Jan 27, 2016

Yoga guru Bikram Choudhury must pay $6.4 million in punitive damages, jury decides

Stephen Ceasar 
LA Times
January 27, 2016

Bikram Choudhury, standing
Bikram Choudhury, standing
A Los Angeles jury on Tuesday awarded more than $6.4 million in the first of a series of lawsuits against renowned yoga guru Bikram Choudhury in which women accuse the founder of the popular Bikram yoga style of sexual misconduct.

The verdict marks a significant financial and legal blow to Choudhury, who claimed millions of followers in a global empire centered around “hot yoga,” performed in sweltering rooms.

The case involved a lawsuit by his onetime legal advisor, Minakshi Jafa-Bodden, who alleged that Choudhury sexually harassed her while she worked for him and that she was fired after she began investigating claims that he had raped a yoga student. Six other women in recent years have filed civil lawsuits accusing Choudhury of sexually assaulting them.

Choudhury has denied any wrongdoing, and Los Angeles County prosecutors decided not to file criminal charges in several cases, saying there was no corroborating evidence.

The Beverly Hills resident testified Tuesday that he has spent millions of dollars on legal bills in recent years and that his Los Angeles-based yoga business has waned, leaving him nearly bankrupt.

Women claim Yoga guru Bikram Choudhury sexually assaulted them; he denies

“I have to borrow money from my family and friends,” he told jurors. “I have no money.”

Under cross-examination, Choudhury admitted keeping a fleet of up to 40 luxury cars — including Bentleys, Ferraris and Rolls-Royces — in a Van Nuys garage. He said he gave the vehicles to the state to start a school, the “Bikram auto engineering school for children.”

The remarks drew smirks and laughs from several jurors. A spokeswoman for the governor told The Times no such agreement exists.

Tuesday’s award of punitive damages came on top of more than $924,500 that jurors awarded Jafa-Bodden in compensatory damages Monday.

“I feel vindicated, I'm elated,” Jafa-Bodden said after the verdict, describing Choudhury as “a dangerous, dangerous predator.”

She said she was “gobsmacked” by the size of the punitive damages.

One of the jurors hugged her after the verdict, telling her she was a “warrior for women.” The juror, Elvira Castro, said she was appalled by the way Choudhury treated the attorney.

“He’s disgusting,” Castro said.

Choudhury, 69, left the courtroom soon after the verdict was announced without commenting. His attorney declined to comment.

Choudhury was born in Kolkata, India, and moved to California in 1971. He quickly became a prominent figure in the yoga world at a time when the practice was gaining popularity in the United States. He styled himself as a yogi to the stars, bragging that Raquel Welch and Quincy Jones were among his clients and that he healed Richard Nixon of phlebitis.

His yoga routine consists of a series of 26 poses, done over 90 minutes in a room heated to 104 degrees.

Last year, Choudhury lost a legal fight to copyright the sequence. He had argued that only he had the right to determine who could teach his method, but the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that his yoga method was not protected by copyright law and that competitors could not be held liable for teaching it without his blessing.

The public allegations of sexual misconduct have battered Choudhury’s image in recent years and embarrassed even some of his most devoted followers, said Benjamin Lorr, who wrote a book about his time becoming a Bikram yoga competitor.

This week’s legal defeat in Los Angeles could further dent Choudhury’s standing in the yoga world, where he fashioned himself as a spiritual leader whose methods could help heal ailments, promote health and lead followers to a better, more peaceful life, Lorr said.

“It’s another sign that the emperor has no clothes,” said Lorr, author of “Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga.”

One of the women who had filed a lawsuit alleging that Choudhury raped her filed court paperwork this month saying a conditional settlement had been reached; the filing did not disclose the agreement’s details. The five remaining lawsuits alleging sexual assaults are pending in Los Angeles County courts.

Jafa-Bodden alleged that she was persuaded by Choudhury to leave her native India in 2011 to work for him as a legal analyst. Choudhury, she alleged, often made offensive comments about women, blacks, Jews and gays.

She was repeatedly required to meet with him in his hotel rooms while young female employees massaged him, her lawsuit claimed. At one point, she alleged, Choudhury asked her to join him in bed during a meeting in his hotel room. At other times, he used his hands to simulate oral sex and urinated in front of her, she alleged in her complaint.

Her lawsuit said that she was fired after she began to investigate several allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct against Choudhury, including a rape claim made by one of his female students.

Choudhury denied the allegations, and his defense team argued that Jafa-Bodden was let go because she did not have a license to practice law in the United States.

On Monday, the jury found that Choudhury acted with malice, oppression and fraud — findings that allowed Jafa-Bodden to seek punitive damages.

On Tuesday, Jafa-Bodden’s attorneys complained in court that Choudhury had failed to turn over financial records showing his net worth, which they said is considerable.

Choudhury testified that his yoga business relies on revenue from teacher training sessions, which involve a nine-week course required for followers who want to teach at a Bikram-affiliated studio. The sessions cost $12,500 to $16,600, according to his website. In recent years, attendance has dropped and the trainings have lost money or broken even, Choudhury told jurors.

One of Jafa-Bodden's lawyers, Mark Quigley, asked Choudhury about his collection of cars and displayed photos of a pair of white Ferarris, which Choudhury said he bought for his children. Quigley also showed jurors a photograph of Choudhury’s Beverly Hills mansion.

Choudhury said he did not know his net worth, repeatedly answering questions about his finances with, “You have to ask my accountant.”

After the verdict, Quigley said that Choudhury was attempting to hide his wealth.

“It’s a sham,” Quigley said. “He lives a life of luxury.”

Several jurors said they did not believe Choudhury’s claims of financial hardship or his other testimony during the trial, including his insistence that he had not abused women.

Juror Debbie Valencia of Montebello said she was unconvinced by Choudhury.

“You could tell he was lying,” she said.


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