Yoga guru Bikram Choudhury must pay $6.4 million in punitive damages, jury decides

A Los Angeles jury on Tuesday awarded more than $6.4 million in the first of a series of lawsuits against renowned yoga guru Bikram Choudhury in which women accuse the founder of the popular Bikram yoga style of sexual misconduct.

The verdict marks a significant financial and legal blow to Choudhury, who claimed millions of followers in a global empire centered around “hot yoga,” performed in sweltering rooms.

The case involved a lawsuit by his onetime legal advisor, Minakshi Jafa-Bodden, who alleged that Choudhury sexually harassed her while she worked for him and that she was fired after she began investigating claims that he had raped a yoga student. Six other women in recent years have filed civil lawsuits accusing Choudhury of sexually assaulting them.

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Choudhury has denied any wrongdoing, and Los Angeles County prosecutors decided not to file criminal charges in several cases, saying there was no corroborating evidence.

The Beverly Hills resident testified Tuesday that he has spent millions of dollars on legal bills in recent years and that his Los Angeles-based yoga business has waned, leaving him nearly bankrupt.

“I have to borrow money from my family and friends,” he told jurors. “I have no money.”

Under cross-examination, Choudhury admitted keeping a fleet of up to 40 luxury cars — including Bentleys, Ferraris and Rolls-Royces — in a Van Nuys garage. He said he gave the vehicles to the state to start a school, the “Bikram auto engineering school for children.”

The remarks drew smirks and laughs from several jurors. A spokeswoman for the governor told The Times no such agreement exists.

Tuesday’s award of punitive damages came on top of more than $924,500 that jurors awarded Jafa-Bodden in compensatory damages Monday.

“I feel vindicated, I'm elated,” Jafa-Bodden said after the verdict, describing Choudhury as “a dangerous, dangerous predator.”

She said she was “gobsmacked” by the size of the punitive damages.

One of the jurors hugged her after the verdict, telling her she was a “warrior for women.” The juror, Elvira Castro, said she was appalled by the way Choudhury treated the attorney.

“He’s disgusting,” Castro said.

Choudhury, 69, left the courtroom soon after the verdict was announced without commenting. His attorney declined to comment.

Choudhury was born in Kolkata, India, and moved to California in 1971. He quickly became a prominent figure in the yoga world at a time when the practice was gaining popularity in the United States. He styled himself as a yogi to the stars, bragging that Raquel Welch and Quincy Jones were among his clients and that he healed Richard Nixon of phlebitis.

His yoga routine consists of a series of 26 poses, done over 90 minutes in a room heated to 104 degrees.

Last year, Choudhury lost a legal fight to copyright the sequence. He had argued that only he had the right to determine who could teach his method, but the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that his yoga method was not protected by copyright law and that competitors could not be held liable for teaching it without his blessing.

The public allegations of sexual misconduct have battered Choudhury’s image in recent years and embarrassed even some of his most devoted followers, said Benjamin Lorr, who wrote a book about his time becoming a Bikram yoga competitor.

Several jurors said they did not believe Choudhury’s claims of financial hardship or his other testimony during the trial, including his insistence that he had not abused women.

Juror Debbie Valencia of Montebello said she was unconvinced by Choudhury. 

“You could tell he was lying,” she said. 

For more Los Angeles County civil court news, follow @sjceasar.

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