He is the larger-than-life, self-proclaimed “Bengal tiger” of yoga: a fitness guru notorious for teaching his eponymous brand of hot yoga wearing nothing but black Speedos and a million-dollar Rolex, and openly bragging about his wealth and celebrity devotees. She is the softly spoken philanthropist and respected member of the yoga world, a Calcutta-born former yoga champion dedicated to assisting children and women in crisis.
Over three decades Bikram and Rajashree Choudhury have consolidated their status as yoga’s power couple. But last week Rajashree, 50, filed for divorce, ending a professional and personal union of 31 years and adding to the legal and reputational woes of her 69-year-old husband. Citing “irreconcilable differences”, Rajashree’s petition for legal separation at a Los Angeles court follows a string of sex allegations against the yoga mogul by six former students.
Bikram Choudhury moved to Los Angeles in the early Seventies, and in 1978 published his first book, which claimed his hot yoga sessions could heal everything from joint injuries to obesity and arthritis. In health-obsessed Hollywood, he swiftly gathered celebrity devotees attracted by his charismatic teaching methods and the punishing regime. Over the next four decades, his clients would include three presidents – Nixon, Reagan and Clinton – and celebrities such as Charlie Sheen, Herbie Hancock, Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand and Jennifer Aniston.
Bikram met his wife-to-be at a yoga competition in Calcutta. “I was balancing my body on swords – one of the acts as part of the competition,” said Rajashree, five-time winner of the All-India Yoga Championship. In 1984, aged 19, she married Bikram, 19 years her senior, and moved to Los Angeles. Ten years later she was vice-president of Bikram yoga, actively involved in the instruction, development and franchising of the hot yoga regime.
Within yoga circles, Rajashree was described as the “First Lady of yoga”, with one website gushing: “Just as the Moon is to the Sun, Yin is to Yang, so is Rajashree to Bikram – a balance in harmony.” But in 2014, Rajashree revealed that she and her husband were leading disparate lives. “On average, we are together 10 days a month at our Beverly Hills residence and our headquarters,” she said. Bikram has long been a polarising figure in yoga circles: a flashy character who parades around his steamy 40.5C classes accessorised with a headset, Speedos and Rolex. His off-duty uniform is a fedora, Zoot suit and white Gucci loafers, and he owns a fleet of 40 Rolls-Royces, Bentleys and classic cars. All Bikram yoga studios pay a monthly fee to operate a Bikram-branded studio. With 5,000 studios, it is estimated that Bikram Choudhury is making close to US$7 million a year. Nevertheless, he has declared: “I don’t chase money, money chase me!”
In stark contrast to her over-the-top husband, Rajashree – who has not responded to our requests for comment – generally keeps out of the limelight, granting short interviews only when necessary to benefit her charitable causes, which include Parikrma Foundation in India, an organisation that seeks to keep disadvantaged children in school.
While Rajashree is impeccably polite, her husband is prone to declarations of sexual prowess: “I have balls like atom bombs,” he once said.
He regularly compares himself to Jesus Christ, Buddha and Superman. Previously regarded as a charismatic, eccentric and slightly ludicrous figure, Choudhury could now see his empire threatened by the sex allegations. Sarah Baughn, 31, was first to speak out when she sued him for alleged sexual harassment and sex-based discrimination in 2013. In 2005, Baughn – who had a curvature of the spine that was alleviated by Bikram sessions – dropped out of college and borrowed money from her parents to enrol in Choudhury’s nine-week, $7000 (now $11,000) teacher-training course.
During this time, she alleges she was “targeted” by the guru, who kept her behind after class and pestered her for a “relationship”. When she voiced concerns to other yogis, she claims she was told that Choudhury was “not a good man” but a “good teacher”, and was advised to avoid being alone with “the master”.
Still, Baughn persevered with the course, becoming a high-profile member of his inner circle – until he allegedly cornered her in a hotel room in Acapulco. “When the door clicked, he was on top of me,” Baughn said. “He wouldn’t let me leave… He just kept saying, ‘I’m going to have you this time.'”
In her legal complaint, she states that Choudhury then “attacked her, pinned her against the door, and sexually assaulted her by kissing her neck, chest and face, and grinding his penis against her leg”.
“He made it very clear that he was going to have sex with me,” she claims. But she forcefully rejected his advances, she says.
Baughn is one of six women who have filed lawsuits against Choudhury. The accusations include sexual battery, gender violence, and false imprisonment. Dana McClellan alleges the yoga guru raped her during a teacher-training programme in San Diego in 2010. Larissa Anderson, 25, alleges she was raped at Choudhury’s Hollywood Hills home while his wife slept upstairs.
Her lawsuit reads: “Larissa was broken and traumatised. She felt sick to her stomach but too scared of Bikram to say anything. He was too powerful for her to go against.”
In a document filed in response to McClellan’s civil complaint, Choudhury’s lawyer denied all of the allegations, specifically claiming that McClellan consented to Choudhury’s alleged acts. A statement issued by lawyers for Choudhury and his yoga college, which is also named as a defendant in the lawsuits, said that “Mr Choudhury did not sexually assault any of the plaintiffs” and that the women were “unjustly” exploiting the legal system for financial gain.
“Their claims are false and dishonour Bikram yoga and the health and spiritual benefits it has brought to the lives of millions of practitioners throughout the world,” the statement said.
In an interview with CNN, Choudhury initially attempted to laugh off the allegations by insisting he had no need to assault women since he was not short of offers. “Women like me. Women love me,” he said. “So if I really wanted to involve the women, I don’t have to assault the women.”
However, when he was asked how the allegations had affected his wife, he became emotional. “My wife never look at me any more,” he said.
Rajashree, meanwhile, has spent the past few years devoting herself to non-profit organisations focused on women and children in crisis. On Christmas Day 2015, days after filing for divorce, she hosted a yoga session and Christmas celebration at Los Angeles Juvenile Hall.
“Bikram put challenge in front of me, and to overcome that challenge, that’s my education from him,” she has said. “People can think whatever they think, but that’s my strength to go forward.”