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Had Your McYoga Today? A Stretch of Success

Bikram Choudhury looks to franchise his torrid technique

July 07, 2002|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dressed in sky-blue polyester, Bikram Choudhury leans back in his leather chair and holds forth on how he saved Hollywood, how he saved America, and how he will save the world. With yoga.

His yoga.

It is from here--a nondescript warehouse on La Cienega Boulevard north of the Santa Monica Freeway--that this spiritually driven, trash-talking, Rolls-Royce-driving guru is building his vast yoga empire.

Next to him is a map of the world, with pins for every Bikram yoga studio in America. In 1973 there would have been three pins--one in Honolulu, one in San Francisco and one in Beverly Hills. In January there were 500. Today, 650 pins stud the map. Bikram studios, he says, are opening around the world at a rate of two a day. Some cities--such as San Francisco--are so saturated with Bikram yoga studios that Choudhury may put a moratorium on the area.

"It was like this for years," Choudhury says, drawing a flat line through the air. "Then in the last years it shot up, like this! Like a rocket!" He launched his hand skyward and nearly leaps out of his chair.

Choudhury has taught his trademark brand of sweaty yoga--practiced in 100-plus-degree heat-- in Beverly Hills for nearly three decades. He has always done well. But now, he is riding the crest of the yoga tsunami sweeping the nation, and he is poised to cash in on his "product" the American way. Since January, a San Diego lawyer has copyrighted and trademarked Bikram's name, products, logo, clothing line, his scripted 90-minute teaching dialogue, and his sequence of 26 asanas, or postures.

Choudhury is not the first to copyright or trademark yoga products. But by fall, if all goes as planned, Bikram's Yoga College of India will become what is believed to be the first yoga franchise in the United States. The announcement has caused a stir in the yoga world, where Choudhury is already a controversial figure, dubbed "yoga's bad boy" by Yoga Journal.

By franchising, Choudhury makes tangible uncomfortable links between spirituality and commerce.

"You don't typically think of yoga and business being that intertwined," said Michael Harris, who runs a Bikram yoga studio in Portland, Ore.. "But yoga and business country have become intertwined."

Trisha Lamb Feuerstein of the Yoga Research and Education Center, a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit that tracks yoga trends, said franchising defies the spirit of yoga. "Yoga is huge and infinite. What's being branded are the physical aspects of the practice. You can't brand the spiritual aspects. Yoga is not hamburgers."

Choudhury counters that his popularity has created copycats and diluted his teachings. Franchising, he hopes, will keep his yoga pure and his workout as reliable as a cup of Starbucks coffee.

"Many people think yoga belongs to the world," said Choudhury's attorney, Jacob Reinbolt of San Diego."That is wrong." Bikram's unique method, he says, "is one of the most easily protectable pieces of intellectual property there is."

So will Bikram yoga be as standardized as McDonald's?

For a moment the charismatic yoga-vangelist who preaches the miracles of the discipline in an amped-up patter of Indian-accented hyperbole until he is hoarse, grows reflective.

"You could say that," he finally says. "Only I sell life."

In 21st century America, yoga is big business. There are yoga retreats, yoga weekends, yoga books, yoga clothing lines, yoga calendars, yoga videos, baby yoga, even a yoga cruise.

It's unclear how many millions of Americans are practicing yoga, but a 1998 survey by the Wall Street Journal and NBC pegged the number at more than 18 million (up from 6 million in 1994). Although there are no current figures, the editor of Yoga Journal believes the number is significantly higher.

Nowhere is yoga more popular than in America's largest and most stressed-out urban centers. But with perhaps more brand-name yoga gurus per capita than any other city in the country--and legions of celebrities doing "downward dog" daily--Los Angeles has emerged as a center for yoga innovation. Still, for critics, franchising a form of the 5,000-year-old sacred path to divine realization seems like the biggest, and crudest, step yet in the commodification of spirituality in America.

"We have never heard of this," said Deborah Willoughby, founding editor of Yoga International, a Pennsylvania-based magazine that focuses on the spiritual dimensions of yoga. "A lot of places have branch centers, like Shivananda, or the Himalayan Institute, where students will open a center and work under the guidance of a spiritual director. But it is not like it is owned, or licensed. It is just a desire to spread the spiritual teachings.

Franchising, she said, is "hard to imagine."

"But it's very California," she said. "I think it probably means everyone else will be doing it soon."

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