Local Bikram yoga studio reinvents itself after guru’s alleged abuse
By Michelle Hiskey
Practicing yoga created an awareness in Eric Jennings’ life that led him to establishing Bikram Yoga Decatur, or BYD, in 2002. His studio grew and flourished as Jennings began to have a creeping conflict inside him about the public controversy over the Bikram brand.
As he became more aware of sex abuse claims against his mentor, Jennings wrestled with his own inner voice. Could he separate his business from his original guru? For successful businesses, a name change can be a kiss of death.
“Could I let go of fear of change and let go of what I created?” Jennings said in an interview. “To let the world know that I wanted my studio to be the safe place for them, I needed to let go of my fear.”
Today, the studio has taken the risk with a new name—Still Hot Yoga—and Jennings has spent several thousand dollars creating a new story line for a business that has always been very personal for him. For him, reinvention meant dismantling the public image of a successful business and starting over—this time with images of real yoga bodies, and revealing his own story about recovering from abuse.
Guru under fire
Jennings’ studio was flourishing in 2013 when the first accusations of abuse by Choudhury were filed. Six women have claimed that they resisted his sexual advances but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. A Vanity Fair piece detailed how the guru was “feeling the heat.”
High temperatures are what set Bikram yoga apart. The studio (or “torture chamber,” as Choudhury refers to it) is kept at 105 degrees because heat is believed to encourage flexibility and remove toxins. Choudhury, a national yoga champion in India, developed his rigid sequence of 26 postures to “bring nourishment to every cell of your body so that each one can perform its function and keep your body healthy.”
Jennings had experienced cleansing and healing through this rigorous exercise. He had been diagnosed with severe chronic degenerative disc disease, and used yoga to minimize his pain while considering surgery and injections, which he knew were not guaranteed to work in the long run. Bikram yoga became his antidote, and through disciplined practice, he became virtually pain free.
“At first I had tightness and balance issues, and I was claustrophobic, dizzy and fatigued by the heat,” he recalled. “I had fear and anxiety, and I had to learn how not to run away from it but to sit and experience it, to moderate what I was doing in the heat rather than become reactive. I learned to work more slowly, focus on breathing and pay attention to how hard I was working so I wouldn’t pass out. That was the mental edge that promoted growth, strength, discipline and awareness.”
His life changed in other ways. With experience in professional theatre, he had been unhappily employed as a computer graphics and web designer. In 2001, he completed Choudhury’s boot camp training in Los Angeles to become a Bikram instructor. “I had been working 9 to 5 and making decent money, but I hated the corporate environment,” Jennings said. “When I opened my studio in 2002, I had no idea what I was doing. I had no background in that type of work, so it was a leap of faith, and I learned how to do it as I went.”
For the first six months, the use of the Bikram name was free; for many years after that, Choudhury’s empire did not insist and Jennings didn’t ask. In May 2012, he signed a contract with Bikram that included a monthly license fee. His main connection, as he saw it, was to the practice itself and the growing network of studios that were fiercely loyal to the brand.
Like them, Jennings kept the room at the right temperature and the postures in sequence. When people showed up, they could count on Jennings providing Choudhury’s same brand of yoga in a big mirrored studio where everyone felt safe.
Bikram Yoga Decatur grew steadily in its first decade, from 6 people per class to an average of 20, and an increased number of classes and instructors. Hundreds of clients reported recovery stories similar his own, that their physical pain abated and their lives felt more peaceful. That balance disrupted in 2013 with the headlines of abuse.
Jennings terminated his contract with Bikram in April 2013 and assured his clients that their studio fees were not supporting Choudhury in any way, but his personal integrity was feeling the heat. Like the women who had accused Choudhury of sexual abuse, Jennings had been a victim of sexual abuse as a child. In the mirrors of the yoga studio, he felt shame and embarrassment as he looked at his body, and as memories bubbled up with his sweat, he had acted on this awareness and sought therapy. Healing meant working deeply into his body and emotions, finding discipline and self-control, and living without secrets.
But the Bikram name was now getting in the way of that important work. In an April interview, Choudhury defended himself to CNN, saying that he didn’t need to resort to abuse because plenty of women loved him.
Jennings realized he had to break away publically. He knew other studio owners might call him a coward and ostracize him, and a name makeover would require money, time and guts.
“The business was doing so well, but I kept thinking about the one person who might say, ‘I can’t go there because I don’t feel safe,’” Jennings said. “That was enough of a reason to change.”
The real bodies of Still Hot Yoga
The studio’s new name has a double meaning: peace and endurance. Jennings viewed the rebranding as a way to more transparency in his practice and an opportunity to challenge the stereotype of a yoga body as young, lithe and capable of Cirque du Soleil contortions. As part of that openness, he asked his students to be photographed for his new website.
Retired Atlanta clinical social worker Sue TeStrake, 72, agreed to share her “round” and wrinkled body—and her inspirational story. She was 68, overweight, arthritic and had undiagnosed hip dysplasia in 2011 when she first came to Bikram Yoga Decatur with her daughter. TeStrake had never participated in any sports, and could not straighten her elbows or bring her arms to her neck. The warmth of the room reflected the encouragement she felt from others.
Today, even after hip replacement surgery, she practices four days a week. “I never thought I would see my toes over my head,” she said. “I never thought I would have a six pack or walk barefoot, much less wear shoes without arch supports.”
She credits Bikram yoga with helping her heal quickly from hip replacement surgery and affirming her grit.
Her appreciation for these results conflicted with her disgust at Choudhury’s notoriety. Being photographed (with her face in deep concentration while in eagle pose) was a way of showing her support for Jennings’ rebranding.
“I can understand Eric’s need to separate from the controversy of the recent allegations. I don’t like them either,” she said. “I applaud Eric’s attempt to show everyday people who came to his studio…. It was not easy to put my ‘round’ body into tight yoga clothing, and be seen in public with no make-up. My generation of women didn’t do that. But now I’m okay—what you see is what you get.”
A sense of awareness is what built the studio and now sustains it for Jennings, who is 55, 6-foot-3 with a backward script tattooed on his stomach that his students can read in the mirror.
“As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I had to conquer embarrassment and shame, and I realize this past two year of being Bikram Yoga Decatur, I started to feel that embarrassment and shame again,” he said. “Really, the name change is profoundly liberating. It’s an extension of my recovery, and it is reclaiming this type of yoga for ourselves.”