Mumbai yoga teacher Mandeep Kaur Sandhu, who was among several women, who were witnesses in the $7.5 million sexual harassment case against yoga guru Bikram Choudhury speaks out
If the founder of the famous Bikram yoga is lighter by $7.5 million in penalties for sexual harassment, it is thanks to women like Mumbai yoga guru Mandeep Kaur Sandhu, who was a witness in the suit filed by Bikram Choudhury’s former legal officer.
Mandeep Kaur Sandhu. File pic/Getty Images
Hours after a Los Angeles jury ordered Choudhury, 69, to pay Minakshi Jafa-Bodden $6.47 million in punitive damages on Tuesday, Sandhu told mid-day that she too was one of the several women sexually harassed by the yoga guru, whose signature poses and sequences are performed in a room heated to 40°C.
The suit filed by Jafa-Bodden is just the first of six such cases against Choudhury. Andheri resident Sandhu, 30, who was one of the 70 witnesses to give their statements against Choudhury, said he harassed her in 2009. (The jury had already awarded Jafa-Bodden nearly $1 million in compensation after it decided on Monday that she was the subject of harassment, discrimination and retaliation.)
Mandeep Kaur Sandhu
Speaking exclusively to mid-day, Sandhu said she signed up for Choudhury’s training course in Las Vegas in 2009. She had lost her husband three years ago and her brother Sukhbir Singh thought the course would help take her mind off the loss.
Bikram gets to work on a student. File pic/Getty Images
“A day before the training at Vegas, I met Bikram in the Los Angeles head office,” Sandhu told mid-day. “He kept staring at me and sent one of his officials to ask me if I knew how to give a massage. Having a Bachelor in Yoga through a correspondence course from Haryana, I did. I was asked to meet him in his office. He walked in in his underwear, which he wears during his sessions.”
Students practice Bikram Yoga at the City Studio in London. File pic
After Sandhu massaged him for an hour and a half, Choudhury allegedly commented that Indians were very weak because they are vegetarian. Sandhu didn’t respond and agreed when he asked her to help out with massage sessions during the course of the training. Sandhu said the course was intense, with at least two sessions of Bikram yoga a day, followed by lectures.
The jury has awarded the plaintiff, Minakshi Jafa-Bodden, nearly $7.5 million in compensation
At some point, Sandhu said, Choudhury started making the trainees watch movies till late in the night despite them being tired.
“Once, after a tiring day, he called me at 2 am for a massage (he is nocturnal),” said Sandhu. “That night, he asked me to massage his private parts and I was taken aback. I refused, and told him, ‘You are my guru. I cannot touch you inappropriately.’ He tried to convince me that it was okay, but I made an excuse and left.”
Sandhu said she immediately informed Bikram’s niece Manali about the incident, asking her to return the Rs 10 lakh enrollment fee so that she could discontinue the course. But Manali, one of the organizers of the course, tried to convince Sandhu that there was a misunderstanding and that she should continue with the course.
“The next day, instead of sitting in the front row, I went to the back,” said Sandhu. “Bikram came and sat next to me, asking me if I was okay. I told him I was not, as he did not act as a guru should. I was all alone. I did not know what to do, which is why I did not file a case.”
Soon, Manali, Choudhury’s wife Rajashree and other family members started calling Sandhu for massages. Sandhu said this was with the motive of discrediting her and build a defence that Choudhury was not the only who asked her for a massage.
Around the same time, Sandhu started hearing rumours among classmates that she was a “lunatic and a lesbian.” A well-wisher introduced Sandhu to Elizabeth Winfield, who was a physician at the coaching centre.
“I told Elizabeth my story and she also confirmed that someone was spreading rumours about me,” said Sandhu, who completed the course and moved to New York with her cousin before finally coming back to Mumbai in 2010.
Sometime in 2013, Sandhu launched her own hot yoga centre in Mumbai. Elizabeth got in touch with her to congratulate her on her venture. During the conversation, the caretaker mentioned the harassment case filed by Jafa-Bodden.
Recently, in 2015, Winfield called again and asked if Sandhu would speak to Jafa-Bodden’s lawyer, Carla Minnard to help build a fool-proof case against Choudhury.
“Miki’s (Minakshi’s) case was so similar to mine,” Sandhu told mid-day. “I immediately agreed to be a witness and gave my statement over the phone.”
Choudhury, originally from India, was said to have made a fortune after he moved to California in 1971. Jafa-Bodden had alleged that Choudhury sexually harassed her while she worked for him and that she was fired after she began investigating claims that he had raped a yoga student. Six other women in recent years have filed civil lawsuits accusing Choudhury of sexually assaulting them.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Choudhury admitted under cross-examination to keeping a fleet of 40 luxury cars, including Bentleys, Ferraris and Rolls-Royces.
The LA Times report quoted the juror, Elvira Castro, as saying she was appalled by the way Choudhury treated the attorney. “He’s disgusting,” the report quoted Castro as saying.
As women started coming out against Choudhury, one-time physician Elizabeth Winfield’s Facebook page became a rallying point for those he had allegedly harassed. Following are some of the posts from the page:
Siobhan Duffy: He’s slimier than a yoga mat
Mary Ayesa: Another happy day in the destruction of Bikram and “his” yoga. Gracias Liz for dealing with all those threats.
Irene Schwarzer: Thank you Elizabeth for standing up for the women in these lawsuits and for being a voice of sanity. You have done a great service to many. Heart.
Richard Bird: Let this be a lesson in humility and integrity to all of us. Teaching Yoga should be considered a privilege!
Caroline White: I’ve always said I love a punitive damage! Btw was he in court to get the good news?