Miami Man Says Bikram Yoga Broke His Back, Forced Him to Smoke Weed to Cope

"I must start out by admitting that I am on a quest for vengeance." That is not the opening line of The Count of Monte Cristo but the beginning of a recent letter to New Times. With that introduction, we expected a typically Miami tale of murder and malevolence. Instead, we found something even more twisted.

"My nightmare started back in December 2010," wrote 58-year-old Haitian-American Eric Oriol, "when I hurt myself very seriously while practicing a sport called Bikram yoga."

See also: Bikram Yoga Copyright Lawsuit: Miami Weighs In

Long before Oriol became Bikram's enemy number one, he was just another student at Bikram Yoga North Miami. He loved that the classes in 107-degree heat helped him keep off the pounds. ("Us Haitians, if we don't eat beans and rice, it's like we're not having dinner!" he says.) However, he soon began to feel excruciating pain in his lower back.

Oriol was wary of overdoing it. But his instructors encouraged him to continue taking classes -- and paying, he says.

"Instead of suggesting that I go see a doctor, all the instructors in unison told me that I needed to continue with the practice because my pain was mostly mental and that the yoga was going to fix whatever problem I was going through," he claims. "I was even told by some of the best instructors that my lower back pains were a manifestation of the financial issues I was facing in my life."

Oriol kept practicing yoga, but the pain grew exponentially worse. Something had to give. When it did, it was Oriol's fifth lumbar vertebra. One day he was executing a pose called "the bow and arrow" when he heard a crack. Bolts of pain shot up his spine.

"I had to literally crawl on my knees out of the last class," he says. It would be more than a year before VA doctors could finally fix his back. Oriol blames Bikram Yoga North Miami. But owner Kristina Vecsesi says his account is absurd.

"No way, absolutely not," she says of Oriol's claim that instructors pushed him to the breaking point. "It was a total scam."

Scam or not, Vecsesi was nonetheless served with a lawsuit in the middle of a class in March 2012. Oriol initially demanded $5,000 but eventually agreed to drop his suit for $1,500.

"I have a tiny yoga studio," Vecsesi says. "My attorney advised it was probably cheaper to give him a little bit of money just to have him go away."

But Oriol didn't go away. His ordeal -- and his outrage -- were only beginning. He tried joining a Bikram studio in North Miami Beach to shed the pounds he had gained while injured, but manager Jenny Sánchez told him that he was on a list of troublemakers.

("It's a small community, and we share a lot of teachers," Vecsesi says. "I had put the word out to the studio owners that I knew personally because I didn't want them to end up getting scammed by this guy. That's really bad karma.")

Sánchez let Oriol join but soon regretted it. Oriol, who readily admits he began smoking pot to ease his back pain, kept trying to sell T-shirts with images of marijuana leaves to yoga classmates, she says. He also began sending her "rants about racism," including one message that said she was "Paula Deen's younger sister." "It was crazy, crazy stuff," Sánchez says. Oriol claims that an instructor called him "boy" and that Sánchez made no secret of wanting him gone.

Finally, Oriol tried a third studio, in South Beach, but was told he was banned.

"It's a cult," he says of the Bikram community that has cut him off. "Not only are they teaching you how to exercise; they are also playing with your mind. They keep teaching you to love yourself and connect with other people, but it's bullshit. Just look at how they treated me."

"I have to move to another state to keep doing yoga," he says. "Or I just need to stop eating rice and beans."

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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.