According to multiple lawsuits and to witness testimony, at any given moment, Bikram Choudhury, the 69-year-old, hot yoga guru, will be flanked by two women massaging his hands and stroking his hair. At business meetings with his attorney, at the start of teacher training classes, and after hours when he invites yoga students to his hotel room hear him lecture on the nature of marriage and monogamy, the women will be there.
During these after hours lectures for his yet-to-be yogis, a third woman can appear at Choudhury's feet to massage them. Jill Lawler, then 18 years old, was one of these women.
"He doesn't care if you're a professional [masseuse]," one of Jill's friends and fellow yoga students told her, according to lawsuit Lawler filed against Choudhury. "He just wants to feel loved."
Lawler is one of seven women currently suing Choudhury for a litany of charges that include sexual assault, gender discrimination, sexual harassment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and sexual battery.
"Honestly, one of the most painful things I've ever experienced was finding out the person I thought was my idol, my guru, the man I had devoted my life and entire life savings to was full of so much darkness," Lawler tells Broadly. "I was in denial for years. I think there are people out there who are still in denial that Bikram is an abusive man."
The unifying theme of the lawsuits is Choudhury as an obnoxious misogynist who uses his status and fame in the yoga community to pressure young teacher trainees into sex through lavish praise, promises of career advancement, financial gain, and incessant pestering that his life depends on the act.
In a lawsuit filed by a former student, Sarah Baughn, Choudhury allegedly pleaded that she have sex with him because "I am dying. I can feel myself dying. I will not be alive if someone doesn't save me."
According to Lawler's suit, Choudhury used a similar tactic on her. "God wants us to be together," he said, adding, "if you don't have sex with me, I will die." In a mea culpa that followed an alleged sexual assault of Lawler in Choudhury's hotel room, the guru explained that his wife wouldn't "do it" any more and men "who don't have sex get prostate cancer and die."
Choudhury's attorneys did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Broadly. However, in his answer to Lawler's complaint, filed in June of 2015, Choudhury denies "each and every allegation in [Lawler's] Complaint and further denies that [Lawler] has been damaged in any amount, or at all."
Lawler's case will go to trial in summer of this year.
Another suit against Choudhury just finished up in Los Angeles two weeks ago. Choudhury former attorney, Minakshi Jafa-Bodden, was suing the guru for wrongful termination, claiming she was fired for investigating claims of sexual assault committed both by him and male members of his staff against students during teacher training. Jafa-Bodden's suit also accused Choudhury of making outrageous statements, such as "AIDS is caused by gays, it is the truth… but these fucking asshole guys love me, they love Bikram" and "these blacks just don't get my yoga." He's also accused of referring to female employees as "bitches," "fucking bitches," "fat bitches," and "stupid bitches." Jafa-Bodden alleges that when she tried to intervene or investigate on behalf of the women, she was told by Choudhury and his inner circle to stay out of it.
The jury ruled in Jafa-Bodden's favor and now Choudhury has to pay her more than $7 million dollars in damages.
Honestly, one of the most painful things I've ever experienced was finding out the person I thought was my idol, my guru, the man I had devoted my life and entire life savings to was full of so much darkness.
But that's peanuts compared to the pile of money Bikram yoga has made for the guru. Choudhury sits at the very top of a highly lucrative yoga empire. With 650 franchises, 7 percent of each studio's revenue, plus yearly teacher trainings at $12,500 a pop attended by 300 to 500 clients per session, Bikram Choudhury is a very rich man. The only way to be certified in Bikram yoga and operate a studio is to go through Choudhury's grueling nine-week training course. The course, as outlined in Lawler's lawsuit and several others, can be characterized as despotic and sexually charged.
"I remember a few different people saying they were disappointed in Bikram's behavior when they saw the real man at training," Lawler says. "Mostly [they were] women, offended by Bikram's offensive language and obvious sexism—almost to the point of misogyny."
Choudhury, tawny and short, usually teaches his classes barefoot in a black Speedo; he commands hundreds of students at a time to contort their bodies into strenuous positions while panting through a 105-degree heat with forty percent humidity. For $12,500, the teacher trainees spend nine weeks living in a hotel where Choudhury dictates their schedules. According to the Lawler complaint, activities start at 7 AM with back-to-back 90-minute sessions of hot yoga training. Eating is banned, and drinking even water is frowned up during class. Students are not allowed to wear green, as the color upsets Choudhury. Next, the trainees spend five hours in posture clinic, practicing poses and reciting from verbatim from "The Dialogue," a script created and provided by Choudhury to be recited during poses.
Lawler was 17 years old when she took her first Bikram yoga class in her hometown of Vancouver, Canada. She liked it so much that she sent an application to Bikram's Yoga College of India, located in Los Angeles, when she was 18. Usually, the Yoga College enrolls students aged 21 or older, but Lawler penned a personal letter to Choudhury himself asking for admission. The Yoga College decided to admit her, responding with a one-line email message asking for her address in order to mail her The Dialogue for memorization. To pay for the teacher training in Las Vegas, Nevada, Lawler drained her college fund.
When Lawler arrived at teacher training in April of 2010, she was given praise and attention from Choudhury. Though she was the youngest person at the Vegas training, Lawler excelled immediately. Her first interaction with Choudhury himself, aside from a few seconds of stolen eye contact, occurred on the third day of the training, while students recited lines from the "Half-Moon" dialogue, meant to accompany the first pose in the Yoga Series. According to Lawler's suit, she recited the lines almost perfectly in front of Choudhury. He praised her "lavishly" and handed her a piece of candy while calling her sweet. Lawler was overjoyed—he hadn't given candy to anyone else.
Young women who attend his trainings are putting themselves in danger by being in the same room as him.
Lawler originally assumed that Choudhury's interest in her was due to some preternatural talent she possessed for yoga. Now, looking back, Lawler believes he narrowed in on her for other reasons. "He will pick the vulnerable out of a crowd and prey on them," Lawler says. "Young women who attend his trainings are putting themselves in danger by being in the same room as him."
Teacher training events revolve around the guru at all hours. When he isn't teaching, he demands that a core group of students attend late-night lectures and midnight movie screenings in his hotel room. In a separate lawsuit, Sarah Baughn, who attended teacher training in 2004, recalls Choudhury's late night lectures and remembers how Choudhury would often make crude statements about men and women, calling men a mixture of "a dog, a pig, and a goat," believing that this explanation justified aggressive and sexist behavior.
Lawler was one of those required to attend midnight movie screenings. Choudhury reigned over these events, which were filled with women, each massaging a different part of his body. The first time she came to a screening, Lawler was taken aback, shocked by the sight of the guru covered with women. Though she was briefly confused, she judged Choudhury trustworthy because of his status as a spiritual master, the fact that he was married, and the amount of respect he commanded by all those around him.
The screening continued into the early morning, at which point Lawler returned to her hotel room. She slept very little, though; yoga training began at 7 AM sharp. Lawler returned to the screenings on following evenings and eventually graduated to massaging the guru herself. The first time she massaged him, she did so for three hours, rubbing him until she herself felt pain in her hands, back, and legs from sitting on the floor.
The cycle continued, with Lawler joining Choudhury for after-hours massages with other students and then attending the next day's trainings with little sleep. Lawler kept up the bizarre schedule because, according to her suit, Lawler was "star-struck," and "believed that in order to become the best teacher possible, she needed to spend as much time with [Bikram] as possible… and soak up all of the wisdom he had to dispense."
A couple of weeks into the training, Choudhury asked for Lawler specifically to come to a late-night screening and massage his feet. Lawler obeyed, having grown used to the late night meetings. But Choudhury acted differently towards her this time: He stroked the inside of her thigh while she massaged him.
She pushed his hand away repeatedly and continued the massage, but the guru continued to return and move his hand farther up her leg. After a few of these sequences, Choudhury allegedly slipped his hand inside her pants. Lawler quickly jumped up, and immediately left the room.
You are so beautiful, I felt drunk while you were massaging me,' Choudhury said, 'I couldn't control myself.'
She ran outside, crying, to a gazebo outside of the Vegas Hilton. Two other trainees saw her, and asked her what was wrong. Lawler told them, and, according to the lawsuit, one of them responded blankly, "Yeah, I've hard about things like this happening… it's just because he's from another culture."
The next day, during training, Lawler alleges that Choudhury pulled her aside to talk. According to the complaint, Choudhury apologized and insisted nothing like this had happened in 50 years. "You are so beautiful, I felt drunk while you were massaging me," Choudhury said, "I couldn't control myself."
The massages continued without incident for about two weeks. Lawler's complaint explains she felt required to, lest Choudhury diminish her as lazy, disrespectful, or withhold her certification if she didn't obey. Aside from the sleep deprivation, Lawler's hands and knees blistered from the perpetual rubbing she felt she had to do.
Then, at an evening massage session in late May, Choudhury ordered Lawler to move her massage further up his leg. Lawler obliged and followed the guru's eventual demand that she "massage" him to orgasm. Feeling trapped, Lawler gave in.
After that, once again, the massages continued for another week without incident. But Choudhury soon asked her to return to his room, promising that another person was going to be there. After she arrived, the other woman departed immediately and left Lawler alone with Choudhury in his room.
"God wants us to be together," Choudhury allegedly said to the 18-year-old Lawler. "I think I know you from a past life—our souls are connected."
Lawler felt panicked, but she continued to reason with the guru, pointing out that he was married. Choudhury allegedly begged her, demanding Lawler listen to her heart. "My heart is saying NO," Lawler responded, according to her complaint.
But Choudhury didn't listen to her and allegedly told her how "If you don't have sex with me, I will die." Hours of arguing ended abruptly when Choudhury forced himself upon her, pinning her down. During the rape, the complaint alleges, Choudhury demanded Lawler say things like, "Bikram, you're the best," and "I want to fuck you all night long." She refused initially but eventually complied after he allegedly grabbed her and started screaming at her.
Lawler was distraught, but she claims she feared leaving the teacher training because she had already invested so much money into the process. After the training event finished, she returned to her home and continued practicing Bikram yoga.
A few months later, in September of 2010, Choudhury allegedly told Lawler to fly to Los Angeles; he paid for both her ticket and her hotel room. Lawler obeyed. When she arrived, Choudhury picked her up at the airport and took her to the room he had paid for. Once there, Lawler alleges, he began assaulting her again, kissing her "so forcefully that she could not breathe." Though she was unresponsive, her suit alleges Choudhury had unprotected sex with her in the room.
After the alleged assault, the complaint says, Choudhury took her with him to pick up his son, so the three of them could go see a movie.
Lawler's involvement with the Bikram enterprise continued when she attended the advanced teacher training seminar in San Diego that fall in 2010. Lawler claims that on the second day of the training, Choudhury entered her room without permission and demanded a massage. Lawler followed him to his room. Once there, Choudhury demanded she undress and allegedly raped her again.
Choudhury would kick her and yell at her. On one occasion, Choudhury screamed at her, 'Use more pressure, you're so fucking lazy!'
For the remainder of the seminar Lawler claims she avoided Choudhury, renting a room at the Motel 8 across the street from the training to keep her distance. Lawler did not leave the training because she says she was afraid he would destroy her career if he became angry.
Lawler went home to Vancouver following her trip to San Diego, but she returned to Los Angeles in April of 2011 in order to work on staff for the at another nine-week teacher training event at the LAX Radisson Hotel. According to her lawsuit, Lawler's role during this time wasn't so much a training staff member as it was a "body servant" for Choudhury. She claims she was forced to eat dinner in his room every night, despite her attempts to avoid him.
Choudhury allegedly demanded constant massages from Lawler, to the point that she developed blisters on her thumbs and couldn't stay awake. If she began to fall asleep or stop massaging, the complaint alleges, Choudhury would kick her and yell at her. On one occasion, Choudhury screamed at her, "Use more pressure, you're so fucking lazy!"
Lawler left that training event early after another staff member, whom Lawler says she had begun to fall in love with, was allegedly fired for playing loud music and smoking weed. Lawler claims instead that the guru dismissed the fellow teacher because of jealousy. Feeling threatened, Lawler returned to her home in Canada.
Lawler lived briefly in Florida following the incident in San Diego, where she dated the other teacher training staff member. The relationship was short-lived, however: Lawler's case cited trauma as the cause for the break-up.
In September of 2012, Lawler returned to Los Angeles to confront Choudhury over his actions. She claims Choudhury assaulted her again when she arrived. That same night, however, Lawler was allegedly persuaded by Choudhury's niece to work for the Yoga College in India. Lawler, wanting to flee the country, accepted and signed a contract. While in India, in February of 2013, Lawler claims Choudhury raped her again.
Choudhury's yoga empire was opened up to scrutiny in March of 2013, when Sarah Baughn filed her suit against Choudhury. Lawler learned of the suit, read it, and decided at that point she should separate herself from the Bikram Empire. Two years later, she decided to file her own lawsuit.
"I don't know if I would have ever had the courage to come forward if it hadn't been for Sarah speaking up," Lawler said. "Sarah and the four other women who came forward gave me the courage to speak out, but it still took time."
Mary Shea and Carney Shegerian, a pair of California attorneys who specialize in sexual and employment discrimination, represent the six women. "Men in positions of power making unwanted and illegal sexual advances toward women who are their employees or students is a problem of epidemic proportions that simply must stop," Shegerian says.
As for Lawler, she doesn't really practice yoga any more. "I don't blame people for loving the 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises," Lawler says. "The yoga practice itself certainly has benefits. But Bikram the person created a culture around him that was not healthy or safe. Practicing yoga is a challenge for me mentally; I don't do it very much anymore."
Lawler's suit against Choudhury goes to trial on August 15 of this year in downtown Los Angeles.