The untold truth of Bikram Yoga

When you think of yoga, you might picture a blissed-out instructor calmly leading a quiet room of people relaxing and feeling the namaste, and who focuses on the spiritual world over the material one. That's not what Bikram Yoga is at all. This high-intensity hot yoga is not for the faint at heart, nor for those looking to relax when doing the ancient asanas.

Bikram Choudhury, the founder behind the practice, isn't your typical yogi. He moved from India to Hollywood in the 1970s and quickly secured A-list clientele. He claims Shirley MacLaine got him on Johnny Carson to get him his big break. Celebrity clientele for Bikram Yoga has also reportedly included Jennifer Aniston, David Beckham, Madonna, George Clooney, and Lady Gaga.

Choudhury is known for making millions off his namesake yoga and is infamous for wearing a diamond-encrusted Rolex and driving Rolls-Royces, a far cry from yoga pants and chai tea. One writer even nicknamed him the "Walter White of yoga." Ouch.

Choudhury, also called the "bad boy of yoga" for his personality, has been in legal hot water in recent years due to sexual assault and sexual harassment allegations. Here's a look at the most shocking things about him and Bikram Yoga.

The Bikram Yoga company is super-strict with their franchises

Bikram Yoga, named after Bikram Choudhury, the man who came up with the idea in the early 1970s, is a very specific type of yoga. It is done in a room that is heated to at least 104 degrees Fahrenheit and 40 percent humidity. There are 26 yoga positions and two breathing exercises done in a specific sequence for 90 minutes.

Bikram Yoga has strict rules, not just on the exercises and temperature, but on the yoga studio's rooms themselves. The floor in the Bikram Yoga room must have a carpet on it, which is supposed to help ease joints better than hardwood floors would. Mirrors must be on the front wall. Instructors are supposed to use only the company-approved dialogue for the classes, speaking in headsets. The studios are not allowed to host any other type of yoga. The official rules also say that "No physical contact, hands on corrections or adjustments of students is permitted (with the exception of Bikram)." In addition, the instructors must be certified by Bikram Yoga as well.

It is also not cheap to become a franchise. Entrepreneur magazine said: "Opening a Bikram franchise is expensive, starting with a $10,000 franchise fee. Studio owners are then required to pay a percentage of sales to Choudhury, including a royalty fee of 5 percent of gross revenues and an advertising fund fee that is 2 percent of gross revenues." That's a lot of lucre.

Choudhury became filthy rich doing yoga

What Choudhury did was unique in the yoga world. He took positions that were invented thousands of years ago, added some heat and specific rules, and started franchising his style. He also tried to copyright Bikram Yoga, so that nobody else could teach it without paying him. In addition, "hundreds of cease-and-desist letters were slapped on competing studio owners" by Choudhury, according to the Harvard Business School's website.

Ultimately, a federal court ruled in 2015 that you cannot copyright an idea like yoga sequences. "Because copyright protection is limited to the expression of ideas, and does not extend to the ideas themselves, the Bikram Yoga Sequence is not a proper subject of copyright protection," the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said.

Due to that ruling, other yoga practitioners can now create their own hot yoga studios, and even use the same 26 positions, without having to credit Bikram Yoga. But in the meantime, this franchising made him a very rich man.

And Choudhury doesn't exactly live frugally with that type of coin. Vanity Fair wrote about him tooling around Beverly Hills in one of his Rolls-Royces with the license plate "Bikram."

He also doesn't look like a typical yoga instructor. Vanity Fair also described him as directing "classes in his signature outfit of black Speedo, jewel-encrusted Rolex, and headset mike, his chest waxed, his thinning black hair pulled into a topknot, his baby-soft skin radiating a miasma of cologne." His out-of-class outfit usually consists of "a fedora, Zoot suit and white Gucci loafers," the Daily Telegraph said, which estimated him as earning $7 million a year at one point from his empire. They also reported that he owns over 40 classic cars.

Bikram Yoga requires teachers to pay for their own training

Not only do the official Bikram Yoga franchises have to pay for the privilege of the name, and follow all of the rules, but they can only use teachers who have been certified by Bikram Yoga. And the teacher training is monumentally expensive. Those who want to be certified pay between $12,500 and $16,600 (including lodging for the training) to do so. And they have to get re-certified every three years, paying another $1200 or so.

The Bikram Yoga studio is a "torture chamber"

A "torture chamber" is what Bikram Yoga founder Choudhury admittedly calls the type of yoga studio he created. He himself acknowledges that such intense heat can be unbearable. But he also claims the heat is critical to making the body malleable and pliant. However, according to Consumer Reports, the heat can make people overstretch their muscles, leading to injuries.

”Heat increases one's metabolic rate, and by warming you up, it allows you to stretch more,” sports medicine expert Dr. Robert Gotlin said in an interview with the New York Times. ”But once you stretch a muscle beyond 20 or 25 percent of its resting length, you begin to damage a muscle.”

And Dr. Cedric Bryant of the American Council on Exercise told Reuters that when it comes to Bikram Yoga's heat, "the benefits are largely perceptual" for it and other hot yoga classes. "People think the degree of sweat is the quality of the workout, but that's not reality," he said. "It doesn't correlate to burning more calories."

The claim that Bikram yoga removes toxins is bogus

Another thing that Bikram Choudhury has claimed is that the heat removes toxins. But the idea that all the sweating people do in Bikram Yoga class will sweat out toxins makes no sense. Our liver and kidneys take out the toxins when we use the restroom. Also too much heat and sweating can literally make you sick. Some people have reportedly suffered heat stroke and infections from Bikram Yoga in that heat.

Carol Ewing Garber, a professor in kinesiology, told the New York Times that "if you're sweating profusely, it's very difficult to replenish that fluid" and noted that people don't often recognize "the early signs of heat illness," which include things like nausea, dizziness, vomiting, and headaches, as well as the sweating and the feeling of thirst. And the American Council on Medicine found that participants' core temperatures can go up to over 103 degrees in Bikram Yoga classes. Too hot to handle for many people.

Multiple women working with Choudhury have accused him of sexual harassment and assault

Not only did those women who wanted to teach Bikram yoga have to pay through the nose to be trained, but some of them also claim they were sexually harassed or even sexually assaulted by Choudhury. The first lawsuit came in 2013. Sarah Baughn (in the video above) took teacher classes with him and claimed he repeatedly pushed his body against her, among other things. She also claimed that she lost a yoga competition she should have won and was "prevented from teaching seminars or advanced classes because of her past and continuing refusal to have sex with her guru."

Other women then filed lawsuits, saying that Choudhury pushed himself on them in varying degrees of sexual assault. But Choudhury claimed that women pushed themselves onto him, saying to Nightline in 2012: "The hardest problem in my life… is to stay away from women. Women like me, and I have to run, city after city, country after country, all my life to stay away from the women." Oh, please.

As the lawsuits mount, Choudhury faces legal consequences

After Baughn's lawsuit, the floodgates opened, with at least six other female students of Choudhury's accusing him of sexual harassment or sexual assault. The New York Times reported that one of the women said that Choudhury "had whispered sexual advances during classes, and had assaulted and groped her in a hotel room and at his home." Another plantiff, Jane Lawler, accused him of repeated instances of sexual assault.

Larissa Anderson, a yoga instructor under his tutelage, told Nightline: "He raped me," saying, "I felt speechless. Because this was my Guru, and I thought of him as a father figure. And he stood up and he grabbed my hand and he sat me down on the couch and he pulled up my skirt and pulled down my underwear, pulled his boxer shorts down, and had sex with me. And I had said no."

In 2016, Minakshi "Miki" Jafa-Bodden, his former legal counsel, won nearly $7 million in a lawsuit against him. She had sued because he reportedly fired her after she tried to investigate other women's claims. She also said that he sexually harassed her. He has denied all the allegations.

The number of alleged victims continued to rise

As if those descriptions weren't sickening enough, HBO's Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel did a report in 2016 and found that over 30 women accused Choudhury of sexually harassing them. He fought back in an interview with Andrea Kremer on the show, claiming that four women literally killed themselves when he wouldn't have sex with them, and also saying: "Why [do] I have to harass women? People spend $1 million for one drop of my sperm." Yeesh.

Bikram Choudhury's scandals hurt more than just his reported victims

One of the untold stories about this scandal is how many Bikram Yoga studio owners, instructors, and students also suffered consequences from Bikram Choudhury's alleged actions, and the way it has tainted Bikram Yoga itself. I spoke with a number of these people for this story. Nicole Stuckey owns Some Like It Hot Yoga & Wellness in Staten Island, NY. She loved Bikram Yoga itself, but was unimpressed with Choudhury. She said she attended teacher training with him in 2011 and paid $12,500 for the training and travel expenses. "I was shocked and appalled by the behavior I witnessed and amount of money I wasted," Stuckey told me.

She said Choudhury "showed up late to lectures, then arrived with an entourage." In addition, "He was so rude and downright nasty to students, calling them names, commenting negatively on physical appearance," she said. He also sat on a pedestal wth air conditioning blowing on him "during our insanely hot classes," Stuckey shared. Classes lasted until 5 a.m., and Stuckey said that she was "told not to talk about training with students" when she returned home.

When she opened her studio three years ago, she had Bikram Yoga in the name but decided to change it after the copyright laws were reversed. In a letter to her students explaining the name change, she wrote, "I couldn't bear the thought of one person feeling uncomfortable about stepping inside this studio because of the allegations."

Yoga student Caileen Kehayas of Los Angeles, CA told me she has been practicing Bikram Yoga for about a year, and has noticed "that studios distance themselves from the name Bikram, calling the 26 asana classes hot yoga instead." Kehayas added that "another studio I visited in Boston received a phone call as I was getting ready for class. The call was criticizing the association with Bikram. The instructor calmly explained that their practice has nothing to do with the man and his misdoings, but rather the practice and well-being of the students."

David Rachford, a yoga teacher in Santa Monica, CA, "used to practice at a Bikram studio," he told me, but "began to feel uneasy about the practice" as the allegations added up. "As the son of a rape survivor, and having known way too many women in my life that have survived sexual assault and harassment, I side with the survivors." he said. He told me he "could no longer associate with the name, or the practice" and "moved on to a power yoga studio."

Choudhury's wife left him

Rajashree Choudhury had been married to Bikram for 30 years and helped him build his empire. She also worked to try to get yoga to be named an Olympic sport. But after all of her husband's sexual shenanigans, she apparently had finally had enough in late 2015, and filed for divorce. TMZ obtained the legal documents, which said that she reportedly kept their Beverly Hills and Los Angeles homes, and some of their classic cars. Most importantly, she reportedly received immunity from any of the many lawsuits targeting him.

Before the divorce filing, Choudhury teared up in a video interview as he told a CNN reporter that his wife "never looks at" him anymore. Now she officially won't be looking at him anymore, forever.

Bikram Choudhury no longer legally owns Bikram Yoga

Minakshi "Micki" Jafa-Bodden, Choudhury's ex-attorney, became the first of his numerous female accusers to win against him in court. In February 2017, The Guardian reported that "a Los Angeles county jury awarded her a total of $6.8 million in damages for a range of charges including unlawful dismissal and sexual harassment."

The same article claims that Choudhury has fled the United States and went back to India. "In December, with Choudhury refusing to return to the US, the judge ordered that the income from his studio franchises and his intellectual property be handed over to Jafa-Bodden." Additionally, his fleet of 40+ exotic cars now appear to be missing in action, most of his studios are closed, and the name Bikram has been forever tarnished. He still faces more lawsuits, too.

Now that Jafa-Bodden owns Bikram Yoga (although that is not immediately clear from the company website) it remains to be seen what will happen to the company's future. She spoke to The Daily Mail, saying, "Bikram is no longer the boss of Bikram Yoga. I am. I've been to hell and back, but the jury has spoken. Bikram has tried to conceal assets and has fled America, but justice will be done."

What does Bikram Yoga's future hold?

Ironically, a name that was once so popular, and meant so much, has become a liability. So, what will happen to the Bikram Yoga name?

One lawyer has a solution: calling the franchise "Jafa-Bodden Hot Yoga." Kevin Hughey writes about his idea: "Tongue-and-cheek? Yes. However, not only does she now own Bikram's yoga college, but more important she had the strength of character to stick to the truth and see the matter through." Good thinking.

I asked Rohit Deshpande, a Harvard University professor who has taught a class called "Branding Yoga" which talked about Bikram Choudhury, for his thoughts on the future of the Bikram Yoga brand. He said the following: "I think of a brand as much more than a trademark; it's a Trustmark. You can defend a trademark in court. But trust is arbitrated in customer relationships. It takes a long time to build and even longer to rebuild."