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Saturday, March 2, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Yoga Guru’s Legal Troubles Just Beginning

LOS ANGELES (CN) - Yoga teacher Bikram Choudhury was dismissive when asked during his trial last month if he had sexually assaulted women. "I don't do that," Choudhury, 69, told the jury. "I don't have to."

The millionaire founder of a form of controversial "hot" yoga practiced in 104-degree heat has attracted the rich and famous. Madonna, tennis star Andy Murray, and Gwyneth Paltrow have all sweated it out in grueling 90-minute sessions.

Choudhury, who leads classes looking like an emaciated sumo wrestler - dressed in black Speedos with his hair in a topknot - also counts Raquel Welch and Quincy Jones among his former clients.

He opened his first college in India, after adapting 26 poses from Hatha Yoga, before his yoga franchise became an international phenomenon, attracting millions of devotees and turning Choudhury into a household name.

But in the past three years, repeated lawsuits accusing him of sexual assault have put a serious dent in his reputation as yogi to the stars.

In 2013, Sarah Baugh, who had trained to teach at Choudhury's Los Angeles studio, claimed he had sexually assaulted her. More allegations emerged that year when two former students claimed Choudhury had raped them.

Court filings describe Choudhury as a racist, anti-Semitic homophobe who preyed on his female students.

Six women have claimed sexual assault. The first trial is set for June 6; three other women's cases also are scheduled for trial in Superior Court this year.

One woman has entered into a conditional settlement; another has a hearing on March 8 to set a trial date.

Three of the women filed as "Jane Does." Baugh, Jill Lawler and Larissa Anderson sued in their own names.

Choudhury's legal adviser Minakshi Jafa-Bodden put her sexual harassment claims to the test week and a jury awarded her $7.3 million in damages .

Jafa-Bodden claimed that Choudhury created a "hyper-sexualized, offensive and degrading environment for women," and summoned young women yoga students or trainees up to his hotel room.

Jafa-Bodden says she was banished from his inner circle, then forced to resign, after she voiced concerns about the way Choudhury treated women.

In a joint statement, attorneys representing the women in the sexual assault cases said they were happy to see "justice served" in Jafa-Bodden's case.

"We are optimistic that our clients, who were sexually assaulted by Choudhury, will receive a similar opportunity to see justice done through the legal process," attorneys Mary Shea and Carney Shegerian said.

Benjamin Lorr, 35, is author of "Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga," which described his time as a Bikram yoga trainee. He said he believed Choudhury and his franchise have been "devastated" by the allegations.

Lorr, who paid $10,000 to attend Choudhury's 9-week program for his nonfiction book, said he saw Bikram make sexual comments, jokes, "insults and flirtations." The teacher called one trainee "Miss Boobs," he said.

"He referred to her only as Miss Boobs and he was ruthless with her in terms of just denigrating her and her yoga practice consistently throughout," Lorr told Courthouse News. One of the Jane Doe plaintiffs was in his group.

Lorr said he attended teacher training for his book with 380 people, but he has heard the program now attracts 50 to 60 trainees.

"He makes most of his money from these teacher trainings. He charges exorbitant sums for the nine weeks. The staff is unpaid at them. So this is where he's making the bulk of his money and I think it definitely hurts his bottom line," Lorr said.

He said Bikram studio franchise owners used to fear the guru but that has changed.

"They're waking up and they're realizing the emperor has no clothes," Lorr said. "That has very much been the fallout from these cases. His power has been weakened."

As the claims have piled up, Choudhury has maintained his innocence.

In an interview with CNN last year, Choudhury said he never sexually assaulted anyone and women came to him for sex, rather than the other way round.

"Women like me. Women love me," he said. "So if I really wanted to involve the women, I don't have to assault the women."

Neither Choudhury nor his attorney responded to requests for interviews.

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