LOS ANGELES – A yoga guru who founded a rigorous routine of exercises practiced in steamy rooms around the world is facing lawsuits by six women who claim he sexually assaulted them.
The most recent case, filed Feb. 13 in Los Angeles Superior Court, said Bikram Choudhury raped a Canadian woman who had shelled out $10,000 from her college fund for a nine-week class so she could teach the 26-pose technique to others. Jill Lawler said she went into the class elated to learn from the master, but things quickly soured as she was expected to massage him while watching Bollywood movies late into the night with hundreds of other students and was sexually assaulted on several occasions.
“Throughout the sexual abuse, defendant Bikram Choudhury offered multiple explanations and justifications for his behavior,” the lawsuit said. “He would say ‘I’m dying, I need you to save me. If I don’t have sex, I will die. You are saving my life. You are helping me.’ “
Choudhury did not return an email seeking comment, but lawyers representing him and Bikram’s Yoga College of India said he never sexually assaulted any of the women.
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“Their claims are false, needlessly bring shame upon the yoga community, and dishonor the health and spiritual benefits that Bikram Yoga has brought to the lives of millions of practitioners throughout the world,” the statement said.
The Los Angeles district attorney declined to bring charges in a case against Choudhury in 2013 for lack of evidence, spokesman Ricardo Santiago said.
Choudhury, 69, has throngs of devotees of what he’s called McYoga for its consistency – 90-minute classes taught exactly the same way in rooms heated to 105-degrees.
He leads teaching seminars in nothing but a black speedo while his followers sweat in skimpy, tight clothing. Courses are rigorous, the hours are long and sleep deprivation is almost guaranteed. Choudhury can be charismatic and cutting.
While people credit hot yoga with changing their lives and many remain loyal to Choudhury, there’s been a noticeable change since the first sexual assault allegations were leveled in 2013, said Benjamin Lorr, who wrote Hell-Bent, a book on extreme yoga that prominently features Choudhury.
Women told Lorr during his research about encounters with Choudhury like those recounted in the current lawsuits. But no woman would go on the record until Sarah Baughn, a yoga champion, sued Choudhury for sexual assault.
Since then, some followers have begun to break from the Bikram method and go their own way. Others are talking out loud about things once whispered in sweaty studios.
“The winds of change are definitely blowing in the community,” Lorr said. “The culture of fear is lifting.”
Baughn, 29, said there was such a cult-like atmosphere among the Bikram community that she had endured Choudhury’s sexual assaults as just something that went with the territory. Others told her to separate the man from the teacher.
She was able to do that for a long time, connected financially, emotionally and spiritually to a practice that had helped her overcome scoliosis and depression. And she was afraid to leave because Choudhury boasted of how he had ruined people and got them banished from the yoga world.
“He’d call himself Mafia yogi,” Baughn said in an interview. “It may have sounded not serious to some people, but when he’s assaulted you, it’s a serious thing.”
Baughn’s lawsuit is scheduled for trial in August. She no longer practices yoga.