A California judge on Wednesday refused to let Bikram Choudhury and his yoga college out of a suit alleging he made unwanted sexual advances toward a female student, ruling that plaintiff Sarah Baughn’s sexual harassment and unfair competition claims could stand, while granting leave to amend others.
During a hearing on Wednesday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mary H. Strobel overruled in part a pair of demurrers filed by Choudhury and the Bikram Yoga College of India LP and granted leave for Baughn to amend the rest of the claims in her suit, including allegations of defamation and gender violence.
Baughn alleged that, as a 20-year-old yoga student, she poured her life savings into studying under the guru, but that she’s since been denied opportunities to teach at the highest levels of classes under the Bikram brand because she refused to have sex with him, according to a first amended complaint filed in August. Her suit joins a slew of others filed by yoga practitioners and teachers who accuse Choudhury of abusing his position as the leader of a yoga empire to sexually harass or abuse women.
Attorneys for the defendants argued in Wednesday’s hearing that some of Baughn’s allegations didn’t depict conduct serious enough to warrant her claims. Choudhury’s attorney, Robert N. Tafoya of Tafoya & Garcia LLP, contended that in one incident, Baughn describes the guru giving her a hug and a kiss, and that those actions were a normal form of greeting.
“When I greet people, I go up to them and give them a hug,” Tafoya said. “This was not an assault or attack or anything of that nature.”
Tafoya also told the judge that attendance at all of the events and conferences Baughn refers to in her suit wasn’t mandatory, and that she could have chosen not to participate.
Judge Strobel’s ruling kept alive Baughn’s claims of emotional distress, something the yoga school took issue with because, attorney Donna M. Maryanski of Albright Yee & Schmit LLP told the court on Wednesday, Choudhury’s conduct isn’t severe and pervasive.
“I don’t think that that pleading rises to the level of severe and outrageous conduct so as to support a cause of action for emotional distress,” Maryanski said in Wednesday’s hearing.
Baughn claims in her suit that she began training under Choudhury in 2005, and that she noticed very early on that he treated young women differently than other students, choosing them to brush his hair or massage his body, court records show.
He then allegedly began a yearslong campaign to lure her into a sexual relationship, on several occasions telling her he knew her from a past life, and asking her whether they should act on that feeling.
He gave her physical adjustments in yoga classes in front of other students in which he would pull her body open, then push his body up against hers and whisper sexual advances in her ear, according to her suit.
She rebuffed his advances, but eventually began to be snubbed by the Bikram-brand yoga community in competitions and studios, she said.
Baughn’s suit joins a series of others filed by women who say that after they’d made a significant financial investment in Choudhury’s trainings and yoga system, he made them the target of incessant unwanted sexual harassment.
In one such suit, yoga teacher Jill Lawler said that, when she was an 18-year-old studying under the guru, he put her hand down his pants in public and eventually raped her. Another woman, suing under the name Jane Doe 1, also accused Choudhury of rape, and of brainwashing her.
All the while, the women claim, Choudhury held sway over their financial well-being, because he could decertify them as Bikram yoga teachers at will, ending their ability to earn money teaching his yoga system, according to the suits.
In Wednesday’s ruling, Judge Strobel adopted much of a tentative ruling she’d issued in the morning, with the sole exception that she extended to 20 days the amount of time Baughn has to amend her claims.
Representatives for the parties didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
Baughn is represented by Mary Shea Hagebols of Shea Law Offices and Carney R. Shegerian and Patrick Nichols of Shegerian & Associates Inc.
Bikram Choudhury is represented by Robert Tafoya and David A. Garcia of Tafoya & Garcia LLP. The yoga college is represented by Donna M. Maryanski of Albright Yee & Schmit LLP.
The case is Sarah Baughn v. Bikram Choudhury et al., case number BC502424, in the Superior Court of the State of California, County of Los Angeles.
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