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Physics, Yoga, and Bikram 

 May 26, 2017

By  juliana

During my first year at MIT, I was enrolled in the mandatory freshman physics course. This was a challenging class that was required for all the engineering majors, and the exams were famous for humbling the smart-ass freshmen who were used to being the “big fish in the little pond” back home.

The main classes were taught in lectures of 200+ students, but we also met in small groups every week where to review concepts, work through problems, and ask questions. My sections happened to be led by Walter Lewin, a rock star professor in the physics department who was an incredibly charismatic and talented lecturer and was famous for being able to “make anyone like physics.”

Walter Lewin lecturing at MIT

I participated actively in our small group section and was able to solve many of the problems correctly. Professor Lewin was in charge of grading all our papers. I aced the first test and he wrote, “Great Job!” On the second big test, I slacked off and didn’t study properly. I scored somewhere in the mid 60’s – my worst exam ever. When the test came back – I’ll never forget it – Walter Lewin had hand-written next to the grade: “I expected better from YOU!!”

I studied harder than ever for the third exam. That one was famous for being a killer. The average class score, among all the MIT smart kids, was a 62%. I got a 97%.

As the years went by, I always remembered Walter Lewin as a great teacher who took an interest in me, nurtured my talents, and challenged me to do better.

He popped up in my news feed 12 years later. The article surprised me. MIT had cut all ties with him and revoked his title as professor emeritus after determining that he had abused his position and used it to sexually harass vulnerable female students.

I was horrified and disappointed to find out someone who I had loved and trusted, who had guided and mentored me, had abused his position and disgraced himself so thoroughly and publicly.

I have found myself in this exact scenario twice in my life. Once with Walter Lewin, and once with Bikram Choudhury.

Me with Bikram in 2010, visiting teacher training

Just like Professor Lewin, Bikram Choudhury was an important teacher in my life. I teach the hot yoga system that he created and made popular. I took classes with him while I lived in California and studied under him at my yoga teacher training in 2010. I always enjoyed his classes and found him funny and charismatic. I had a wonderful, positive, respectful relationship with him. He always recognized me for my hard work and encouraged me in my career. It wasn’t until years later that I found out something was really wrong.

While I was having an incredible, life-changing experience at my teacher training, some of the other girls were not so lucky. Bikram abused his position, crossed lines many lines of decency and good judgment, and took advantage of vulnerable female students. He’s been in and out of the court on various charges over the past four years. Recently a former employee won a multi-million dollar settlement against him based on unfair employment practices and hostile work environment. Bikram apparently has not paid this sum yet, so this week courts just issued a warrant for his arrest. He’s currently hosting another teacher training session in Mexico – not exactly hiding – so it will be interesting to see where this goes next.

As all this information has come to light, it’s been challenging and confusing for the Bikram yoga community. We all became teachers because we have benefited deeply from the yoga and believe in its value – it’s hard to realize that the person who brought it to us could be so deeply flawed. There has been endless debate and disagreement behind the scenes regarding the best way to move forwards from this crisis.

When your favorite physics professor turns out to have a nasty side, it’s a huge disappointment, but the laws of physics remain the same. Gravity, acceleration, mass, and inertia continue to work as promised, even if your physics teacher lets you down.

With yoga, it’s a little trickier, because yoga practice is so intensely personal. When you study yoga, you’re not just studying the impersonal laws of nature – you’re looking inwards and studying yourself. And as you go through this journey, you tend to associate it with the person who is facilitating that experience. In psychiatry they call it “transference,” and you have to watch out for it.

So when you find out that your yoga teacher did something bad, it makes you question your entire experience. I’ve heard so many students over the years say how much they loved their yoga practice, but they were turned off from it because they had a negative experience with a yoga teacher.

My teacher training graduation in 2010. I’m in blue. One of the other girls in this picture was assaulted during our training.

How do we reconcile these experiences? I’m not actually sure. It’s a thorny question that doesn’t fit neatly into 140 characters.

As I write this, I really do not have the time to write a blog post at all. I’m in the process of launching my second yoga studio, which opens in 8 days, and I have water to order and bills to pay and job descriptions to write. I’ve been working 12-14 hours a day to get the new studio ready, and I am so excited to share Bikram yoga with hundreds of students at our new location. My teachers and I are all so passionate about the yoga that we love, because we’ve experienced its benefits in so many ways. Every time I stand up on the podium to teach class, I am thrilled and honored to share this experience with others.

I also took “Bikram” out of my business name this month. It seemed like the right moment for me, and I’m surprised at how good it feels. We are now “Rhode Island Hot Yoga” and everybody loves it. When my students ask me about teacher training, I tell them to explore all their options. We don’t have a “guru” to follow now, but maybe that’s better. We can find our way forwards together.

My goal is to keep this amazing yoga practice alive and strong for many decades to come. I’ve been saying for years, ever since things started blowing up, the worst outcome of Bikram’s misdoings would be if everyone quit practicing yoga. The messenger is only human, but the yoga is truly divine.

I hope that all our students will continue to practice their yoga proudly. I can tell you with confidence, from working behind the scenes, that virtually none of the so-called Bikram yoga studios send any money to Bikram. The first and last time I paid any money to Bikram was in 2010, when I attended teacher training. Your membership fees help us pay the rent, the heating bills, the overheard costs, the teachers, and hopefully ourselves. (We do this for love, not money!)

If you’ve made it this far into my post, thank you for reading. It’s easy to jump to conclusions in these days of click-bait headlines, and I appreciate your consideration! I hope you will continue on this journey with me. I plan to keep practicing this yoga until the day I die, and I want to share it with as many people as possible.

With love,
Juliana Olmstead
Owner at Rhode Island Hot Yoga

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  1. I could not live the life I lead now without bikram yoga. I hope bikram gets what he deserves. I feel no contradiction with those two statements. I am glad he was never one of my mentors since I might feel differently. For me bikram yoga is the gold standard with no near equals.

    1. Absolutely! It’s a different process when you’ve had a personal connection. I totally get you and I agree about the yoga!

  2. Thanks for this. I’ve been practicing bikram for many years now and have come to the conclusion that sometime bad people are capable of doing things.

    1. I so agree. There are many similar examples in distant and not-so-distant history. This is hardly an isolated incident.

  3. So clear, precise, and articulate, Julia, and you express it head on with no evasive language. Your love and commitment to the yoga and it’s transformative powers come through. And you speak for so many of us. Thank you for separating the practice from the publicity.

  4. Juliana, thank you for sharing your story. Your story resonates with what brought me to yoga 11 years ago. Very well written. Again, thank you.

  5. I knew you were smart – but didn’t know you were at one time an MIT engineering student. Thanks for writing this piece when you have no time to. I enjoyed it as well as your clarity and honestly. And I too love your new name. Does dropping Bikram mean that your regular classes might be a bit different?

    1. Thank you, Lindsay! I’m glad you appreciated this. The classes will remain the same, though we will continue to work at getting better & better at what we do. 😉

  6. I have been practicing at Julianas studio on and off for 2 years and have found every instructor knowledgeable, compassionate, and honestly coming across with genuine caring for the students in class.
    I’m pleased to hear the new studio name because it takes the taintedness out of the beautiful healthy practice.
    Congratulations Juliana with all your efforts to expand.

  7. So well written. It’s a difficult topic and you handled it beautifully. As someone who practiced other yogas as well as Bikram for years, I would often get frowned upon by others in the yoga world when I would say how great I thought it was. I’d often hear “I’ve heard so many negative things about him”. My response was always “I separate the practice from the person, it’s a great practice”. I would recommend people go to the website and see how many places throughout the world have Bikram studios because it is so powerful. That the practice clearly can stand alone. But was always uncomfortable at feeling like I had to defend it.

    Being certified to teach Bikram I know a number of studio owners and they have had to deal with separating the name from the man, it’s a sad and difficult task. My heart goes out to all the owners of studios. A few years ago the Anusara community went through the same fall from grace by its founder, John Friend. I became certified in Kripalu yoga in 1997 when many of its devotees were still upset and disheartened when their guru, Amrit Desai, who fell from grace for the same reason.

    I call it rock star syndrome and it has happened to many in powerful positions throughout history. I don’t condone it, it really bums me out and makes my heart heavy. Kripalu and Anusara both had the benefit that the name of the practice was different than that of the men who started it. Perhaps a new name will develop for the Bikram practice in the future. Though some may not agree with me, that’s my vote and hope.

    Bottom line of my two cents: The practice changes lives – period. Though I’m not presently “active” in the Bikram yoga community, I became an instructor because I saw how it changed lives. In addition to keeping me going as a dancer many years ago, it also helped healed my frozen shoulder. I found your post tonight because my friend has had health issues and lives close to what will soon be the Providence studio. As I was scrolling through FB to find details, I was saying “I’m 100% sure you will feel better if you practice Bikram”. I added “and Juliana and her people are awesome, it’s a great, positive vibe, you’ll love it”. Which is so true!!! Then we hung up and I read the article and felt compelled to respond with gratitude.

    Juliana, what you wrote is perfect and I will share it. I plan to see you next Saturday, if not sooner. ❤️ Best of luck with the new space. I’m sure the great Bristol vibe will carry over. (But I must admit, I saw another Newporter this week and we both selfishly wished the new studio was in Newport ).

    1. Thank you Holly for all of your support! I agree completely. Hope to see you and your friend in class soon!

  8. After reading this letter and blog response, I am very much looking forward to returning to Boiler House. I was so disappointed when the schedule was cut back and then then the studio closed. Wishing only success for yourself and all of us!

  9. Hi Juliana,
    I appreciate you writing this piece with complete loving honesty. Although you yourself were’nt victimized, the level of betrayal is insurmountable! I myself have been the victim of someone I trusted , loved and looked up to has my hero. It’s sad confusing and simply heartbreaking.
    Although there is NO excuse for such selfish behavior. I realize that there are so many very sick individuals in society and they misuse there power of authority… It can be your church, priest , your date , your husband, your teacher, your uncle , your dad , your mom, a stranger, and even your yoga guru!!
    What I have learned is by accepting them for there gifts has well has there illness and finding a place of forgiveness. Is the key to peaceful life . To rise above the bad , the ugly , and disgusting habits of people you respect ,admire and trust.
    I admit it has to be one of hardest and heartbreaking experiences of my life personally. I have learned to separate myself from illness,
    However we all suffer from from the betrayal .
    I pray for all of us who have encountered these individuals in our lifes journey and let us all learn individually and has a community!
    It’s all about the “LOVE” unconditionally … let us move forward and rise up high … be proud be confident and practice The art of yoga for that is the gift itself!!

    Congratulations on the grand opening today and your many gifts

    Aloha, Lori “Sunny”
    ❤️

  10. Juliana:
    Thank you for the tremendous beauty and peace that you have brought to my life. Thank God I found Rhode Island Hot Yoga.
    Thank you for writing this .The yoga is centuries old. Sure, Bikram put together the 26.2 sequence and I am glad that he did. He needs help with the obvious mental illness he suffers from. I hope that his victims find peace.
    Namaste,
    Diana

    1. I’m so happy to have you in our community! Yes, Bikram played a very important role, but you are right – the yoga existed long before him and hopefully it will still exist long after he is gone. That is our job now.

  11. Thanks for being so open.I love this practice & everything it’s done for me , I thank you for still finding the beauty in this practice after everything came to light and sharing it with me.

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