CALIFORNIA

Women claim Yoga guru Bikram Choudhury sexually assaulted them; he denies

Over the course of more than 40 years, Bikram Choudhury has gained millions of followers, built a global yoga empire headquartered in Los Angeles and amassed a fortune from the yoga postures done in a sweltering room.

He has championed his methods as a way to help followers heal ailments, promote their health and lead to a better, more peaceful life.

But several women say there is a darker side to the guru, alleging in lawsuits that he sexually assaulted or harassed them.

Choudhury, 69, was in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom over recent weeks defending himself in the first of a series of lawsuits expected to go to trial. The lawsuit was brought by his former general counsel, who alleges she was sexually harassed by Choudhury and fired after investigating claims from a student that Choudhury had raped her.

For the first time in court, Choudhury strongly denied sexually assaulting the women.

"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. Choudhury says the attorney, Minakshi Jafa-Bodden, was let go because she did not have a license to practice law in the United States.

In 2013, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office concluded there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Choudhury after evaluating allegations from four women who accused him of sexual misconduct.

Three of the women accused him of sexual assault, and another alleged that he attempted to touch her genitals without consent, according to a district attorney's memo obtained by The Times. All four accusers lacked corroborating witnesses and physical evidence, the memo said.

Choudhury was born in Kolkata, India, and began studying yoga as a toddler, winning his first national yoga championship in India by the age of 13, according to a biography posted on his business website.

In 1971, he moved to Beverly Hills and quickly became a prominent figure as yoga rose in popularity in the United States. He styled himself as a yogi to the stars, bragging that Raquel Welch and Quincy Jones were among his clients and that he healed Richard Nixon of phlebitis.

Bikram yoga consists of a series of 26 poses, done over 90 minutes in a room heated to 104 degrees. Millions have practiced it worldwide, said Benjamin Lorr, author of "Hellbent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga."

Much of Choudhury's business comes from training courses that are required for followers who want to teach at a Bikram-affiliated studio, Lorr said. The sessions cost $12,500 to $16,600 for a grueling, nine-week course.

During testimony this week, Choudhury admitted to referring to his penis during training. He also said he lied previously under oath on the advice of attorneys, including Jafa-Bodden, when he denied making profane comments during the sessions. Jafa-Bodden denies telling him to lie.

"I teach my teacher yoga class exactly how I want," he said.

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It was during these teacher training courses that some of the assaults are alleged to have occurred.

In interviews with The Times, three of the 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.

Baughn once viewed Choudhury as a genius who changed her life by helping her cope with crippling back pain and depression. She dropped out of college and took out loans to attend his teacher training, hoping to open her own studio and introduce others to the benefits she was experiencing.

She was uncomfortable, however, when Choudhury took special notice of her in class, offering her his Rolex watch from his wrist, her lawsuit said. When she demurred, he told her that he knew her from a past life and later asked her to enter into a relationship with him, according to her complaint.

After reporting what happened to Choudhury's staff, she was told to "separate the man from the teacher," the lawsuit said.

Choudhury continued his advances despite her refusals, she contends in court papers. He would press his body against hers during class, the lawsuit said, whispering sexual comments into her ear. In Choudhury's Acapulco hotel room during another teacher training, he sexually assaulted her, the lawsuit alleges.

"You feel like you owe something to him, and he can really zero in on that and he knows which girls will be excited by him, or vulnerable," she said in an interview.

After Baughn filed suit, other women followed.

In Bikram yoga, Anderson found salvation.

She had spent years masking her depression from past sexual abuse with drugs and alcohol. But with the yoga, she was able to reclaim her body, find hope and achieve happiness.

"It was euphoric," she said. "No matter how I felt walking in, I felt better walking out."

And in Choudhury, she felt, she had found her guru — and her savior.

Anderson said she had decided at one point to dedicate her life to Bikram yoga and open her own studio in her native Washington state.

She completed teacher training and became close with the Choudhury family, often visiting their home, according to a lawsuit she filed against him.

One night at his home, Choudhury asked her to massage him while they watched a Bollywood movie, her complaint alleges. She eventually grew tired and asked to leave, but he forced her to stay, held her down and raped her, according to the lawsuit.

Afterward, she continued to practice yoga, hoping that she'd be able to avoid Choudhury, the lawsuit said.

She briefly worked at the Los Angeles headquarters, according to the complaint, and Choudhury promised to help with the studio she opened in Seattle, for which she took out loans. But after she rebuffed another of his advances, Choudhury refused to promote her studio, the lawsuit alleges.

For McClellan, according to her lawsuit, the attention Choudhury showed her during teacher training in 2010 at first seemed innocuous.

He corrected her poses and complimented her in front of the entire class in San Diego, the lawsuit alleges.

But then Choudhury began commenting on her body and making sexual comments during class, the complaint said. He told her he was in love with her and asked repeatedly for her to move to Los Angeles to work at his headquarters, she alleged in the suit. McClellan was uncomfortable but felt she was too far into the training to turn back, the complaint said.

One night, Choudhury asked her to his hotel room to discuss the job offer, the complaint said. After she refused his advances there, he raped her, the lawsuit alleges.

During a deposition last July, Choudhury repeatedly said he did not recognize McClellan, who attended the deposition, according to a transcript reviewed by The Times. When asked if he raped McClellan, according to the transcript, he declined to answer, invoking his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination on the advice of his attorney.

McClellan said she fell into a severe depression. She tried to resume practicing yoga, but hearing the script written by Choudhury brought back painful memories,she said in an interview.

"I couldn't do the yoga anymore," she said.

When she sued Choudhury, she decided against using her name, instead using the pseudonym Jane Doe #2. Later, she decided to make her accusations public.

"Over time, I've realized that he is a coward and that he doesn't have power over me anymore," she said. "I'm not afraid of him."

All three of their cases are pending.

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

Twitter: @sjceasar

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 21, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Guru denies sexual misconduct - Bikram Choudhury, whose yoga method won over millions, is facing lawsuits from several women." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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