Episode 104: Julia Lowrie Henderson — Behind the Scenes of ESPN’s “Bikram” Podcast Series

On this episode, I speak to Julia Lowrie Henderson, the producer behind ESPN’s new 30 for 30 podcast series “Bikram.”

Bikram Choudhury arrived in the U.S. from Calcutta, India and opened a yoga studio in Beverly Hills in 1973. His intense system of yoga caught on quickly and Bikram became known as the “guru to the stars,” with devotees ranging from Shirley MacLaine to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Raquel Welch.

Within two decades, Bikram built a “yoga empire” that included national television appearances, a massive following of devoted students, and a multi-million dollar brand. But Bikram’s rise to power came at a cost to many of his students and employees. By 2015, six women had filed civil lawsuits against him, with allegations ranging from sexual harassment to assault to rape.

For the podcast series, Lowrie Henderson spent more than a year of her life traveling to India, interviewing students from the Bikram community, and speaking Bikram himself so that we can hear the truth of his story. In this interview, Lowrie Henderson offers insight into Bikram’s early rise to fame, his teacher training methodology, and how the 26/2 system is faring without Bikram in the U.S.

Bikram Choudhury leading yoga teacher training - Julia Lowrie Henderson yoga podcast

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RECOMMENDED AND RELATED LINKS

ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast: Bikram

Episode 93: Ending Sexual Abuse in Yoga Community – A Conversation with with Mary Taylor and Judith Hanson Lasater

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Episode 205: Let’s Talk Yoga with Arundhati Baitmangalkar

My guest this week wears so many hats! She's a yoga and Bollywood dance teacher, studio owner (Aham Yoga in Redmond, WA), and a brand new yoga podcaster! (Her pod is called Let's Talk Yoga.)⁠ ⁠ Arundhati hails from Southern India and moved to the states with her...

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9 Comments

  1. Wow… Yoga world, you are something else…

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  2. It says episode unavailable

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  3. I feel like you’ve made a lot of assumptions here. To me this podcast seems very close minded to the yoga itself. It’s no denying Bikram was NOT a good man and my heart goes out to the women he assaulted, but I’m curious how many other of the thousands of people who found therapy and health through this lineage were interviewed. If a yoga is able to help people, the type A personalities or people who are need a more intense form of yoga to find solace the new does one ignorant man really take that all away?

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    • I actually think this is one of the main questions that the ESPN podcast is trying to answer! It’s worth listening to. And, I don’t think that criticizing the man is the equivalent of criticizing the system or the people who have benefitted. Julia was a Bikram practitioner for seven years, so I think when she was referring to Type A folks, she was including herself.

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  4. I think Anonymous hit the nail on the head. Also Bikram yoga was never embraced by the larger yoga community. The excellent teachers who have done brilliant work globally were never included in the “best of” lists or by yoga publishing and yet thrived without and will most likely continue do so without it. Not everything is for everybody but Bikram yoga continues to help MANY people and thankfully new trainings have emerged that maintain the system without the man. There are also students who continue to train with Bikram and I’m happy that these stories are out to raise awareness.

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  5. In general, YogaLand podcasts are wonderful–informative and engaging. This particular episode, not so much. I must agree with other commenters here that this discussion was so limited that it seemed distorted.

    As someone who was trained as a Bikram yoga teacher in 2012 and taught Bikram yoga full-time for several years, I would like to point out that (contrary to what I heard in the podcast) neither I nor many of my friends in my training class was very young. (In fact, I recall a significant percentage of over-40 students in my Bikram teacher training class. We were starting second or third careers.) Nor do I believe we trainees were clueless generally, though we didn’t consider Bikram guilty of anything more serious than coarse speech and questionable taste at the time.

    I was never a fan of Bikram himself, but I was inspired by some of his senior teachers who were smart, and talented. (After he lost the court battle over copyright, many of them started their own yoga organizations.) More than that, I was inspired by a yoga system that really did seem helpful to various types of yoga practitioners. I was brought to my first Bikram yoga class by members of my running club. These people would not pursue other yoga practice because runners tend to be stiff and limited in their ability to do basic yoga poses at a level they could accept; the heat made them more flexible so they could stretch more deeply and seemed to benefit. They were willing to stay with the practice; they seemed to benefit.

    While it is not my main practice, I still choose hot yoga for myself, or recommend it, when I have a limiting muscle injury. The heated room is like a giant heating pad, so affected muscles relax and I can restore some physical balance.

    There are others who like this particular form of yoga, for a variety of reasons. Many of us do feel great afterwards. Some like the heat. Some like the predictability of the sequence.

    Speaking of predictability, the dialog was not the standard that seemed to be implied in the podcast. The senior teacher I most listened to, Craig Villani, said that to continue reciting “the dialog” after a few months of teaching was “teacher malpractice.” Rather, the dialog was a way to get started, to ensure class quality with beginning teachers. The dialog was introduced fairly recently, curated by another senior teacher, Jim Kallett, whom, I believe, did want Bikram teachers to recite it forever; that wasn’t a universal standard.

    To return to the teacher training discussion, one justification Bikram offered for our high teacher training costs was that we would be well-compensated on completion, i.e., as certified Bikram teachers. This was correct; in my experience Bikram teachers were much better compensated than most teachers of other forms of yoga, until he lost the copyright battle, and with it control over who taught the popular 26-posture sequence as well as how it was taught.

    I must admit this was one podcast episode I didn’t listen to all the way through. The scandal is regrettable, but the community of Bikram practitioners could be a very good place. Perhaps because I was on the east coast and headquarters was in L.A., my experience of the culture around the studios and the training was uplifting. I learned principles of alignment and of teaching that I appreciate and continue to respect, though I currently prefer to practice and teach other forms of yoga.

    The charges against Bikram Choudhary are unfortunate, but please don’t rush to mischaracterize the community of practitioners and teachers of this form of yoga as naïve or Type A. That seems beneath the very-high standard of your podcasts overall.

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    • Hi Christine,

      No one is being thrown under the bus here except Bikram. The ESPN podcast focuses on Bikram, the man – and it’s not positive. But (in my opinion), it’s not Julia’s intention to judge or mischaracterize the larger community. She was a Bikram practitioner for seven years and has a keen understanding of the benefits of the practice. In episode 5 she talks about how people are really trying to keep it going without him and I think she’s very understanding and fair. There’s even a quote from a practitioner that basically says (I’m paraphrasing) – the man who created this yoga saved thousands of people’s lives and severely traumatized many people, too. So, the question is – what to do with that? It’s hard. I don’t pretend I have any of the answers, but I also won’t sugarcoat the things he did or say the charges were merely unfortunate. The charges are horrifying. The things he is charged with doing to young women were violent and horrifying. (If you haven’t listened to the ESPN podcast, at least listen to episode 4.) And he is still teaching! This is a big deal to me. There are young women out there at risk. Stories like this (at least) make people aware of what they’re potentially getting themselves into.

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  6. I wanted to let you know this episode is great. This episode, the 30 for 30, and the book Hell-Bent are VERY nuanced. I am new to Yoga. But I know my wife quit for many years because of the general creepiness of the Bikram studios.

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    • Thank you, Francis, for listening and commenting. I still need to read Hell-Bent! I’ve heard great things.

      Reply

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