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July 9, 2012

Bikram & the Copyright Wars.

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.

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Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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