#MeToo Takeaways from the Case of Bikram Choudhury

Over the Memorial Day weekend, I listened to a five-part ESPN 30 for 30 podcast series entitled Bikram. The series discussed the rise and fall of yoga guru Bikram Choudhury. As an occasional practitioner of Choudhury’s method of yoga, I was somewhat familiar with the accusations of sexual misconduct made against him that ultimately resulted in his downfall. As a perpetual practitioner of employment law, several aspects of the story told in Bikram resonated with me, particularly given the #MeToo moment through which we are living.

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From Rags to Riches

Choudhury founded Bikram Yoga, a type of yoga in which practitioners perform a sequence of 26 poses over the course of 90 minutes in temperatures of about 105 °F (the heat is meant to mimic the weather conditions in Choudhury’s birthplace of Calcutta, India). According to Choudhury, he developed this form of yoga after shattering his leg in a weightlifting accident.  Rather than undergoing amputation–his doctor’s recommended treatment–Choudhury claims to have recovered within six months by undertaking the yoga practice he “created” (as discussed in Bikram, it’s unlikely that he actually created the poses that form the basis of Bikram Yoga).

Following his alleged accident and recovery, Choudhury immigrated to the United States from India in the 1970s and founded his first studio in Beverly Hills, California. Other studios followed. He attracted a bevy of celebrity clients, including Michael Jackson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shirley MacClaine, and Jeff Bridges. Choudhury famously led his classes wearing nothing but a Speedo and barking commands at his students. But he also ended classes by singing a soothing Indian lullaby.

After initially only requesting donations, Choudhury eventually began charging students to participate in his classes. Over the course of several decades, Bikram Yoga expanded in popularity, enabling Choudhury to amass a fortune of $75 million. He also took steps to vigorously protect Bikram Yoga by copyrighting the practice and suing those who used it without his permission.

Sexual Assault and Harassment

In addition, Choudhury also held nine-week intensive training courses for prospective Bikram Yoga instructors. Those wishing to attend the trainings paid upwards of $16,000, according to the Bikram podcast series. The courses were conducted at hotels and resorts, where participants were isolated from the outside world and barred from associating with family members. As recounted by participants, Choudhury engaged in deplorable behavior within this setting. From crude actions (he publicly disparaged trainees’ bodies) to racially charged comments (after a Black student confronted Choudhury about homophobic comments he made during training, Choudhury allegedly told an assistant to “Get that Black bitch out of here”), Choudhury said what he wanted, with no immediate repercussions.

Choudhury is also alleged to have sexually assaulted trainees. In Bikram, one such victim, Jill Lawler, graphically recounted being raped by Choudhury:

Immediately after we got inside, he started trying to force himself on me. He pulled his pants down and came over to me and was just basically thrusting it in my face and just being super aggressive. I had my hands up trying to block him. I was like, ‘No, no, no.’ … It was probably like 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning. I remember the sun was starting to come up and I was exhausted and afraid and all the things running through my mind about–it comes down to when you feel like you can’t tell if not doing it is gonna be worse for you than doing it, so you decide to do it because that just seems like the easier, safer option. So it’s shameful, and it was awful, and it was terrifying, but he just made me feel like I didn’t have a choice…. He ended up raping me. I made it very clear that I didn’t want to.

Beginning in 2013, however, there was a “reckoning” (to borrow the title of the fifth and final episode of Bikram). In March 2013, Bikram Yoga teacher Sarah Baughn filed a sexual harassment suit against Choudhury Within weeks, in May 2013, two Jane Doe plaintiffs also filed lawsuits against Choudhury alleging claims including sexual battery, false imprisonment, discrimination, and harassment. These lawsuits were followed up by Choudhury’s former Head of Legal and International Affairs Minakshi Jafa-Bodden filing a court case in July 2013.  Jafa‑Bouden alleged that Choudhury engaged in unlawful gender discrimination, wrongful termination, and sexual harassment.

Ultimately, a jury awarded Jafa-Bodden $924,500 in actual damages and $6.4 million in punitive damages (which can be granted under California law only in cases of “malice, oppression, and fraud”). Choudhury, for his part, continues to evade payment to Jafa-Bodden by remaining outside of the United States. In May 2017, the Los Angeles County Superior Court issued a warrant for Choudhury’s arrest based on his refusal to hand over proceeds to satisfy the judgment won by Jafa-Bodden. In the meantime, she effectively controls Bikram Yoga and now must contend with what to do with the business going forward.  According to Bikram, all but one of the remaining plaintiffs settled their lawsuits against Choudhury.

‘Appalling’ Culture of Indifference

Bikram was well worth the three or so hours of time I spent listening to the five podcast episodes. Among the various takeaways I have on a human level, I am grateful for women like Lawler who are willing to share their experiences with rape and sexual assault. Shedding light on Choudhury’s alleged misconduct lets us all–especially men–know how unfortunately common these incidents are.

As an employment attorney, I walked away from Bikram appalled by the culture of unaccountability and indifference Choudhury fostered within his organization.  One lawsuit, alleged that when senior teachers learned that he was inviting young women to his hotel room (which doubled as his office during teacher trainings), they responded by saying that he was harmless, “innocent, like a child,” and that the reporting trainee needed to “separate the man from the teacher.” In the employment world, any reporting of potentially sexual misconduct needs to be immediately disclosed to the appropriate person(s) within the organization and investigated, not disregarded and swept under the rug. Supervisors and managers should be trained (and consistently retrained) regarding steps to be taken in the event that an employee reports any potentially problematic conduct by anyone within the organization.

I also came away with an increased appreciation of how power dynamics make it difficult for victims of sexual harassment and assault to come forward. In addition to their concerns being ignored, victims have a real fear of jeopardizing their livelihoods. Many attendees at Choudhury’s teacher trainings used their savings to participate and had no alternative plan on which to fall back if they were dismissed from training or unable to obtain employment at a Bikram Yoga studio. These concerns demonstrate why it is important that employers have in place procedures allowing for multiple avenues that may be used to complain about harassment and discrimination, as well as protections for complaining employees, including antiretaliation policies.