Yoga Guru Fined $7M for Sexually Harassing Lawyer
Bikram Choudhury, the outlandish Indian yoga guru to the stars, has been publicly dogged by accusations of sexual assault since 2013, when four former students slapped him with civil suits.
That year, a Los Angeles County district attorney’s office found there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Choudhury.
Now a Los Angeles jury has ordered Choudhury to pay almost $6.4 million in punitive damages, in addition to $924,500 in compensatory damages, to a lawyer who said Choudhury fired her in 2013 when he discovered she was internally investigating several of the allegations against him.
The jury sided with the attorney, Minakshi Jafa-Bodden, who was head of legal and international affairs at Choudhury’s Los Angeles yoga school from 2011 to 2013. Jafa-Bodden had claimed sexual harassment and wrongful termination in her suit.
“The case is still continuing, so I am a bit reluctant to speak about it out of respect for the ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” Choudhury’s lawyer, Robert Tafoya, told The Daily Beast in an email. “However, I will tell you that Mr. Choudhury will be appealing the verdict based on what we currently know and the verdict as it currently stands.”
He added that Choudhury is also considering a motion to have the judge dismiss the verdict, and another possible motion for a new trial.
Choudhury, 69, has long had a reputation for lewdness and misogyny. In a 1977 tabloid interview, he reportedly sniffed that actress Raquel Welch, then his student, “has cottage cheese muscles, fat legs, and a stiff body.”
Five years ago, Details published a feature describing the sexually charged atmosphere at one of Bikram’s intensive nine-week teacher trainings in San Diego—a $10,900 investment for those who want to become certified Bikram Yoga instructors. (Other Bikram teacher trainings have been more or less expensive, depending on the location).
Choudhury comes across as a narcissistic despot rather than a grounded yogi, parading around in a black speedo and shouting vulgar, degrading instructions at his students: “You, Miss Teeny-Weeny Bikini! Spread your legs! You, Mr. Masturbation! Until I say ‘Change,’ you do not move a muscle!”
Most prospective students would sooner join a chirpy pilates cult if they knew that the revered yoga guru routinely made crude remarks, such as “This posture called dirty old bitch! Because not even one more inch can you stretch!”
Details reported that Bikram’s female students were more tolerant of his absurd showmanship and bullying style than his male students. But they all stuck around to master his punishing, 90-minute sequence of 26 postures, performed in sauna-like rooms heated to more than 100 degrees.
Bikram’s business model was also about making yoga sexy: hot and sweaty students practicing half-naked and in close proximity to each other, while their guru preached free love. He claimed he discouraged romantic encounters during teacher trainings: “I tell them all, ‘No touchy-touchy, no kissy-kissy, no fucky-fucky!’”
But the sexual atmosphere and gruelling workout were irresistible. By 2010, Bikram was earning an estimated $5 million a year. He also had a celebrity following that included Madonna, Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore, Lady Gaga, George Clooney, Jennifer Aniston, and Kobe Bryant.
Then came the accusations of rape and sexual assault.
The first complaint was filed in 2013 by a former student, Sarah Baughn, who alleged that Choudhury began sexually pursuing her at a 2005 teacher training (she was 20 at the time), whispering sexual innuendos in her ear while assisting her with poses.
She continued to study with him and agreed to volunteer at a 2007 teacher training in Hawaii because she believed he had another mistress at the time (Vanity Fair told her story in a 2014 exposé on Bikram).
Later that year, he allegedly assaulted her at his home after his wife had gone to sleep.
According to Baughn’s suit, she froze when he suddenly “embraced her from behind and pressed his penis into her leg.” He said he was lonely, that his wife was a “bitch,” and that he needed “someone to take care of me so I don’t die.”
When she rebuffed his advances, according to her suit, Bikram threatened her: “You will never be champion without me.” The more she rejected him, the more he made sure on this threat.
Speaking to The New York Times in 2013, Baughn’s lawyer declined to say whether her client reported the assaults to police. But another plaintiff, Jane Doe 1, reported her rapes three weeks after Baughn filed suit.
That same year, Larissa Anderson claimed he raped her at his home while his wife and children were sleeping upstairs. (“She felt sick to her stomach but too scared of Bikram to say anything,” the suit reads. “He was too powerful to go against.”) A woman referred to as Jane Doe 2 in her May 2013, suit said she was assaulted at a 2010 teacher training.
A 2015 complaint filed by a woman named Jill Lawler claimed Choudhury raped her at a 2010 teacher training and on several other occasions.
She did not speak out, the suit says, because she was afraid that Choudhury would “kick her out of training and she would have lost both the $10,000 from her college fund, and her ability to work as a yoga instructor in order to pay for the college.” A jury trial is scheduled to begin in August.
While some studios disassociated from Bikram’s name as the sexual misconduct suits piled up, many more branded by the hot yoga pioneer have continued to open.
As for whether the new case will affect his empire, Choudhury’s lawyer said Bikram “will continue to carry on his yoga business.”
“Very few people make a lot of money in this business, and he has made more than anyone else in yoga,” said Rohit Deshpande, professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, who did a case study there titled “Branding Yoga.”
“Ironically, he did it by claiming he’s developed this unique intellectual property and then defending himself to what he says are attempts to steal his intellectual property,” said Deshpande.
Indeed, Choudhury lost an appeal to copyright his 26 poses and two breathing exercises in October, when a federal court ruled that the sequence in hot yoga classes popularized by Bikram are not protected by copyright law because copyright protection is limited to the “expression of ideas, and does not extend to the ideas themselves.”
Deshpande studies the pros and cons of attaching your name to a brand, and references Martha Stewart as an example of a brand that suffered after she was convicted of insider trading.
“Her stock plummeted, and it took a long time for her to be resurrected. I predict something similar will happen to Bikram,” he said. “Branding is about establishing a relationship of trust with your audience and consumers. So when that trust is hurt, what do you do to rebuild it?”
The story has been updated with new information, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016.