The Crazy Real-Life Story Of Hot Yoga Instructor Bikram Choudhury

Yoga, now a 5,000-year-old practice, is designed to dissolve the ego and bring on a state of meditative bliss.

Yoga doesn't exactly make you think of a fedora-wearing, Bentley-driving, cursing showman. However, that's precisely who Bikram Choudhury, the founder of the Bikram hot yoga franchise, is. He built a yoga empire by being the first to lead yogis through 90 minutes of his signature contortions at a sweltering 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Part-healer and part-salesman, Choudhury is no stranger to making people uncomfortable with his brash personality and epic boasts. "You'll never meet another human being on this earth more pure than me," he once said, as reported by the New Republic.

Over his five-decade career, Choudhury has amassed a $75 million fortune, buddied up to Hollywood celebrities, and been at the center of numerous assault allegations. Choudhury's is a tale of fawning devotees, torturous training sessions, and creepy manipulations. Here is the crazy real-life story of hot yoga founder Bikram Choudhury, from his meteoric rise to fame to his disgraceful run from the law.

Bikram Choudhury's mythical origin story

Born in Calcutta, India, in 1944, yoga guru Bikram Choudhury touted a mythical origin story. According to Julia Lowrie Henderson's reporting for 30 for 30 Podcasts, Choudhury's journey to yoga started at age five, when he stumbled upon famous yoga guru Bishnu Charan Ghosh. Ghosh invited him to practice yoga at his college. As Choudhury told it, he became something of a prodigy and went on to win the National India Yoga Championship three times in a row as a teenager.

Next, Choudhury turned his attention to the world of weightlifting. He maintains that he was about to compete in the 1964 Olympics, when his spotter dropped a 465-pound weight on his left leg, crushing it. With the aid of Ghosh and a regimen of eight hours of yoga a day, Choudhury's knee was healed within six months. This miraculous recovery was what inspired his mission to bring yoga across the globe.

This was a story repeated often by Choudhury. In fact, as discovered by Henderson, the National Yoga Championships didn't start until the 1970s, long after Choudhury had left Calcutta. Bikram Choudhury didn't even attend Ghosh's college until he was a teenager, where he mainly focused on the study of massage and weightlifting, per 30 for 30 Podcasts. Like many cults of personality, Choudhury sculpted an origin story that presupposed his own specialness. Without records, there's no certainty what's myth or fact when it comes to his childhood.

Bikram Choudhury "reinvents" yoga

Borrowing from his mentor Bishnu Charan Ghosh, Bikram Choudhury took 26 yoga postures and sequenced them together into a 90-minute series. His big breakthrough was when he decided that these so-called Bikram sessions should be held at 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40 C), in order to best mirror India's natural climate. At temperatures that high, practitioners open up and sweat out their toxins. Among some of the most iconic challenging Bikram poses are Standing Bow pose, Awkward pose, and Standing Head-to-Knee pose. The series also uses two pranayama breathing techniques to increase circulation and provide the body with oxygen. It's purposely difficult, to boot.

As reported by Vanity Fair, many hot yoga devotees speak of how the practice has healing properties: a cured knee, a straightened back, or major weight loss. "It attracts lots of people who have things they need to transform," author Benjamin Lorr told the magazine. For those who took it, Bikram pushed students to their mental and physical limits — and breaking through the pain, nausea, and self-doubt was part of its inherent draw.

While Bikram yoga was acclaimed for its replicability and effectiveness, according to Image, well-respected yogis see Bikram as a rip-off yoga, something that was merely a remix of a long-established tradition.

The cult of Bikram comes to America

Bikram Choudhury brought his yoga brainchild to the United States in the 1970s, opening his own studio in Los Angeles. How'd he get the visa? Prior to this, Choudhury claims his first student was Elvis Presley and his second, of all people, was President Richard Nixon. Allegedly, the pair met on July 4, 1972, in Hawaii. As reported by 30 for 30 Podcasts, the story was that doctors wanted to amputate Nixon's leg due to a complication with phlebitis. Over four days of hydropathic treatment in a tub with Bikram yoga, Choudhury claims to have healed the president's condition. According to Choudhury, Nixon gifted him with a green card in return. When the Nixon Library was contacted to verify the claim, they found no records of Nixon ever meeting or requesting the service of Bikram Choudhury, as told by The New Republic.

However spurious Choudhury's immigration story was, it was still effective enough for his early adopters. With a mission to spread his yoga, what better narrative to bring to Los Angeles during the Me-decade than that of a patriotic spiritual guide with superhuman healing abilities?

Bikram Choudhury becomes yoga teacher to the stars

What really set Bikram Choudhury apart in 1970s Los Angeles was that his hard classes and charisma were able to attract Hollywood elites. For many, he was a fitness guru and spiritual healer. Shirley Maclaine joined his class, which was a turning point for Choudhury. Maclaine put him on the map by encouraging him to ditch donation-based classes and start charging students. 

"Back then he had every celebrity you can imagine," said Jimmy Barkan, an LA actor who was an early Bikram convert, on 30 for 30 Podcasts. Through word of mouth and celebrity buzz, Choudhury attracted devotees like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Quincy Jones, Martin Sheen, Lady Gaga, Barbara Streisand, and Candice Bergen. "He's very, very disciplined and very, very kind, and ah, very, very discerning. And his eye is extremely adept at detail ... particularly physical, but also mental. And ah, he never stops talking," Shirley Maclaine gushed, as reported on the podcast.

Not every brush with celebrity went well for Bikram Choudhury. Bonnie Jones Reynolds, an actress, ghost-wrote his 1978 book Bikram's Beginning Yoga Class, but Reynolds only got one percent of the profits. Actress Raquel Welch, one of his longtime students, released her own fitness book in 1984. However, Welch's routine was a blatant copy of Bikram's series, so Choudhury sued. With the earnings from the lawsuit, Choudhury built his Beverly Hills home, where he would live with his new wife and fellow yogi, Rajashree.

Bikram Choudhury fights for a copyright

In 2003, Bikram Choudhury filed a federal copyright, which claimed his 26-posture sequence was his own original work and intellectual property. After this, he was able to successfully sue Kim Shreiber-Morrison and Mark Morrison, who were teaching his posture series under a different name at their own studio, for copyright infringement, as reported by Brooklyn Based. However, a decade later, the US Copyright Office overturned their decision. They ruled that yoga postures, a centuries-old practice, simply couldn't be copyrighted. That didn't stop Choudhury from going after competitor Yoga to the People in 2011 for using his series. Though the law was on their side, Yoga to the People ended up cutting their Bikram-esque classes to quickly drop the lawsuit. With a monopoly on his eponymous style of yoga, at the height of the craze, there were about 650 affiliated Bikram studios throughout the United States.

Without having to personally operate the hundreds of studios bearing his name, Bikram Choudhury was able to have a franchise-like mass production of his brand. "The name is getting more popular, spreading out like McDonald's," Choudhury was recorded as saying, as reported by 30 for 30 Podcasts. In contrast to the usual modesty of a yogi, the litigious and flashy Choudhury was a thoroughly American yogi.

Bikram Choudhury's grueling teacher training

In order to accredit their Bikram studios, students took part in nine-week teacher training courses with the Bikram Yoga College of India starting in 1994. Biannually, up to 400 students met in luxury hotels for teacher training sessions, which began daily at 7:00 AM and ended at nearly 2:00 AM. These marathon yoga sessions would also include memorization of a yoga script, extemporaneous lectures given by Bikram Choudhury himself, and at the end of the night, screenings of Bollywood films. It was a sleepless and grueling schedule.

"They describe it as 'the family,' " said former student Sarah Baughn of the teacher training in Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator. "I understand why, because ... having this in common with so many different people and having this leader who created this thing for us, it was amazing." These teacher trainings cost over $10,000 per pupil and amassed most of Choudhury's estimated $75 million, according to The New York Times.

Incredible restrictions were put on what prospective teachers could eat and wear and how they could behave. Choudhury even tried to control the expressions on his students' faces, as reported by The Guardian. Students were given a letter to welcome them to the program, requesting that they not judge or question Bikram Choudhury or get involved in any other teacher's business. The hefty price tag, exclusivity, and supposed honor of this training fostered a cult-like atmosphere. After all, it was the only way to license the Bikram name.

Bikram Choudhury's bizarre teaching style

During his teacher training, Bikram Choudhury's outsized ego only got bigger. His studios were ruled under his oppressive dogma: Students had to remain celibate during training, they couldn't use the restroom, and wearing the color green was absolutely forbidden. In addition to the punishing temperatures, students were subjected to Choudhury's insensitive humor and routine insults. For example, as described in Vanity Fair, he called a large-chested student "Miss Boobs," mocked the AIDs epidemic, and often taunted students about their weight.

Choudhury stood domineering on his perch, clad in only a Speedo, a Rolex watch, and a balding top-knot, barking out orders to students while some passed out from the heat. Meanwhile, Choudhury had a personal air conditioner. During his post-yoga lectures, Choudhury would regularly ask young female trainees to massage his entire body and comb through his hair. Hands always seemed to be on him, at his demand.

Still, students were drawn in by Choudhury's magnetism and the sense of accomplishment from enduring the brutal workout. And Choudhury knew the firm hold he had over people, who would actually bow as he entered a room. "I totally cure you," Choudhury told the Phuket News. "Whatever the problem you have." Choudhury also boasted a list of ludicrous claims throughout his career: curing Parkinson's, inventing the disco ball, teaching the Beatles yoga in 1959, sleeping only 30 hours a month, and being best friends with Elvis, according to 30 for 30 Podcasts.

Bikram Choudhury faces assault charges

At his biannual teacher training, Bikram Choudhury had created an atmosphere where nobody could challenge his eccentricities and outbursts. It was here, surrounded by ambitious women early in their careers, that he allegedly abused this power. In 2012, longtime Bikram practitioner Sarah Baughn accused Choudhury of sexual harassment after she claimed he made advances on her in his hotel room at training. Her allegation set off a cascade of similar accusations from five women — including Jill Lawler, Larissa Anderson, Dana McLellan, and Maggie Genthner — leading to charges of sexual battery, false imprisonment, discrimination, and harassment for Bikram Choudhury, per The Guardian.

Within their lawsuits, Choudhury's victims described a disturbingly similar M.O. Choudhury would allegedly single women out in class, groom them with compliments — like "I can see something inside of you that no one else can. You will be greater than Mother Teresa," according to Vanity Fair – and then isolate them by asking for a massage in his suite, which led to an unwanted sexual advance. When they rejected him, Choudhury reportedly threatened their careers, the future of which relied on his approval. Victims who mentioned Choudhury's behavior were brushed off by his inner circle. The Los Angeles District Attorney decided not to pursue criminal charges, so accusers filed civil lawsuits, as reported by 30 for 30 Podcasts. As of today, five of the six women have chosen small settlements, knowing they would never find justice in court.

Bikram Choudhury cuts ties with a problem employee

There was one woman, however, who did win in court. Minakshi Jafa-Bodden was Bikram Choudhury's legal adviser from 2011 to 2013 before he suddenly fired her. Initially optimistic, as Jafa-Bodden came onto her new job, she uncovered the legal mess of an egotist: unpaid hotel bills, the use of company funds for personal purchases, and, to her dismay, a new lawsuit. In 2011, yogi Pandhora Williams had sued Choudhury for racial discrimination after he insulted her using slurs and kicked her out of a nonrefundable teacher training. When Jafa-Bodden pushed Choudhury to defend the sexual assault allegations and was subpoenaed to testify at the Williams trial, Choudhury fired her within the month.

Minakshi Jafa-Bodden, now a single mother with a precarious income and residency status, decided to fight back. She was awarded a total of $6.8 million in punitive damages for charges including unlawful dismissal and sexual harassment, as reported by The Guardian.

Nimble even off the mat, Bikram Choudhury managed to wriggle out of paying. Choudhury and his wife Rajashree filed for divorce in 2015, with his wife getting most of his assets in the settlement. That's something, as revealed by 30 for 30 Podcasts, that Choudhury did to protect his prized assets like his Beverly Hills home from repossession.

Bikram Choudhury reacts to the allegations

In 2016, Choudhury fled the United States and his cloud of lawsuits and returned to India. In an interview on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel in 2016, Choudhury defended himself with great bravado, claiming that the accusations were completely false. Ever the yarnspinner, Choudhury was quick to suggest that 5,000 women a day would want to sleep with him. "Why would I have to harass women?" he said in the interview, "People spend one million dollars for a drop of my sperm." When asked about his accusers, he dismissively added, "I pick them from trash and give them life."

In March 2017, a California judge issued yet another arrest warrant for Choudhury because he fled the country without paying the nearly $7 million in damages that he owed. Later that year, according to The Telegraph, Choudhury's company filed for bankruptcy amid his rampant debt — an action many believe is a stalling tactic.

Of course, Choudhury might actually have the funds to pay if he wasn't playing catch-me-if-you-can. Among his collection of assets is his fleet of about 44 luxury cars, which he has hidden across the United States. As reported by Los Angeles' ABC 7, the US Department of Justice appointed a trustee to track down Choudhury's missing Bentleys and Rolls-Royces. Twenty-two of them were uncovered in a Miami warehouse, where they are arranged to be auctioned off at Sotheby's to help pay off his debt.

Bikram Choudhury resumes his teaching

Despite the mounting accusations about his criminal behaviors, the Teflon Bikram Choudhury has managed to preserve his reputation in some circles. As of 2019, Choudhury was still doing yoga teacher trainings in international locales like Spain and Mexico. Choudhury also planned a "Bikram's Legacy Tour of India 2020" in seven cities through January and February 2020, which consisted of hot yoga classes, worships, and lectures for $3,950 per person, according to Esquire. Though Choudhury allegedly used teacher trainings as places to meet, groom, and prey upon young, vulnerable women, many studios are still nominating yogis to attend his workshops.

Still, Choudhury's debts are only snowballing while he's working on the run at the age of 76. As of February 2020, per ABC 7, Choudhury was hiding out in Mexico, where he racked up a $180,000 bill at the Princess Mundo Imperial Hotel. He refused to pay the Acapulco-based resort, so the Mexican government seized his passport — stranding the guru. Choudhury continues to flout the law, but for once, he's facing the consequences.

Lasting impacts in the Bikram yoga community

What does an intensely loyal yoga community do when their father figure is revealed to be a predator? Some devotees blamed the accusers for the downfall of Bikram Choudhury. Other yogis, while horrified, were reluctant to leave behind the practice itself. "I mean he's created a yoga that has healed and helped tens of thousands of people at minimum and that has hurt and destroyed thousands of lives," Benjamin Lorr, author of Hell-Bent, told 30 for 30 Podcasts. Many owners of independently operated Bikram studios split the difference. According to Image, some owners have decided to nix the name "Bikram" and now advertise themselves as simply "hot yoga." 

Meanwhile, in lieu of getting justice in court, Bikram Choudhury's accusers have opened up publicly about their harrowing #MeToo experiences. In 2019, Netflix released Eva Orner's documentary Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, which meticulously cataloged the despicable truth behind the Bikram yoga name.

Still, chillingly, some practitioners have all too easily separated the man from the yoga. "I'm happy he's still doing his teacher trainings," admits Patrice Simon in the Netflix documentary. "For some reason, I think he's going to make a comeback." Minaskshi Jafa-Bodden, now the effective president of Bikram Inc, per The Guardian, still trusts the strength of the community. Jafa-Bodden hopes to separate the company from the man. After all, she still practices the 26 postures that made Bikram Choudhury a household name.