As yoga guru Bikram Choudhury became a sensation around the world, Minakshi “Micki” Jafa-Bodden, his former legal counsel, had a front row seat.
Jafa-Bodden spent two years working as the head of legal affairs for Choudhury before she was terminated without warning, leading to one of numerous lawsuits for Choudhury, who would go on to be accused of sexual misconduct by half a dozen women and who eventually fled the country rather than face legal consequences.
As detailed in the recently released Netflix documentary “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator,” Choudhury rose to fame as the creator of Bikram yoga, a type of yoga practiced in sweltering studios that reach temperatures of 105 degrees. The practice became a favorite for Hollywood stars, but it was Choudhury’s own alleged actions that would one day see ownership of his U.S.-based studios handed over to Jafa-Bodden.
Beginning in 2013, Choudhury was accused of sexual misconduct, including sexual assault and rape, by numerous women, and when Jafa-Bodden began looking into the claims herself, she was unceremoniously fired. However, what looked like an ending was really a beginning, and Jafa-Bodden would go on to become one of the key voices to speak out against Choudhury.
What were Jafa-Bodden’s allegations?
As Jafa-Bodden would later explain to The Guardian in 2017, working for Choudhury’s company seemed like a dream come true at first –– a way to combine her love of yoga and law. But the reality of working for the Bikram yoga company turned out to be a very different experience from what she initially imagined. Not only was the company filled with “operational dysfunction,” she told the outlet, she was soon exposed to a number of troubling allegations regarding her boss: claims that Choudhury had said homophobic and racist things, and allegations that he had sexually assaulted multiple women. Although she challenged him regularly, he stood by his actions, and allegedly expected her to make the problems, and his accusers, go away.
Choudhury’s inappropriate behavior also extended to her, Jafa-Bodden said during the Netflix film. She described an occasion where her boss allegedly held a private meeting with her in his suite and “beckoned” for her to join him in bed, an experience she called “frightening and disturbing” because she’d come to believe by that point that he was a “sexual predator.” She was then fired after she suggested to Choudhury’s wife that he be “removed from power,” she said.
Jafa-Bodden decided to fight back, and filed a suit against Choudhury in 2013, claiming sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and wrongful termination, according to KABC.
“I received threats from Bikram while I was working for him. That he would have me taken care of, he would have me deported, he would have me killed,” she told the station in 2017. “There's a sinister undercurrent whenever one has to deal with Bikram.”
She alleged that she was fired after she refused to help cover up the numerous sexual allegations against him.
As she explained to The Guardian, the decision to speak up was not an easy one; Choudhury and his wife had arranged her move to the U.S., and her dependence on him for everything, from her housing to her cell phone initially kept her from leaving the company.
Did Jafa-Bodden win her case?
Jafa-Bodden’s case took three years to make it to trial, she explained during the Netflix documentary. But her efforts — which she undertook while being represented by lawyer Carla Minnard, who previously represented a woman who sued Choudhury for racial discrimination — were ultimately successful. It took a jury only a day and a half to unanimously rule in Jafa-Bodden’s favor.
After first awarding Jafa-Bodden $924,500 in compensatory damages, they then awarded her $6.4 million in punitive damages, an amount that she said left her feeling “gobsmacked,” the Los Angeles Times previously reported.
Choudhury, who claimed then to be bankrupt, fled the country without paying up, and was served in Thailand, according to KABC. Given Choudhury's refusal to pay, the court gave control of his company to Jafa-Bodden in 2016, in addition to giving her his 43 luxury vehicles and an expensive watch, the outlet reports. Choudhury, not to be deterred, reportedly tried to have his cars shipped out of the country, but Jafa-Bodden’s team was able to locate 20 of them.
A judge later issued a warrant for Choudhury’s arrest in 2017, and set his bail at $8 million dollars, according to The Washington Post. Although he has yet to be taken into custody, Jafa-Bodden said at the time that the move was an important symbolic one.
“To have that bench warrant issued for Bikram, it sends a message to a debtor like Bikram that he will be held accountable and that the wheels of justice, although they don’t turn as fast as we would want them to, they do turn,” she said, according to The Post.
What does Jafa-Bodden think of Choudhury now?
Jafa-Bodden confirmed during the Netflix documentary that, despite winning her case, she still has yet to see any of the money that she is owed.
“The civil court can only do so much with a debtor who has fled the jurisdiction,” she said.
Choudhury has settled numerous sexual assault cases but has never faced criminal charges, despite some like Minnard pushing for him to be prosecuted, she explained in the film.
Greg Risling, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, recently explained the decision not to prosecute to the Los Angeles Times.
“In 2013, a case was submitted to the District Attorney’s Office for filing consideration,” Risling said. “At that time, it was determined that there was insufficient evidence to file criminal charges.”
In the meantime, Jafa-Bodden has continued to speak out against her former employer, who is officially a fugitive from justice. He still teaches yoga around the world and in October 2019, 62-year-old British citizen Phyllis Main died after taking one of his expensive training courses in Acapulco, Mexico, The Daily Mail reports.
Speaking on the news, Jafa-Bodden told the outlet, “My heart goes out to Ms. Main’s family. This is a tragedy, but one that I’ve been warning could happen for years.”
“A jury found Bikram guilty of malice, oppression and fraud in my case, and yet he continues to teach unregulated classes around the world. There is a warrant out for his arrest in the U.S.,” she continued. “He has no business running anything. His classes are unregulated and poorly run. He runs his company like a cult. The man is a dangerous fraud."
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