For many of the guru’s millions of followers worldwide, Bikram Choudhury’s signature “hot yoga,” performed in sweltering, sweaty rooms, is a euphoric, spiritual practice that promotes healthy, peaceful living.
But over the course of about two years, the yoga tycoon has faced numerous sexual assault allegations and lawsuits. And now, attorneys say, Choudhury is on the run, dodging court hearings and a legal judgment.
The 73-year-old guru, the founder of Bikram yoga, has yet to pay any of the $6.8 million awarded last year to his former attorney, Minakshi Jafa-Bodden, who alleges she was sexually harassed by Choudhury and fired after investigating claims from a student that he had raped her. Choudhury has repeatedly denied the allegations.
So on Wednesday, a California judge issued an arrest warrant for Choudhury, ordering him to hand over the proceeds from his business to satisfy the judgment. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Edward Moreton issued the warrant and set bail at $8 million.
“It’s been a long road chasing this guy down,” Jafa-Bodden’s attorney, Aaron Osten, told The Washington Post. “I don’t want to say it’s done, but it’s awfully close, because he’s got nowhere else to go.”
Choudhury, who is a three-time national yoga champion in his native India, created his system of yoga in the 1970s, turning it into a global yoga empire. Bikram yoga, which consists of 26 poses done in a 105-degree room for over 90 minutes, attracted celebrity clients such as Raquel Welch and Quincy Jones, the founder bragged.
But for Jafa-Bodden, who worked as head of legal and international affairs at Choudhury’s yoga school from 2011 until 2013, there was a grim side to the business. She alleged that Choudhury sexually harassed and inappropriately touched her, tried to get her to stay with him in a hotel suite, and subjected her to obscene comments about women and minority groups. She accused him of pressuring her to cover up his sexual harassment of women.
“She tried to put her foot down and stop this man,” Osten said. “He threatened her life. He threatened her family’s life, he threatened to have her deported.”
And in March 2013, she was suddenly fired from her position. Last year, Jafa-Bodden successfully sued Choudhury, alleging gender discrimination, wrongful termination and sexual harassment during her time working for him. After she won, Jafa-Bodden told reporters, “I feel vindicated, I’m elated,” and described Choudhury as “a dangerous, dangerous predator.”
One of the jurors hugged her after the verdict, telling her she was a “warrior for women,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
But in the year since, Jafa-Bodden’s attorneys said, Choudhury has funneled his assets into sham corporations, even undergoing a “sham divorce” to hide his resources.
Choudhury could not be located for comment and no lawyers appeared for him, according to the Associated Press. Last year, he claimed he was nearly bankrupt.
Speaking to CNN in 2015, Choudhury repeatedly denied sexually assaulting anyone, saying he would never resort to physical aggression to have sex because he has so many offers.
“Women like me. Women love me,” he said. “So if I really wanted to involve the women, I don’t have to assault the women.”
Osten said Choudhury had a fleet of about 44 luxury cars, including Bentleys and Rolls Royces, in a warehouse in California. “It was a pretty extraordinary collection,” Osten said.
The attorneys said Choudhury tried to ship the cars and other property overseas, and tracked a number of vehicles in Florida and Nevada. Osten said the legal team now has court orders in those states preventing him from moving property from warehouses.
“He has sufficient funds to satisfy the judgment,” Osten said, including a $3 million diamond-encrusted watch he has previously flaunted. “But he’d rather play this game and run fast and loose with this legal system.”
Despite the allegations, the yoga master continues to travel and teach classes worldwide, Osten said, including recently in Acapulco, Mexico. The arrest warrant means authorities can flag Choudhury at any airport, and the legal team can work with authorities to arrest the yoga master in Mexico or any country that is a member of The Hague Convention.
Outside of court Wednesday, Jafa-Bodden celebrated the arrest warrant, calling it a win for any woman who has endured sexual harassment.
“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.
Six other women have filed sexual assault lawsuits against Choudhury, including five who accuse him of raping them. One of those lawsuits is in the process of being settled while the rest are set for trial later this year, according to the Associated Press.
In interviews with the Los Angeles Times, three of the women who have filed lawsuits say Choudhury nurtured a cultlike devotion among followers that allowed him to take advantage of female students. That devotion — and a fear of being exiled from the yoga community — kept victims and others from speaking up, the women told the Los Angeles Times.
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