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.

bikram and me
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.

graduation demo pic
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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