Bikram Choudhury, Indian American founder of Bikram Yoga and creator of the famed “Hot Yoga” program popular with A-list Hollywood celebrities, is being sued by a former student who claims the 67-year-old yoga instructor repeatedly made sexual advances to her, and denied her employment when she spurned him.
According to the complaint, obtained by India-West from the plaintiff’s attorney, Sarah Baughn – who was 20 when she first began taking Bikram Yoga classes – alleged that Choudhury, over a period of four years, had made repeated sexual advances, publicly humiliated her in front of other students, and denied her employment when she spurned his advances.
“In filing this lawsuit, Sarah felt strongly that she did not want this to happen to other women,” Baughn’s attorney, Mary Shea Bagehols, told India-West. Bagehols characterized Bikram Yoga as a “fear-based organization.”
Choudhury did not return a call placed to his studio. His wife, Rajashree – who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit for denying employment to Baughn – also had not returned calls at press time.
The harassment allegedly began in the spring of 2005, when Baughn attended a teacher training course taught by Choudhury himself. On the fifth night of the course, the suit says, Choudhury singled out Baughn and told her he had known her from a past life.
“Should we make this a relationship?” Choudhury is quoted as saying the lawsuit. “I know you from a past life, and I have this feeling about you. In your culture, you call it love; I can’t love, you know, but that is how I feel about you. I have never, never felt like this about anyone. Only you.”
“We have a connection. It is amazing. So what should we do about this?” Choudhury reportedly asked the young Baughn, who said she was “frozen” by her instructor’s comments, but managed to say she had a boyfriend. Choudhury dismissed her statement, saying he had a wife. In later discussions, Choudhury allegedly called his wife a “bitch,” according to the suit.
“She is terrible to me. She is so mean, you have no idea,” Choudhury allegedly told Baughn, who was 40 years younger than her pursuer.
Choudhury persisted in his advances to Baughn during the teacher training, and – during one particularly humiliating incident – allegedly accosted Baughn in class and pushed her down towards the floor, the suit states. He then pulled her arm and leg apart and pressed into her body, allegedly whispering sexual endearments, the lawsuit alleges.
Baughn said she complained to the head of the teacher training studio who confronted Choudhury. After that, Choudhury began to visibly spurn Baughn, shooting her nasty looks from the teaching podium, the suit alleges. When assisting Baughn with a particularly difficult pose, Choudhury pushed on Baughn’s leg so hard that she tore her hamstring, she claims. He also continued to pursue Baughn, she said, declaring his passion for her publicly. Baughn was fearful about complaining, knowing that only Choudhury could certify her as a trained yoga instructor, she claims.
According to the lawsuit, Choudhury’s strange rituals at the studio included asking women to publicly brush his hair. Baughn alleged that she knew of several others who were being harassed by Choudhury, but felt fearful of complaining, since he had the power to determine their careers.
Baughn began training for international yoga competitions with another instructor, but still remained part of Choudhury’s inner circle. One evening, she asked Choudhury to honestly assess her ability to win a particularly challenging competition. Choudhury allegedly responded by placing a hand on her leg, lying down and whispering sexual demands in her ear. He then embraced her from behind, and pressed himself into her leg, according to the suit.
“I need someone to spend time with me. To give me massages. To talk to me. To love me. To have sex with me,” Choudhury allegedly told his former protégé.
“I need someone to love me and spend time with me. I am so lonely. I am dying. I can feel myself dying. I will not be alive if someone doesn’t save me. My body is breaking down. I am always hurting. I need someone to take care of me so I don’t die,” he said, according to the suit.
In the lawsuit, Baughn alleges that she has been prevented from teaching classes and attending advanced seminars. She is seeking an unnamed amount of compensatory damages from the Choudhurys for economic and emotional relief.
San Francisco Bay Area yoga instructor Viji Sundaram – who was trained in both India and the U.S. – told India-West that instructors must teach in a way that leaves no room for interpretation of sexual advances.
“When we go around class to reposition students, we always ask first if it’s okay to readjust them and if they say no, we back off. This has been taught extensively in our teacher training courses,” said Sundaram, acknowledging that the atmosphere was more “relaxed” in India where instructors face no fear of lawsuits.
Bikram Yoga, which became popular in the 1970s, consists of 26 poses practiced over 90 minutes in a studio typically heated to 105 degrees. Celebrities who are proponents of the practice include Beyonce Knowles, Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, George Clooney and Jennifer Anniston.