Vancouver woman sues hot yoga guru Bikram Choudhury for sexual assault

Vancouver, Canada/February 25, 2015

By Susan Lazaruk

A Vancouver woman is claiming the leader of one of B.C.’s largest yoga chains repeatedly sexually assaulted and coerced her over the years she worked for him has become the sixth woman to sue Bikram Choudhury in a U.S. civil court.

Choudhury, a millionaire guru whose name and image defines the more than two dozen outlets offering Bikram’s hot yoga classes across B.C., “preyed” on Jill Lawler, according to the lawsuit filed in California Superior Court.

U.S. court documents claim she was “repeatedly sexually assaulted, raped and harassed” by the 69-year-old yoga celebrity with millions of followers around the world, including Beyoncé, Madonna and George Clooney.

The first complainant accused him of sexual assault in 2013 and five more have come forward since.

Choudhury on his website calls the allegations “false,” and he has posted an email from L.A. police who said they investigated and would not be laying criminal charges.

Lawler’s lawyer, Mary Shea Hagebols, said Tuesday she was uncertain if police continued to investigate the cases.

In the lawsuit, Lawler lists disturbing details that Hagebols “certainly share commonality” with the other complainants, which continued from 2010 until 2014, when she quit teaching at one of his Vancouver studios.

She began a “gruelling” nine-week training course in Las Vegas when she was 18, learning under the yogi she considered her “guru.”

She was excited to enrol and at first found the training “demanding and exhilarating” but by the third day she started to feel the effects of an exhausting schedule and sleep deprivation, which clouded her thinking.

While they watched mandatory Bollywood movies until 3 a.m. most nights, “Jill was still required to massage Choudhury’s feet, night after night, for three hours at a stretch until her hands cramped and her fingers blistered,” the suit alleged.

She said she was shocked and in denial when he first made an unwanted sexual advance, but didn’t leave the school and the sexual offences quickly escalated to forced intercourse.

After the second sexual attack, “Jill was terrified to disobey him because she was afraid that if she tried to leave or made a scene … Choudhury would be angry with her” and accuse her of coming on to him and kick her out of training. She was worried about losing her $10,000 tuition and not being able to work as an instructor.

“Feeling that she had no choice, in her weakened, exhausted and sleep-deprived state, she gave in to (his) physical and financial coercion,” the writ said.

After another alleged attack, Lawler said while raping her, he “demanded she say disgusting and untrue things,” including, “Bikram, you’re the best.”

The lawsuit said she delayed filing the suit because she was “terrified of Choudhury because he had a number of close followers in Vancouver, would brag that he knew ‘all of the police’ and many other powerful people, he warned students, including Jill, not to ‘f— with him,’ and frequently stated that ‘people who don’t listen to me, they die.’ ”

The lawsuit said the attacks left Lawler with “crippling depression and other psychological harm” and that she is “extremely fearful and has difficulty trusting people.”

Rick Ross, a U.S. expert on cults and deprogramming, said he’s done interventions with people who were “brainwashed” by other yoga gurus and “there’s a long list” of swamis and gurus accused of manipulating followers.

He said excessive exercise and meditation, along with sleep deprivation and a low-protein diet, can be used to make practitioners more “suggestible.”

He has seen people suffer “severe residual effects” after stilling the mind in meditation [within a group through a regimen excessively over a period of time].

Ross said groups that are personality-driven by a charismatic leader who is the defining element of the group, above the practice itself, can be dangerous.

Lawler is suing for undisclosed damages, including lost wages, mental pain and anguish and emotional distress, plus punitive damages, the suit said.

Hagebols said Lawler’s case will likely make it to trial in 12 to 18 months and the first complainant is scheduled to go to court in August.

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