I first encountered Bikram Choudhury 10 years ago (okay more like 15, but who’s counting) at his Bikram Yoga College on La Cienega Blvd. in L.A. when trying out his quintessential hot yoga class. He was memorable, parading around in Speedo-like short-shorts on a small stage in front of the class, shouting yoga commands. Given the recent jury verdict against Mr. Choudhury, the reader will be forgiven for wondering whether I felt harassed at the class. Well, I did, but not in the way you might think. This was not a relaxing, “get in touch with your spiritual side” class. Rather, my poses were apparently so terrible as to draw comments such as, “You – you in the blue pants!” [Wha?? ME????] “Triangle – this is the TRIANGLE pose – what is that you are doing? Is that a square?” And, to my friend, sweaty and breathless in the 104˚F room: “No – where are you going? This is not the time for a water break! NO WATER!” Unwilling to give up, I went to one more Bikram class…and then took up the more calming practice of spinning class.
Between this run-in and my employment law background, you won’t be surprised to learn that I could not tear myself away from the coverage of the harassment and retaliation lawsuit filed against Choudhury by his former Head of Legal and International Affairs. The plaintiff’s lawsuit alleged that Choudhury wrongfully terminated her employment in retaliation for investigating a trainee’s allegation that Choudhury raped her and then refusing to commit perjury by covering up the allegations when she was subpoenaed to testify in a sex discrimination case filed by a former trainee. (Choudhury was the target of other lawsuits by women claiming sexual assault or harassment, to which he remarkably responded in a CNN interview, here: “I have no intention to have sex with any of my students or any women…Sometimes students, they commit suicide. Lots of students of mine, they commit suicide because I will not have sex with them.”) Other salacious testimony in this lawsuit included that Choudhury forced the plaintiff to meet with him in his hotel room at night while female students massaged him, at least once insisted that the plaintiff join him in bed during a meeting (she claimed she refused), and that he received oral sex in front of his former CEO.
On January 25, after an almost 2-week trial, an LA jury agreed that the plaintiff suffered “severe and pervasive” harassment, and that her complaints to management about sexual harassment and discrimination were a substantial reason for her termination. The award? $924,000 in compensatory damages ($237,000 in past lost wages, $187,000 for future lost earnings, $50,000 for mental suffering and emotional distress, and $450,000 in noneconomic damages including future suffering and emotional distress). On January 26, the jury topped that off with another $6.4 million in punitive damages.
Lessons for businesses and high level executives? Here are a few: No individual – even a guru with a cult following or an uber-celebrity – should believe they are too big to fail. Contrary to Choudhury’s business philosophy (a trial witness testified Choudhury commented in class, “I should rape more women, it’s good for business”), not all publicity is good publicity in business. Listen to in-house counsel and the results of internal investigations. Even company owners should attend the 2-hour mandatory California anti-harassment training.
Incidentally, the bad news for Choudhury did not stop there. Also on January 25, the Ninth Circuit issued a ruling declining to reconsider its decision that words and pictures used to describe Choudhury’s unique yoga pose sequence – such as in his instruction book – could be copyrighted as an expression of the ideas that were embodies in the poses, but that the poses themselves could not be the subject of copyright. What are the odds this ruling and the jury verdict would issue on the same day? The next time you strike your anjali mudra and reflect on whether karma exists, remember this article.