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

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - WORDS BEN­JAMIN WAL­LACE

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.

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