Leaders of NYC's Yoga Scene Seek Restart After Scandal

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The New York Post




When the founders of Bikram Yoga NYC opened the first Bikram studio in the city on Aug. 7, 1999, few New Yorkers had heard of the hot-yoga practice. Eighteen years and four studios later, they know too much.

With its customers turning to new, trendy exercise classes - and the larger-than-life founder of the yoga practice, Bikram Choudhury, on the lam after being charged with sexual harassment - its owners are ditching the Bikram name and offering a new slate of more millennial-friendly class options.

"We've always felt that there were rumors going around the city - 'Oh, Bikram yoga, you can't leave the room, this and that,' " says Bikram Yoga NYC co-founder Donna Rubin. "We don't want people to feel it's too overwhelming We're trying to be more compassionate."

Now called Bode Yoga - pronounced "bo-dee," a reference to both the Indian Bodhi tree and the word "body" - the studios are giving the hyperregimented, masochistic classes a feel-good reboot.

Bikram yoga traditionally takes place in a silent, 104-degree room, and teachers instruct students through two sets of the same 26 postures over the course of every 90-minute class.

From here on out, the studios will offer "Vinyasa Flow" classes, shorter Bikram-style options, meditations, sound baths and healing "Yin Nidra" classes. Even the traditional classes are getting a pampering makeover: Teachers are encouraged to go off the Bikram script, adding their own musings to their classes, and students get a cool stone placed on their foreheads at the end of class.

Jo Piazza, co-author of "Fitness Junkie," a new novel that fictionalizes the city's wellness-obsessed, says she isn't surprised by the change.

"To be honest, Bikram feels so 2013," she tells The Post.

"Bikram became synonymous with an almost militant style of yoga that just isn't in vogue anymore," Piazza says. "Today's fitness junkies, particularly millennials, want their workout to be an authentic 'experience' of self-care."

And then there's the matter of Bikram himself.

Choudhury has fallen from grace over the past few years after several of his students and co-workers came forward to say that the ostentatious leader, known for his fleet of luxury cars and controversial body-shaming comments, had sexually abused them. Bikram denied the charges, but was convicted of sexually harassing his former lawyer. (Five other cases are reportedly outstanding, and one has been settled out of court.) Choudhury was ordered to pay his victim $6.8 million in 2016, and fled the country earlier this year without ponying up, reportedly to avoid arrest.

Rubin says the scandal hasn't been a problem for the studio or its students. "Most people don't know who Bikram is - they only know us as we're teaching the moves," she says.

But Benjamin Lorr, the Brooklyn-based author of "Hell-Bent," which dug into Choudhury's maniacal methods and hopelessly devoted inner circle, says the scandal has absolutely tainted the Bikram name.

"It's not a surprise [that they're changing the studio name]," the former Bikram enthusiast tells The Post. "It's about time. He's a pretty toxic figure to have associated with your brand at this point."

'Bikram became synonymous with an almost militant style of yoga that just isn't in vogue anymore.' - author Jo Piazza

While many practitioners don't know of Choudhury's exploits, Lorr says that he "absolutely know[s] people who've left because of it."

Plus, he adds, "If you're a studio owner and you do know all of this, then you know that the figurehead of your studio happens to be [an alleged] predatory sexual assaulter who's wanted by Interpol."

Regardless, Rubin says she's excited to get out from under the Bikram name.

"[My co-founder] Jen [Lobo] and I are very happy to have our own identity," she says. "Whatever we do now is a reflection of us."

Strike a pose

If you can handle the heat, here are a few other hot yoga studios new to the NYC fitness scene.

Corepower Yoga opened their first Manhattan studio in May and another in Williamsburg in September. In addition to their yoga offerings, they hold an intense sculpting class that incorporates free weights. Classes are $32 each. More information at CorePowerYoga.com.

YO BK still offers Bikram classes, but has become known for its "Inferno Hot Pilates" class, a low-impact strengthening class in a 95-degree room. Classes are $27 each. Membership and more information at YO-BK.com.

YogaSpark started in Westchester and opened in Tribeca in 2016. Classes are lit with black lights and candles, which makes for a no-judgment vibe. Classes are $30 each. Membership and more information at Yoga-Spark.com.

Lyons Den, which opened a Chelsea studio in June, offers 11 different styles of power yoga classes - including a hip-opening intensive - in 88- to 95-degree heated rooms. Classes are $29 each. Membership and more information at LyonsDenPowerYoga.com.

- Lauren Steussy


October 3, 2017




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