March 26, 2013 - NYT
Founder of Yoga Empire Accused of Misconduct in Suit
By SARA BECK
A former student has sued Bikram Choudhury, the millionaire founder of a wildly popular yoga franchise, accusing him of sexual harassment, discrimination and defamation.
According to legal documents filed this month in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Sarah Baughn, 28, a Bikram student, teacher and international competitor who lives in San Francisco, said she considered Mr. Choudhury her hero until he made advances toward her during a 2005 teacher training course in Los Angeles.
Ms. Baughn, who was 20 at the time, said she was uncomfortable when she first noticed how other female students would brush his hair, wash his feet and give him massages, but she chalked it up to cultural differences. Then, she says, he offered her his diamond Rolex watch, which she did not accept, and told her he had known her in a past life.
“What should we do about this?” the lawsuit claims Mr. Choudhury said. “I have never felt this way about anyone,” he continued, adding, “Should we make this a relationship?”
Mr. Choudhury opened his first yoga studio in the early 1970s in the basement of a bank building in Beverly Hills, Calif. A national yoga champion from Calcutta, Mr. Choudhury was said to sleep on the studio floor, spurn the advances of women and offer classes by donation only. Then Shirley MacLaine, an early student, gave him some advice.
“She said no American respects anything that’s free,” Mr. Choudhury recalled at the 2012 Bishnu Charan Ghosh Cup, the yoga asana competition named after his guru.
Now, Mr. Choudhury, 67, charges $25 per class, oversees hundreds of studios on six continents, owns several Rolls-Royces and is called “Yoga’s Bad Boy” by Yoga Journal. His copyrighted yoga sequence is practiced in a 105-degree room often nicknamed the torture chamber.
“Sarah dropped out of college to study with Bikram, and every penny she had went to him,” said Mary Shea Hagebols, Ms. Baughn’s lawyer. “She was a true believer and student.”
Ms. Baughn says she rebuffed Mr. Choudhury’s repeated advances and at times tried to redirect his attention to his wife, also a teacher and the founder of USA Yoga, a yoga sports federation with Olympic ambitions. The legal document claims that his advances continued; he is accused of pressing his body against hers while adjusting her posture, whispering sexually charged comments into her ear, ordering her to kiss him in front of other trainees, and assaulting her in a hotel room in Acapulco, Mexico, during a teacher training.
Her lawyer declined to say whether Ms. Baughn ever reported any of these accusations to the police, but she did speak with senior teachers at his Los Angeles-based Yoga College of India. “Sarah wants whatever justice the jury decides so that this never happens again — that’s her primary goal,” Ms. Hagebols said.
Neither Mr. Choudhury nor his wife, Rajashree, who is also being sued for her role in running the business and the teacher training program, could be reached for comment. But a spokeswoman for USA Yoga said the group was confident that the court would determine the truth.
“In the interim,” said the spokeswoman, Rachel Golden, “we believe it is vitally important to continue to support the millions of devoted yoga practitioners around the world in reaping the benefits of their practice.”
Reporting Mr. Choudhury’s behavior to the senior teachers did little good, Ms. Baughn says in the suit. They promised that he was harmless and “innocent, like a child,” she said. Ms. Baughn said she was told that she needed to “separate the man from the teacher” and understand that powerful men were often flirtatious.
“Vulnerability and devotion are big parts of the practice,” said Benjamin Lorr, the author of the memoir “Hellbent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga.” “Bikram creates this mentality that the outside is phony. There is no path but this path, and everything that happens in this path is just a part of your yoga, that you have to learn to be strong and get past it.”
Considered a guru to celebrities like Madonna, George Clooney and Jennifer Aniston, Mr. Choudhury wears a Speedo while presiding over teacher trainings that cost $11,000. Over 300 would-be teachers practice three hours of yoga per day in a sweltering hotel conference room. They also study anatomy, Hindu philosophy and Bikram’s views on life, love and ethics.
Ms. Baughn says her financial investment was one reason she continued to study, practice and teach the series despite her accusations that Mr. Choudhury attempted to sabotage her career and competition results when she repeatedly refused his advances.
“There was a culture of fear,” Mr. Lorr said of the Bikram teacher trainings he experienced, where he tried to interview other students. “No one really wanted to go on the record with me. They thought they would lose their certificates, that all the hard work and money they put into it would be taken away.”
Some Bikram studio owners are wondering how to confront the accusations.
Tricia Donegan, the owner of Bikram Yoga on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, explained that some students did not even know that Bikram was an actual person.
“Bikram’s name may be on the door,” she said, “but my particular space is a safe haven.”