Bikram Choudhury: the scandal surrounding the yoga guru
HE’S WON OVER MILLIONS OF FOLLOWERS WITH HIS EPONYMOUS BRAND OF HOT YOGA, INCLUDING CELEBRITIES LIKE GEORGE CLOONEY AND LADY GAGA, BUT AT LEAST FIVE WOMEN CLAIM BIKRAM CHOUDHURY IS A SEXUAL ASSAILANT, NOT A HEALER
before she broke up with her boyfriend, quit her job, attempted suicide and began using drugs and alcohol, before the nightmares in which Bikram Choudhury takes her and some other women into a room and sets them on fire, Jane* says she had a carefree, sunny disposition.In 2004,then 21 years old, she was just another young American woman who fell under the spell of Bikram yoga, the original celebrityfavoured form of ‘hot yoga’. Her boyfriend surprised her with a gift: he wanted to pay $10 900 (about R109 000) for her to attend one of founder Bikram Choudhury’s twice-yearly teacher trainings. And so, in September 2010 – joining some 380 other mostly female Bikramites from 33 countries – she went to San Diego, where that autumn’s training session was being held.
Bikram teacher training, obligatory for anyone who wants to teach Bikram yoga, is a nine-week boot camp, featuring two 90-minute classes six days a week, plus anatomy lessons, posture clinics and meandering Choudhury soliloquies. It’s an ordeal of overstressed bodies and poor hygiene, a place where the combination of heat
and vigorous activity can cause people to vomit, weep and pass out. It is overseen by Choudhury’s autocratic leadership (permission is required to go to the bathroom; no one may wear green, a colour he hates) and intensified by deprivations of food, water and sleep. It’s also a Bollywood film festival: trainees gather in a darkened tent to watch, mandatorily ,often past 3am. Choudhury himself has likened the training to ‘brainwashing’.
Choudhury, who at 67 still conducts classes in his signature outfit of black Speedo, jewel-encrusted Rolex, and headset mike, his chest waxed, his thinning black hair pulled into a top knot, has fully embraced his guru prerogatives. He surrounds himself with clusters of lithe trainees who brush his hair and massage him. ‘He’d walk into the room,’ Jane says, ‘and people would literally put their hands together in prayer and get down on the floor and bow down, out of respect for him.’ Jane was flattered, at first, when Choudhury paid her special attention, telling her after one class, ‘There were hundreds of bodies in that room tonight but you were the only one that listened to me.’ As the weeks passed, though, she says that Choudhury’s comments took on a creepy tone. Jane says she was offended, but felt she was too far into training to back out, and she didn’t want to disappoint her boyfriend. As alleged in a lawsuit Jane filed in Los Angeles Superior Court this past May, under the name Jane Doe 2, Choudhury’s behaviour intensified. (Bikram Choudhury declined to be interviewed for this story or to respond to questions.)
One night, the guru kept Jane after class and said he wanted her to move to LA to work at his headquarters. ‘I can see something inside of you that no one else can, ’he said ,according to her account.He gripped her hand and stared at her. ‘I am your guru,’ he said. ‘I am your god… Without me, you will be a piece of gold undiscovered and covered in dirt.’ Another night, according to her lawsuit, Jane was sitting on an arm of Choudhury’s chair during a Bollywood movie, massaging him at his behest, when he again pressed his case for her to come and work for him. ‘Let’s go up to my room,’ he said. ‘We can talk about it there.’ As Jane looked concerned, Choudhury hastened to add, ‘Don’t worry, we won’t be alone. ’Trusting that he was going to tell her about a career opportunity, she went with him, but as soon as they entered his room, she realised her mistake. They were alone. ‘I can’t stay here,’ she said. ‘I need to leave!’
She says she started to walk out, but Choudhury began crying and begging her to ‘save’ him: ‘I am all alone. I need someone to love me.I need someone to touch me with love.’ His wife, Rajashree, was ‘mean,’ he said, and ‘hates me.’ Jane protested that she had a boyfriend, but Choudhury allegedly said,‘I need to spiritually enlighten you. In order to do that, we need to become one.’ She says he grabbed her pants, pulled them down and forced her onto the bed.As Jane was crying and pleading for Choudhury to stop, he ‘forced his unprotected penis in [her] vagina,’ according to her legal complaint. ‘Within moments it was over. The only thing Defendant Bikram Choudhury said was “How many times did you come?”’
The next day in class, according to Jane’s account, as Choudhury’s lecture went off on a particularly sexual tangent,
‘I am your guru,’ he said. ‘I am your god… Without me, you will be a piece of gold undiscovered and covered in dirt’
Jane ran out of the tent crying. A male staffer followed and told her, ‘We all know how Bikram is, that’s just part of it. If you leave now, you’ll never be able to come back.You will be out of the Family forever.You will not graduate and all of your hard work will be for nothing.’ (In response to Jane’s and other women’s suits, the Los Angeles Police Department launched an investigation into their allegations against Choudhury. The district attorney’s office has reviewed the police reports and declined to prosecute.)
By outward appearance, Choudhury is a ludicrous character, a flashy showboat who wears crocodile shoes and gangster fedoras, owns dozens of luxury cars, lives in a Beverly Hills mansion, and has even released a maudlin album, entitled Bikram Love, on which he sings synthy ballads with titles including ‘I Feel Lonely’ and ‘People Are Beautiful.’
Choudhury regularly makes outlandish claims for his yoga, asserting that it cures cancer, among other miracle tales. And he reserves his least palatable thoughts – on women, gay people, interracial relationships, various ethnic groups – for the relative privacy of his teacher trainings, according to multiple sources.
He could be easily reduced to a cartoon, except that his brand of yoga has been wildly popular. Glamorous practitioners such as George Clooney and Lady Gaga have lent lustre to the brand. More than 600 studios around the world are dedicated to Bikram yoga, but the font of Choudhury’s wealth is his teacher trainings. He takes in an estimated $8-million (about R8 0million) from the two annual events. Choudhury has happily embraced the label ‘Mc Yoga’ to describe his empire.
According to Choudhury himself, he was a yoga prodigy, plucked as a child from his parents’ home in Calcutta by a prominent guru. When Choudhury moved to the US in the 1970s, yoga was still a California subculture, but Choudhury, just shy of 30, was becoming a darling of Hollywood. Stars such as Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Quincy Jones and Jeff Bridges were among the students drawn to this cocky showman with his charismatic mix of punishing yoga (the heated room is, according to Choudhury, meant to reproduce conditions in his native Calcutta), comic monologue and egalitarian hazing.
Choudhury would soon become a controversial figure in the broader yoga world. For one thing, he is brazenly materialistic and litigious. Starting in 2002 he began furiously registering trademarks and filed for a copyright registration on his yoga, a decade-long crusade that ultimately proved futile, after the US Copyright Office and a federal judge declared yoga un-copyrightable in 2012.
Among the five women who have filed cases against Choudhury (with charges ranging from sexual harassment to rape) is Sarah Baughn. Baughn developed scoliosis in high school, and the pain of her curved spine had made her unhappy. What happened next is the archetypal Bikram story: she began taking Bikram classes in 2004, in her second year of college; she loved the yoga and,as it healed her spine and spirit, became consumed by it, dropping out of school and taking out loans to attend teacher training so that she might devote her life to the practice.
She was pretty and enthusiastic. On the third night of training, as students were demonstrating postures, she says, she found Choudhury staring at her, then a young woman brought Baughn his diamond-spangled Rolex. (She returned it after class.) She was flattered by the guru’s attention – ‘I had a very deep backbend; I thought he
He surrounds himself with clusters of lithe trainees who brush his hair and massage him
probably just noticed my spine’– but also found it uncomfortable. After class, he kept her behind; she says he told her they knew each other from a past life, and kissed her on the cheek. On the fifth day of training, according to the lawsuit filed this past March by Baughn, Choudhury called her into his office and said, ‘Should we make this a relationship? … I have never, never felt like this about anyone.’ Shocked, she left the office and broke into tears.
Baughn was unusually flexible and made a rapid ascent in the competitive yoga world, placing second in both the nationals and internationals in 2006.Though she says he kept coming on to her, Baughn was able to deflect him. When Choudhury’s wife invited her to spend Thanks giving in their home that autumn, she was grateful to be included in the inner circle and spent hours helping Rajashree prepare the meal. But that night, after his wife had gone to bed, Choudhury ‘embraced her from behind and pressed his penis into her leg,’ according to Baughn’s suit. Baughn says she froze as Choudhury said,‘I need someone to take care of me so I don’t die.’ When Baughn rebuffed him, her suit says, he told her,‘ You’ll never be champion without me.’
At the 2008 national championships, she tied for first place, but at the internationals the next day, she came in second, despite what she believed was a clear victory. (Baughn claims the winner had stumbled.) According to Baughn’s lawsuit, one of the judges told her that all the judges had scored her as the winner. Still, Baughn was determined not to throw away her yoga opportunities, and when the chance to assist at the 2008 Acapulco training came up, she went, allegedly securing an agreement from senior staffers never to leave her alone with Choudhury. But after one of the nights when Choudhury insisted his staff stay up watching Bollywood movies in his room, she fell asleep, she says, then awakened to find herself being ditched by the others. ‘I grabbed my shoes and the door went click, ’she said. ‘I remember the click. And then I ran to the door, because I thought, Oh, shit ,they weren’t supposed to leave me.And when
‘She says he forced her to perform oral sex, then raped her, according to the suit’
I got to the door, he was on me. He was all over me.’ Choudhury pinned her against the door and continued groping her, Baughn’s suit says, ‘grinding his penis against her leg’– even as she said, ‘What are you doing? Stop this.I don’t want to do this’– until she could pull the door open and escape.
After that, Baughn alleges, Choudhury wouldn’t permit her to teach advanced seminars, despite her abilities, and his office contacted studios and discouraged them from using her. In 2012, when her two-year-old daughter said she wanted to be a yoga teacher like her mother, Baughn had a crisis of conscience. ‘I was like, “You can’t teach yoga – you’ll get raped,”’ Baughn says. ‘That’s what was in my head. ’Then, when she told a fellow teacher about her experiences and ‘he said, “That’s horrible,” period, no buts’ – the first time a fellow Bikramite had responded with such clarity, rather than rationalising the guru’s behaviour or blaming Baughn for it – she suddenly experienced the full effect of what had happened to her.It was then, she says, that she decided to file a lawsuit, to make sure Choudhury couldn’t do to other women what he had done to her. Because of her prominence in the Bikram community, she hoped her message might be heard.
Once Baughn sued, other women came forward. The plaintiffs accusing Choudhury of rape or sexual harassment tell similar stories: he allegedly singled out a naïve young woman for attention, made progressively more sexual overtures, and responded to rejection with angry threats.The pattern allegedly repeated with Jane Doe 1, who, like Jane Doe 2, filed suit early last May. When Jane Doe 1 assisted at the autumn teacher training in 2011, she says, Choudhury flattered her by saying he had a ‘gift’ for her, a ‘transmission,’ because they ‘thought the same.’ One morning, her legal complaint asserts, when she was doing her duty of tidying his suite, Choudhury surprised her and forced her onto the bed, pulling her pants off even as she told him she didn’t want to do this, and he called her ‘idiot’ over and over. She says he forced her to perform oral sex, then raped her, according to the suit. ‘Defendant Choudhury forcefully manipulated her legs into a yoga posture, and laughed at her, saying, “You are a yogini!”’ As with the other women, Jane Doe 1 says, walking away from the Bikram-yoga community wasn’t a simple choice. She was broke, had spent what was for her a lot of money to attend teacher training, and had invested the last five years of her life in teaching Bikram. She stayed at the training and kept working, though she broke down crying in a staff meeting. Then, cleaning Choudhury’s room days later, she says, she was attacked again. ‘The plaintiff could not feel in her body, she felt disassociated,’ Jane Doe 1’s lawsuit states. ‘She could not run or act. Plaintiff remembers feeling that his sexual assaults were incestuous; like a family member attacking her.’ Eventually, she borrowed money from her mother to enable her to leave the training. Three weeks after Sarah Baughn filed her lawsuit, Jane Doe 1 reported the alleged rapes to her local police department.
The women’s suits anticipate a likely defence of Choudhury’s: Why did some of them keep going back? This is an idea that has currency in the broader Bikram community too. A handful of studios, on the other hand, have dropped Bikram from their names. ‘It’s really clear that there’s some serious issues going on, and I didn’t want to be part of it,’ says Stephanie Dixon, owner of Summerlin Yoga (formerly Bikram Yoga Summerlin) in Las Vegas. Tony Sanchez, a former Bikram protégé, who now teaches his own brand of yoga in Mexico, takes a longer view. ‘I think Bikram was a different person at the beginning,’ he says. ‘He had a lot of intentions to help people… I believe it’s like the skinny person who [eats] a lot of junk food, and … becomes [obese]. Bikram was spiritually pure … eventually he became an obese person with all his karmic shit … to deal with.’ * Name has been changed
Opposite Bikram Choudhury,leader of the Bikram hot yoga movement, directs classes in his Bikram’s Yoga College of India, San Diego, in November 2010. Above Choudhury assisting actress Carol Lynley with the ‘Bow Pose’ and the ‘Camel Pose’ at his yoga studio in Beverly Hills, California, 1982.
Opposite and above Choudhury assists clients at his yoga studio in Beverly Hills, California,1982. Left Sarah Baughn.