JODY AVIRGAN: A word of warning. This episode contains mature language and graphic descriptions of sexual assault, abuse, and other disturbing behavior. A list of resources is available in the show description and on our website.
JENELLE LEAT: You don’t understand, I can’t say no. If I say no I’ll be in trouble.
[BIKRAM GIVING SPEECH,
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY: ‘Everybody knows lies is bad. Why everybody lie? Everybody knows cheating is bad? Why they cheat?’]
BENJAMIN LORR: There’s a Bikram saying, “The darkest place is underneath the lamp.”
JENELLE LEAT: If I reveal the truth, I lose everything.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Part 4: Truth.
[ABC NEWS NIGHTLINE,
DAN HARRIS: ‘Tonight, explosive allegations against one of the richest and most famous yoga gurus on Earth.’]
[NBC TODAY SHOW,
TAMRON HALL: ‘A former student of Bikram Choudhury says he demanded sex and assaulted her in 2005 when she was 20-years-old.’]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: In March of 2013, a woman named Sarah Baughn was the first to come forward and break the code of silence and shame that she and Jenelle Leat and so many others had been operating under for years. She filed a lawsuit, and within days her story was all over the news.
SARAH BAUGHN: ‘He was only in his boxers and a T-Shirt and he pushed himself up against me and he held me up against the door and he just started kissing all over my chest and my body and he’d pushed himself into me very hard.’]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Sarah was widely known in the Bikram world. Her public accusations against Bikram encouraged other women to come forward with stories of their own.
LARISSA ANDERSON: ‘We were watching a movie and he grabbed the back of my head and he kissed me, and I pulled away.
JANE DOE NUMBER THREE: ‘I said, please don’t, you’re a guru. The world believes in you. He said nah, I’m just a man.’]
LIZ WINFIELD: And at that point the teacher’s page was just exploding with this information.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: The allegations against Bikram kicked off a heated and difficult conversation largely on social media, which had become the easiest way for thousands of teachers spread around the world to communicate. The Bikram Yoga Teachers’ page on Facebook become the center of this dialogue.
Liz Winfield, was a member of that page, and a teacher who’d worked at headquarters. In the years before the allegations broke, she had a reputation for being a Bikram supporter
LIZ WINFIELD: I was number one cheerleader, you know very pro Bikram.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Liz is also a physician’s assistant, and had volunteered as medical staff at multiple teacher trainings. And she was the mother of a rising star in the yoga community
LIZ WINFIELD: And then I just became this, you know, the horrific soccer mom, you know, like pushing my daughter to be the champion.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: The yoga championships, which had been launched by Bikram and Rajashree, were a huge deal in the Bikram community. Rajashree was using them as a platform to try to get yoga into the Olympics. Liz’s daughter had won the competition in 2010, and her coach was Sarah Baughn — who had competed in previous championships herself.
LIZ WINFIELD: Sarah would always say the same words. She would say, “I didn’t win the championship because I refused to sleep Bikram. I wouldn’t sleep with him”.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Liz kind of brushed it off, and never pressed Sarah for any more details
LIZ WINFIELD: I had never questioned Sarah on what she meant by that. I was more like, OK you’re my daughter’s coach, and let’s just coach my daughter because I really want my daughter to win the championship.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: When she read Sarah’s complaint and learned what had really happened.
SARAH BAUGHN: ‘He crawled on top of me, he put his hand on my – on the inside of my thigh and the other hand he wrapped around me and he was holding me there.’]
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Liz was overcome with shock and guilt.
LIZ WINFIELD: I called her and I said, “Oh my God, Sarah. Like I’m so sorry I didn’t ask you more by what you meant by this. Like, you wouldn’t sleep with Bikram. Like he forced you. He was forcing you to sleep with him.”
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: The scales had dropped from her eyes, and she wanted to make sure that everyone in this community heard Sarah’s story.
LIZ WINFIELD: I just was like, you know I’m going to post this. I’m going to post this on Facebook because this is just not right.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Liz wanted some kind of justice for Sarah. But a lot of the other people posting in that teacher group blamed Sarah, the victim.
LIZ WINFIELD: Everybody’s like how could she do this? And, you know this is her fault, she was in the room herself…
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: A lot of people argued that Sarah put herself in that position. She went to his hotel room. Never mind that his hotel room was also his office and his center of command at teacher trainings. She should have known what she was getting into…
By being alone with Bikram.
And, besides, people wrote — this has been going on forever.
LIZ WINFIELD: That was the common comment on this teacher’s page. Well, we all know this has been going on for years. If you’re actually able to say that, that means you know something’s wrong. So how could you say that, and then still blame the girls?
And I’ve basically still tried to teach a Bikram yoga class after Sarah’s document, and I…I could not get the dialogue out of my mouth during this class. It was so hard for me to teach this…it was my last class, and I was like, I can’t do this. I can’t repeat verbatim Bikram’s words or his dialogue when I know what has gone on.
And at that point the teacher’s training page was just a vicious towards me like, you know, I had gone from being this, you know, respected member to now I’m the number one enemy of the Bikram Yoga world.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: This was all happening fast — in a matter of weeks — in the spring of 2013. And instead of waiting for Bikram to excommunicate her, to find herself kicked out of the official Bikram Yoga pages, Liz went ahead and banned herself. She was not going to be silenced. She was going to make sure that the entire world could see what was happening.
LIZ WINFIELD: I just went back and said, “I’m done with this page I’m leaving this page I’m not any longer a Bikram yoga teacher. And from now on I’ll be posting all this information on my main page.”
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Liz brought the private conversation from the teachers’ page and made it public on her own. She was going to document everything.
When she got a call from headquarters
LIZ WINFIELD: “You know Bikram is going to sue you.”
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: She’d post it on Facebook.
LIZ WINFIELD: And I would say, “Oh, today I got a call from headquarters. And you know a teacher told me Bikram’s going to sue me for slander.”
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: She wrote about everything that was happening, unfiltered. And when she’d had enough, she posted a long manifesto to the community.
LIZ WINFIELD: It was kind of like this is my official statement of all of this and I addressed everything. I addressed Bikram in that, I addressed Rajasharee in that, I addressed the senior teachers in that and then I addressed the yoga studios on the whole. They’re still sending students to teacher training, and you know Bikram is still making like 4 million twice a year. And what is a studio’s obligation to sending a girl to teacher training… like if you send a girl to teach training and she gets raped? That’s going to be on you, because you know now all of this is public information of what’s going on. And, yeah, studio owners didn’t like that at all.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: But it started to have an effect.
LIZ WINFIELD: For every person that was openly bashing me on Facebook then I started getting… Then it just became a cascade of events that was happening, and I would be getting private messages that “this happened to me”.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: These messages were stories. Other victims reaching out to Liz to share their experiences with her because they felt like she was the only one listening, the only one who truly cared. They were messages from people who had heard stories, some they’d held on to as secrets for decades, about assaults and attempted assaults and unwanted advances Bikram had made against other women. Liz followed up on every message and tip she got.
LIZ WINFIELD: I remember it all almost became like…so much it felt like a full time job. And through the course of that more girls would come forward, and one of them was Jill.
JILL LAWLER: My name is Jill Danielle Lawler.
I went to Bikram Yoga teacher training when I was 18 years old in 2010, Las Vegas. Taught for many years and also I am the sixth woman to come forward with allegations against him regarding sexual assault.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Jill’s the young woman from Canada who loved this yoga more than anything, and had gone to training convinced of this.
JILL LAWLER: Everybody should do this yoga, and if everybody did it the world would be a better place.
The first few weeks of training, I actually thought he was quite funny. My opinion of him was going really well. I really didn’t expect to even meet Bikram in person.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: There were some 400 people at her training, Jill understandably expected to be nothing more than a face in the crowd. But then an opportunity presented itself.
JILL LAWLER: I befriended someone who was really close to him, which kind of led to the downfall of everything.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Jill’s new friend was one of the young women Bikram was always calling on to massage him during lectures and movies. And one night, several weeks into training, as all 400 plus trainees were sitting in the lecture hall, waiting for a movie to start, Jill’s friend started complaining about how the night before, after all the other trainees had gotten to go to bed after the movie, she’d been forced to stay and massage Bikram while he watched another movie. She was exhausted.
JILL LAWLER: And I’m like, “Can’t you just tell him that your fingers are tired?” She was like, “Tell him that my fingers are tired? Are you fucking kidding me? No. That’s not an option.” Literally as a joke I said, “I would do it for you, but I’ve never given a massage in my life.” I wasn’t serious at all, and then she suddenly was like, “Really? You would do that for me?” And I was like, oh God, fuck.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: And at that moment, Bikram walked over.
JILL LAWLER: He comes over, points at her and he’s like, “You, over here.” And she’s like, “Jill wants to massage you today,” and I’m like, I never said that. What the fuck?
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Sometimes your whole life changes — and you’re not even aware it’s happening. It happens so innocuously, you become an unwitting participant in what’s about to unfold. Jill didn’t seek out the opportunity to massage Bikram, she didn’t even want to do it. She was pressured into it. When she made her way to his chair, her biggest fear was that she wouldn’t be good enough, her guru would be disappointed in her, and that she would be humiliated in front of all her fellow trainees.
JILL LAWLER: It was a very surreal experience. I basically felt like I had just met my favorite celebrity and not only that, but I was massaging his feet. At that moment it was really fucking cool.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: That feeling didn’t last long. During the next late night movie, Bikram once again called on Jill, out of 400 plus students, to massage him…but this time he was different.
JILL LAWLER: He started trying to force himself … his hands, like, in my shirt and in my pants and it was really fucked up… I like bolted out right in the middle of the movie, bolted, and was on my way, crying … didn’t know what to do. I was going to go back to my hotel room, but then I stopped and was on this bench and I remember two other trainees following me and being like, “What happened? Why did you run out of the room?” So I was like, “You guys are probably not going to believe me, but I swear to God, I swear on my life that this just happened. Bikram just tried to do this,” and I remember being a bit shocked that their reaction was like, “Oh, yeah. Yeah, we’ve heard that stuff like that happens sometimes, but just try to ignore it.
They weren’t fazed. Whereas I literally felt like my world had just been destroyed because I didn’t think that he was a bad man.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Jill called her best friend back home.
JILL LAWLER: I remember telling her that I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t know if I wanted to be at the training anymore. But at the same time, I knew that leaving the training would mean losing this amazing community that has been the best thing that ever happened in my life thus far.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Jill didn’t leave. But she still didn’t know what to do. So she went to class the next morning, and then she went to his lecture the next night.
JILL LAWLER: So I remember just setting up where he could see me and giving him the worst look, like … and not laughing at any of his jokes where everyone else was laughing.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Her gesture felt hollow, even to Jill herself, but she was just 18 years old and had never been in a position like this, and she needed Bikram to know he’d done something wrong, or to know that she knew he’d done something wrong.
JILL LAWLER: And then after that lecture where I was doing that, he snuck up to me basically and he took me outside and gave this crazy, intense apology like I’d never heard before. He said he couldn’t sleep and that he couldn’t eat because he felt so bad. He said, “In 50 years that’s never happened.” He said, “I just think that you’re so incredibly beautiful that something came over me, like a drug and I was drunk, felt like I was drunk and couldn’t control myself,” and then he went off to be like, “You’re the same age as my daughter and I’ll teach you everything.’ And then of course adamantly over and over again, “Don’t tell anyone. Don’t tell anyone, don’t tell anyone, don’t tell anyone.’ He was like a little boy begging for forgiveness.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Jill had two choices.
JILL LAWLER: If I leave training I’m losing everything. Or I could just take this apology that this pathetic man…is crumbling in front of me trying to say sorry and that it’ll never happen again, and just accept the apology and continue with the training.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Jill accepted his apology, she stayed at training. And it kept happening, Bikram kept calling on her to come to the front and massage him during movies and lectures.
JILL LAWLER: This time he was trying to get me to do stuff to him, and since the first time it happened – I felt like I had caused such a scene, I was afraid to do the same thing and jump up and run out, because at that point, I felt like that would piss him off, I felt like that if I did anything to blow his cover, he would get mad.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram had all the power in this situation, he made Jill feel like if she did anything wrong, he would expose her and kick her out. And she’d already seen that if she told her fellow trainees, they would just shrug and tell her to stay away from him.
JILL LAWLER: So I kind of just silently let him – let him do these things and it was really shitty.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Then it all got so much worse. About a week later, at the end of a lecture and a movie, Bikram ordered Jill to come up to his hotel suite to give him a massage.
JILL LAWLER: I was too scared to say no. So I went up to his room with him.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: This is the same Las Vegas hotel suite Jenelle Leat spent a sleepless night in — it had lots of red and gold, high ceilings, chandeliers, and Greco Roman columns. Bikram’s designer sunglass collection was on display in the bedroom. It was grand and tacky at the same time.
JILL LAWLER: Immediately after we got inside, he started trying to force himself on me. He pulled his pants down and came over to me and was just basically thrusting it in my face and just being super aggressive. I had my hands up trying to block him. I was like, “No, no, no.”
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: She told him she couldn’t. That she didn’t want to. He took her into the bedroom anyway. He grabbed her by the neck and kissed her so aggressively she couldn’t breathe. She got him off of her and then he started coaxing her, berating her, threatening her…over and over and over again.
JILL LAWLER: After maybe two or three hours of me begging him to not make me do what he was trying to get me to do by asking about his wife, telling him about my own boyfriend and him punching back with like, “Me and Rajashree aren’t together and God wants us to be together”. And then I asked him if he knew how old i was, and he was like, “No, how old?” And I was like, “18.” And he was like, “It’s okay, do you know how old I am?” I’m like, “Old enough to be my grandpa.” And he was like, “No, I’m a 17-year-old boy. Don’t worry, age doesn’t matter.”
It was probably like 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning. I remember the sun was starting to come up and I was exhausted and afraid and all the things running through my mind about — it comes down to when you feel like you can’t tell if not doing it is gonna be worse for you than doing it, so you decide to do it because that just seems like the easier, safer option. So it’s shameful, and it was awful, and it was terrifying, but he just made me feel like I didn’t have a choice.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Bikram wore her down to a point where she felt like the consequences would be worse if she left the room than if he got his way.
JILL LAWLER: He ended up raping me. I made it very clear that I didn’t want to.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: During the attack he was threatening and forceful and cruel, grabbing her, yelling at her, forcing her to say things he wanted. And when he was finished, Bikram dismissed her and told her to clean herself up.
JILL LAWLER: I was really angry, I remember. I just remember, like in my head as I was, like going back to wherever I was going, just being like, “I fucking said no. I fucking said no. Fuck. Like what the fuck just happened?
I didn’t tell anyone.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Not even her friend who was also massaging him.
JILL LAWLER: I mean, deep down I thought, okay, there could definitely be something happening there now that this happening to me, I was curious as hell to know if it was happening to her. But in order to ask her, I would have to admit something happening to me, so I didn’t even ask her.
Training became obviously way more difficult. I just felt completely alone in a group of people. And then watching the group of people just laugh and love this man so much after I know this truth about him was really hard.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: At the end of the nine weeks, Jill graduated from training and went home to Vancouver with her secret. But instead of retreating, she threw herself into the yoga.
JILL LAWLER: I felt like the horrible thing that happened just made me break up with my boyfriend, made me drop out of school, so all I had was this yoga.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Jill didn’t tell anyone what had happened to her — instead Bikram’s assaults isolated her, the burden and shame of her secret made it impossible for her to maintain her old relationships, and it made it impossible to create new ones. The only thing she had was Bikram.
JILL LAWLER: So I just surrounded myself with it. I would spend all day on the bus just going from studio to studio because I had to be in the best teacher’s class. I couldn’t just, not only did I have to do two or three classes a day to feel like I did something productive, but it had to be the best teachers.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: At the time, Jen Boyle was one of Jill’s teachers, she owned the studio in Vancouver where Jill had first started practicing, and she’s the one who signed Jill’s papers to send her to training. I spoke with them together about that moment in Jill’s life
JILL LAWLER: My body might’ve felt pretty damn good, but mentally, I was just dying inside. I had nothing. I had no personality, just yoga, yoga, yoga, just drowning in it.
JENNIFER BOYLE: That’s not true. You had so much personality.
JILL LAWLER: Didn’t feel like it.
JENNIFER BOYLE: Yeah, and I would imagine, but just from the outside looking in, like you were —
JILL LAWLER: Well, yeah, that’s what I-
JENNIFER BOYLE: — you were admirable, you were respectable, you were, you are an incredible role model for the students, Jill.
JILL LAWLER: Thank you. And I did enjoy teaching despite everything. I did love teaching, and I did feel like I taught a good class and helped a lot of people.
JENNIFER BOYLE: Like the students who had young daughters would want their daughters specifically to come to Jill’s class because they learned so much.
JILL LAWLER: I didn’t know that.
JENNIFER BOYLE: Oh yeah.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Jen had no idea what had happened to Jill at her training. No one did. And every day Jill kept her secret, she was getting worse.
JILL LAWLER: The other thing that Bikram would do a lot is body shame women all the time. Very bluntly. During my training, he would call me fat and I never had a lot of confidence growing up, but I had never really felt fat before, especially since I started doing the yoga, I had lost maybe five, ten pounds, and all my friends and families were saying I’m in the greatest shape of my life. Suddenly, I’m being told that I’m fat. I remember, basically, after breaking up with my boyfriend and dropping out of college and feeling ashamed for everything that’s happened in general, I just got really sick. I developed an eating disorder. I thought that if I went back to training and I was really sick, that he might realize that he fucked up and did something wrong and maybe he would not do it or something
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Jill was trying to heal herself from the rape and the trauma it caused, using coping mechanism after coping mechanism to somehow bring relief.
But she couldn’t shake the idea that the essential problem could only be solved by going back to the person who was the problem. Bikram. So, a year after graduating from her teacher training, she decided to return as a staff member.
JILL LAWLER: I needed some kind of validation that he had hurt me. This is the same reason that I glared at him, but on a way larger scale.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: She didn’t find what she was looking for.
JILL LAWLER: Things just got really crazy when I went to be on the staff. My eating disorder completely spiraled.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: She left training after just a few weeks, feeling unsafe and scared. Her struggle to find some way to stay in the community, but also protect herself from Bikram and get some validation was getting her nowhere. And then, almost two years after Bikram had first raped her, she decided to take an offer to teach at the Bikram studio his niece Paloma ran in Pune, India.
JILL LAWLER: I decided to go to India because I had just been struggling so much with the eating disorder and just so obsessed with yoga that I decided to go to India because change of continent maybe would help. It didn’t.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: In Pune, Jill felt isolated in an even unhealthier way. She says Bikram’s niece Paloma made her bulimia worse, she would tell Jill that she had to lose 10 pounds by such and such a date. And the unspoken hope that being halfway around the world might protect Jill from Bikram evaporated. Bikram regularly visited India. And he came to visit Jill.
JILL LAWLER: And then at one point, he sent for me to go see him up in Aamby Valley, where there was another incident where we ended up alone together, and at that point, it was the same thing. I’m in India, in Aamby Valley. There’s literally no one to hear me scream for miles actually.
JENNIFER BOYLE: So he, and I’m just kind of reeling here, he assaulted you again after you had gone to India?
JILL LAWLER: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
JENNIFER BOYLE: Oh my God, honey. Jesus Christ.
JILL LAWLER: Yep
JENNIFER BOYLE: I didn’t know that part, I’m sorry.
JILL LAWLER: Oh, it’s okay. I mean it’s not, but …
JENNIFER BOYLE: No wonder when you’re saying I needed to feel safe from him, it’s like one hundred…it’s like very literal.
JILL LAWLER: Yeah.
JILL LAWLER: So at that point, that was the last time that I ever dealt with that because about a month later, Sarah Baughn came forward.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Jill heard about Sarah while she was still in India, and almost as soon as she’d finished reading Sarah’s complaint, her phone started ringing.
JILL LAWLER: Bikram was relentlessly, relentlessly trying to call me. My phone was ringing off the hook. He was calling the studio, and calling his niece Paloma, and desperately trying to get ahold of me, and I was ignoring it until I couldn’t anymore. Then I called him back, and he was basically like, “Jill, oh my God, my favorite student ever. You’re just the most magnificent human by the way. How are you?” Like oh my god, just over the top. It was the stupidest, weirdest phone call. He was just like, “By the way, do you ever want to open a studio?” I was like, “No, not really.” He was like, “Because if you did, I would pay for it. Do you need anything? Do you need any money?” He literally said, “Do you need any money or anything right now?” I was just like, “No,” but then it clicked.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: For the first time, Jill recognized that she was in a situation where Bikram was desperate. She knew the call had everything to do with Sarah coming forward, she knew he was trying to manipulate her into silence. And she knew she was in a position to ask for anything she wanted. And all she wanted was to get the hell out of this situation at last.
JILL LAWLER: I was like, “I don’t need any money, but turns out my dad’s really sick and I got to go home. He was like, “No problem.”
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: At this point Jill called her family and broke her silence. She told her mother everything that had gone on and that she was coming home.
JILL LAWLER: She insisted not to let him pay for the flight. She flew me home.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Jill’s mother didn’t want her daughter indebted to the man who was the cause of her pain.
Once Jill was away from Bikram the fact that Sarah Baughn had come forward really began to sink in
JILL LAWLER: Reading that complaint was obviously groundbreaking because up until that point, even though I had a feeling like, “I can’t be the only one.” I still didn’t have any way of knowing, so when that came out … and especially reading some of the things he said to her, where incidents she had with him where word for word the same.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: You are so beautiful, I felt drunk, I couldn’t control myself. My wife is such a bitch. I can make you a champion. Nothing like this has happened in 50 years.
God wants us to be together.
JILL LAWLER: Like I know you from a past life. You don’t just say that. When someone says that to you, you don’t automatically assume that they say that to everyone. Then it’s just proof that it’s a game. It’s a game he’s playing.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: In some ways, knowing she wasn’t alone was the validation Jill had been seeking since her assaults began. But in other ways it made her feel more alone than ever.
JILL LAWLER: Honestly reading Sarah’s complaint made me feel pretty shitty. And that’s because she “fought him off” whereas I didn’t, and it made me feel like I was weak and it was my fault and stuff. if anything Sarah’s complaint made me want to stay more silent.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: But Sarah’s complaint wasn’t the only one. Jill read the stories of Larissa Anderson, Maggie Genthner, Dana McLellan — and her friend from training, the one who asked her to massage Bikram in the first place (who still goes by Jane Doe 3)…As she processed their stories, her understanding of what had been done to her began to shift.
JILL LAWLER: The other complaints where the girls went through what I went through and weren’t able to fight him off, and when I read that I wasn’t alone in that sense, that really helped me forgive myself and gain courage. I think Sarah was so brave to be the first one to come forward, and be the first one to say something, I can’t imagine. And I’m so grateful for her for that.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Almost immediately, Jill started writing down in detail what had happened to her. It was a way of trying to process it. It was a way to have a record of it. It was a way she could share her experience with someone who might be able to help her. And Jill saw what Liz Winfield was doing on Facebook — speaking out and advocating for victims.
JILL LAWLER: I sent it to Liz specifically because she was one of the only people in the entire community at that time that was saying something. And not just something subtle, but she was screaming, “Fuck this.” And she was the only one that was really, really out there with it. And I just felt, she made me feel like she believes, that she’ll believe this, she’ll understand.
LIZ WINFIELD: She sent me a seven page document I still remember getting this document and it just broke my heart. For her, but also because I was medical personnel at her teacher training, and how could she not trust me enough to come – any of them – to come and let me know this had happened to them? Which told me that I was viewed as the other side, like I was viewed as somebody that was going to protect Bikram and keep this quiet. And how could you do that? Like I got this document that clearly outlines how he raped her and she’s even saying in it, “No no, no, no.” He pushes his dick in her face and is telling her to lick it and get it wet. Like who gets a document like that and doesn’t believe it? Like after reading Sarah’s document, of what he said to her, and then reading Jill’s document…but the same words he’s using on these girls that…and…and Jill’s 18 years old and this happened to her at her teacher training.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Liz not only recognized the pattern in Bikram’s behavior, she also recognized that a young woman was confiding in her about having been raped. She went straight to the police.
LIZ WINFIELD: Oh my god this is a crime. I have to report this.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: She contacted the LAPD, and talked to the officer who was already looking into the other sexual assault allegations against Bikram.
LIZ WINFIELD: His first questions were along the lines of “Well, these girls are adults. Like they didn’t have to stay around him why did they stay there? Why did they continue to be around him?” And then he was like, “and why did you volunteer so much of your time for free?” And like, “why did people pay ten thousand dollars to go to this teacher training?” And at some point I just felt like…I finally asked him, I said, “Do you have any training in incest and cult worship behaviors?” Because when you look at the Bikram yoga community as a whole, and you go back to the comment that I said Rajashree said on day number one of teacher training, “We’re your family now.” Okay, so if if this community is Jill’s family, is Bikram her father figure? Yes. Is that like incest? Yes. And when you look at incest patterns, you look at how they groom the person, and the person starts performing for the behaviors of attention, and then they start the sexual assault. It’s all part of that pattern of incestual relationships, and then the person that is the victim is actually the one who feels guilty because they somehow didn’t stop this, but they had no wherewithal to stop it.
JILL LAWLER: People are convinced that you’re lying if you go back to your attacker, but there’s a lot of reasons why someone would do that in a marriage, or a father/daughter relationship … and that’s kind of what this felt like to me. He was almost like a family member, so I didn’t want to destroy the family.
LIZ WINFIELD: And you look at that in the context of the Bikram Yoga community. This is their guru. They loved him. I loved Bikram at one point. You’re so caught up in this energy and this love in this community in this little bubble that you’re in. That you love this person, and then at some point that love turns into like a security because you’re in the community you have security, you have a job security, and then you’re abused and then you’re confused but you have to stay there because that’s where your money is – that’s your false sense of security. And that’s your love so that your love becomes fear and then becomes… you’re convincing yourself that you’ll just stay because you love the community.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: Ultimately, the LA District Attorney did not press charges in any of the cases. The LAPD have not responded to any of my calls or emails. And the LA District Attorney, through a spokesperson, has declined my request for comment or interview.
The more Liz learned, the more of her time became consumed with phone calls and emails letting other community members know the stories that were surfacing.
These conversations started to push members of the community to rethink moments from their time with Bikram… to see them in a new light.
When she told studio owner Tiffany Rhodes Friedman about Jill Lawler, it immediately reminded Tiffany of something from her own teacher training
TIFFANY FRIEDMAN: Towards the end of training, there was a time that all of the staff came around during our posture clinics. We are all exhausted and they said, “Listen, if you get one person from each group to volunteer to go to Bikram’s hotel room and massage him, everybody else can have the night off.” And I remember turning to a young girl who was a masseuse and I was like, “Won’t you please do this for us so that we can sleep?” So when Liz read me this story of this girl who went to his room and — sorry, it’s so hard to think about this and think about my behavior in it. But instantly, when she was reading this thought about begging this girl to go to his room, and I just thought back to that moment and thought, oh my gosh. I would never in my right mind, had I thought any of this would’ve happened, would I ever have sent anyone into his room. I would’ve said, “No, absolutely not. No one from our group is going.” I’m a strong woman who stood up to so many bullies in my time and I’m powerful. I own a studio.” Like why on earth would I have ever done this?
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: After hearing Jill’s story, Tiffany reached out to the young woman she had begged to go to Bikram’s room. Thankfully, that woman says she was not assaulted. But all of a sudden, there were a lot of people in Tiffany’s situation, trying to process what they may or may not have seen, what they may or may not have turned a blind eye to. And what to do with this knowledge that Bikram was accused of raping and assaulting at least half a dozen women.
[CNN NEW DAY,
ALISYN CAMEROTA: ‘Bikram Choudhury’s success story now being threatened. Lawsuits filed by a half dozen women claiming he sexually assaulted or raped them.’]
ERIC JENNINGS: It seemed to me that there were three camps. We very, very quickly were divided into three camps.
Eric Jennings, the teacher and studio owner from Decatur, Georgia, watched as his community reacted to these revelations.
ERIC JENNINGS: There was a group of instructors, and I would even go so far as to say acolytes and followers, who side with him with blind obedience, and they believe everything that he says, and they believe that he was being defamed and misrepresented.
There was another faction of people who said, “Oh, we’ve all known this was coming. He’s he’s always been a sexist pig and taken advantage of his position of authority, and this was only a matter of time.”
And then there were people like me, in the middle, who were torn between my dedication and commitment to the yoga, and the greater Bikram yoga community, and to my horror and personal feelings of devastation at the revelations.
I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape, and I had seen signs that Bikram was taking advantage of the affections of some of his students, but it never occurred to me, it never crossed my mind that he would take it to the level of actual sexual abuse. I was crushed.
LIZ WINFIELD: Very few people, I think, knew the extent of what Bikram was trying to do with these girls. And so I can say they were not wholly complicit, but it was enabling behavior — who thinks it’s normal that people have to go massage the Guru? Like why would you think that is normal? You don’t massage your guru. You don’t comb his hair. this is not normal behavior. This is normalizing the abnormal behaviors. But everybody was caught up in it. Nobody knew the extent. Very few people I will say knew the extent.
ERIC JENNINGS: This is really hard to admit, but I believe we, in the Bikram yoga community, share the responsibility for things going so far, to the point where they got so out of hand, where Bikram was able to cause as much damage as he was.
TIFFANY FRIEDMAN: All of us, unless we stand up and we really create change, then we’re complicit whether we know it or not.
JENNIFER BOYLE: I just feel like there’s a voice for all of us that just needs to be: A) I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t say anything. I’m sorry I didn’t think to take more pronounced steps to tell you or to warn you or whatever….And B), um…. I’m sorry; A) I’m sorry, B) I’m sorry.
JULIA LOWRIE HENDERSON: If you or someone you know has been subjected to sexual assault or abuse, and you would like more information or support, RAINN’s 24/7, confidential, National Sexual Assault Hotline can help at 1-800-656-4673. If you are outside the United States, Pathways to Safety International can be reached at 833-SAFE-833.
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