t.
Within three classes her knee felt better, and within three months of practicing the 26 asanas and breathing exercises that comprise every 90-minute, high-heat Bikram Yoga class, Carrasquillo says her blood pressure went down and she lost unwanted weight. The transformation didn’t stop there. Another month in, yoga along with therapy and writing helped Carrasquillo realise that she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The domestic abuse Carrasquillo says she experienced years prior with former partners still haunted her. “Yoga allowed the deep pain that was interfering with my whole life to surface, so I could confront it,” she says. Carrasquillo believes yoga helped wean her off anti-depressants and alcohol, too.
But by spring 2013, Carrasquillo had learned that several Bikram students had accused Choudhury of sexual harassment and rape. At first she kept practicing, refusing to associate Choudhury’s potential wrongdoings with her beloved yoga. But ultimately the allegations became too much. One day in the autumn of 2013, while standing at the front of her mat, Carrasquillo became nauseous. She realised the practice she’d come to crave for helping her heal was hurting her instead.
Carrasquillo’s story of emotional turmoil isn’t unique. Scores of people who have found a practice, teacher, community, and sometimes a career through yoga have been thrown for a loop when a revered leader is accused of sexual harassment, emotional and economic fraud, and even breaking the law. Sadly, in Western yoga, there have been many such assertions.
More recently, reports of Choudhury’s alleged missteps alternated in the mainstream news with stories of the suspected improprieties of John Friend, the founder of Anusara Yoga, which integrates yoga therapeutics, philosophy, and alignment. In February 2012, an Anusara employee claimed that Friend was having sexual relations with employees, leading an all-female Wiccan coven that practiced rituals of a sexual nature, freezing Anusara employee-benefit plans on the sly, and asking employees to accept shipments of marijuana. Nearly two months later, The Washington Post reported that Friend was having sex with students. In such high-profile scandals, the people directly involved—the “gurus” and their accusers—grab the public’s attention. And while we would never downplay the gravity of their experiences, those newsmakers represent only a fraction of a far bigger story. It’s the rest of the yoga community, the millions of students, teachers, and studio owners who come to the practice regularly for health, healing, and a sense of belonging, who make up the vast majority of the impacted.
Within the community, members are left to sort through the wreckage after the polarised voices around fallen leaders finally quiet, deciding where to turn after their tribes splinter. They must maintain their identities and possibly livelihoods after some practices are abandoned, and some studios close. They have to learn from the past and better prepare—emotionally, socially, and financially—for the next upset, which unfortunately seems all but inevitable. In fact, this February, The New York Times reported a sixth civil lawsuit filed against Choudhury. (The first case is scheduled to go to trial in August.) In a world where even iconic gurus can apparently come and go, everyday yogis and teachers are the ones who need to minimise the damage, and protect the practice that they love.
A Personal Hit
When rumours started to surface in 2013 about Choudhury, Carrasquillo felt what many felt during the recent scandals: conflicted. She wanted to support Choudhury’s accusers, but Carrasquillo had also become attached to Bikram Yoga’s apparent healing powers. “I just didn’t want to believe it, simply because I enjoyed the yoga so much,” she says.
Carrasquillo spent nearly a year trying to convince herself that she could continue to practice despite her anger around the allegations. Then one day in November 2013, her yoga teacher was reading the standard Bikram teaching script in class, like usual. But this time Carrasquillo had a strong visceral reaction. “I wanted to vomit. I couldn’t do it anymore,” she says. “The healing that I had experienced up to that point was in danger.” After that class, she vowed never to go back to Bikram Yoga.
While Carrasquillo’s personal history may not mirror everyone’s, many people come to yoga for physical reasons—either to work out an injury or get in shape—and are quickly swept up in the holistic healing that yoga can provide. Research has linked the practice with improvements in stress, depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder. One explanation is that mindfulness methods such as yoga and meditation help us become aware of the emotional baggage we carry and teach us how to use our breath to de-stress, suggests psychiatrist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, in his new book, The Body Keeps the Score.
Paradoxically, while unearthing deep-seated emotions can empower us to confront sadness, anger, or pain, such work can also make us more vulnerable to emotional injury when a trusted leader falls, explains Dave Emerson, author of Trauma-Sensitive Yoga in Therapy and director of Yoga Services at van der Kolk’s Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts. Witnessing a yoga leader fall may be especially painful for someone who has experienced past relationship trauma, Emerson says. “Yoga teachers often promise happiness and health, and students therefore expect them to be safe and trustworthy,” he explains. “So it can be devastating when a teacher betrays or disappoints you, throwing you back to feeling unsafe within relationships that you thought you could rely on.”
The betrayal can also make us question our sense of judgment, the validity of a healing modality, and any progress we’ve made, explains Rachel Allyn, PhD, a clinical psychologist and yoga teacher, and the creator of YogaPsych psychotherapy, which uses asana and breath exercises to help stored emotions come to the surface. Initially, denial is common; it’s a way to minimise the discomfort that comes from believing strongly in something that becomes corrupt or disingenuous, but that we still want to engage in, she explains.
While Carrasquillo struggled to come to terms with how her loyalty to Bikram Yoga conflicted with her desire to empathise with those accusing the founder of rape, the resulting emotional stress and feelings of guilt and hypocrisy—something psychologists call cognitive dissonance—ate away at her. She knew that leaving her practice was the best way to show her allegiance to those claiming abuse, and yet she was scared to abandon that which she had given so much credit for her healing. So Carrasquillo justified staying longer, telling herself, “[Choudhury] is not my boss, and the teachers I had were not him; I am loyal to those teachers. He created a great sequence; lots of bad people create good things.”
Cognitive dissonance is certainly part of being human, says Allyn. But when we continue to engage in behaviours that go against our morals and ethics, it can threaten our sense of identity. This can lead to feelings of shame, and from there, depression and anxiety. But here, again, yoga and meditation can help. “Yoga helps you confront yourself, both the light and dark, in a kind-hearted way,” Allyn says. “It allows you to see yourself clearly, still love yourself, and want to learn.” You can learn, for example, what Carrasquillo would someday deduce: the power of one’s practice is not exclusively tied to one teacher or method.
A Community, Fractured
William “Doc” Savage practiced various styles of yoga for four years, trying to improve his performance as an ultramarathon runner, before stumbling upon an Anusara “Grand Gathering” at a Yoga Journal conference in 2008. Savage was blown away by the sense of belonging he experienced there. “I looked around and thought, ‘Wow, these are my people,’” Savage says. “It was a community of extroverts,” he adds, describing people chatting and spending time on each other’s mats.
A retired senior non-commissioned officer in the United States Air Force, Savage is gregarious, but also admits to a long-time isolating fear of showing raw emotion. One of the tenets of Anusara, which means “flowing with grace,” is opening your heart to connect with the divine within you, and in everyone. “With Anusara, I learned how to share my emotions,” says Savage. “It was scary, but I was empowered knowing I had teachers and a community who were going to help and support me.”
When Friend’s alleged transgressions were exposed in 2012, Savage felt disappointed and frustrated—equally by Friend’s behaviour and the community response and infighting. He witnessed Anusara splinter as practitioners and teachers found smaller groups they could confide in and vent to. Savage did what he found necessary to hide his deep disappointment and sadness and to retain his composure. “I was my students’ teacher, and I just tried to continue,” says Savage. “I compartmentalised.”
Decades of social-science research show that community, along with faith and work, is the secret to emotional well-being. At the Harvard School of Public Health, researchers have found that the keys to happiness include a supportive network of family and friends, and knowing how to bounce back from stressful situations. Basically, community gives us identity and a sense of purpose, which in turn keep us happy and healthy.
Which helps explain why, as the Friend scandal broke, Savage didn’t want to reinvent his identity. He had already invested in an entry-level Anusara teacher training and had just entered into the full teacher-certification program. “Every time I tried to teach something other than Anusara, it didn’t feel right,” he says. So he continued teaching Friend’s method, even as the business was failing. Back at the Anusara headquarters, the administrative staff had significantly downsized, and many of the senior teachers who helped organise events and trainings had departed. Savage’s community— and the ground beneath him—was crumbling.
In July of 2012, Savage and two other Anusara devotees started damage control. They signed a licensing agreement with Friend to use his intellectual property, and in October incorporated as First Principle, Inc., calling themselves the Anusara School of Hatha Yoga and listing themselves as the only three teachers. That number has since jumped to just over 550 today, with up to 55,000 students—a huge decline from the nearly 1,500 teachers and estimated 600,00 students pre-scandal. But Savage and his colleagues are more intent on ensuring history doesn’t repeat itself. They’ve installed a board of directors, elected by teachers and global representatives, who continue to develop the Anusara curriculum. “We want to avoid a single point of failure,” a criticism many teachers had about Anusara under John Friend, Savage says. “I reformed Anusara to help people have community again.”
Of course, not everyone has returned, including former top Anusara teachers Elena Brower, Amy Ippoliti, and Desirée Rumbaugh, who have moved on to pursue new businesses and host non-Anusara trainings and retreats. One senior Anusara teacher who wished to remain anonymous says that she is now happy to be a part of the bigger yoga community, but also laments the loss of the tight-knit group of people she came together with to practice Anusara. “The saddest part was that the community used to be a real asset,” she says. “It was scarring and disillusioning how everyone scattered.”
A New Business Model
Years after the Bikram and Anusara shakeups first came to light, the founder of each yoga style continues to make the news. Choudhury—who did not respond to Yoga Journal’s requests to be interviewed—was still teaching as of April, according to his website, and he appeared on CNN in April saying that he is innocent. Friend, who admitted to at least one affair, dismissed Anusara and returned in early 2013 with a new yoga form called Sridaiva, or “divine destiny,” which he developed with a former Anusara student. “I feel good about where I am and where I’m going,” says Friend. “I will remember my faults and mistakes and try not to replicate what patterns led to pain and disharmony.”
In the wake of the scandals, many teachers and studio owners are actively trying to create a different, less rigid, more diversified way both to teach and do business, and in the process redefining the role of a “guru.” Noah Mazé, who taught Anusara from 2002 until the Friend scandal broke, is one such pioneer. Mazé resigned from Anusara because he didn’t align with Friend’s choices after the scandal. He had also expressed concern over how obstinate he felt Friend was becoming. When Friend debuted Anusara in 1997, it was a hybrid of alignment, therapeutics, and Tantric philosophy, but toward the end he stopped incorporating other teachings and evolving the practice. Mazé was frustrated with Friend’s inability to hear criticism or suggestions for improving Anusara (a critique many teachers share of both Friend and Choudhury). Mazé, who now owns YogaMazé in Hollywood, California, has developed his own style. But he says it’s influenced by other types of yoga, as well as the study of biomechanics and physical therapy.
Diversification and independence seem to be paying off for former Bikram studio owners, too, thanks in part to Mark Drost, once a high-ranking Bikram instructor. In 2004, Drost owned seven Bikram studios, but by 2008 he says he was so put off by what he saw as the guru’s questionable business methods and connections with female students that he purged himself of all Bikram affiliation and converted one of his former Bikram studios, in Buffalo, New York, into Evolation Yoga (in 2009). Evolation offers hot yoga classes similar to the 26-pose Bikram sequence. In 2011, Choudhury sued Drost for copyright infringement, but Drost refused to settle out of court, and in December 2012, a judge ruled against Choudhury having exclusive claim to a yoga sequence. Suddenly, yoga-studio doors swung wide open for anyone to offer the Bikram Yoga sequence, or any other sequence of poses. More and more one-time Bikram Yoga studio owners have quietly migrated away from Bikram affiliations and are instead offering the same or a similar sequence under a different name.
Still, the question remains: how did Choudhury and Friend obtain so much power in the first place? “They presented their systems as salvation paths, and people bought into the idea that their way was the best way,” explains Lola Williamson, PhD, an associate professor of religious studies at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, and co-editor of Homegrown Gurus.
Understandably, many teachers seem highly aware of the potential slippery slope between instruction and adulation. Some worry that the authority they need to deliver a profoundly deep, enduring knowledge of yoga has become off-limits. “We’re fearful of being seen as manipulative,” says the Anusara teacher who wanted to remain nameless. “I’m more wary to suggest a mentor relationship.”
Mazé, too, remains sensitive about his relationship with students. He’ll sometimes practice at the back of the room, and says that a guru’s role is to stimulate dialogue and debate instead of to suppress them. “Don’t surrender your critical thinking to anyone,” he tells practitioners. “I want my students and community to be comfortable questioning any of my teachings.”
Carol Horton, PhD, a yoga teacher and former political-science professor who writes about student-teacher relationships, suggests that teacher trainings should prepare instructors for dealing with the complex emotions that yoga can unearth. “When a student comes to class, he or she should have the assurance that the teacher is doing the work necessary to create a safe space, where students can explore how to empower themselves through yoga,” she says. Teachers also have to be grounded enough to withstand students’ projections, she adds.
A Full Recovery
But the responsibility of making yoga a safe place for everyone can’t lie in the hands of teachers alone. Students need to be empowered to heal themselves, instead of looking to someone else for salvation, says Allyn, and that requires being aware of and trusting their feelings and thoughts. Receive knowledge and wisdom from gifted instructors, says Allyn, but never credit a teacher with healing you. She suggests asking yourself, “Am I turning to my teacher, like I would a partner, to heal old wounds?” If the answer is yes, consider trying new yoga styles and communities to see if the healing properties of the practice carry with you. Or, revisit the yogic principle of aparigraha, or nonclinging. Most importantly, embrace who you are: “A strong community can only exist when the people who make up that community are strong within themselves, affirming that they are perfect in their imperfection, just as their teacher or guru is,” says Williamson.
Carrasquillo is on board. “We each have an inner guru to be discovered,” says the former Bikram devotee, who eventually developed a regular home practice, completed a non-Bikram teacher training, and, last year, started teaching vinyasa classes in corporate settings. “I don’t want students to look up to me. I want them to look within to find the answers.”