Bikram Choudhury was a yoga phenomenon, one who garnered thousands of rapt followers convinced of his genius — until it all came crashing down with accusations made by women like Sarah Baughn, who was one of the first people to speak out against Choudhury.
Netflix’s recently released documentary “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator” delves into Choudhury’s rise to fame as the creator of Bikram yoga — a type of yoga that’s performed in humid rooms with temperatures reaching 105 degrees — and the numerous sexual misconduct claims that sent shock waves through a close-knit community devoted to the practice.
Despite the grueling conditions and his reputation as a teacher who berated his students, Bikram yoga became a sensation among the Hollywood elite and Choudhury attracted a sea of followers, many of whom paid thousands of dollars to train under him and become certified to teach his methods. But entangled in what appeared to be a run-of-the-mill fitness fad was an alleged pattern of abuse by Choudhury, who, his accusers say, used his position of power to prey on numerous women who looked up to him.
What were Baughn's accusations?
Baughn originally sought out Choudhury’s classes because she loved yoga, she explained in the Netflix documentary. Her battle with scoliosis caused back injuries for her, and taking Choudhury’s classes and the nine-week training courses that those who want to teach Bikram yoga must complete, started out as a respite for her.
“The first week, he had every one of us at the training stand up and just give a little bit of who we are, where we’re from, how old we are, and, kind of, how the yoga had helped us,” she said. “And I looked at him in his eyes at the training and I said, ‘Bikram, you are better than chocolate.’”
But unfortunately, what began as a calling that she loved became a living nightmare when Choudhury once held her after class unexpectedly and asked her, “’What are we going to do about us?’”
When she didn’t understand what he meant, he clarified that he was asking her if they were going to begin a relationship. When she later tried to talk to senior staff members about his alleged behavior, she claimed they seemed unfazed and warned her to not be alone with him. Still, despite her constant attempts to avoid him, she said she did eventually end up alone with him when she and a group of other trainees met to watch movies in his hotel room and the rest of the group left that night without her.
She recalled that instance of alleged sexual assault during the Netflix doc; when she tried to leave and catch up with the other students, Choudhury blocked her access to the door while wearing only his underwear, she said. He then began kissing on her neck and chest and pressing himself against her.
“He just kept saying, ‘I’m going to have you this time,’” she recalled. “I thought, ‘He’s going to rape me.’”
She claimed she was able to slip out of his grasp and get out of the room, but the incident had an indelible effect on her.
When did Baughn come forward?
Baughn was inspired to speak out against Choudhury after she had her first child and she realized that she didn’t want her daughter to experience what she had if she pursued an interest in yoga, she recalled during the Netflix special.
She filed a complaint against Choudhury in Los Angeles Superior Court in 2013, writing that he “attacked her, pinned her against the door, and sexually assaulted her by kissing her neck, chest and face, and grinding his penis against her leg,” according to NBC San Diego. She claimed that after she escaped the hotel room that night, he began retaliating against her, insulting her during group classes and threatening her career, the outlet reports.
Baughn was the first to speak publicly against Choudhury, but others soon followed. She and five other women filed suits against Bikram and his Bikram Yoga College of India, alleging sexual battery, gender violence, false imprisonment, and other crimes.
Baughn’s suit specifically claimed sexual harassment, discrimination, and defamation, according to The New York Times. In addition to the alleged hotel room incident, she alleged that her former teacher would do things like whisper sexual comments into her ear and get close to her under the guise of adjusting her posture but then press his body against her, the outlet reports.
Speaking to NBC San Diego about her claims in 2015, Baughn recalled his repeated unwanted advances, remarking, “It was disgusting. I just tried to talk my way out of it.”
What did Choudhury say in response?
Choudhury has repeatedly denied the accusations against him. Speaking to CNN in 2015, he claimed that he didn’t have to force himself on women because “women love [him.]”
“If I really wanted to involve with the women, I don’t have to assault [them],” he told the outlet. “I never assaulted them.”
Baughn and a number of other accusers eventually settled out of court with Choudhury, according to The Los Angeles Times. However, the details of the terms have not been made public.
One accuser, however, was able to bring Choudhury to justice: in 2016, a jury ruled in favor of Choudhury’s former legal counsel, Minakshi Jafa-Bodden, who’d accused her former employer of sexual harassment and of terminating her after she began looking into the sexual assault claims against him, The Los Angeles Times reports.
The verdict awarded Jafa-Bodden nearly $7 million, but Choudhury refused to pay and left the country, prompting a Los Angeles judge to not only issue a warrant for his arrest, but also hand over ownership of his yoga empire, an expensive watch, and more than three dozen luxury vehicles to Jafa-Bodden, according to KABC. Jafa-Bodden’s attorneys later reportedly said that Choudhury attempted to ship some of his cars overseas to him, but they were eventually able to locate 20 of the vehicles.
Choudhury relocated to Acapulco, Mexico to continue spreading his yoga teachings, the outlet reported in 2017. The Netflix documentary claims that he continues to hold workshops all over the world.
Baughn discussed her decision to settle during the documentary, commenting, “The sum of money that we settled for didn’t cover very much. I didn’t imagine that I would ever settle. And, in fact, I turned down multiple settlement offers ... wanting to continue to fight. And I would still be fighting, but he’s gone.”
What happened after Baughn went public with her story?
Following her alleged experiences with Choudhury, Baughn continued teaching yoga until she had an epiphany that led her to give up being an instructor all together. Now 34, she told the story to The Los Angeles Times for a piece published last week: in 2014, after her story had been shared publicly, she was still teaching yoga, but a casual remark from one of her students left her shaken. They told her that they’d gotten certified to teach Bikram yoga classes because they were inspired by her, she told the paper.
“And in a split second, it all flashed through my head,” she said. “You’re a teacher because I inspired you. I put you at risk because I was good at [what] I did, and I made you want to do this too. How can I go on doing this? I walked out of that class in tears, and I knew it was the last class I would ever teach.”
As for Choudhury, he has maintained his innocence as the claims against him garner renewed attention.
Publicist Richard Hillgrove denied the allegations on Choudhury’s behalf, The Los Angeles Times reported last week.
“Bikram Choudhury totally refutes all the allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment presented in the film and is deeply upset by the continued character assassination,” his statement reads. “Bikram believes that the concerted effort by money-motivated lawyers to proactively send letters to a database of all his clients, offering people free legal representation and the promise of $1 million insurance policy pay-outs is the primary motivation for this reputational catastrophe. Bikram believes the Netflix film is nothing more than a repetition of old material.”
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