Bikram Choudhury wants you to trust him. Completely. “I implant my mind into your brain,” the guru and founder of Bikram Yoga recently explained to a packed studio of spandex-clad devotees.
Last week, Choudhury defended himself for the first time publicly against the allegations of six of his former students, who have filed lawsuits accusing their teacher of sexual harassment, assault and rape. These six women had placed themselves mind, body and soul in Choudhury’s care, practicing his ninety-minute yoga sequence in 105-degree heat multiple times a day. They believed in their guru, following Choudhury’s instructions to the letter. Now, they allege, their guru abused this trust, preying upon their vulnerability and attacking the very bodies he had once promised to heal.
I’ve followed these developments closely, not only as a rabbi and religious authority, but as an avid Bikram Yoga practitioner. For many years, I’ve stretched and schvitzed in the torture chamber (as Choudhury likes to call his studios), four, five, sometimes six days a week. My wife Sara, an equally enthusiastic disciple, traveled to Los Angeles in 2013 for Choudhury’s nine-week teacher training, overseen by the guru himself. These days, we even bring our kids, ages nine and six, for weekend visits to our local studio, sweetening the deal by promising them, when they emerge from the hot room, a Vitamin Water of their choice.
Sara and I came to Bikram Yoga to lose weight and counteract the aches and pains of corralling rambunctious toddlers. But I made the pilgrimage to the hot room harboring a secret agenda, as well. I wanted a guru. Since the age of eighteen, when I took my first floundering steps as an adult, I’d yearned for a master, a sage, a faultless uber-parent to save me from my sovereignty and relieve me of the burden of choice. In guru I longed to trust.
I was not alone. At every stop on my circuitous spiritual journey, be it Zen center, yoga studio or synagogue, I found fellow seekers. We gathered together, eagerly awaiting a guru who might alleviate the existential pain nipping at our heels. Our yearning circumscribed the stage upon which a charismatic, confident religious authority, be he monk or yogi or rabbi, would perform. We could feel the wisdom of the guru opening hearts. Like gushing teenagers in the presence of our boy-band crush, we pressed ever closer, utterly devoted, hopelessly in love.
“If [my guru] had ever told me to open the window and jump out, I would honestly have done it in the blink of an eye,” Choudhury wrote about his own guru, Bishnu Ghosh. “I would never think twice about doing what my guru asked because I always believed in his love for me. This proved not just his worth to me, but my worth, you see? If he loved me the way he so clearly did, then I must have been lovable; I was worthy. From this, I got what you call self-esteem.”
For those of us with self-esteem issues, and that’s a whole lot of us, a religious leader’s attention can act as stimulant and salve. When an authority we so admire looks into our eyes and tells us, with unshakable conviction, that, if we stretch enough or meditate enough or pray enough, we can transcend our fallibility, we feel hope. We stand before the guru and our inner critic disappears. Our guru gazes upon us with loving eyes, and in that moment, perhaps for the first time, we love ourselves.
A true guru will invite us to believe in ourselves. But sadly, even in the presence of an enlightened sage, many of us miss the message. We leave the guru’s presence believing not in ourselves, but in the guru. Life feels better at the master’s feet, so we keep coming back for more.
In Choudhury’s case, as his yoga grew in popularity, a circle of gushing admirers coalesced around him, many of them young women eager to recreate their lives in Choudhury’s image. Indeed, Choudhury employed this abundance of female attention in his own defense. “Women like me. Women love me,” he told CNN last week. “So if I really wanted to involve the women, I don’t have to assault the women.”
Whether or not we believe Choudhury is not the point. The courts will decide his fate. The larger message from the scandal is this: When we place our faith in a leader on high, when we obey Choudhury’s incantation to “implant my mind into your brain,” we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to develop our own mind. Gurus, as well as religious institutions and communities, should aim not to shackle us to the whims of clerics and saints, but to liberate us, to release the best within us for the benefit of all.
Bikram Choudhury gave me two precious gifts. First, he introduced me to a lineage of yoga that heals my body and calms my mind. Then he cured me of my guru fixation. Now, when I stretch in the hot room, sit on the meditation cushion or sing in the sanctuary, I go searching for the guru within, that soulful seed of wisdom that will guide me from darkness to light, from despair to hope, from dependence to freedom. With every back bend, every mindful breath, every prayer, I’m beginning to trust myself.
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