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Yoga guru Bikram Choudhury loses sexual-harassment suit

Former lawyer is one of a number of women to take the yoga star to court

Global yoga guru Bikram Choudhury sexually harassed his former legal adviser, a California jury found this week — and on Tuesday it awarded her $6.4 million in punitive damages.

The founder of the hot-yoga empire that bears his name, Choudhury on Monday was also ordered to pay attorney Minakshi Jafa-Bodden almost $1 million in compensatory damages. The lawyer’s lawsuit — Minakshi Jafa-Bodden v. Bikram Choudhury — is one of several to allege sexual harassment and abuse.

Jafa-Bodden began working for Choudhury, 69, in the Spring of 2011 and filed her suit against him in June 2013, a few months after her employment was terminated. Her complaint alleged discrimination, “severe, ongoing, pervasive and offensive conduct,” and retaliation for investigating a former trainee’s allegations that the yoga guru harassed her. She also alleged that she hadn’t been paid the agreed upon $125,000-a-year salary.

Bikram created a “hyper-sexualized” and “degrading” environment for women, who were requested to brush his hair and give him massages, the suit alleged. The yogi is alleged to have referred to women, including his employees, as “fucking bitches,” “fat bitches” and “stupid bitches.”

One witness, Sharon Clerkin, is said to have testified that Choudhury once announced at a packed training session, the majority of whose participants are usually women, that “I should rape more girls, it's good for business.” 

He is also alleged to have said that “AIDS is caused by gays…but these fucking asshole guys love me. ” He was also accused of saying that if Hitler “was more efficient, all these fucking Jews would be finished.”

Before her dismissal, Jafa-Bodden had been subpoenaed to testify in a sex discrimination case brought by Pandhora Williams, a former Birkam trainee. Jafa-Bodden “wasn't going to perjure herself for this guy, he knew that,” said Jafa-Bodden’s lawyer Carla Minnard. “He didn't like her poking her nose into these claims, and he fired her for it.”

Williams is one of at least six women who have sued Choudhury for assault, harassment or worse.

Although his headquarters in Los Angeles did not respond to a query by Al Jazeera in time for publication, Bikram has consistently denied the allegations.

In a recent blow, the yoga teacher also lost his legal fight to copyright his poses.

Millions of people practice Bikram’s style of yoga — 26 poses in a 90-minute class in a heated room — and the global community of Bikram teachers appears divided on how to respond to the findings against him.

Some like Florida-based teacher Joe Cuccaro said they separated the man from the yoga years ago. “The yoga series, not the man, changed my life. I will continue to teach the series exactly as I was taught,” he said. “This yoga will continue to change lives.” Sallie Thurman, another former teacher, said Bikram was now a “taint to his own name.”

Nicole Stuckey, the owner of a studio in Staten Island, New York, went so far as to rename her business losing the Bikram brand. “I felt the time is right for the change,” she wrote to Al Jazeera. “I couldn’t bear the thought of one person feeling uncomfortable about stepping inside this studio because of the allegations.”

During closing arguments, Minnard said that Choudhury was worse than a monster. “Monsters aren’t real,” Minnard said. “He’s a real person, with real power over people who are trying to earn money to put a roof over their head.” Prospective teachers pay thousands to attend his weeks-long training certification programs, which are required to teach at any Bikram studio.

(Disclosure: This reporter has attended Bikram trainings and was a licensed Bikram teacher who taught in London.)

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