The vast empire of disgraced hot-yoga inventor Bikram Choudhury is showing signs of fracturing as he faces six civil lawsuits alleging sexual assault of women, and a well-known Hindu activist is calling for Pope Francis to discipline an Irish priest for linking yoga to Satan.
The New York Times (NYT) is reporting on the increasingly sorry state of affairs in the hot-yoga empire of Bikram Choudhury as some of the women he allegedly assaulted are revealing more and more about the inner workings of the yogi’s strange world.
To date, Choudhury has been accused of sexually assaulting at least six women who are being represented by Mary Shea Hagebols. While Choudhury’s lawyers claim his innocence and say the women are just trying to exploit the legal system for financial gain, Hagebols says all stays in the cases have been lifted and “we’re moving full steam ahead.”
Word of the assault charges definitely rocked the world of Bikram yoga. While many have stayed loyal to him, many more are walking away. One of them is Sarah Baughn, 29, a former Bikram yoga devotee and international yoga competitor whose lawsuit against Choudhury in 2013 was described by the NYT as an “earthquake” among his followers.
“A lot of people have blinders on,” Baugh said about those who are continuing to follow the yogi. “This is their entire world. They don’t want to accept that this has happened.”
Another former disciple is Tiffany Friedman who renamed her Bikram yoga studio to get rid of any ties to Choudhury. Her experience with the organization was not pleasant, beginning with her first teacher-training with Choudhury in San Diego.
“I was pretty much appalled,” she said. “It was very cultish.”
She went on to describe the brutal hours spent in a sweltering room practicing yoga and using rote memorization of a yoga script to which all teachers had to adhere. They were also expected to attend long pointless lectures by Choudhury and mandatory viewings of Bollywood movies sometimes until 3 a.m. She and other teachers were frequently made to massage Choudhury who would sit in an oversized chair on a stage while rows of adoring pupils looked on.
“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,” Friedman told the NYT. “It was heartbreaking.”
Jill Lawler, a Canadian woman who filed the most recent case on February 13, has quit yoga altogether because of being repeatedly assaulted by Choudhury over the course of many years.
Baughn has also chosen to move on from the world’s trendiest fitness fad. Although she was once heralded as a champion in the field, she gave up teaching and practicing yoga.
“I went through total hell,” she told the NYT. “What happened to me was awful. I’ll probably always have bad dreams.”
Meanwhile, Father Roland Colhoun from Glendermott parish in Londonderry is coming under attack from yoga enthusiasts for saying that the practice will lead to the “Kingdom of Darkness.”
According to the Belfast Telegraph, he warned that yoga’s pagan roots can lead people into a “bad spiritual domain” where Satan and the fallen angels can be found.
"Pope Francis said 'do not seek spiritual answers in yoga classes',” Father Colhoun said. “Yoga is certainly a risk. There's the spiritual health risk. When you take up those practices from other cultures, which are outside our Christian domain, you don't know what you are opening yourself up to.”
He continued: "The bad spirit can be communicated in a variety of ways. I'm not saying everyone gets it, or that it happens every time, and people may well be doing yoga harmlessly. But there's always a risk and that's why the Pope mentioned it and that's why we talk about that in terms of the danger of the new age movement and the danger of the occult today. That's the fear."
This infuriated Hindu activist Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism who is gunning to get yoga introduced into schools worldwide, is threatening to go to the Bishop of Derry to point out that Colhoun should be disciplined because the Vatican library contains some "yoga-related books".
He might be disappointed to know that Father Colhoun’s opinion is hardly that of an outlier. Rome’s chief exorcist, Gabriele Amorth, is among many exorcists who have issued warnings about the spiritual dangers of practicing yoga.
While serving as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope Benedict XVI also warned that yoga, Zen, and other transcendental meditation could "degenerate into a cult of the body" that devalues prayer. Attempts to combine Christian and non-Christian meditation are "not free from dangers and errors,'' it said.
But silencing voices such as Father Colhoun’s is important to protect an industry that is raking in $27 billion a year in the U.S. where more than 15 million people are practicing it with the vast majority (72%) being female.