Bikram yoga founder Choudhury fined S$1.3m in sexual harassment suit: Reports

Bikram Choudhury, founder of Bikram Yoga.
Bikram Choudhury, founder of Bikram Yoga.PHOTO: ST FILE

LOS ANGELES - The founder of the Bikram yoga practice was ordered to pay US$924,500 (S$1.32 million) on Monday (Jan 25) to a former legal adviser who said she was fired for investigating sexual misconduct charges against her employer, media reported.

Ms Minakshi Jafa-Bodden, former personal attorney of celebrity yoga guru Bikram Choudhury, was awarded compensatory damages by a Los Angeles jury for claims of discrimination, retaliation and of suffering sexual harassment herself, The Los Angeles Times reported.

During the trial, Choudhury had dismissed the accusations. "I don't do that," he testified. "I don't have to."

With his flowing black hair lying on a jet-black suit, Choudhury alternately described accusations of mistreatment and abuse of employees as "lies" and "big lies," drawing laughs from the jury, LAT reported. He said Ms Jafa-Bodden was let go because she did not have a licence to practise law in the United States, LAT and other media reported.

'It's an enormous vindication,' Ms Jafa-Bodden's attorney, Carla Minnard, was quoted as saying by The Daily Mail after the ruling.

Choudhury, 69, published a book in 1979 with descriptions, photographs and drawings of his signature 26 postures and two breathing exercises yoga sequence, which is practised in a room heated to 41 deg C. Bikram Yoga devotees have included celebrities such as Brooke Shields, Shirley MacLaine and Madonna.

 

The case is but the first of a series of lawsuits against Choudhury expected to go to trial, said LAT. 

In interviews with the newspaper, three other women who have filed lawsuits — Larissa Anderson, Sarah Baughn and Dana McClellan — say Choudhury nurtured a cult-like devotion among followers that allowed him to take advantage of female students.

That devotion — and a fear of being exiled from the yoga community — kept victims and others from speaking up, the women said.

At teacher trainings, some students were invited to Choudhury's suite at night for mandatory viewings of Bollywood movies that stretched into the early morning hours, said Baughn, who filed the first lawsuit against Choudhury in 2013. There, some women massaged Choudhury and brushed his hair, she said.

Choudhury has denied any wrongdoing, saying that he would not have to force himself on women as he has many offers of sex.

“Women likes (sic) me. Women loves (sic) me,” he said in a CNN interview last year, the first time he has addressed the rape allegations. “So if I really wanted to (be) involved with the women, I don’t have to assault the women.”

“I never assaulted them,” Mr Choudhury said in the interview, “The answer is I feel sorry for them.

“I don’t think they are bad people. It’s not... (them who) are saying that (the allegations),” Mr Choudhury added. “They are entranced by... lawyers.”

The assault allegations have led to some yoga studios dropping the Bikram name, CNN said. The lawsuits have also damaged Mr Choudhury’s relationship with his family.

When asked about his wife’s reaction to the rape allegations, the yoga guru, who has been married to Mrs Rajashree Choudhury for 30 years, teared up.

“My wife never looks at me any more. My children, my wife... We die only once in our life, (but) I’m dying every day,” he told the cable network. “Twenty-four hours a day, I work harder than any human being... and this is the reward? I’m a rapist? Shame... on the Western culture.”