Bikram Yoga Founder Accused of Rape by Two Former Students

The women also claim Bikram Choudhury, whose devotees have included Madonna and Jennifer Aniston, cultivates a cult-like environment where staffers turn a blind eye to his actions.
Bikram Choudhury in an undated photo

Millionaire yoga guru Bikram Choudhury -- whose devotees have included Madonna, Lady Gaga and Jennifer Aniston -- has been accused of rape in two new lawsuits filed by former students, according to the Courthouse News Service.

The two women, known only as Jane Doe No. 1 and Jane Doe No. 2, filed their suits against Choudhury and Bikram Yoga College of India in Los Angeles Superior Court last week. They allege sexual battery, false imprisonment, discrimination, harassment and other counts.

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Jane Doe No. 2 claims Choudhury raped her in November 2010 while she was training to be a teacher through a nine-week program at Choudhury's Bikram Yoga studio in San Diego.

Doe No. 2 alleges that the $13,000 training course, which was a gift from her boyfriend, requires students to abstain from sex. They are taught that Bikram Yoga can cure diseases including cancer and told that Choudhury should be revered as a god, she says in her complaint.

She also claims that the studio fosters a cult-like environment where "every moment of a student's day is controlled by the schedule set by defendant Bikram Choudhury," the complaint states, adding that students are told what they can eat, wear and say and what expressions they should have on their faces. Some students are pushed so hard they wind up fainting, vomiting, urinating on themselves, or suffering heat strokes or seizures, the complaint adds.

"Students are also often required to attend evening lectures, where defendant Choudhury rants on subjects including his negative views on certain races; negative views on homosexuality; the moral lassitude of Americans; his guru; his views on sex, marriage, and relationships; and whatever else he should care to talk about," the complaint alleges.

Doe No. 2 claims she was initially flattered when Choudhury began paying extra attention to her but became uncomfortable when he made a move on her and expressed his feelings for her. She claims she reminded him of her boyfriend and his wife (he is married to Rajashree Choudhury, founder of the United States Yoga Federation), but that didn't stop his sexual advances.

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On the night of Nov. 18, 2010, she claims, he told her he wanted to talk about a job opportunity in his room at the studio. Instead, he began taking off her clothes forcefully, the suit alleges, and the exhausted student tried to push him away but was "too weak and overwrought to fight him off."

Doe No. 2 also is suing 25 others at the yoga school. "Other persons in defendant Bikram Choudhury's inner circle were aware of defendant Bikram Choudhury's pattern and practice of causing, inducing or persuading young women to enroll in teacher training classes to become yoga instructors only so he can sexually assault and/or rape them," her complaint states. She alleges that they knew what he was up to but "did nothing to prevent this from happening to plaintiff or to protect her."

She claims that after complaining to a male instructor at the studio, he told her to finish the program, saying, "We all know how Bikram is, that's just part of it."

After returning home, the plaintiff says, she "went into a severe depression, attempted suicide, started drinking, doing drugs, engaged in uncharacteristically impulsive behavior, quit her job and cut off communication from almost everyone in her life." She also "lived in constant fear" that Choudhury would one day show up at her home and attack her.

The plaintiff is seeking punitive damages, lost wages, and costs.

Jane Doe No. 1's complaint is reportedly similar to Doe No. 2's, except that she claims she was raped twice by Choudhury, in fall 2011. She claims she confronted Choudhury in March and that he tried to "inflict guilt" by saying that if she went public with her allegations, the entire Bikram Yoga community would pay the price.

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She also says that the 25 other defendants named in the suit knew about their boss' behavior and history with women.

"Plaintiff is informed and believes that after defendant Bikram Choudhury lures the young women to his place of business, through various schemes and designs and with the participation of his inner circle who are knowledgeable of and complicit in the abuse, he sexually assaults and/or rapes them," the suit alleges.

The two lawsuits come on the heels of another one filed in March by former student Sarah Baughn, who claimed that Choudhury made sexual advances while she was training to be a teacher in 2005.

All three women are being represented by Mary Shea Hagebols of Shea Law Offices in Oakland, Calif., who said her clients hope to protect other women from suffering the same fate.

"I have worked with the victims of sexual assault for decades," she told the U.K.'s Guardian. "It is very difficult for someone to come forward and speak out against someone powerful and wealthy."

Petra Starke, president of Bikram Yoga College of India, declined to comment on the lawsuits when reached by the Guardian.

Choudhury's Bikram Yoga franchise is a form of hatha yoga consisting of a series of 26 postures that is ideally practiced in studios heated to 105 degrees. Choudhury has claimed its benefits include preventing bone loss in women.

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Other bold-faced names who are said to have practiced Bikram Yoga include David Beckham, Ashton Kutcher, George Clooney, Robbie Williams, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Serena and Venus Williams.

In his autobiography, the Calcutta-born Choudhury claims he got his green card in the 1970s thanks to then-President Richard Nixon, whom he treated for advanced thrombophlebitis in his left leg, and opened his first yoga school in 1973 at the urging of Shirley MacLaine.

Choudhury also has been embroiled in multiple copyright infringement cases he has brought against other yoga teachers and studios whom he claimed ripped off his methods.

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