Schism Emerges in Bikram Yoga Empire Amid Rape ClaimsBy JACK HEALY FEB. 23, 2015
Bikram Choudhury leading a class at Bikram's Yoga College of India in San Diego in November 2010. Credit Rebecca Greenfield/Polaris LOS ANGELES — He is the yoga guru who built an empire on sweat and swagger. He has a stable of luxury cars and a Beverly Hills mansion. During trainings for hopeful yoga teachers, he paces a stage in a black Speedo and holds forth on life, sex and the transformative power of his brand of hot yoga. “I totally cure you,” he has told interviewers. “Whatever the problem you have.”
But a day of legal reckoning is drawing closer for the guru, Bikram Choudhury. He is facing six civil lawsuits from women accusing him of rape or assault. The most recent was filed on Feb. 13 by a Canadian yogi, Jill Lawler, who said Mr. Choudhury raped her during a teacher-training in the spring of 2010.
This month, a Los Angeles judge cleared away several challenges to a lawsuit from a former student who said Mr. Choudhury raped her during another 2010 teacher-training.
The first complaint was filed two years ago. As more surfaced, and more women spoke publicly about accusations of assault and harassment, their accounts have created fissures in the close-knit world of yoga students and teachers who have spent thousands of dollars to study with Mr. Choudhury; opened studios bearing his name; and found strength, flexibility and health in his formula of 26 yoga postures in a sweltering room.
A class at the San Diego branch of Bikram’s Yoga College of India in 2010. Bikram yoga studios operate worldwide, from Buenos Aires to Shanghai. Credit Rebecca Greenfield/Polaris
Many have stayed loyal to a man they call Boss and revere as an eccentric guru. Others are walking away.
“A lot of people have blinders on,” said Sarah Baughn, 29, a onetime Bikram yoga devotee and international yoga competitor whose lawsuit against Mr. Choudhury in 2013 was like an earthquake among followers of his style of yoga. “This is their entire world. They don’t want to accept that this has happened.”
Mr. Choudhury, who remains the face of his yoga empire, his grinning photo placed prominently on the home page of Bikram’s Yoga College of India, denies any wrongdoing and faces no criminal charges.
A statement issued by lawyers for Mr. Choudhury and his yoga college, which is also named as a defendant in the lawsuits, said that “Mr. Choudhury did not sexually assault any of the plaintiffs” and that the women were “unjustly” exploiting the legal system for financial gain.
“Their claims are false and dishonor Bikram yoga and the health and spiritual benefits it has brought to the lives of millions of practitioners throughout the world,” the statement said. “After a thorough investigation, the Los Angeles County district attorney declined to file any sexual assault charges against Mr. Choudhury or the college for lack of evidence.”
An August trial date has been set in Ms. Baughn’s case. In her complaint, she said Mr. Choudhury pursued her starting with a teacher-training she attended in 2005, when she was 20. She said he had whispered sexual advances during classes, and had assaulted and groped her in a hotel room and at his home.
In the other case involving a 2010 teacher-training, Mr. Choudhury’s lawyers argued that the woman had waited too long to file the lawsuit, beyond the statute of limitations. But the judge denied parts of the lawyers’ argument, saying the woman, known in court papers as Jane Doe No. 2, had endured so much damage to her life and psyche that most of the suit could move ahead.
“The cases are moving very quickly,” said Mary Shea Hagebols, a lawyer for the six women suing Mr. Choudhury. “Any stays have been lifted, and we’re moving full steam ahead.”
Even as the lawsuits against Mr. Choudhury multiplied over the past two years, new Bikram-branded studios continued to open, joining a list of hundreds of independently operated studios in places like Buenos Aires and Shanghai. Mr. Choudhury is listed as the director of his Los Angeles headquarters, and he personally oversees the grueling, weekslong teacher-trainings that cost $12,500 per pupil.
Tiffany Friedman, owner of Haute Yogi Manhattan Beach, changed the name of her studio, scrapping the word Bikram. Credit Emily Berl for The New York Times
“There have been thousands of Bikram yoga teachers, studio owners and practitioners who have conveyed messages of support and encouragement,” the statement from his lawyers said.
But several owners have decided to jettison the name Bikram from their yoga, saying they now felt uncomfortable with the association. On the Southern California coast, Tiffany Friedman renamed her Bikram studio Haute Yogi Manhattan Beach and began offering her own mixture of yoga styles.
Ms. Friedman had been doing Bikram-style yoga for years, and she said that after buying a studio in 2008, she decided to attend a teacher-training in San Diego. She hoped to learn more about yoga philosophy, anatomy and the underpinnings of a physical practice she had come to love. She found none of that, she said.
“I was pretty much appalled,” she said. “It was very cultish.”
The daylong trainings, she said, consisted of marathon yoga practice in a roasting room, rote memorization of a yoga script to which teachers had to adhere, what she described as rambling lectures led by Mr. Choudhury and mandatory viewings of Bollywood movies until 3 a.m. She said other teacher trainees frequently massaged Mr. Choudhury as he sat in an oversize chair on stage before rows of pupils.
“I saw how people really wanted his favor and wanted him to shine a light on them and wanted to believe he was a guru and had all these powers,” Ms. Friedman said. “It was heartbreaking.”
Ms. Friedman said she had clashed with Mr. Choudhury when she had begun offering an abbreviated version of his 90-minute class, and decided to part ways with the Bikram brand after reading details from the lawsuits.
“I stopped sending people to training,” she said. “I changed the name.”
But other studio owners have drawn borders between the man and his yoga, saying his methods work. And they have continued to use his name in their business.
“I was pretty much appalled. It was very cultish," said Ms. Friedman of a teacher-training with Mr. Bikram that she attended in San Diego after buying a studio in 2008. Credit Emily Berl for The New York Times
In moment-by-moment detail, the civil suits against Mr. Choudhury accused him of harassing, targeting and assaulting young women who had once revered him.
The most recent complaint, filed by Ms. Lawler, described how she felt that “Bikram Yoga was her calling, and that her purpose was to share it with as many people as possible.” At 18, she signed up for a spring 2010 teacher-training in Las Vegas.
Lawyers for Mr. Choudhury said they had not yet been formally served with the lawsuit.
According to the complaint, Mr. Choudhury praised Ms. Lawler’s recitation of the teaching script that accompanied the yoga postures. She massaged him for hours during Bollywood viewings, the complaint said, and at one point, he began groping her.
Ms. Lawler was afraid to speak up, the court papers said, and having spent $10,000 from her college fund on the training, she felt she had to complete the course. Mr. Choudhury pulled her aside one night, apologized for touching her and promised to “make her a champion,” the complaint said.
Weeks later, Mr. Choudhury told Ms. Lawler to accompany him to his hotel room, where he sexually assaulted her, the complaint said.
According to the lawsuit, Ms. Lawler stayed part of the Bikram world for years after that; the complaint accused Mr. Choudhury of sexually assaulting her on multiple subsequent occasions, most recently in February 2013.
In July 2014, she taught her last Bikram yoga class, the lawsuit said, and took a job as a waitress.
Ms. Baughn, who once loved teaching yoga and earned accolades for her strength and flexibility on the yoga mat, has also left the yoga world. She no longer teaches or practices, and she said she could never go back.
“I went through total hell,” she said, adding: “What happened to me was awful. I’ll probably always have bad dreams.”Correction: February 24, 2015
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to an action of Tiffany Friedman, owner of Haute Yogi Manhattan Beach, during a Bikram training session. Ms. Friedman said other teacher trainees massaged Mr. Choudhury at the sessions, but she did not.