Bikram Yoga Scarsdale, a family-owned hot yoga studio in New York, has been grappling over changing the name of its business for more than a year. Next month, it will rebrand as Sweat Central and change the name of its Bikram classes to “original hot yoga.”
“We got a few emails from people who don’t come very often, or haven’t been here in a long time asking why we haven’t changed our name and if we’re going to,” Nicole Pike, a yoga instructor and co-owner of Bikram Yoga Scarsdale, told FOX Business.
The concern comes after Netflix debuted its documentary “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator,” out now, which sheds light on the rise and fall of Bikram Choudhury, the embattled yogi who made a fortune building a trademarked Bikram hot yoga empire cultivating a cycle of sexual abuse among women. A number of yoga studios across the country have changed the name of their studios and classes since the initial allegations came to light six years ago.
“While the classes themselves are amazing, Bikram the person has done terrible things we in no way want to be associated with,” Pike said.
“We want people to feel comfortable at our studio, and confident that their money is in no way supporting him,"
In doing so, her business is spending up to $20,000 to rebrand with new signage, merchandise and revamped marketing on its website and social media channels.
Instead of giving up the beloved practice, many yogis have decided to separate it entirely from the alleged predator and the culture of silence among victims he fostered. Choudhury was idolized as a physical and mental healer among yogis in the community for popularizing the Bikram sequence of 26 postures done in a room heated to 105 degrees for 90 minutes. Research has shown that the grueling exercise has myriad mental and physical health benefits, including lowering stress levels and improving endurance, according to the American Council on Exercise. And yogis have said the practice has a positive impact on mental strength and mindfulness, in addition to boosting flexibility, improving balance and muscle tone.
The yoga market is now worth $80 billion in the U.S., according to yoga statistics compiled by TheGoodBody.com. Americans spend $16 billion on yoga classes, clothing, equipment and accessories each year, and more than half of Americans (56 percent) use it for stress relief, while 59 percent say it helps improve sleep, according to the same report.
Cleve Willis, a yoga studio owner based in Druid Hills, Georgia, decided to change the name of his studio from Bikram Yoga Decatur to Still Hot Yoga back in 2014, around the time the assault allegations around Chaudhry surfaced so students wouldn’t associate the practice with an alleged predator.
He invested upward of $1,500 to change the name of the studio, rebranding with a new sign outside his storefront, an updated website and merchandise, like water bottles and T-shirts.
“We saw this coming,” Willis said of backlash and upheaval brought forth again following Netflix’s “Bikram” release.
Willis, however, decided to maintain the name “Bikram yoga” on class schedules because he said changing the class name can cause confusion among clients who might be searching specifically for Bikram classes online.
“They can still see we’re not associated with the guy, but we do the actual traditional class. Someone new coming into town may not know what it is. That’s why we didn’t change the name of the class,” Willis said.
The sexual assault allegations surrounding Bikram practitioners have sparked a #MeToo-like reckoning in the yoga community as a whole. An estimated 36 million Americans practice some form of yoga, according to data compiled by The Good Body from 2016, up from 20.4 million in 2012. Of those, 72 percent of yoga participants are women.
And yoga students and teachers are speaking out against unwanted touching in classes where many instructors -- like Chaudhry can be seen doing in the “Bikram” documentary -- have given hands-on adjustment for years without consent.
“As a sexual assault victim myself, it’s out there. It’s happened to me. I’m not shocked,” Kelsey Lowe, a 29-year-old yoga instructor at Bikram Yoga Harlem in New York, said of a male instructor that touched her inappropriately at a separate New York City studio downtown. "He was coming to adjust me, but it was a little too close for comfort. You can feel someone's body up against yours and it's like, 'I don't even know this guy's last name' kind of thing."
She changed studios as a result and has continued teaching and practicing at her current studio. She says the yoga culture of teachers with cult-like followings like Chandury had is what continues to perpetuate sexual misconduct.
“You can’t give all this power to one person.”