He's the flamboyant £40m 'hot yoga' guru who the celebs adore. But after £5m harassment case Bikram Choudhury's British lawyer says: 'He's just a seedy sex pest in pants'

Daily Mail, UK/January 31, 2016

By Caroline Graham

It’s the craze that promises lithe, honed bodies and spiritual enlightenment to millions of devotees worldwide, from the vogueish middle classes to celebrities such as Madonna, David Beckham, Lady Gaga and Jennifer Aniston.

But the flamboyant 69-year-old guru behind hot yoga – whose disciples endure 90-minute workouts in 105F heat – has been described as a ‘vile sexual predator’ by his British-educated former lawyer.

Minakshi Jafa-Bodden was last week awarded more than £5 million compensation by a jury in Los Angeles for sexual harassment, gender discrimination and wrongful dismissal.

The three-week case gave a disturbing insight into what Miss Jafa-Bodden called the ‘sickening hypocrisy’ of Calcutta-born yogi Bikram Choudhury, controller of the fashionable Bikram Yoga franchise, who sacked her, she claims, after she refused to cover up a rape allegation.

In an exclusive and devastating exposé of what she dubbed ‘the mad, mad world of Bikram’, the 46-year-old solicitor spoke exclusively to The Mail on Sunday last night to reveal how the yogi:

  • Posed ‘like a king’ on a throne while devotees stroked his hair, massaged his back and ‘fondled’ him under an orange towel on his lap;
  • Privately branded female employees and followers of his yoga ‘fat bitches’ and ‘stupid f***king bitches’ while sexually harassing young devotees who paid thousands to learn his techniques;
  • Urinated in front of her when she arrived for a business meeting.

‘He is a pig, a vile, nasty human being,’ Miss Jafa-Bodden said. ‘Choudhury thinks he’s God and can get away with anything.’

Six women have filed US civil cases accusing Choudhury of sexual attacks.

Five of them claim they were raped, but so far no criminal charges have been brought against him. Last week’s case was the first time a woman had taken on Choudhury in a courtroom and won.

Indian-born Miss Jafa-Bodden, said: ‘People ask all the time how he could get away with such appalling behaviour for so long but you have to understand the world he lives in.

'He is treated as a God who is the centre of the Bikram universe. People who are attracted to Bikram yoga are either very high performing, highly functioning people or those who have depression or addiction issues.

'Bikram, like any form of yoga, helps deal with stress, depression and anxiety. It’s the ultimate paradox.

'He created a therapeutic exercise for people and then he preyed upon them. He sucks people in – mostly women – makes them feel comfortable and then takes advantage of them.’

This woman who threatens to bring down the £40 million Bikram empire moved to Britain at 16 to do her A-levels and graduated in law from Birmingham University.

She still has an English accent after spending much of her early career in London.

She then worked in the Cayman Islands and had returned to her native India when, in 2011, she first heard about LA-based Bikram Choudhury after a family friend told her he was looking for an in-house lawyer.

Intelligent and smart, she is not the type of woman one would imagine falling prey to a man she calls ‘a cult leader’.

He is famed for posing in black Speedos while wearing a £1 million diamond-encrusted Rolex. He once bragged: ‘I have balls like atom bombs.’

Yet, Miss Jafa-Bodden says, entering Choudhury’s warped world cost her her job, her health – and very nearly her sanity.

She moved to Los Angeles to take up her £90,000-a-year job in spring 2011, living with her daughter Alex in a flat provided by Choudhury.

She said: ‘I was a single mother of a six-year-old so I jumped at the chance to move to LA. It was a great job opportunity and way to support my family.’

She was given a car and was sponsored for a work visa by the man who had turned hot yoga into a multi-million-dollar enterprise, with 700 Bikram Yoga Schools in 30 countries since founding his first class in San Francisco in the 1970s.

Her office was directly opposite Choudhury’s in the two-storey ‘world headquarters’ of Bikram Yoga in LA.

At first, she was charmed by her charismatic boss and his wife Rajashree, who filed for divorce last December after 31 years of marriage, yet testified for him in court last week.

Miss Jafa-Bodden said: ‘He can be very charming when you first meet him. But that didn’t last very long.

Bikram portrays himself as a spiritual leader. There was an atmosphere of complete and utter obedience to him. No dissent was tolerated.’

She began to see Choudhury’s darker side after she questioned him about complaints from women devotees of Bikram Yoga that began to cross her desk – some of them extremely serious.
‘There were allegations of rape and assault. Perhaps the first complaint was a surprise but then I began to see a pattern.

‘He told me to “fix” the women that were saying things about him. But when I refused, he became abusive. It was “f***ing bitch” this and “f***ing bitch” that.

‘I began to witness inappropriate, unacceptable behaviour in front of my eyes. He licked his fingers in a suggestive, sexual manner. He pushed his tongue through his fingers to simulate a sex act.

‘It was repulsive. I was expecting a spiritual guru but he was manipulative and in my opinion rather evil.

'He brainwashes people, saying Bikram is the only true form of yoga. He makes you feel the outside world is not real.

‘It’s a virtual reality and he will take care of you because he’s Bikram and he is God, he can do anything. And as bizarre as it sounds, you start to believe him.’

Choudhury has joked he ‘invented’ hot yoga after being so cold in his San Francisco studio after moving from Calcutta that he cranked up the heating, only to discover students were able to bend and flex more easily and enjoyed a euphoric high from excessive sweating.

Shirley MacLaine was an early devotee as was former Wimbledon champion John McEnroe.

Miss Jafa-Bodden said: ‘Bikram’s house is lined with pictures of him with the rich and famous – with Elvis, Bill Clinton, everyone who is anyone. Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher signed in for a class one night.’

The bulk of Choudhury’s fortune comes from training others to practise his method and from franchising the Bikram Yoga brand.

Twice a year, hundreds of trainee Bikram teachers come to LA from around the world – most of them young women – to attend nine-week courses costing £10,000.

Many regarded him as their guru and would do anything to ingratiate themselves with him.

‘The office had staff but there were scores of young, unpaid women around who I can only describe as devotees,’ Miss Jafa-Bodden said.

‘I’d go to his office for a business meeting and there would be a devotee stroking his hair, another massaging his thighs.

'When I objected he would snap, “Who’s going to do my massage then? Are you going to f***ing massage me?”

‘He told me I was a “f***ing stupid bitch”. One time I showed up for a meeting and he had the door open and was urinating in front of me.’

In court documents she outlined Choudhury’s racist and homophobic slurs, alleging that he said ‘AIDS is caused by gays’ and ‘blacks just don’t get my yoga.’

Another alleged comment was: ‘Hitler had the right idea – he was just not efficient enough.’

So why, as an intelligent and well-qualified woman, didn’t she simply walk out? ‘I felt trapped,’ Miss Jafa-Bodden replies.
‘I am a single mum. I was living in a flat paid for by Bikram. He controlled my work visa, my phone. I drove his cars. He said he’d get my visa revoked.’

She said the worst behaviour took place during teacher-training courses. ‘He would sit on a throne at the front of this vast room filled with trainees with an air-conditioning unit blasting cold air on him while everyone else was sweating madly.

‘During lectures the throne would be lowered. He would be on this throne and there would be a girl stroking his hair and another massaging his back and another stroking him under orange towels that would be placed on his lap. It was disgusting, but it was a daily occurrence.

‘The girls were emaciated because he told them not to eat. One of his sayings is, “No food is the best food.”

‘The Bikram studios that carry his name around the world are recruiting grounds for his victims.

'Those studios are required to send a certain number of students to teacher-training every year.

They are taught to seek out Bikram’s type – very thin, white, very pale. But little do these women know his world is a nightmare.

'He is a cold, calculating predator. The young trainees, they are 21, 22 years old.

'He would take the presidential suite in the hotel where the training sessions took place and would summon these girls. This is when some of the girls said he attacked them.

‘I was called to a meeting in his room one night because we had to do a conference call. I walked in and he was under the bedcovers and he patted the bed and indicated that I should get in.

‘I was terrified. Bikram looks small but he is muscular, extremely powerful and intimidating. I managed to escape but these young women look up to him and he has complete control over them.’

Miss Jafa-Bodden was fired in March 2013 after, she claims, she refused to cover up the rape allegations.
Penniless and terrified of testifying against Choudhury, her lawyer gave her a picture of Margaret Thatcher to inspire her.

She described her courtroom victory as ‘a victory for women everywhere’, adding: ‘He never once denied his behaviour in court.

'When he was asked about the abuse he just shrugged it off and pretended he was a clown, that it was a joke. But it is no laughing matter. He needs help.’

Miss Jafa-Bodden was replaced as Choudhury’s lawyer by Petra Starke, a former White House lawyer. She corroborated much of Miss Jafa-Bodden’s evidence in court.

Choudhury – who was once caught walking through an American airport with $10,000 in cash – pleaded poverty, and said he had been forced to give away his collection of more than 40 cars including Rolls-Royces, Bentleys and Ferraris, a claim dismissed as ‘pure fiction’.

Miss Jafa-Bodden said: ‘People were terrified to stand up to this man. I wanted to show my 11-year-old daughter that it’s OK to be scared but you can fight through the fear. He destroyed my life and my career.’

Choudhury denied wrongdoing in court and denies the separate claims of sexual assault.

Last night he was believed to be at his £15 million Beverly Hills mansion. His legal team is expected to appeal.


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