Bikram & the Copyright Wars.

Via on Jul 9, 2012

Can Anyone Own Yoga?

Bikram Choudhury, the “glamour guru,” is at it again. And no, I’m not alluding to his claims of possessing “balls like atom bombs” (“two of them, 100 megatons each. Nobody F— with me.”). I’m referring to his litigious nature. He recently brought suit against several yoga studios claiming that they infringed upon his intellectual property rights.

In a statement released on June 22 of this year (published in the Federal Register), the U.S. Copyright Office finally settled the question: “a selection, coordination, or arrangement of exercise movements, such as a compilation of yoga poses, may be precluded from registration as a functional system or process.” Congress and the U.S. courts have had a longstanding position on enabling ideas (including systems and processes) to be within the public domain, rather than remaining in the sole ownership of any individual. This, in large part, is to foster creativity in the arts and sciences. According to U.S. law no one can own ideas, only their unique expression of those ideas (and even then only for a limited period of time).

This development raises another even more significant question: why does Bikram feel entitled to “own” yoga?

In large part (his ego aside) Bikram’s claim to intellectual property rights over his 26-posture sequence is bolstered by something deeper than the mere order of his physical contortions. According to a Yoga Journal article by Loraine Despres, Bikram believes himself to be the sole purveyor of authentic, pure, Hatha yoga.  In Despres’ interview he refers to other yoga teachers as “circus clowns.

He goes on to insist,

“Nobody here knows what the hell they are doing. There is no such thing as Kundalini Yoga. No such thing as Power Yoga. No such thing as Ashtanga Yoga.”

Bikram may not be incorrect in asserting that there is very little traditional basis for the modern yoga methods he cites. But regardless of these questions of historicity, he positions himself as the sole authority in the world of contemporary yoga.

These assertions of absolute authority are a product of his tutelage within the guru tradition. Not unlike competing factions of fundamentalist religions, Indian gurus often like to claim sole proprietorship over communion with the Divine. This, like many Bible thumpers, is justified through claims to the “true” and “authentic” (or in this case “pure”) tradition. Bikram’s ‘property rights’ are derived from his discipleship under Bishnu Ghosh (brother of Paramahansa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi), who he claims was the foremost authority on Patanjali and the practice of hatha yoga.

In a Chicago Tribune feature he claimed, “I am teaching the exact same postures as my guru [Bishnu Ghosh] taught me.” In this regard, Bikram’s marketing message is something more than a promise of a healthier body. He is claiming supernatural power that he alone is authorized to transmit via his connection to a guru lineage.

Putting aside, for a moment, the problems endemic to claims of authority based upon connection to imaginary kingdoms, there are legal issues at stake. If Bikram is correct in his right to traditional authority then his sequencing of postures (which he claims to have narrowed down from the ‘traditional’ 84 to 26) is not copyrightable, since, by merit of its age, it has entered the public domain long ago.

If his posture sequence is a process or system then, again according to Congress, it is not copyrightable, which is what the Copyright Office reasserted last month. So, once again, if Bikram’s contention is not legally tenable why does Mr. Choudhury feel entitled to sole proprietorship of what he terms “pure Hatha yoga”? Of course, there are financial issues at stake. He obviously would like a monopoly on yoga, as well as the right to claim himself the only true guru of yoga in the modern world.

But these narcissistic delusions have their roots, at least in my mind, in the guru tradition. Just as various “big time” religions attempted to claim a monopoly on heaven, gurus often herald themselves to be the sole vehicle for the communication of a divine message. In this regard, Bikram Choudhury would like to claim sole proprietorship over not only the financial rewards of yoga but also the spiritual liberation of the West.

~

Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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About Shyam Dodge

Shyam Dodge is a former Hindu monk, author, and satirist. He is currently a student of religion at Harvard University. His memoir, Wet Hot and Wild American Yogi, enjoys a cult following in the United States and Europe, both for its enduring controversy and irreverence. His collection of sacred stories, Sweetened Condensed Milk, remains a part of the curriculum in the philosophy portion of many yoga teacher trainings worldwide. You can find his books here: http://amzn.to/utWZO7 Author Website: http://shyamdodge.com/

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Comments

55 Responses to “Bikram & the Copyright Wars.”

  1. anouscka says:

    No one owns yoga and yoga belongs to everybody. If you watch children and remember what we were doing when little, we already were "practising asanas" which come naturally out of the body that wants to move. During a meditative state asanas and mudras may also flow forth through our body. most of the old masters understood this and transferred to their students. If you become your own master the poses and flows that are suitable for your own body will reveal themselves to you as well.

  2. Annie Ory says:

    Thanks for this perspective. It sounds like you did your homework and you know the history and the facts behind the story of Bikram and his lawsuits. Bikram Choudhurry is likely the single most misunderstood figure in yoga in the developed world.

    None of this has anything to do with Bikram wanting to own people's spiritual processes, or anything like that. That's far more complicated than it really is. He wants to be loved. For all his bluster, he desperately needs to be seen, respected and loved. He sees love through the lens of "respect".
    When Jane Fonda made millions selling a yoga work out, an exact copy of Bikram's yoga, Bikram didn't decide to sue her until he'd watched every moment of the entire video. He was looking for his name. If it had been there, he'd have wished her well. But she took his teachings, which he holds, as he was taught to, as a sacred gift, and gave them away for profit without so much as a nod in his direction. In his world she should have asked for permission, which he would freely have granted, but she disrespected him. She did not include "in honor of guru Bikram Choudhurry" in the credits. The same is true of the studios he originally sued. If those owners had simply made the changes they wanted to make quietly, and paid him the honor of putting his name on the door, he would have ignored their indiscretions. But they made out, in his view, as if they were better than him. They took what he taught them, and used it to dismiss him. That's disrespectful. That is the moral of the story as he tells it at teacher training, and really, it's what he's all about up there on the stage in his giant orange throne.

    He hasn't "won" a lawsuit since that first one, you know? Now, he rarely has to sue. The cease and desist letters from the lawyers, forcing studios operating on a shoe string to hire attorneys at $500 an hour, is usually all it takes, and the studio caves. They close, sell, stop teaching what they have been. The rare occasion when he has to pursue a suit the legal bills drag things out until even a thriving studio would be bankrupted by it. The only way to win against an entity like that is band together and start a legal defense fund and choose good test cases to push the law to define things more clearly. He has a reputation for "suing" studios and "putting them out of business" but that really doesn't happen. It just adds to the myth and the resignation when the letter comes.

    What he may not live long enough to learn, Bikram, is that he is reaping what he has sown. He is disrespectful to people, and he leads from a selfish perspective. As with all Leaders, sometimes he will train people who choose to stay with him, and sometimes he'll train people who choose to leave and start their own community. How they handle that leaving will continue to reflect back to Bikram the way he interacts with the world. As it does for all of us. The Universe will show us our character flaws in the people we meet and in the way we are treated. I'm not blaming the victim by the way, or saying that every time something bad happens to someone it's because they did that exact thing, or something equal to it, to someone else. No. I'm saying that when something continually shows in my life, it's me I must look to for answers. I don't know if Bikram will figure that out this time around. Maybe, or maybe next life time.

    Meanwhile, seriously, why put yourself in the position. Don't teach his 26 & 2 until someone gets a precedent for beating him and then do it the way they did it. The first time he takes someone all the way to court and he loses, he'll stop. It's part of the reason he'll pepper a studio with legal letters, threats, demands, etc, that they must hire an attorney to answer. He prefers they just fold, because it means not getting the case before a judge again, which could result in his being stripped of his copyright – however limited it may be.

  3. Padmalinga Swami says:

    I'm so glad Bikram Choudhurry is quelling the narcissistic demands of his ego through the practice of his yoga asanas. If he is the end product of this practice, I'll pass and focus on the other 7 limbs that so many "yogis" seem to forget about.

  4. Sonyata says:

    That is an interesting correlation – comparing him to the fundamentalist Christian community. I have been in too many churches where they do discount every other branch and denomination, going so far as teaching that they are going to hell, and only this one particular branch is right and true and will be "saved". The Mormons still claim to be the "one true church", and have since their inception. I read a long article a couple weeks ago from a Christian author claiming that "Christian Yoga" is dangerous, because it "opens the doorways to demons", or the influences of the Hindu religion, which are undeniably the roots of yoga. I took my time dissecting the article and writing a rebuttal to it.

    So far as Bikram being the intended heir of the divine teachings, I believe that both Iyengar and Jois have a better claim, through the lineage of Krishnamacharya, who studied with his master in the Himalayas. Besides, there is quite a difference in the names of the poses Bikram uses and the name of the same poses in A Light on Yoga or the Ashtanga collection.

    Yoga Alliance is the convening authority these days, allowing the credibility of certified teachers to be authenticated. Ideally, a yogi should be able to get their 200 hour certification through one institute, another 100 hours elsewhere, and their final 200 in order to achieve their RYT-500 certification, but this seem to still be an issue. Many of the large chains still want their method proprietary, and it becomes difficult to get this certification without taking the whole thing from one studio. And then, some of them want to license their graduates and charge them recurring fees for their association.

    I believe that the training and certification process should be as open as possible, and that a body such as the Yoga Alliance should oversee it. So, while this is not exactly the same as the Bikram copyright issue, it is in a way part of the same issue. The recent fallout of many of the Anusara community and the issues they raised about intellectual property rights is another part of this issue. I think it is all headed in the right direction.

  5. __MikeG__ says:

    The statement that Bikram's actions are informed by the guru system he was trained in is the most insightful commentary on the subject I have yet read. And many guru's do and have claimed that they only have the "truth". Bikram's actions make sense when viewed in the light that he believes he alone has the truth. Yet another reason why I believe that these ridiculous guru systems have lived way past their usefulness.

    Bikram royally fucked up when he took on Yoga to the People. YTP is not a mom and pop shop that can be intimidated by the threat of litigation.

    And YTP has already filed with the court the (clarified) statement from the Copyright Office which definitively stated that yoga sequences cannot be copyrighted.

    Additionally, Bikram alleged trademark violation in his lawsuit. But that probably would only hold water if YTP used the Bikram name. If they only marketed the classes in question as hot yoga I don't see how that would violate the Bikram trademark.

    Bikram also alleges violation of signed agreements for teachers trained in Bikram yoga. But it seems to me that this would only hold weight for individual teachers who use the Bikram trademark when they market themselves as teachers. YTP is not an individual and in any case YTP never signed contracts with Bikram.

  6. manorama says:

    Truth is one, Paths are many.

  7. profitoftruth says:

    BIKRAM CHOUDHURY SHOULD BE GIVEN A MEDAL OF HONOR FOR BEING ABLE TO CONTEND WITH WHAT I CALL THE 2ND ARYAN INVASION BECAUSE WINDU'S (WHITE HINDUS) HAVE SHOWN NO EMPATHY TOWARDS ANY INDIAN IN THE AMERICAN YOGA INDUSTRY AND THEY EVEN STATE AS SHARON AND DAVID OF JIVAMUKTI THEY ARE UNAPOLOGETIC ABOUT TEACHING YOGA REGARDLESS OF ITS SACRED LINEAGE SYSTEM FROM MASTER TO DISCIPLE. TO INFER THAT BIKRAM IS AND (((((INDIAN))))) AND THAT THEY USUALLY WANT TO HAVE SOLE PROPRIETORSHIP OVER YOGA AND LIKE MOST (((((INDIAN))))) YOGI'S TRY TO DO IS BLATANT RACISM CAUSE IF YOU LOOK AT WHAT IS HAPPENING OR HAS BEEN HAPPENING HERE IN AMERICA WITH (((((WHITE SELF PROCLAIMED GURU'S))))) FOR THE LAST FEW DECADES AND NO ONE HAD ANYTHING TO SAY ABOUT IT MAKES MOST ANTI BIKRAM AGITATORS OR COMPLAINERS LOOK LIKE HYPOCRITES WHICH IS A TYPICAL CHARACTERISTIC OF AMERICAN WINDUISM! I AM GLAD THAT BIKRAM IS AN SUCCESSFUL INDIAN GURU FROM INDIA AND THAT IT AGITATES THEM SO MUCH THAT IS AT LEAST SOME RESISTANCE TO THE CASTE SYSTEM IMPLEMENTED HERE IN AMERICA FOR THE CORE BELIEFS OF RACISM THAT CREATED THIS COUNTRY THESE WINDUS JUST FOUND A GOLD MINE AND VALIDATION FOR THE ATROCIOUS WAY OF RACIST IDEALS BOTH HERE AND ABROAD BUT BIKRAM IS HELPING TO BALANCE THAT OUT AND SAY NO HE IS OF DIRECT LINEAGE OF INDIA'S ANCIENT PAST AS A MODERN DAY YOGI! KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK BIKRAM FROM P.O. HINDU

  8. Andie says:

    Why does Bikram have to bash all other systems and practices??? In my opinion, he represents everything I am trying to release from in my practice. Being judgemental, possesive, narcissistic and overindulgent…these are the things I peel off like layers of an onion when I step on and off my mat each day. I respect him for inspiring and continuing hatha yoga for new generations of practitioners, but as a "Guru" maybe he should devote himself a bit more to the study of the Sutras and discover the love within himself.

    1.33 In relationships, the mind becomes purified by cultivating feelings of friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion for those who are suffering, goodwill towards those who are virtuous, and indifference or neutrality towards those we perceive as wicked or evil.
    (maitri karuna mudita upekshanam sukha duhka punya apunya vishayanam bhavanatah chitta prasadanam)

    So how about it Bikram? How about letting go of trying to own something that's universal and just be happy that ALL forms of yoga helps the human shift in conciousness!

  9. Edward Staskus says:

    The 4 teachers at Bikram Yoga in University Heights, Ohio, where I practice, have all been trained by the boss himself, but after 6 months of the hot room there, I do not see any of the many negatives painted of Bikram the man in this article and the replies in any of those teachers. They strike me as open, generous, and concerned with the well-being of the hatha exercise students who practice there. Unlike many other practices, the teachers do not do the poses, rather instructing and keeping an eye on everyone.
    They seem concerned that the poses be done correctly based on a student's level of ability, and it seems to me that the welfare of the students in the room is of primary concern to them.
    Even the desk girl is charming as she processes my credit card every couple of weeks.
    Since they have all been trained in Bikram Yoga by Bikram himself, why is it that none of his greedy, narcissistic, and supposed Barnum and Bailey personality has rubbed off on them?
    I am inclined to believe there is a gulf between the man and the myth, at least as seen by his critics.

  10. michaelmiles says:

    Hij heeft nog niet 'gewonnen' een rechtszaak sinds die eerste, weet je? Nu heeft hij zelden te klagen is. De last onder dwangsom brieven van de advocaten, waardoor studio's die op een schoen string om advocaten op $ 500 per uur te huren, is meestal alles wat nodig is, en de studio grotten. Ze sluiten, verkopen, stoppen met het onderwijzen van wat ze geweest zijn. De zeldzame keer dat hij een pak te gaan met de juridische rekeningen sleep Vochtbestrijding bedrijf tegen Opstijgend vocht en andere vochtproblemen in muren en kelders. Homeprotec, de vochtbestrijdings specialist.
    dingen uit tot zelfs een bloeiende studio zou worden geruïneerd door haar. De enige manier om te winnen tegen een entiteit, zoals die band bij elkaar en start een juridische verdediging fonds en kiezen voor een goede testcases om de wet te duwen om dingen duidelijker te omschrijven. Hij heeft een reputatie van "klagen" studio's en "waardoor ze uit de markt", maar dat echt niet gebeurt. Het voegt alleen maar om de mythe en het ontslag als de brief komt.

  11. […] those that aren’t familiar with Bikram yoga, the class is comprised of a sequence of twenty-six asanas (poses) and 2 breathing exercises […]

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