“It’s Getting Hot In Here . . . So Take Off All Your Clothes?”- Yoga Guru Settles Latest in a String of Lawsuits Costing Him Millions of Dollars

“It’s Getting Hot In Here . . . So Take Off All Your Clothes?”- Yoga Guru Settles Latest in a String of Lawsuits Costing Him Millions of Dollars

On December 12, 2016, Bikram Choudhury, best known as the guru of “Bikram” or “hot” Yoga settled the latest in a long string of sexual harassment and misconduct lawsuits filed against him in California courts.  The latest lawsuit alleged that Choudhury and his Culver City, California Yoga College sexually harassed, assaulted, and discriminated against a former student named Sarah Baughn.

Baughn’s lawsuit alleged that she began training with Choudhury in 2005 at the age of 20, hoping to alleviate years of back pain and depression. Baughn claimed that Bikram treated Baughn differently than other students, often cornering her, forcing Baughn to give Choudhury massages and brush his hair, and offering to sleep with Baughn to advance her career.

Choudhury argued that Baughn maliciously filed the lawsuit due to her failure to advance in the organization and placing second in a 2008 international yoga competition, although Baughn claims this finish was due to her rebuffing an alleged advance from Choudhury. Whatever the truth, it is clear that Choudhury’s behavior has again cost him a significant sum of money.

The Baughn lawsuit comes on the heels of a January 2016 $6.4 million punitive damages award against Choudhury wherein the guru was also charged with sexual misconduct in his sweltering hot yoga rooms. That case was filed in California state court by Choudhury’s onetime legal advisor Minakshi Jafa-Bodden, who alleged that Choudhury routinely harassed her while she worked for him. Jafa-Bodden also alleged that she was retaliated against after investigating a claim that Choudhury had raped one of his students.

Leadership Failure Threatens to Destroy the Bikram Brand

Six other women have accused Choudhury of sexual misconduct in recent years in connection with either their attendance or employment at his Bikram Yoga academies.  As more women come forward with allegations of misconduct against Choudhury, irreparable damage to his valuable brand of Yoga teachings occurs. It will not be surprising when the name “Bikram” carries as negative a connotation among Yoga enthusiasts as the name “Cosby” does to television fans or “O.J.” does to sports fans.

The simple lesson to be learned from Choudhury’s misconduct is the age-old compliance adage that leaders often fail to practice what they preach. Yoga is symbolic of peace and harmony between mind, body and soul, yet Choudhury has apparently attempted time and again to abuse his students and employees for personal gratification. This situation is not unlike that of Roger Ailes at Fox News in that leaders of powerful brands feel they are above the law and can do no wrong. Once the leaders begin to believe the brand is too big to fail they abuse power for personal gain and bring their companies and brands down with them.

Time and again the compliance field has seen leaders fall into the same avoidable traps. Instead of abusing their power it is important for leaders to understand the damage, (physical, emotional and reputational) that can come from abuse of power and compliance failure. By adhering to a set of ethics those leaders can remain out of court and in the good graces of the public. For Choudhury, who appears incapable of acting ethically, it appears “hot yoga” has taken on an entirely inappropriate meaning and it may be time to shut the doors.

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Written by Jonathan Gonzalez, Chief Counsel for Syntrio.

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