By Tracy Rucinski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Bikram Choudhury Yoga Inc, the studio that popularized doing yoga in sauna heat, has filed for U.S. Chapter 11 bankruptcy, dogged by $16.7 million in legal judgements and numerous lawsuits and allegations of sexual misconduct.
Founder Bikram Choudhury, who built a worldwide following with classes of 26 yoga postures in rooms heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40.6°C), has been accused of sexual assault by his yoga practitioners, students, instructors and teacher trainees.
The Simi Valley, California-based company said in a bankruptcy court filing on Thursday in the Central District of California that its liabilities were worth up to $50 million. It listed assets of up to $1 million, suggesting that its largest creditors - women who are owed money for court judgements awarded against Choudhury - will not be paid in full.
They include Miki Jaffa Bodden, former head of legal and international affairs at Choudhury's yoga school who has an $8 million claim stemming from a wrongful dismissal case that included sexual harassment claims.
Bodden alleged that Choudhury repeatedly subjected her to vulgar sexual gestures and offensive comments about women and minority groups.
"Birkram Choudhury created a hyper-sexualised, offensive and degrading environment for women by, among other things, demanding that female staffers brush his hair and give him massages," Bodden said in her 2013 lawsuit.
She also accused him of pressuring her to cover up sexual harassment of women, and in a separate lawsuit filed this year, of fraudulently transferring assets such as luxury cars including a Ferrari and a Bentley to avoid paying judgements against him.
A warrant for Choudhury's arrest was issued in May.
Petra Starke, who moved from her job as lawyer in the Obama White House to chief executive of the Bikram Yoga College of India in 2013, complained of wrongful dismissal, sexually inappropriate conduct and "racist tirades." She has a $5.1 million claim.
Sharon Clerkin, who sued claiming she was fired for becoming pregnant, is owed $3.6 million.
The bankruptcy filing, which included affiliates Bikram Inc and Bikram Yoga College of India, follows heightened social awareness over sexual misconduct in the wake of allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein, actor Kevin Spacey and comedian Louis C.K.
Restructuring experts have mentioned Chapter 11 bankruptcy as an option for the Weinstein Company to avoid mounting legal claims against its founder, Harvey Weinstein, over alleged sexual crimes.
(Reporting by Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Richard Chang)