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Bickering Bikram 

A copyright dispute pits yoga king Bikram Choudhury against competitors and followers alike

Wednesday, Jul 16 2003
It is minutes before the 5:30 p.m. Bikram yoga class at Funky Door Yoga on Polk Street, and about three dozen students have taken their places in a sparse, sunlit studio. They sit cross-legged on mats or lie in restful Savasana positions, awaiting the start of their vigorous workout and already perspiring in a room that has been heated to 100 degrees.

Most of them are regulars, braced to contort their bodies into 26 poses and execute two breathing exercises in 90 minutes while exposed to the oppressive heat. They know exactly what to expect because Bikram Choudhury, the flamboyant Calcutta native who created the wildly popular yoga style nearly two decades ago, has carefully scripted the entire experience.

At Funky Door, Choudhury's edicts are closely observed; the owners are among his most faithful devotees in San Francisco, and often teach new instructors.

Promptly at 5:30, co-owner Lynn Whitlow, wearing a headset microphone, mounts a platform at the front of the room. The carpeted studio, mirrored on three sides, is precisely arranged, heated, and lit according to Choudhury's specifications. And as a Bikram-certified instructor, Whitlow uses a "dialogue" developed by Choudhury -- which she is expected to repeat verbatim every time she teaches a class -- to guide her students through various poses.

As the scene at Funky Door illustrates, Choudhury has exacting standards. Last year, as his athletic style of yoga continued to explode in popularity, the charismatic instructor decided to copyright his method of yoga and trademark his name. He is not the first instructor to copyright a yoga style, but unlike others who have done so, Choudhury has put enthusiasts on notice that he'll sue if they mimic his particular sequence of poses. He has already gone to court against a Costa Mesa studio; the case was recently settled on undisclosed terms.

In the 5,000-year-old world of yoga, in which the values of humility, inner peace, and noncompetitiveness are paramount, Choudhury's actions have baffled many and infuriated some.

"For people practicing traditional yoga, this is not something that would ever occur to anyone to do -- to trademark or copyright their series of poses," says Trisha Lamb Feuerstein of the Yoga Research and Education Center, a Manton, Calif., outfit that assists students, scholars, filmmakers, and others seeking information about the ancient art.

A San Francisco group called Open Source Yoga Unity, however, is challenging Choudhury in court. The group, composed of yoga instructors and studio owners who say they fear lawsuits from Choudhury, petitioned a federal judge July 9 to clarify whether it is indeed possible to copyright and trademark a brand of yoga.

Open Source's lawsuit asks the judge to declare, among other things, that "no yoga style, routine ... can be copyrighted under United States law" and that a trademark on "Bikram yoga" is unenforceable because it has been "freely and commonly used ... for more than two decades" to refer to yoga performed in a hot room.

"Through fear and intimidation, really, [Choudhury] is trying to get people to pay him money," says Sacramento attorney James Harrison, who represents Open Source.

Choudhury's spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit, but the yoga master's students ardently support the man they say has been woefully mischaracterized by the media. "He has a unique series he developed," says Elizabeth Leanse, a longtime Bikram student from Los Angeles. "He felt like he needed to keep it pure. He wants to make sure that when you go to a Bikram class, you get what you expect. He's really a peaceful, non-confrontational man. He was pushed into this. This is absolutely about quality control and safety."

Some legal experts say Choudhury's maneuvers, while perhaps philosophically unsavory, are pragmatic in today's business world. "If I'm representing somebody who's got novel approaches or ideas in a given art form, then I would think that to protect those interests, one would pursue a copyright claim," says M.J. Bogatin, a San Francisco lawyer who represents local artists and performers on intellectual-property issues. "Quality control is a legitimate concern, as well.

"It's a corporate mentality, but that's business in America in the 21st century," Bogatin continues. "It's definitely the American way to make money off of your name; this is a capitalistic society, after all. And there are laws there to enforce those rights. So even if there is a clash of cultures, it's not surprising that [Choudhury would] use them."

Choudhury does not claim to own a copyright on the yoga postures he uses, which were created thousands of years ago and are clearly in the public domain. Instead, he asserts legal protection for his sequence of poses, and warns on his Web site that "virtually all modifications or additions" to the combination entitle him to $150,000 in damages.

"The question is whether there is a degree of originality in the way he picks and chooses his moves and the way that he put them together," says Nate Cooper, an attorney with California Lawyers for the Arts who practices Bikram yoga. "You could liken it to a musical scale. Lining up these 26 poses -- is that more like a 26-note musical scale or is it a song? Is it steps or is it a dance?"

Other legal experts also say Open Source raises valid concerns about the Beverly Hills-based yoga teacher's claims. Though Choudhury's arguments for a trademark to protect his business' name and reputation are not unreasonable, they say, his copyright claim is disputable. The courts have established a list of creative works that can be copyrighted, and it is unclear whether yoga qualifies.

"Copyrighting is for original works; yoga postures are in the public domain," says Stanford law professor Peggy Radin. "The interesting suggestion is whether you can copyright yoga in the same way you copyright choreography. While there seems to be a parallel to choreography, it is not the same as choreography."

Choudhury's attorney, Cecil Schenker, declined to comment because he had not yet seen the lawsuit, but the yoga master's students are incensed at Open Source's challenge. "Anyone in their right mind would get a copyright," says Funky Door's Whitlow, who characterizes Open Source as "a bunch of disgruntled Bikram studio owners who have gone against [Choudhury's] wishes."

"[Choudhury] is copyrighting his yoga, his yoga series," she says. "And he has trademarked his images, his logo. Any business would do that! No one bitches about Mick Jagger copyrighting his songs."

Adds Funky Door co-owner Jeff Renfro: "Most people who teach true Bikram yoga think [copyrighting] is a good thing. Most of us feel that if you have a Mercedes dealership, you don't try to sell Toyotas on your lot."

Bikram Choudhury seems to be the antithesis of everything you might expect in a yoga teacher.

He drives a Rolls-Royce, defiantly insists that his yoga is the purest form, and caters to a celebrity clientele. Though his students say that the media have misportrayed Choudhury, he is undeniably a controversial figure; in 2000, the Yoga Journal dubbed him the "Bad Boy of Yoga."

Some practitioners say they continue to be taken aback by Choudhury's ostentatious behavior and grand claims. "What he is doing is wrong," says Vasanthi Bhat, a South Bay yoga teacher who has also created her own style. "First of all, he claims that it is his yoga, that he invented it. But yogis invented it! All this arrogance. What he is doing is commercial."

Asserts a San Francisco Bikram-certified studio owner who wishes to remain anonymous: "Probably this is more about [Choudhury] exercising a higher degree of control over an experience that has his name on it, which I can certainly understand. But other yoga teachers who are very popular, I see them conduct themselves in a different way.

"It's a complex issue that runs to the core of yoga traditions and our Western culture. It's unfortunate that a beautiful practice like yoga is becoming about copyright and legal challenges. It feels like a distraction from what yoga practice should be about."

Choudhury's legal threats certainly have become a distraction for Sandy McCauley, who has taught Bikram yoga in the North Bay for the past eight years.

McCauley, 60, says she was among the first class of instructors to be trained at Choudhury's Beverly Hills headquarters, called Bikram Yoga College of India, and she soon began teaching at her own chain of studios in the North Bay called Yoga Loka. McCauley's husband and two of her children subsequently paid $5,000 apiece to take a two-month course in Beverly Hills to become certified Bikram instructors as well.

McCauley says certified trainers can affiliate with Bikram Yoga College of India, though it is not required (Funky Door's Whitlow, however, says there is a general "understanding" that certified teachers remain affiliated by adhering to certain standards).

While the affiliates are not actual franchisees (according to his Web site, Choudhury is currently drafting franchise agreements), they are still expected to comply with numerous quality-control requirements.

McCauley says she couldn't adhere to all of Choudhury's regulations (the most problematic, she says, was a rule forbidding her from teaching other forms of yoga), so she opened a studio whose name didn't include the word "Bikram." For six years, McCauley says, her studio ran smoothly.

But her relations with Choudhury soured, she says, when she informed him about two years ago that she had no plans to convert her studio into an official Bikram branch. "I wrote a letter thanking him, and being grateful, but telling him that I wouldn't be able to maintain the rules of a Yoga College of India," McCauley says. "He told my husband that he felt terribly betrayed, and then he started acting out at us with a vengeance." (Choudhury did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.)

In June 2002, the McCauleys received a cease-and-desist letter alleging that Yoga Loka had violated Choudhury's copyright and trademark by, among other things, "mixing Bikram Yoga with other yoga styles," "teaching classes without the complete Dialogue," and "using teachers who have not been certified by Bikram." Open Source says the letter exemplifies how Choudhury harasses other practitioners over alleged copyright infringement.

McCauley readily admits she has trained teachers to lead Bikram classes at her school, though she claims she had no other choice because Choudhury barred his students from working at Yoga Loka. She also acknowledges that she has taught non-Bikram styles of yoga -- which she says is why she chose not to become a Bikram affiliate.

"Bikram is a very powerful and controlling person," says McCauley, who has erased the word "Bikram" from her studio's promotional materials since receiving the cease-and-desist letter.

"I am grateful to him, and I do love the man and what he is putting out there, but I recognized early on that I would not be able to be under his thumb. It seemed to me that he really wanted devotees like a guru would, and I know that he would not be that kind of influence on my life, so I didn't go there."

About The Author

Bernice Yeung


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