Local yoga teacher saw no sexual abuse from Bikram founder

BALANCE AND CONTROL: Ms Diane Lee showing one of the 26 postures in Bikram yoga — the Standing Bow Pulling Pose.

He is Bikram Choudhury, 69, the father of the famous Bikram yoga.

The reach of Bikram yoga is so far and wide that you can find a Bikram yoga-affiliated studio in almost every continent.

The man now finds himself in the midst of allegations of sexual assault and rape by women who had attended his classes.

Ms Diane Lee, 46, director of BYCH Hot Yoga here, had trained under him in 2004 at his international headquarters in Los Angeles.

She has been practising yoga since 2001 and Bikram yoga since 2003.

She says he never behaved inappropriately towards her and she did not see him misbehave with the other female students either.

But he had a habit of saying politically incorrect things.

"He said that all the time in my training. We just laughed about it.

People did say that enough is enough and it is true, it was wrong.

"But we all knew he is politically incorrect. He just says what he thinks.

That is his character," she says.

Ms Lee knows him and his family, although she clarifies that they have not been in contact since 2013.

She says: "I am very good friends with his wife, we travelled a few times together.

I am sure he is a smart guy. He can tell your character really clearly."

COLOURFUL GUY

She is hesitant to discuss the claims of sexual attacks, describing Choudhury as a colourful guy.

Instead, she says she focused on his skills as a yoga teacher.

She says: "The yoga really works.

He is a colourful guy, but he will always try to separate his personal issues so they do not affect his business."

But she says, given the empire he has built, it is not easy.

"Globally, he has affiliated studios from Moscow to Rio."

In 2006, she brought Bikram yoga to Singapore.

"You have to separate the person from the yoga."

She says the training environment was different when she was there in 2004.

Ms Lee says: "We were training at the headquarters, the setting was different.

Nowadays, it is like a resort, a retreat.

"I was lucky, my training was the third one that year, so it was small, we had fewer than 100 people."

But in the course she attended a few years back, the class had grown to 300 to 400 students.

Eventually, she moved away from his brand of yoga.

Part of the problem was that she was allowed to use only Bikram-trained teachers. And they could not be locally trained.

"As a business, people come and go, we cannot wait for a group of teachers to be trained and then come in."

By January 2013, she started toying with the idea of rebranding.

And when the allegations hit in March that year, it set the stage for her to formally break away.

"It was only right that we took the name out.

Because we want to do 60-minute class and it (does) not comply with (Bikram) policy. Plus, we don't really want to hire the teachers from there."

LOCAL TEACHERS

She now has teachers from Singapore and they have been working out.

Even then, teachers who complete Bikram's nine-week course were not always ready to teach, she says.

"Basically, it is the principle of who can teach a good class. It has to have more value than a piece of certificate," she says.

Some students have asked her about the allegations.

"A student asked if he (Bikram) will come here to teach.

If he were to, she said she would never sign up," she says.

But she does not see the allegations hurting the local market.

"It is easier for us since we moved away two years ago. I don't think it will affect us a lot."

Shopaholic who 'doesn't need to eat or sleep'

Outwardly, Bikram Choudhary, 69, epitomises flashiness.

He wears crocodile shoes and gangster fedoras.

He owns dozens of Rolls-Royces, Bentleys and Howard Hughes' Royal Daimler, with a toilet at the back - the only one in the world.

He lives in an 8,000-square-foot Beverly Hills mansion seemingly built entirely from gold, stone and mirrors.

He claims to sleep only two hours a night and he is given to swaggering pronouncements, Vanity Fair reported.

Here are some: "I have ****s like atom bombs, two of them, 100 megatons each. Nobody ****s with me."

"Woman is one-third mind, one-third body, one-third spirit. Man is one-third goat, one-third dog, one-third spirit."

Even as a man who paces the stage in just a black Speedo, he holds forth on life, sex and the transformative power of his brand of hot yoga.

He swears by a strict diet but lists Coca-Cola among his vices.

"Once in a blue moon if I go to a (Los Angeles) Lakers game, I'll have a hot dog or half a cheeseburger.

"I'm not restricted to anything. But I eat once a day. If I'm at home, I eat some chicken curry rice, lentils.

Or if I go out, I like spicy Chinese food, lobster, crab."

Born in a village in Bihar, one of India's poorest states, he has come a long way after opening his first yoga studio in Los Angeles in 1973.

Now his brand is known all over the world, and is billed the Starbucks of the yoga world.

In an interview with The Guardian a few years ago, he described the enormous wealth he now has: "It's huge.

I'm making, I don't know, millions of dollars a day, US$10 million (S$13.6 million) a month - who knows how much?"

HOBBY

His real hobby is cars.

Apart from the Royal Daimler, he also loves his Phantom Black Cherry, which used to belong to the Queen Mother and a James Bond Aston Martin from the film Thunderball.

He claims yoga can cure diseases and even negate the need for food and sleep.

He told The Guardian: "Yoga is the petrol pump.

My class gives you energy, like petrol for a car. I don't need to eat, I don't need to sleep.

"Americans are obsessed with diet.

If your car engine is broken, does it make any difference how much petrol you put into it?

"If the body is not good, what difference is it what you eat? If the body is good, you can eat what you want."

Choudhary is facing six separate civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual assault or rape.

One woman claimed she was attacked while training to be a teacher.

Choudhary's team said the women did not independently come forward to tell their stories of sexual assault after years of keeping them secret.

"Instead, they signed on to become plaintiffs in these cases following a worldwide and lengthy period of solicitation through letters and social media seeking to convince women to sue Mr Choudhury."

'Avoid touch, just tap if needed'

Bikram yoga is a style of yoga that Bikram Choudhury developed in the 1970s.

It involves a series of 26 postures, developed from the traditional hatha yoga techniques.

What makes it so hot?

The 40 deg C room that it is usually practised in.

Along with the heat, Bikram yoga is run with a dialogue that instructors have to recite verbatim.

The dialogue is akin to instructions that guide the students into each position.

QUALIFIED

On top of ensuring the teachers are qualified to teach the poses properly, the director of BYCH Hot Yoga, Ms Diane Lee, also expects her teachers to know the dialogue.

She says: "If you don't understand the foundation of yoga, you are going to cause a lot of injuries."

She has 11 or 12 part-time and full-time teachers.

On the certification of her teachers, she says: "I don't want to sign that paper until I am sure they can teach."

She finds the discipline and focus a vital and much-appreciated aspect of Bikram yoga for her.

Her rules:

Avoid physical touch to correct students

If needed, tap, not tug

She has seen yoga instructors direct students into positions more forcefully, which is not a practice she agrees with.

"Our teachers are not super flexible either, so they understand how hard it is to get that flexibility.

"Sometimes we will tap the shoulders.

Other styles of yoga may have physical touch involved, moving parts of their bodies here and there," she says.

"You have to be careful. In our studio, it is easier because we have mostly female instructors."

heatherh@sph.com.sg

This article was first published on Mar 1, 2015. Get The New Paper for more stories.