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Bikram yoga becomes eye of legal storm

Bikram Choudhury, dubbed yoga's bad boy, has been a catalyst in the questioning of what yoga means to us in the West -- and what it may mean to the companies making, selling, promoting and marketing yoga products and accessories.

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Bikram Choudhury, dubbed yoga’s bad boy, has been a catalyst in the questioning of what yoga means to us in the West — and what it may mean to the companies making, selling, promoting and marketing yoga products and accessories.

Manufacturers, instructors, clubs and students are all taking a step back from their practices and businesses and looking within to ask: Is it ethical for Bikram to develop his yoga the American way and copyright poses, and then threaten legal action if someone does them or uses his name without paying him first?

Since 2002, that is the question many are asking. That’s when Choudhury found himself at the center of a litigious storm regarding his copyright of the sequence of 26 poses, or asanas, and two breathing exercises used in so-called Bikram Yoga — the trendy practice that began in Hollywood and is done in overheated rooms. Can the Western practice of copyrights and lawsuits truly coincide with the ancient yoga wisdom of ethical standards, integrity, self-discipline and spiritual observances being essential steps on the pathway to enlightenment?

Bikram Yoga 1a

Bikram began teaching yoga in America in the early 1970s. Bikram Yoga practitioners know exactly what to expect every time they set foot in a sweltering classroom. The teacher will take them through 26 poses, each performed twice, and two breathing exercises within 90 minutes. All this with the thermostat cranked to 100 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. The students even know exactly what their teacher is going to say since Bikram mandates instructors follow a script.

Generally speaking, spirituality doesn’t have a place in the American marketplace, but yoga is a growing industry and Bikram has become a popular style. It’s probably inevitable that products designed specifically for the routines known to leave participants sopping wet have appeared. Manufacturers, aware of Bikram’s controversial nature or not, have been wary of attaching his name to any products. They are so wary of the legal storm, in fact, that some declined to comment when contacted for this story by SNEWS®. Many seem to be taking a massive step back for the sake of business and avoiding any mention of Bikram itself, instead opting for descriptions and names using words like “hot” or “sweat.”

Copyrighting yoga (Asteya: nonstealing)

In 2002, Choudhury copyrighted and trademarked everything from Bikram Yoga to the word-for-word dialogue his certified teachers must use while teaching a class. He also announced plans to franchise his yoga studios.

Bikram’s San Diego, Calif.-based, intellectual property attorney Jacob Reinbolt completed the copyright application for the 26-pose sequence. A copyright for a yoga sequence was unprecedented, so Reinbolt called it a “selection, arrangement, and ordering of physical movements” and filed the claim as an addendum to Bikram’s copyrighted book, “Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class” (Tarcher Putnam), which was published in 1978.

“I created something from Patanjali’s hatha yoga system, and it works,” Bikram told Yoga Journal in an article called “Asana tm” in the December 2003 edition. “I don’t want anybody to mess with my system.”

In October 2002, the copyright of the sequence was registered, and some time later Bikram posted a jubilant letter written by his attorney on

“Registration of the asana sequence with the U.S. Copyright Office represents a significant milestone for Bikram in his efforts to formalize the intellectual property rights, which encompass the Bikram Yoga style and method,” Reinbolt wrote. “While some in the yoga community once viewed the prospect of formal legal protection for Bikram’s sequence with skepticism, Bikram’s insight and creativity have once again proven them wrong.”

Reinbolt also noted, “Bikram can now easily and effectively enforce these rights.”

Enforcement, however, has not been easy.

Yoga litigation (Aparigraha: greedlessness)

Beginning in 2002, Choudhury sent cease-and-desist letters to more than 100 Bikram Yoga schools and teachers. In the letters, Bikram accuses the recipients of violating copyright and trademark law by “mixing Bikram Yoga with other yoga styles to create your own blend, by teaching others to become Bikram Yoga teachers, by teaching classes without the complete Dialogue…and by using teachers who have not been certified by Bikram.” The letter also stated, “Bikram has every intention of seeking compensation for any revenue lost by him, or gained by you…as a result of…exploitation of classes…”

Bikram did seek compensation, as his letters promised, and on at least one occasion got what he was looking for.

In June 2003, Bikram won a copyright infringement suit against Mark and Kim Morrison, owners of the Yoga Studio in Costa Mesa, Calif. Kim became a certified Bikram Yoga teacher in 1994 and opened a Yoga College of India in 1996. In 1999, the Morrisons decided to change the name of their business to the Yoga Studio, however they continued to use the name Bikram Yoga for some classes, but also provided classes of other styles. They received a cease-and-desist letter in July 2002 and reached a confidential out-of-court settlement with Bikram in June 2003. They paid an undisclosed amount of money and agreed to stop teaching Bikram Yoga. Since the case was settled out of court, it cannot be used as a precedent for future cases.

As far as SNEWS® knows, manufacturers and retailers have so far been left unscathed in the ensuing legal storm. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t cautious in naming, describing, promoting and marketing products — or that they don’t keep an eye on the skirmish.

Bikram’s not the only one

According to Yoga Journal, “Founders of other lineages, including Iyengar, Jivamukti, and Kundalini, have copyrighted and trademarked their intellectual property, including names, logos, books, and the like.”

Even Pilates practitioners battled it out in court to see whether a trademark was appropriate. (See SNEWS® story, “Pilates Trademarks Overturned,” December 2000.) In fall 2000, Manhattan’s federal district court cancelled the trademark of the term “Pilates.” The judge ruled that Pilates is a method of exercise and a generic term. The plaintiff, president of Pilates Inc. and the owner of a studio in New York City, had sent out hundreds of cease-and-desist letters, which caused an industry uproar and also resulted in the filing of a class-action lawsuit by Ken Endelman, owner of Balanced Body, a manufacturer of Pilates equipment. “The words adopted by the public to describe a method of exercise cannot be protected by a trademark,” said Gordon Troy, attorney for Endelman and the class.

Owning yoga (Yama: ethical standards and sense of integrity)

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, registration of a copyright requires three things: a correctly completed application, $30 and a copy of the work in question. An application’s content is not closely examined until after the copyright is granted or challenged.

Open Source Yoga Unity (OSYU) is a non-profit collective of yoga instructors and students from California, Texas, Florida, Arizona, Rhode Island and Canada that is currently suing Choudhury in San Francisco Federal Court. The collective holds that Choudhury’s copyright and trademark claims are not enforceable because “his series of poses stem from postures that have been in public use for centuries.”

“No one can own a style of Yoga,” James Harrison, OSYU’s attorney, told Reuters in February 2003. “Any attempt by an individual to own a yoga style runs counter to the general spirit of Yoga and degrades the energy created by its teachers and practitioners. Any attempt o control another’s teaching or practice of Yoga by means of copyright protection is outrageous, disreputable and arguably contrary to the copyright laws of the United States.”

Others in the yoga community also question the idea of yoga ownership.

“How do we own the diversity of yoga?” asked Hansa, president of Yoga Alliance, a national organization that publishes a registry of yoga teachers, schools and studios. She said she studied yoga with Bikram in the 1970s. “This idea is a new thing for us. I can see that it matters to Bikram — the integrity of his sequence — but I do not necessarily agree with copyrighting. I think maintaining integrity is done by proper training of your students. Yoga Alliance was formed to help keep the integrity of yoga and the practice, so we don’t have to go to the point of legal restraints.”

Bikram has claimed that he is the only one teaching true hatha yoga in the United States. And further, “Before me, in the 5-, 10-, 20,000-year-history of Indian hatha yoga, nobody — not one person — taught the way I’m teaching today,” Bikram told Yoga Journal in December 2003.

However, even Bikram has said that he “perfected his comprehensive system” with the “guidance of his guru…” Bishnu Ghosh. That means that the court could deem that Bikram’s sequence was already part of the public domain, according to legal sources.

“OSYU is mindful that any legal precedent made by the courts on this issue will have long-lasting and far-reaching consequences,” Harrison said. “What is wrong with this is that the yoga industry then gets wrapped up in copyright litigation, everyone feels that they have to file for a copyright just to continue what they are doing and the creative development of yoga suffers.”

Just to be sure, avoiding the name “Bikram”

Although they may not openly question the idea of ownership, yoga product manufacturers are carefully avoiding the word “Bikram” when they name products.

“We have a lot of products for hot yoga,” said Elaine C. Poole, product manager at Hugger Mugger, which sells clothes, towels, mats and insulated water bottles for hot yoga. “Other styles of yoga are done in heated rooms. I don’t want to pigeon-hole myself.”

Prana, a manufacturer of clothing and accessories for yoga and rock climbing, uses some Sanskrit words related to yoga in naming its products, like the Shanti top and Asana pant. And although the company has a few products for hot yoga, like the Surya yoga towel, which is used “…to cover a yoga mat during hot power practices,” representatives declined to comment about the effects of the lawsuit on the industry, stating that they had “no products relating to Bikram Yoga.”

Gaiam, another manufacturer of yoga products, also uses some Sanskrit words in naming items, like the Namaste pant. But the company largely sticks to basic names such as Yoga Essentials. Like Prana, Gaiam said it doesn’t offer Bikram-specific products, but its Quick-Dry High Performance mat, according to a product description on the company’s website “has cushioned moisture-wicking microfiber on one side and sticky-mat texture on reverse…. (and) does the job of both a mat and a towel. Use soft wicking side for high-intensity yoga workouts and end-of-class savasana.”

Most retailers are not even aware of the lawsuit, and said that they don’t think its outcome will affect them.

“The outcome of the lawsuit might have an impact if it affects manufacturers, but I can’t see it making a difference any other way,” said Jennifer Lind, REI spokeswoman.

That trickle-down affect is the only thing that could make some retailers care about the lawsuit and copyright.

“It could affect us, I guess, if there were a video or something that gets pulled from the market as a result of the suit, but otherwise it’s not a big deal to us,” said Jeanne Sherrif, co-owner of Health Styles Exercise.

Yoga tradition (Samadhi: enlightenment)

“Through regular publication of the work of the Institute, these Indian contributions will reach the whole world,” J.C. Bose said at the dedication of an Indian physiology/philosophy institute. His speech was published in 1946 in “Autobiography of a Yogi,” written by Paramhansa Yogananda, brother of Bikram’s guru Bhishnu Ghosh. “They will become public property. No patents will ever be taken. The spirit of our national culture demands that we should forever be free from the desecration of utilizing knowledge only for personal gain… In this I am attempting to carry on the traditions of my country.”

Many in the yoga community have said that what Bikram is doing is not yogic.

“What he is doing is not a traditional approach,” said Trisha Lamb, associate director of the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT). “Yoga is a 5,000-year-old science and art that addresses our pure nature.”

So, are Bikram and his copyright all bad? He has been quoted several times saying, “When in Rome, I must do as the Romans do…” And he is in America, land of the franchised and copyrighted.

“Contrary to popular belief, Bikram is a good person,” said Sally Adams, an instructor at Village Yoga, a Bikram-style studio in Capitola, Calif., who completed teacher training in 1999. “I’m so grateful to him. His sequence has changed my life. He’s just trying to protect his series and I understand that. I think it’s a shame that all this is so negative.”

Lamb of IAYT said Bikram has “every right to try to copyright.”

“Teachers put sequences together all the time,” she said. “But they don’t make these large claims that it’s good for everyone.”

If Bikram wins the current lawsuit, which is set to go to court in February 2005, and his copyright stands up to OSYU’s challenge, the question is will others follow his lead?

“Other people will try to copyright if he wins,” Lamb said. “I hope not extensively, but it won’t ultimately be negative for yoga. No matter how it is packaged or marketed in the West, it won’t change yoga. Everything is commodified and repackaged here. It might just take newcomers a little longer to find out what real yoga is.”

Yoga is big business

What all of this comes down to is that yoga is big business. With millions of people in the United States alone practicing, and buying mats, blocks, clothes and the like, yoga is a billion-dollar industry. Even Bikram offered his classes for free — until yoga became marketable and profitable.

Regardless of Bikram’s copyright battle, yoga in America is going the way of Starbucks, McDonalds and Subway. Get this: The Los Angeles Times recently reported that two yoga-enthusiast businessmen are buying up yoga studios across the United States with plans to open a chain. 

–Keri Modrall

SNEWS® View: Our focus on yoga in the West has largely been one of physical fitness, not meditation and enlightenment. The purpose of yoga, according to Trisha Lamb of IAYT, is growth to the point of liberation. Originally, there was only one pose — comfortable seated pose. The presence of studios and teacher training programs that present yoga as exercise is vast. Companies like YogaFit, which developed teacher training and instructional videos, even have class types and names reminiscent of Buns of Steel, like YogaAbs and YogaButt. On several Bikram Yoga studio websites, we found the question, “How many calories will I burn?” in the FAQ section. Is that enlightened? No, but it is America. As for the question of Bikram’s copyright, those who aren’t already involved in the lawsuit certainly have opinions, but want for the sake of business, to remain as neutral and out of the public eye as possible. Hence, products are categorized for “hot yoga,” not Bikram yoga, and many avoid the use of traditional Sanskrit words to attract a Western audience that may fear something that appears so foreign. But if the purpose of yoga is really growth to the point of liberation, then we have a long way to go. Being in America, Bikram has every right to try to copyright his pose sequence; however, as Kurt, a visitor to, the website of a Stanford Law School graduate and author, said, “Imagine if Tiger Woods patented his golf swing, wrestlers patented their ‘signature moves,’ baseball had patented pitches, etc. ‘I’m sorry, you can’t use that pitch against us. Only Yankee pitchers are allowed to throw that pitch.’ That way lies madness.” We believe that Bikram’s attempts may go the way of the Pilates attempt from the late ’90s. It could very well be overthrown by the courts, partly because Bikram in his Western greed may well have done himself in by actually making generic his own brand of yoga. 

–SNEWS® Editors