Crime Watch Daily investigates fugitive founder of Bikram Yoga
10/27/2017 1:01 pm PDT
UPDATE Nov. 11, 2017: Fugitive Bikram Choudhury's company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Thursday, Nov. 9, the Wall Street Journal reports .
Bikram Choudhury Yoga Inc. listed more than $16 million in legal judgments, the Journal reported.
The Simi Valley, California-based company said in the bankruptcy court filing its liabilities were worth up to $50 million; the company listed assets of up to $1 million, Reuters reports.
Choudhury, 73, the founder of Bikram Yoga, vanished from the United States in May after a warrant for his arrest was issued for contempt of court. He is accused by multiple women of sexual assault, and owes his former attorney more than $7 million in a civil judgment against him for sexual harassment and wrongful termination.
Choudhury has not been criminally charged, and he has denied the allegations against him.
Oct. 27, 2017:
As Harvey Weinstein's scandal is making front page news, there was another powerful figure -- a so-called "holy man" -- accused of committing all kinds of ungodly things.
Bikram Choudhury is the guru behind the wildly popular fitness craze Bikram Yoga that swept America, drawing in millions of people looking for that perfect body. It became the workout rage of the rich and famous. Even A-List celebs from Beyonce to Madonna to Gisele became disciples.
Behind his fancy car collection, Beverly Hills mansion and the walls of his $80-million exercise empire, the charismatic leader is now being called a monster hiding a dirty, depraved secret.
One of his alleged victims was the attorney the yogi brought in to protect his mighty empire, until she became his target too.
Now she's sitting down with Crime Watch Daily, spilling sordid details.
Bikram Choudhury's American dream all started when he moved from India into a little basement in ritzy Beverly Hills with the idea of introducing a new westernized kind of yoga to the rich and famous.
"He is the spiritual yogi who is ripped, and he is teaching these classes in Beverly Hills and, of course the Hollywood elite stumbles on him," said Benjamin Lorr, author of Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga.
Becoming instant devotees of the pint-sized nearly naked yogi.
"The guy is in a Speedo and he looks like an articulated anatomical diagram," said Lorr. "Every single muscle is spread out and rippling."
Lorr, who infiltrated Choudhury's private world, says he walks the walk and talks the talk of a genuine Indian mystic.
"He called himself a 'little Buddha.' He said he had never had sex, he was a virgin, he didn't have much money. He was renting out a very small modest studio space," said Lorr.
And the technique he calls Bikram Yoga is actually credited with healing the injury-ravaged body of basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
"So many of the big teachers today took classes from him and have incorporated his yoga into their routines," said Lorr.
Before long, Bikram Yoga is a multimillion-dollar international brand, attracting hundreds of devotees at a time to studios and luxurious tropical retreats he'd established around the world.
"Everywhere from Morocco to India to Hong Kong to Beijing, it is a global movement," said former Choudhury attorney Micki Jafa-Bodden.
Choudhury is also making special appearances at venues packed to capacity with 500 attendees a session for nine weeks at a time.
"We're talking about marquis hotels like the Hilton in Vegas and hotels in L.A. and Palm Springs and Acapulco and Hawaii," said Jafa-Bodden.
Bikram Choudhury has a simple formula for success.
"The one thing you should know about Bikram Yoga classes is they are identical. Same class everywhere," said author Benjamin Lorr. "Bikram, of course, refers to this as the 'McDonaldsization' of yoga, and he says that proudly because McDonald's refers to a uniform product."
And Choudhury is a kind of Ronald McDonald face of the franchise with his signature tiny Speedo and big personality.
"He's got his patter down like a Vegas lounge act, and it's flawless," said Lorr.
"My read on him was that he was slightly eccentric," said Jafa-Bodden.
"He's also an incredible entertainer. He's very performative. He's quite funny, he's over the top," said Lorr.
And the charismatic little yogi becomes a god-like figure to thousands of young followers, many paying $15,000 a pop to become licensed Bikram Yoga instructors.
"And his trainings filled up with people who wanted to call him 'guru,' and they wanted him to possess magic powers, and suddenly he starts adapting to that vision of him," said Lorr.
He dishes out spontaneous doses of spiritual wisdom on social media. Devotees hang on every word that falls from the mouth of their enlightened master.
But that vow of poverty Bikram Choudhury had once taken no longer holds up. Not with an estimated net worth of $80 million, a Beverly Hills mansion and a fleet of more than 40 luxury cars, including Rolls Royces, Bentleys and Ferraris.
"He is obsessed with money and wealth," said Lorr.
As for his vow of celibacy, well, Choudhury's apparently renounced that too, and is now married with children after reportedly importing wife Rajashree from his native India as a child bride.
"His wife came to America I think when she was 17, 18. It was an arranged marriage," said Benjamin Lorr.
But one woman is apparently not enough for Choudhury, who's alleged to be as obsessed with sex as he is with fame and fortune.
An ambitious young immigrant from India built an international yoga empire from virtually nothing in ritzy Beverly Hills, only to see it begin to crumble around him under the weight of a growing sex scandal.
"The more powerful he got, the kind of more controlling he got, and dangerous he got," said author Benjamin Lorr.
Fame, wealth and the adoration of millions of disciples had allegedly gone to the head of the little Indian yogi in the tiny Speedo.
"He thinks he is invincible, and he is above the law, and nobody can touch him, that he was God," said former Choudhury attorney Micki Jafa-Bodden.
But karma was about to cut Bikram Choudhury back down to size, accused of sexually preying on female employees of his $80-million empire.
"Who went like lambs to the slaughter, not having a clue about what they were getting themselves in for," said attorney Carla Minnard.
"He told them he would make them famous if they slept with him," said Lorr.
Ironically, this Pandora's Box of dirty little secrets was opened by a trainee yoga instructor named Pandhora Williams, who sues Bikram Choudhury for racial discrimination, claiming she was fired after objecting to one of his many alleged homophobic and racist rants.
And Pandhora's attorney Carla Minnard is out to finally expose Choudhury.
"It really needed a public airing, this kind of abuse, and this kind of megalomania run amok," Minnard said.
Bikram Choudhury hires his own top-flight attorney, Micki Jafa-Bodden, to protect his empire.
"When that lawsuit hit, Bikram's demeanor and his attitude and his behavior and his language and all of that just erupted," said Jafa-Bodden.
And she says she soon discovers the yogi's alleged sins extend beyond homophobia and racism, to harassment, intimidation, sexual assault and even rape.
"I was actually expecting a number of lawsuits to come down the pipeline, and I had warned Bikram and his other attorneys about them," said Jafa-Bodden.
But she says the yogi in the Speedo only becomes more cocky.
"He stood up on the stage and said, 'Oh you know, my lawyer's telling me that I can't be alone with women. I can't have girls coming up to my suite at night. You know what, I'm not gonna have one girl. I'm going to now have two,'" said Jafa-Bodden.
And just as Jafa-Bodden had predicted, Choudhury was slapped with five more lawsuits filed by other female employees, combining to paint a portrait of a power-drunk tyrant allegedly using cult-like tactics of intimidation, sleep deprivation and mind control to condition his prey.
"He creates his own reality. And part of that is the sleep deprivation, and what I call the torture," said Jafa-Bodden. "He refers to it as the 'Bikram torture chamber.'"
It allegedly includes yoga trainees being forced to spend endless nights sitting at the master's feet.
"There was one who reported falling asleep and having him grope her," said Jafa-Bodden.
Author Benjamin Lorr infiltrated Choudhury's house of horrors for his book Hell-Bent, paying around $15,000 to pose as a trainee yoga instructor and investigate employees' shocking allegations.
"I had women who would tell me they had been raped by him," said Lorr.
And Jafa-Bodden says Choudhury would carefully groom his prey.
"He will have favorites, and then he will completely brainwash them as well," said Jafa-Bodden. "It will begin at the Bikram Yoga studios well before these young girls apply to come and be Bikram Yoga teachers."
Micki Jafa-Bodden claims she's actually witnessed Choudhury fooling around with those favorite trainees.
"I once walked into his office and there was a woman massaging his feet and his thighs, now partially obscured by his desk, and he had a towel over his lap. But it was pretty clear to me what was going on," said Jafa-Bodden.
Another employee would say in a deposition that she witnessed a similar incident when Choudhury took a young trainee along on a business trip to New York.
"As they were sitting in this limousine, she looked across and saw the young woman's head in Bikram's lap and he covered her with a ski jacket, and it was very clear from her testimony, and she indicated he was receiving either oral sex or being masturbated by this young woman," said attorney Carla Minnard.
The witness testified that Choudhury even had the nerve to complain.
"When apparently the young woman wasn't servicing him in a way that he appreciated he said, 'What the [---] are you doing? Did God give you one hand or two?'" said Minnard.
Micki Jafa-Bodden says she was constantly dealing with disturbing complaints by trainees.
"There was another woman who reports that Bikram's family, his wife and children, on this occasion in his home, went upstairs to sleep and Bikram then forced her sexually, raped her basically, in his living room on the couch," said Jafa-Bodden.
But Jafa-Bodden says Choudhury did most of his dirty work in a special hotel suite he kept in Beverly Hills.
"It was just easier for him to force trainees to give him massages and I dare say, force women into unwanted sex with him," said Jafa-Bodden. "Some evidence came forward regarding a young girl who was seen running from Bikram's suite crying with her shoes in her hand."
Jafa-Bodden claims Choudhury even made a move on her after summoning her to his suite for a supposed business meeting.
"He got under the covers and crawled into bed and motioned for me to come over and sit with him," said Micki Jafa-Bodden.
That would turn out to be the biggest mistake Bikram Choudhury ever made.
"That to me was extremely unnerving and peculiar, and I had also reached a point in my own personal journey with Bikram where he had pushed too many of my buttons," said Jafa-Bodden.
Bikram Choudhury has allegedly been subjecting his female employees to a reign of sexual terror, but now ironically the woman he hired to save his empire is poised to bring it down.
Attorney Micki Jafa-Bodden says she was horrified by what she discovered after being hired by Bikram Choudhury to take care of legal matters related to his business. When Choudhury allegedly hit on Jafa-Bodden too, she came to believe that everything his trainees were claiming about him in six separate lawsuits was sadly true. But she says the defiant Choudhury remains unrepentant.
"Bikram went into full denial mode," said Jafa-Bodden. "His fallback position was basically to say that it was consensual."
And Choudhury publicly scoffed at the women's accusations with some astoundingly arrogant declarations.
"He talks about one drop of his sperm being worth a million dollars. 'I don't need to rape women because there's a line around the block.' And he stood up in a room full of trainees and said, 'Maybe I should rape more girls. Because look, it's good for business,'" said attorney Carla Minnard.
But it turns out it's not, and Micki Jafa-Bodden takes the fall.
"I was experiencing a great deal of harassment from Bikram and retaliation and so on and so forth, and I got forced to resign," said Jafa-Bodden.
Jafa-Bodden slapped Choudhury with lawsuit number seven, alleging wrongful dismissal and sexual harassment, as well as other charges. And this one isn't going to be settled out of court once she hires Carla Minnard, the same attorney who represented yoga trainee Pandhora Williams, the first employee to sue Choudhury.
"I said I won't represent you unless you are willing to take this to and through verdict," said Minnard. "She said 'Absolutely. I'm willing to do that.'"
Now Minnard gets to put Bikram Choudhury in the hot seat in a recorded legal deposition.
Minnard: "Micki Jafa actually attempted to investigate those allegations of rape and sexual assault, and you fired her in retaliation for that, isn't that correct, Mr. Choudhury?"
Attorney: "I'm going to object to that on the basis of attorney-client communication."
And for the first time, Bikram Choudhury has to respond in a videotaped deposition to charges that had been made against him, not just by Micki Jafa-Bodden, but many other women employees.
Minnard: "You tried to put your hands inside of Ms. Lawler's pants during teacher training, isn't that right?"
Choudhury would either deny the accusations or simply refuse to answer Minnard's questions on the advice of his attorneys.
Minnard: "Ms. Lawler says that you walked over to where she was sitting on a couch, you pulled down your pants and you shoved your penis in her face. Did you do that?"
Choudhury: "I take the Fifth not to answer that question."
But the merciless grilling continues.
Minnard: "Did you tell Ms. Lawler while you were having sex with her, did you demand that she say, 'Bikram, you're the best. I want to [----] you all night long?'"
Minnard: "You also took women into the sound closet at headquarters and had them perform sexual acts on you, correct?"
Attorney: "Vague, and I'm going to instruct you to take your Fifth Amendment privilege."
Minnard: "Ms. Capizzi says you ordered a girl to go underneath your desk in your office while you were sitting at your desk in your chair at headquarters, is that true?"
Minnard: "You groped and grabbed Ms. Capizzi's buttocks from behind, isn't that right, Mr. Choudhury?"
The yogi's alleged foul deeds and words portray him as a crude and dangerous male chauvinist of the first order.
Minnard: "Did you ever say, 'I didn't [----] that many times in my life? I [----] her for a marathon 72 hours sex. I never saw her again for three years. I broke her whole body.' Did you ever say that?"
Attorney: "I'm instructing him not to answer."
Minnard: "Have you ever said, quote, 'Women want to be raped?'"
Minnard: "Have you said that women are just here for sex?"
Carla Minnard also calls out Bikram Choudhury on an insult he'd slung at her.
Minnard: "You referred to me as a fat lesbian bitch in Pandhora's case. So, I'm a lawyer, I don't take these things personally. It's fine. I have a job to do. And I'm just doing the best I can to do my job. You understand that, right?"
Choudhury: "Sure I do."
After hearing the allegations and his defense earlier this year, a Los Angeles jury awarded Micki Jafa-Bodden nearly $7 million, as well as control of what remained of the Bikram Yoga empire.
"The damages that we were awarded by the court are actually now approximately $8 million with interest," said Jafa-Bodden.
That's because Choudhury hasn't paid up after allegedly hiding his fortune.
"Prior to my trial they wired $5 million out of the country and assets were transferred to his wife, his children," said Jafa-Bodden.
Attorney Carla Minnard has only been able to seize a tiny portion of his possessions.
"We have tracked, eventually found 22 or so cars of his luxury car collection in a warehouse in Miami," said Minnard.
In fact, Crime Watch Daily has learned the fallen yogi actually appealed the verdict against him, but lost. Then Choudhury himself skipped the country to avoid being forced to hand everything over. But Minnard's investigators tracked down the runaway yogi in Thailand to serve him with an order to appear in California state court.
"We have him on video cursing and threatening the process server, who's just a local guy doing his job," said Minnard. "He comes unhinged in that video."
And because Bikram Choudhury ignores the order, he now finds himself an international fugitive wanted for contempt of court.
"There's a warrant for his arrest," said Carla Minnard.
Crime Watch Daily reached out several times to get Bikram Choudhury's side of the story. His attorneys have declined comment. So we went to his mansion in Beverly Hills, where we were greeted by a family member.
"Can you please leave? I'm sorry, there's no one home. Please. Can you please leave? I can't answer any questions. Please."
Crime Watch Daily has been told that Bikram Choudhury is now at a luxurious resort in Acapulco, Mexico, living as a wanted man, even though he has not been criminally charged.
"Bikram is a dangerous individual," said Carla Minnard.
Minnard has asked the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office to pursue criminal charges against Bikram Choudhury, to no avail. Minnard vows she will follow the yogi to the ends of the Earth to bring him to justice.
"If I have to spend my last breath as a lawyer pursuing him, I don't care if he goes to Thailand or Turkmenistan, we are going to follow him there and he will be held accountable," said Carla Minnard. "I don't care what it takes."
Since the scandal, many Bikram Yoga studios, including the biggest one, in New York, have undergone massive changes, including new names to lose any reference to the toxic teacher of the past.
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