Chakra Full of Scandal: Baring the Yogis

Washington Post, Aug. 27, 2002
By Peter Carlson

How much scandal can America take before its poor battered heart just breaks in two? There are the money scandals in Big Business. And the sex scandals in Big Religion. And now we learn about money and sex scandals in, of all places . . . oh, say it ain’t so, Joe . . . Big Yoga!

Shocking but true: The folks at Business 2.0 magazine have discovered greed, lust and egomania among the swamis and gurus of the stretching and breathing set. And the magazine has revealed all the sordid details — well, some of them, anyway — in an article aptly titled “Yogis Behaving Badly.”

Yoga, the ancient Hindu practice of exercise and meditation, is now a multi-hundred-million-dollar business in America, and the yoga tycoons currently battling over market share are exhibiting the same sort of spiritual enlightenment and inner peace previously demonstrated by the likes of, say, John D. Rockefeller or Bill Gates.

“Yoga has become cutthroat, Mafia-like,” says Thom Birch, who is identified in the article as a disillusioned former yoga teacher. “Many of these people are the biggest thieves, bullies and sex addicts — all of if under this veil of spirituality.”

Birch is exaggerating a tad — nobody is accusing any swamis of having their rivals bumped off by hit men hiding machine guns in violin cases — but the battles are getting ugly.

In Beverly Hills, Calif., Bikram Choudhury, who calls himself the “Guru of the Stars,” has trademarked his favorite yoga poses so nobody can teach them unless Choudry gets cut in on the take.

In New York, the owners of the Jivamukti Yoga Center — which teaches 2,000 students a week and boasts of such celebrity clients as Steve Martin and Monica Lewinsky — are threatening trademark action against former employees who’ve left to start their own schools.

In fact, folks trying to teach yoga anywhere in America are finding that nearly all the formerly holy words of yoga have been trademarked. If you want to use them, you’ve got to shell out the dough.
Meanwhile, reports writer Paul Keegan, yogis are accusing Yoga Journal, America’s foremost yoga magazine, of “thuggist behavior” in its hardball pursuit of a monopoly in the lucrative yoga conference business.

And then there are the sex scandals. In 1994, Amrit Desai, a Massachusetts yogi who touted celibacy as one of his precepts, was forced to resign after admitting he’d had affairs with three female disciples. In 1997, a woman won a $1.9 million lawsuit against a Pennsylvania yoga center after claiming that she’d been sexually assaulted by her swami. And now Rodney Yee, once described by Time magazine as the “stud muffin” of yoga, is being sued by a former teacher at his Oakland yoga school, who charges that he fired her when she complained about his alleged sexual affairs with students.

“Clearly, the world of big time yoga in America is undergoing a profound crisis but won’t admit it,” writes Keegan. “The most influential players, like Yoga Journal — well positioned to monitor ethical lapses — are also the worst offenders.”

Maybe that’s true, but I wish Keegan had spent more time on Choudhury, the aforementioned “Guru of the Stars.” I’m a sucker for a colorful rogue and this guy clearly belongs in the pantheon of America’s great huckster holy men, right up there with Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, Aimee Semple McPherson, Father Devine and Reverend Ike.

An Indian immigrant, Choudhury has franchised his “hot yoga” method to 600 studios nationwide. He taught yoga to Madonna and Michael Jackson. He compares himself to Jesus and Buddha. He claims he can cure any disease. He lives in a Beverly Hills mansion with his collection of classic Bentleys and Rolls-Royces.

“Everybody knows I’m superhuman,” he says. “My spirit is in cosmic consciousness.”

Choudhury’s response to the yoga sex scandals is brilliant: He claims that his students blackmail him into having sex with them.

“What happens when they say they will commit suicide unless you sleep with them?” he asks. “What am I supposed to do? Sometimes having an affair is the only way to save someone’s life.”
Boy, that’s good! Even Bill Clinton didn’t think of that one.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday August 29, 2002.
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