Once upon a time, many professionals who covered religion in the mainstream press argued that the future of the beat was covering "spiritual" forces in the lives of average people that played the role of organized religions. Even though the "spiritual, but not religious" slogan was overused, in my opinion, this approach was valid for quite a few stories.
There are people for whom running has become their religion. I know people for whom good wine and cooking serve what has to be a sacramental function in their lives. Ditto for some of the semi-religious movies and online games that all but take over the lives of congregations of young males.
This brings me to another activity that, in every sense of the word, is "spiritual" for many of its followers -- yoga. This is especially true when you are dealing with yoga masters who -- even though they insist their work is "secular" -- fill a guru role in the lives of their disciples, promising to help them change their lives in every sense of the word.
Yet, for some reason, many people (including journalists) think it is controversial to talk about the Hindu roots of yoga, perhaps because yoga has its share of Christian critics who see it as a false religion. Christian critics are always wrong, you know, and thus should not be quoted.
This brings us back to a Los Angeles Times update on the alleged sex scandals surrounding the life and work of the yoga superstar Bikram Choudhury. This is one of those stories that, if there is no "spiritual" hook in it, I'd like the Times team to show me why that is true. As I said in an earlier post about coverage of this scandal, "Pseudo-guru Bikram Choudhury and another scandal in the totally secular world of yoga":
... 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.
Who is this man? Here is some of the Times material setting the stage for this drama:
Over the course of more than 40 years, Bikram Choudhury has gained millions of followers, built a global yoga empire headquartered in Los Angeles and amassed a fortune from the yoga postures done in a sweltering room.
He has championed his methods as a way to help followers heal ailments, promote their health and lead to a better, more peaceful life. But several women say there is a darker side to the guru, alleging in lawsuits that he sexually assaulted or harassed them.
And there is more essential background:
Bikram yoga consists of a series of 26 poses, done over 90 minutes in a room heated to 104 degrees. Millions have practiced it worldwide, said Benjamin Lorr, author of "Hellbent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga."
Much of Choudhury's business comes from training courses that are required for followers who want to teach at a Bikram-affiliated studio, Lorr said. The sessions cost $12,500 to $16,600 for a grueling, nine-week course.
As you can see, it's crucial that there are people to take the basic course, and then there are Choudhury's followers who pay more and more money in order to learn how to teach the disciplines of his form of yoga. Think of it this way: At some point, the master ordains those in the inner ring to become his official disciples teaching this secular faith.
It appears that many of those chosen ones are women:
In interviews with The Times, three of the women who have filed lawsuits -- Larissa Anderson, Sarah Baughn and Dana McClellan -- say Choudhury nurtured a cult-like devotion among followers that allowed him to take advantage of female students. That devotion -- and a fear of being exiled from the yoga community -- kept victims and others from speaking up, the women said.
So where does the "spiritual, but not religious" factor kick in? Well, how would you describe this language used by one of these women?
In Bikram yoga, Anderson found salvation.
She had spent years masking her depression from past sexual abuse with drugs and alcohol. But with the yoga, she was able to reclaim her body, find hope and achieve happiness.
"It was euphoric," she said. "No matter how I felt walking in, I felt better walking out."
And in Choudhury, she felt, she had found her guru -- and her savior.
Anderson said she had decided at one point to dedicate her life to Bikram yoga and open her own studio in her native Washington state.
Thus, I ask this question: So was there more to this man's teachings than the mere poses? Had he taken teachings from the Hindu roots of yoga and turned them into his own "secular" system? Was the word "tantric" in there somewhere? When he lectures, what does he talk about?
In other words, how does a yoga master become a "guru" and a "savior" who "heals" and "transforms lives" without some kind of content to his work, beyond showing his followers a series of yoga poses in a hot room?
Just asking. The Times team leaves readers totally, completely in the dark on that deeper side of the story. Why?
VIDEO: This is an old ABC News report, but about the same accusations about the same teacher.