Aug 12, 2013

Yoga's Terribly, Horribly, Awfully Negative Year

All I could think when I read this was "here we go again." Yet another man in a position of spiritual leadership turns out to have been abusing his power by exploiting women and just generally being a dick.

The guru behind a popular style of yoga currently facing allegations of rape and sexual assault inspired fear in his employees and runs his company "like a cult," a lawyer for a former employee told The Huffington Post Monday.

Carla Minnard, a civil rights attorney, says her client was one of the few to stand up to Bikram Choudhury, the man at the center of the Bikram yoga empire. In return, she says, the company threatened to have her client and her 8-year-old daughter deported.

“There’s a great desire to keep Bikram’s conduct in the dark,” Minnard said. “It shows an inability by anyone to restrain an individual who is a dangerous person.”

Minakshi Jaffa-Bodden, Minnard's client, is a former legal advisor at Bikram’s Yoga College of India, a Los Angeles-based yoga school. Jaffa-Bodden is the sole plaintiff named in an explosive but little-reported June 13 lawsuit against Choudhury, which accuses him of rape and sexual assault of employees and students. The suit additionally claims the yogi promoted a work environment inside his school that was rife with misogyny, homophobia, racism, sexual harassment and threats of violence.

Whether all the allegations prove true or not, much of Choudhury's behavior has been well-documented and he appears to be an equal opportunity hater. Gay people caused AIDS and "these blacks just don't get my yoga" are just some of the sentiments ascribed to the guru. The substance of the suit is worse. It alleges that when Minakshi Jaffa-Bodden got wind of his abuses she was threatened with deportation and worse.

The most recent charges come from Minakshi Jaffa-Bodden, Choudhury's former legal advisor. Jaffa-Bodden claims that she became aware of allegations of sexual assault and harassment during a multi-day training conference; when she approached Choudhury about them, she was told that it would be "best" to "not look into it any further." When she attempted to stand up to the yoga guru, his company threatened to have her and her 8-year-old daughter deported. In March 2013, Jaffa-Bodden says that she was forced to resign by Choudhury himself. He apparently made her sign a resignation letter by threatening her physically.

In addition to black people and gays, Choudhury has such a history of slurring entire groups of people that a former student listed and categorized the hate. Objects of his ire included the Chinese, the tattooed, Mormons, dog owners, sluts, and women of every body type and hair style: "Chubbies, too skinny, small-breasted, without make-up, with short hair, with long hair, but worn up."

Sydney Towne said she kept a list of Bikram's behavior when she trained with him full-time from April to June 2012 because "he dislikes so many types of people" that "a list seemed like the only way to keep track of it all." She loved Bikram Yoga, but hated the way Bikram himself "completely takes advantage of people and their desire for wellness."

"I think he preys on people and there's such a cult of personality around him that people don't question his clearly inappropriate behavior," she said. "I completely believe all accusations against him."

Choudhury seems to have something ghastly to say about just about everyone. He is fond of his own penis, though. Quite, quite fond.

Meanwhile, if you want to buy your yoga pants at Lululemon, be prepared for similar judgmentalism and cultishness. Much like Abercrombie & Fitch, Lululemon recently took a publicity hit for its tendency to sideline women over a size 8. Those clothes, if they're stocked at all, can be found in an unsorted heap in the back of the store... under a table.

Far from an accident, the exiling of larger clothing by Lululemon is a central piece of the company's strategy to market its brand as the look of choice for the stylishly fitness-conscious, according to former employees and consumer advocates. They say this treatment of larger clothes and customers reflects the culture that Lululemon represents -- one that falsely suggests skinniness is the paramount feature of health. Lululemon declined to comment.

The judgment and in-group, out-group dynamics reportedly permeate the company culture of Lululemon. Former employee Elizabeth Licorish describes a sorority girl type of hierarchy in which employees scrutinize and evaluate each other constantly and it takes little to be found deeply wanting.

I hoped to exercise my love of running, earn an employee discount, and take free fitness classes. But, soon after enduring Lululemon's intensive training program, I realized I'd been indoctrinated into a bottomless pit of groupthink I'd never be able to survive.

The Lululemon culture consists, on the surface, of catchy manifestos. Lululemon wants you to know it's "elevating the world from mediocrity to greatness" and "creating components for people to live long, healthy and fun lives." But, dig deeper, and you'll learn about Landmark Forum, the ultra-secretive, eerily cultish educational series, which Lululemon employees are "strongly encouraged" to attend. Before you're in line for Landmark, you're bombarded with Brian Tracy motivational CDs and a book club that culminates with Atlas Shrugged. Successful Lululemon employees can recite Brian Tracy better than the Pledge of Allegiance. Mention Chip Wilson, Lululemon's founder and former CEO, and their eyes will light up and quickly glaze over. They'll tell you, quite seriously, that he saved their lives by elevating them to greatness.

All this sort of made walking into work feel like time traveling to Salem. Because, with the Lululemon creed and catechism comes a collective mentality that thrives on scapegoats and leaves you feeling worthless if you subsist on anything but spring water and kale. Once, another employee sneered at me from across the floor and said the soda I happened to be enjoying would "rot me from the inside out." Eventually we were all issued reusable acrylic cups and forbidden to drink anything but H2O. We'd be encouraged to give "feedback," a terrible, calculated misnomer for ruthless criticism that could veer from professional to personal in 60 seconds flat. If a customer dismissed your sales pitch because, let's say, he was in a bad mood, one of your fellow team members would pull you aside and say your conversational style lacked genuine authenticity. She'd insinuate that you lack authenticity. That you aren't equipped enough as a human being to sell yoga pants.

And, unsurprisingly, at the heart of this world of LGATs, motivational speakers, and measuring everyone's spiritual worth by their material success, is a corporate leadership that knows The Secret.

A cult following is the most coveted accessory in retail, and Lululemon's is even more lustworthy than its Velocity Gym Bag. It wasn't built on the work of some Jobs-ian swami, however, but on the sources of Lulu founder and chairman Chip Wilson's own spiritual awakening. Wilson has mixed a heady self-actualizing cocktail from equal parts Landmark Forum (seminars based on the philosophy of Werner Erhard), the books of motivational business guru Brian Tracy, and Oprah-endorsed best seller The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne. He is now hard at work formalizing them in a Lululemon "internal constitution."

"It's the first time I've heard of anyone almost directly using the techniques of cults and applying them to their business," says Douglas Atkin, author of The Culting of Brands. Drawing on those techniques, and with virtually zero advertising, Lululemon has converted the most popular yoga teachers from Beverly Hills to Boston (and their students) into a devoted -- and self-propagating -- clientele. In a little more than 10 years, Lululemon has grown from a single storefront on the surf side of Vancouver, British Columbia, to a public company with more than 100 outlets and $340 million in annual revenue. "I have not been able to find any company that compares with what they do," says Suzanne Price, a retail analyst with ThinkEquity, who points to Lululemon stores ringing up $1,800 in sales per square foot, compared with only $600 for retailers such as J.Crew and Abercrombie & Fitch.

Wilson claims he didn't start Lululemon merely to sell $90 leggings, but also to help his customers limber up for their journey to self-esteem and empowerment. As he writes in the "Chip's Musings" section of the company Web site, "The law of attraction" -- the central tenet of The Secret, that visualizing goals is the key to attaining them -- "is the fundamental law that Lululemon was built on from its 1998 inception." He goes on to explain the company's meta-mission: "Our vision is 'to elevate the world from mediocrity to greatness,' and we are growing so we can train more people and spread the word of The Secret -- which to us at Lululemon is not so secret."

Lululemon talks a good game about authenticity but it quickly learned that being too authentically yogic was a bad business model. "Yogis" turned out to be "too slow" on the sales floor so they dumped them for runners who also like yoga. This brought them the driven, "type A" personalities needed to create a yoga themed business empire.

Other challenges to Lululemon's "authenticity" branding have included exposed hypocrisy and outright fraud: the use of child labor in China, the manufacture and sale of expensive seaweed bags bragging a litany of seaweed related health benefits that turned out not to contain a whit of seaweed, and a name that reportedly owes to the company founder's delight in mocking the Japanese. 

For all its adherence to The Secret, Lululemon somehow law of attracted a grisly homicide as one sales girl brutally stabbed and bludgeoned another to death, purportedly over a stolen pair of yoga pants. CEO Linda Day made a grand public statement about how convicted murderer Brittany Norwood's actions were "the antithesis of the values of our company." Well, one would think that murder is contrary to the values of most companies. One would even think that it goes without saying which renders it an odd statement indeed. But it also conspicuously avoids addressing how it fits with their like attracts like philosophy. But then, we all know that among law of attraction adherents we're all responsible for everything we attract until it's so horrible that we're somehow not anymore.

None of this bears much resemblance to what I learned when I first started studying yoga. For my teachers, it wasn't about having a perfect, beach body, but about listening to your body's unique wisdom and moving in tune with it. It was about health and spiritual alignment -- not "fitness." I've long been aware that the growing popularity of yoga was a double-edge sword. A beautiful, traditional practice proliferated in the West but it also succumbed to faddishness, vanity, and pecuniary exploitation.

My first teacher was based largely in Kripalu yoga. I also spent time at Kripalu. Amrit Desai created a beautiful, patient yoga style that people of every age, condition, and body type could benefit from. He also turned out to be an inveterate womanizer, manipulator, and hypocrite. Oh well. The more things change...

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