In case you haven’t heard by now, Bikram Choudhury is being sued by his former student, Sarah Baughn, who claims he sexually harassed her.
Gurus and sex scandals are nothing new; Choudhury is not the first and probably will not be the last yoga guru embroiled in a sex scandal. Indeed, he joins a long list of others including Swami Muktananda, Swami Satchidananda, Amit Desai, and of course, John Friend, whose recent scandal made headlines last year and has left the future of Anusara yoga in question.
The question as to why these guys do this is easy: It’s because they can.
Influential men in all walks of life have used their power to get women—it’s become such a cliche that most of us have no problems conjuring up the classic stereotype of the rich, powerful older man and his much-younger trophy wife.
Still, why people fall for predatory gurus is more complex. As someone who has practiced yoga for more than a decade, I have noticed that many come to yoga after they have experienced a major transition in their life: a relocation to a new place, a break-up, a health scare, etc.
Even those who have supportive friends and family often feel alone or at least that no one can know what they go through.
It can be extremely comforting to have someone who will listen to you without judgement; it can also be nice to be in the presence of someone who seems to have it all together even if that may not actually be the case.
Many of these men have charisma oozing out of their pores.
A friend of mine who studied with Amit Desai several years after his infamous scandal said Desai was one of the most charismatic people he ever met. As my friend said, “There was just something about him that I could not help but like.”
For many people who are struggling with their own self-esteem issues, being around someone who displays high amounts of self-esteem can be like a drug: it may even start to rub off.
One of the amazing things about yoga is that it works: you become physically and emotionally stronger, you feel better and as a result, you may even start to let go of the little anxieties and thoughts that use to plague your mind.
While a good teacher can guide and help you, the real work comes from you. Ultimately, you are the one who deserves the credit for the positive changes that are happening in your life and body and not the guru.
It is possible that many people lose sight of that and give the guru all the credit, thus making themselves vulnerable to these predatory teachers.
Also, in all fairness, it is not just women who fall for these gurus; I have personally seen many men who are so devoted to their teachers that they cannot begin to fathom that these guys may have flaws. This combination of mindless devotion and the inability to see the guru as human is a recipe for a disaster.
Even though I tend to think that most gurus start out genuinely wanting to help people, power has a tendency to change people. While some may use it for good, the desire to use it to further their own self-interests may prove too great of a temptation at times.
Amongst other things, Sarah Baughn alleges that Choudhury told her,“My wife is such a bitch…she is terrible to me. She is so mean. You have to save me.”
If true, then Choudhury illustrates better than anyone how some gurus may be more flawed than their students. The word “guru” merely means “teacher”. There is nothing magical or sacred about the word or the people it is applied to.
At the risk of sounding like a cliche, we are ultimately our own gurus; a big part of becoming our own gurus is learning to trust ourselves.
If a guru seems to be more interested in getting you into bed than helping you find enlightenment, then he probably is—in which case, run, do not walk away from him.
Even if you end up leaving your yoga community, you will not leave yoga.
Rather, that is something inside you that no one can ever take away.