These Disturbing Allegations Have Divided The Bikram Yoga Community

Photo: Reed Saxon/AP Photo.
In this September 27, 2003, file photo, Bikram Choudhury, front, founder of the Yoga College of India, leads what organizers hope will be the world's largest yoga class at the Expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center. The women in this photo were not necessarily part of the lawsuits against him.
"No, this is not safe, I don’t want to do this," Jane Doe No. 1 said she told hot yoga guru Bikram Choudhury before he allegedly raped her. Doe claimed that Choudhury repeatedly called her an "idiot," and told her to "look at his penis to see how 'big it got,'" according to a lawsuit she filed in May of 2014.

Jane Doe No. 1, now identified as Maggie Genthner, alleged that she was then made to lick his penis and that he “vigorously penetrated her vagina,” according to her complaint. Choudhury allegedly forced Genthner's legs into yoga postures and laughed at her while telling her: "You are a yogini!" she alleged.

Genthner’s civil case, which was settled on July 26 out of court, claimed that Choudhury raped her twice in the fall of 2011 during a nine-week-long Bikram teacher training session. The terms of the settlement have not been made public, and Genthner is not allowed to discuss them, a representative from the firm representing her told Refinery29.

She is just one of six former students — as well as his former legal advisor — who filed lawsuits against the 70-year-old yoga teacher. Mary Shea, a lawyer representing all six students, told Refinery29 that the alleged "pattern of [abuse] was eerily similar" in their cases. The other students' cases are going forward, Shea said. Choudhury's organization did not respond to Refinery29's requests for comment via phone or email.

But, who is Choudhury, and how was this alleged abuse allowed to take place? As a once Bikram-certified instructor, I spoke with Shea and others about the accusers' search for justice and what happens next.

The Jafa-Bodden lawsuit alleged that Choudhury created an environment that was 'hyper-sexualized' and 'degrading' for women.

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The beginnings of the "Bikram Cult"
It’s often hard to convey to those outside the Bikram world just how pervasive Choudhury’s influence was — it has diminished since the times of the alleged rapes because of his legal challenges. (Disclosure: I have been to several Bikram trainings and was a certified Bikram teacher who taught in London.)

The Bikram yoga series involves practicing 26 poses in a room that is heated to 105 degrees. There are hundreds of Bikram yoga studios around the world. Only students who attend and complete a nine-week Bikram training session, which today costs at least $12,500, are permitted by Bikram to teach the series. Students are also now required to stay at the hotel where the training is held. The training I underwent consisted of classes twice a day and hours spent in “posture clinics” memorizing and perfecting the dialogue that accompanies each of the 26 postures.

Choudhury certified instructors and decided which studios were authorized to use his name and hire his teachers through his franchise program. Some of the prospective teachers I know used their entire savings to pay for the training, and were therefore financially dependent on Choudhury’s blessing to teach. He could also blacklist instructors from the community, essentially wiping out a source of their income.

However last year, Choudhury lost a years-long legal fight to copyright his sequence of yoga instructions. The federal court ruling meant that teachers (and other studios) could not be sued for teaching Bikram-style yoga without the founder’s approval. As a result, studios around the world have ditched his name — though exactly how many is unclear.

The common denominator among all six [women] is each of them was vulnerable in some manner; they either had a prior history of sexual abuse, or were economically forced into dependence, or young, but all of them were vulnerable in some way.

Mary Shea, lawyer for the plaintiffs
Choudhury's legal and marital troubles
Since moving to California in 1971, Choudhury has built a formidable empire converting millions of people to his style of hot yoga. But now, that empire is a shadow of what it once was.

On July 6, a California judge granted the yogi's legal team's request to stop representing him in an insurance coverage dispute relating to the defense of five of the lawsuits accusing Choudhury of sexual assault and harassment, according to Law360. Choudhury’s attorneys from another law firm also asked to be relieved from representing him in Genthner’s case before it settled, claiming that it was “unreasonably difficult” to represent him because of a “breakdown in communication," according to Law360.

His former chief executive officer, Petra Starke, sued Choudhury and claimed under penalty of perjury that he “placed various assets of his companies into the names of other entities or himself in order to avoid the payment of obligations to creditors,”according to a declaration filed in court by Starke. Starke added further that Choudhury “secretively and hurriedly planned to move Yoga College operations and revenues overseas in the wake of the sexual harassment lawsuits filed against him.” His wife of more than three decades and a respected teacher in her own right, Rajashri Choudhury, has since split with him, citing “irreconcilable differences.”

Starke also claimed she urged Choudhury to be mindful about his exchanges with younger women, given the lawsuits against him. She said she witnessed an unidentified 23-year-old instructor’s head in his lap, "a ski jacket on top of her head, in what appeared to be an act of oral sex," according to Starke's declaration. The teacher allegedly told Starke she was not comfortable with Choudhury’s behavior. Starke said she reported the incident to Choudhury’s wife.

According to Baughn, Villani asked her to stay with the training because, while Choudhury was 'not a good man' he was a 'good teacher.'

The first lawsuit is filed and other women come forward claiming assault
Sarah Baughn was the first woman to file suit alleging sexual assault. She claimed that she dropped out of college when she was 20 years old and took out loans to attend Bikram training. By the fifth night of her training in the spring of 2005, she claimed that Choudhury told her: "I have never, never felt like this about anyone…So, what should we do about this?" Choudhury is alleged to have made similar statements to the other women who have filed claims against him — that the yoga guru and the women were destined to be together, and somehow "spiritually connected," according to Baughn's complaint and one filed by another student, Larissa Anderson.

Baughn, who said she worried she could be blacklisted, alleged that she spoke to a senior teacher, Craig Villani, who recommended that she respectfully decline Choudhury’s advances. According to Baughn's complaint, Villani asked her to stay with the training because, while Choudhury was “not a good man,” he was a “good teacher.” (Although Baughn’s complaint referred to Villani by the initials “C.V.,” Villani’s full name was revealed in a subsequent memorandum filed by Genthner's attorney). I have heard this mantra repeated — even today — in the Bikram yoga community to excuse Choudhury’s behavior. Villani has since left Choudhury to start his own company. Villani did not respond to Refinery29's request for comment regarding this alleged exchange.

On April 19, 2010, Jill Lawler began her certification course when she was just 18 years old, making her one of the youngest women to have ever attended. She alleged she was repeatedly sexually assaulted and raped, according to a complaint she filed in February of 2015.
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Separately, in January, Choudhury was found liable for sexually harassing his former legal adviser, Minakshi Jafa-Bodden, and was ordered to pay her almost $1 million in compensatory damages.

Larissa Anderson, who had a prior history of sexual trauma, alleged that Choudhury raped her, first in his living room when his wife and children were upstairs, according to a complaint she filed. Dana McClellan also alleged she was raped during teacher training, according to her own complaint filed in April of 2014. She is currently settling her case, according to Shea, her lawyer.

Choudhury has denied all of the allegations made by the plaintiffs in court.

"The common denominator among all six [women] is each of them was vulnerable in some manner; they either had a prior history of sexual abuse, or were economically forced into dependence, or young, but all of them were vulnerable in some way," Shea, the women's lawyer, told Refinery29.

Separately, in January, Choudhury was found liable for sexually harassing his former legal adviser, Minakshi Jafa-Bodden, and was ordered to pay her almost $1 million in compensatory damages and $6.4 million in punitive damages, which was later reduced to $4.6 million, her lawyer told Refinery29.

The Jafa-Bodden lawsuit alleged that Choudhury created an environment that was “hyper-sexualized” and “degrading” for women, whom he referred to as “fucking bitches,” “fat bitches,” and “stupid bitches.”

T​he Los Angeles district attorney told Refinery29 via email that on September 13, 2013, "a case was declined due to a lack of sufficient evidence." It was one case with multiple alleged victims, according to the district attorney. Baughn was one of the alleged victims, Shea confirmed.

The hardest problem of my life…is staying away from women.

Bikram Choudhury, to ABC News in 2012
Jane Doe No. 1 and New Allegations
Genthner claimed further that many individuals close to Choudhury (identified as defendants Does 1 through 25) knew what Choudhury was up to, and that they “had advance knowledge” he “would engage in this despicable conduct, and by their actions and inactions, ratified, authorized, and condoned this unlawful behavior,” according to the complaint she filed. Genthner earned income as a Bikram yoga instructor, and she feared if she reported the alleged assault she would be prevented from working at approved Bikram studios.

Choudhury's headquarters did not respond to queries in time for publication. However, he has consistently denied the allegations in interviews with the media.

"The hardest problem of my life…is staying away from women," Choudhury told ABC News in 2012. "Women like me, and I have to run, city after city, country after country, all my life, to stay away from the women. Yes, that's the number one problem, all my life."

In addition to those who have decided to sue Choudhury for sexual harassment or worse, other former students have come forward in support of Genthner, making previously unreported allegations of abuse by the yogi, which Genthner's lawyer said support her claims regarding Choudhury’s alleged behavior.

A court document filed by Genthner's attorney described the testimony of at least three additional women who claimed Choudhury tried to kiss them; another who said she was asked to massage "his exposed penis"; one more who claimed she was asked to "massage his legs, then his groin area"; and yet another who claimed the yogi "tried to coax her into sexual favors by promising to make her a champion," and "forced himself onto her."

Ultimately, the accusations against Choudhury are incredibly serious. ​ Soon courts will hear the other women's stories. They are cases that have ​divided the Bikram yoga community. If the allegations prove true, Choudhury has egregiously abused his position of power, and destroyed the lives of women who trusted him. And whether Bikram yoga can survive his demise is not yet clear.
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