Pseudo-guru Bikram Choudhury and another scandal in the totally secular world of yoga

Wait, wait, wait.

I am sure that I have read this news story before. This hot, sweaty New York Times news feature -- which just screams alternative spirituality at the top of its gray lungs -- sounds so familiar.

LOS ANGELES -- He is the yoga guru who built an empire on sweat and swagger. He has a stable of luxury cars and a Beverly Hills mansion. During trainings for hopeful yoga teachers, he paces a stage in a black Speedo and holds forth on life, sex and the transformative power of his brand of hot yoga. “I totally cure you,” he has told interviewers. “Whatever the problem you have.”
But a day of legal reckoning is drawing closer for the guru, Bikram Choudhury. He is facing six civil lawsuits from women accusing him of rape or assault. The most recent was filed on Feb. 13 by a Canadian yogi, Jill Lawler, who said Mr. Choudhury raped her during a teacher-training in the spring of 2010.

Let's see, we have a story about a pseudo-guru whose teachings are handed on to this disciples, teachings (doctrines maybe) about sexuality (perhaps the word tantra is used), healing, spiritual transformation, philosophy, anatomy and the meaning of life.

Now there is trouble in paradise. Where have I heard this before?

Maybe it was back in 2012 in The Washington Post?

At his best, when a crowd of hundreds of students extended their limbs before him or drew deep breaths with their eyes closed, John Friend could captivate minds and shape bodies. Students spoke of melting beneath his touch. In a gentle voice, he urged them to reach for something beyond the physical, something that extended past the poses they perfected on their yoga mats and embedded into their everyday lives.
“It’s all yoga,” he would say.
He became a superstar, a jet-setting international celebrity of boundless ambition who had invented Anusara, a yoga style that combines rigorous physical poses with a philosophical framework, strict ethical standards and an emphasis on building a worldwide yoga community. He touched down in European and Asian capitals or headlined American yoga festivals trailed by an entourage and a traveling retail outlet. When class ended, the parties often began, “happenings” where his adoring fans drank beer and cocktails and listened to Friend read poetry as costumed performers roamed the room.

Right, and then this:

Friend’s empire -- an international network that claims more than 1,500 teachers, including 25 in the Washington metro area, and 600,000 students -- is in crisis now, teetering under the strain of a sex scandal that has split its most loyal practitioners and prompted an astounding venting of emotions, from rage and recriminations to compassion and sadness. In conference calls, e-mails and hushed conversations, Friend has admitted to sexual relations with students and employees and married women. He has confessed to cheating on one girlfriend and smoking marijuana, according to senior Anusara instructors who have participated in conference calls with him. And he has acknowledged leading an otherwise all-female Wiccan coven whose members sometimes took off all their clothes for gatherings, according to senior Anusara instructors who detailed his admissions in a written summary provided to The Washington Post. The coven’s name was the Blazing Solar Flames, and Friend had Anusara’s graphics team design a logo for it, according to three former employees.

That story was soaked in spiritual hooks, as well. As I wrote at the time it contained "all kinds of religious stuff -- good and evil, sin and calls for repentance, claims of spiritual transcendence and healing." There were all kinds of doors in that story, opening up into questions about the semi-religious nature of the yoga culture and its very religious roots.

However, that Post piece was not a religion story.

No way. It never went there. It couldn't be a religion story because it was about yoga and, I'll say it again, as all modern urbanites and even suburbanites know, yoga has nothing to do with religion. We're talking about secular gurus, secular healing, secular philosophy, secular transformations and, well, secular spirituality?

Nope. No religion to see here. Ditto for this new piece in the Times.

The disciples of Choudhury talk about the "spiritual benefits" of his work and onlookers note that his disciplines have become their "entire world." The "guru" words shows up again and a critic notes that the whole thing had become quite "cultish," although that may have been linked to the power of his personality. Right?

What does not, however, show up in this story is any discussion of what this "guru" was actually teaching, although one critic notes that his work was not spiritual enough. Former student Tiffany Friedman is a key voice:

Ms. Friedman had been doing Bikram-style yoga for years, and she said that after buying a studio in 2008, she decided to attend a teacher-training in San Diego. She hoped to learn more about yoga philosophy, anatomy and the underpinnings of a physical practice she had come to love. She found none of that, she said.
“I was pretty much appalled,” she said. “It was very cultish.”
The daylong trainings, she said, consisted of marathon yoga practice in a roasting room, rote memorization of a yoga script to which teachers had to adhere, what she described as rambling lectures led by Mr. Choudhury and mandatory viewings of Bollywood movies until 3 a.m. She said other teacher trainees frequently massaged Mr. Choudhury as he sat in an oversize chair on stage before rows of pupils.
“I saw how people really wanted his favor and wanted him to shine a light on them and wanted to believe he was a guru and had all these powers,” Ms. Friedman said. “It was heartbreaking.”

What are the "underpinnings" of yoga? That's a controversial subject, of course. But that subject is rooted in religion and, well, this story is about yoga and, well, you know.

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