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Bikram goes to the mat

By copyrighting a sequence of yoga poses, a guru upset the discipline's harmonic balance. Now he's in court.

March 21, 2005|Hilary E. MacGregor | Times Staff Writer

If yoga has been around for 5,000 years, can a 21st century businessman claim to own a piece of it? Bikram Choudhury says yes.

The flamboyant Beverly Hills yoga mogul, who popularized his style of yoga and then franchised a chain of studios bearing his name, has long rankled traditionalists, who dislike his tough business tactics and brash outspokenness. Now Choudhury is facing a challenge in a San Francisco courtroom, where a federal judge is hearing arguments in a lawsuit that some legal experts say could define a new frontier in intellectual property. At issue: Can Choudhury take a sequence of two breathing exercises and 26 yoga poses from an ancient Indian practice, copyright it and control how it is practiced?

The legal protection he is allowed may depend on whether yoga is defined as an exercise regimen, a sport, a spiritual practice or a choreographed form of expression, like music or dance. The case, says UCLA law professor Neil Netanel, "really depends on an issue that isn't covered in the law: What is the nature of yoga?"

Some legal experts believe the case could have broader implications, not just for yoga but for many forms of physical exercise.

Stanford University Law School professor Paul Goldstein said a decision in Choudhury's favor would have "clear implications for any other activity that entails a combination of movement and environment," such as choreography or martial arts. "It could also have implications for basketball plays, or football plays, if it were decided that way."

Adds Jim Harrison, a Sacramento attorney representing a group of yoga teachers and students who filed the lawsuit against Choudhury challenging his copyright claims, "If Bikram is successful, people will run to copyright bench-pressing and stepping."

Choudhury's yoga is made up of a sequence of 26 postures (each of which is performed twice during a single class) and two breathing exercises. These postures are culled from 84 classical postures and more than 10,000 combinations.

In Bikram classes, the room is heated to more than 100 degrees, he says, to work bodies like a blacksmith.

Choudhury says his sequence, practiced exactly the way he instructs, has medical, mental and spiritual benefits. He claims it can lower blood pressure and cholesterol, cure arthritis, and heal reproductive and spinal problems.

He also claims to have revived the athletic careers of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and John McEnroe and to have cured former President Richard Nixon of phlebitis.

While legions of lithe practitioners swear by the health benefits of his yoga, Choudhury offers no more than anecdotal evidence that his sequence of poses, performed in a sweat-laden room, offers any of the benefits he claims.

There are currently more than 1,300 Bikram Yoga studios around the world (about 1,200 of them in the United States), taught by certified Bikram Yoga teachers. Choudhury estimates that 400 of them teach their classes correctly -- that is, according to the way he prescribes. The rest offer modified versions of his program, with various levels of adherence to his sequence of poses, room temperature and other rules. Also, many gyms and studios offer hot yoga, sometimes calling it Bikram yoga, with teachers both certified and not.

Choudhury doesn't like it when others mess with his system.

"My system works, as long as people let me do my job my way," he said. "It is not just the sequence, it is how you do it: the timing, the mirrors, the temperature, the carpet. But if people only do it 99% right, it is 100% wrong. When someone tries to mess with it, the people won't get the yoga benefits. Then it is just calisthenic exercise, like running, jogging or swimming."

Many in the yoga world contend that Choudhury has done nothing more than take 26 yoga moves and put them in sequence. Many classic and modern yoga styles involve sequences. But no one's ever claimed exclusive ownership of them and tried to control their practice through copyright.

Choudhury has tried various legal maneuvers to protect what he considers his intellectual property. For example, teachers at his franchised studios are supposed to follow an approved text, or "dialogue," that he has copyrighted. He has also copyrighted the name of his studios (Bikram's College of India) and the name of his yoga program (Bikram Yoga).

John Marcoux, an intellectual property lawyer who runs two Bikram studios in Chicago and who advises Choudhury on various legal issues, says Choudhury is trying to "keep the yoga pure."

"What he is doing is like copyrighting a song," Marcoux said. "It is not the notes, but the way you sequence the notes, that distinguish Beethoven from the Beatles."

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