The headquarters of Bikram’s Yoga College of India is much like the office of any celebrity in Los Angeles. The walls are plastered with pictures of Bikram Choudhury with his star students: There’s one with a beaming Brooke Shields, another with Ricardo Montalban. He’s even posed (not the asana kind of posing) with Teddy Kennedy and Bill Clinton.
One famous student you won’t find on the wall is Raquel Welch. That story didn’t have a happy ending. An avid yoga practitioner, Welch published a health and fitness book in 1986 based on her studies with Bikram (who is known universally by his first name). Bikram was devastated. He felt she had ripped off his yoga, and worse, she didn’t pay him anything for it. So he sued her. (The suit was settled out of court.)
Now, 18 years later, Bikram has again taken up the legal cudgel against students and instructors who, he feels, are stealing his teachings. Claiming ownership of a 26-pose sequence and other identifying features of his practice, Bikram has copyrighted and trademarked everything from his name to the verbatim dialogue that accompanies the teaching of his classes. To enforce what he sees as his proprietary rights, he initiated one lawsuit and has sent out at least 25 cease-and-desist letters. But all that legal action was in preparation for an even bigger move that startled the yoga community when it was announced on his Web site (www.bikramyoga.com) in May 2002: Bikram was going to franchise his yoga.
Franchising is not a new idea for Bikram. In 1994, he told students in his first teacher training class that he wanted to do it but that his lawyers had advised him that there would be too much red tape. So why carry out the plan now? Bikram attributes his decision to the explosive growth of his schools–from about 10 in 1996 to more than 600 in the United States (more than 700 worldwide) today–and to the need for quality control. “I created something from Patanjali‘s hatha yoga system, and it works,” Bikram says. “I don’t want anybody to mess with my system.”
To some extent, franchising was an inevitable development in the modernization and continuing commercialization of yoga. Founders of other lineages, including Iyengar, Jivamukti, and Kundalini, have copyrighted and trademarked their intellectual property, including names, logos, books, and the like. Still, it is unsettling to many in the yoga community to see legal principles of ownership invoked as they might be for laundry detergent or candy bars. As in yoga practice, the question is one of intent. Sometimes the motive is protection, sometimes it’s commercialization, and sometimes it’s both. One thing is for sure: Whatever Bikram’s reasons, his actions, successful or not, could have a profound effect on the evolution of yoga in the West.
“His motives are to control and own yoga, and I don’t think those are the best motives to have,” says Tony Sanchez, executive director of the San Francisco Yoga Studio, who trained with Bikram as far back as 1976. “But he has devoted himself to yoga since he was a little kid, and if you talk to him about yoga, the way he presents it is quite powerful. You really feel he’s very sincere.”
Bikram, 57, has been a paradox on the yoga scene since 1970, when he arrived in the United States from India, where he had begun studying yoga at age four and had won a national yoga competition at age 13. He is fond of saying, “When in Rome, I must do as the Romans do,” and he did. He has collected a fleet of about 35 cars–mostly Rolls-Royces and Bentleys–and a drawerful of Rolex watches. His first teacher training program was attended by 35 students, who paid $5,000 each. Upon completion of the course, which lasted 12 weeks, the inductees were given a certificate that “granted all rights and privileges to teach Bikram’s Basic Yoga System.”
Newly certified teachers had the option of going off and forming their own school or staying in the family and opening a branch of Bikram’s Yoga College of India, which Bikram encouraged many of them to do. The network was informal; joining required only getting Bikrams permission and promising to teach according to his principles. Attempts to impose a fee were eventually abandoned when teachers pleaded poverty.
But as teacher training became Bikram’s main revenue source and the number of students grew to 300 a class, he decided he had to do something to protect his intellectual property. “He wanted to get a little more financial reward and control instead of saying to the people who took the training, ‘OK, you’re free to do whatever you want to do with the system,’” Sanchez says.
To make the franchise idea work, Bikram had to own an asset he could control. Last year, San Diego intellectual property attorney Jacob Reinbolt came up with a plan to copyright Bikram’s 26-pose sequence. No one had ever tried to copyright a specific sequence of yoga poses before, but Reinbolt got around the lack of precedent by classifying the application as a “selection, arrangement, and ordering of physical movements” and by filing the claim as an addendum to an existing copyright for Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class (Tarcher Putnam), a book first published in 1978. The copyright covering the sequence itself was registered in October 2002 and joined two other recent copyrights: one for a document detailing Bikram’s teacher training and another for a written record of the dialogue accompanying Bikram’s beginning class. Bikram also applied for trademark protection for the names Bikram Yoga, Bikram Hot Yoga, Bikram’s Yoga College of India, and Bikram’s Beginning Class.
The Originality Test
Because the asana sequence is the centerpiece of Bikram’s franchising plan, all sorts of thorny legal and philosophical questions about originality and provenance have arisen. Bikram does not claim to have invented the poses, just the sequence–which he derived from the 84 poses taught by his guru, Bishnu Ghosh, brother of Paramahansa Yogananda (author of the classic Autobiography of a Yogi). “It’s become the Bikram system, but there’s no such thing as Bikram Yoga; yoga is yoga, yoga is hatha yoga,” Bikram admits. “It’s not anybody’s property; it’s like God, it’s love, it’s nature. But anybody picks up a few postures in a sequence and makes it a book, it’s a copyright, so somebody copies my book, I sue them.”
According to the United States Copyright Office, to obtain a copyright, an applicant need only meet basic requirements of authorship and fill out the forms correctly. An application is not heavily vetted or investigated for content; that happens only after the copyright is granted–and challenged. So, the validity and application of Bikram’s copyright will most likely be determined in court. Attorneys for Bikram could make an analogy to music, in which the notes have been around forever but their specific arrangement in a particular order makes them a coherent and copyrightable commodity. Many blues songs, for instance, existed in the public domain until they were arranged, expanded, and updated by contemporary artists. “Before me, in the five-, 10-, 20,000-year-history of Indian hatha yoga, nobody–not one person–taught the way I’m teaching today,” Bikram claims.
Maybe so, but “copyright is pretty strict about being original,” says attorney Lon Sobel, editor of the Entertainment Law Reporter and lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. “If these are poses he learned from his teacher, and the sequence is not original but one he observed his own teacher using, then he would fail the originality test.”
Even assuming that the registrations stand up in court, how much control the copyright and trademarks actually give Bikram would still be open to interpretation. In a letter on the Bikram Web site posted in February 2003, Reinbolt stated that “virtually all modifications or additions to the sequence will constitute copyright infringement, including the unauthorized use of even a small number of consecutive postures.” But copyright protection covers the original work, not necessarily all derivations of it. According to Sobels reading of the law, Bikram’s copyright “does not give him exclusive rights to the ideas or concepts or methods that are described in what he has registered. It’s only in the particular expression of his method.”
The Legal Battle Begins
Nonetheless, bikram took steps to consolidate his power as early as July 2002, four months before the sequence copyright was approved. His objective seemed to be to move all Bikram teaching under the Yoga College of India umbrella, even if that meant parting ways with some of his longtime teachers.
One of the first to go was the most senior Bikram teacher in the country, Jimmy Barkan. Barkan opened a Yoga College of India in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, in 1983. Last year, Bikram approved Barkans opening another center, in North Miami. Barkan was about to sign the lease when he discovered that Bikram had withdrawn his approval and granted permission to another Yoga College a few blocks away–a curious development, considering that geographic protection for his teachers and avoiding this kind of conflict was one of Bikram’s main reasons for franchising in the first place. “When I called him for an explanation, he said I should have done this 10 years ago,” Barkan recalls. “So this is what I got.”
Barkan moved on. He entered into a business venture with his attorney, who was getting ready to open a holistic center in Plantation, Florida, that included Pilates along with a designated room for Bikram Yoga. Bikram again gave his OK, stipulating only that the room had to have a separate entrance. Then, in October 2002, after Barkan had signed a five-year lease and invested $20,000, and the studio had been open for five months, Bikram once again withdrew his permission. He called and said Barkan’s new studio did not “fit in with our franchise plans.” Barkan sent him a letter, to which Bikram responded by taking Barkan’s name off his Web site and posting a note to other Bikram studios, telling them to not have Barkan teach any of their workshops. Longtime associates whom Bikram has alienated–and there are many–say he can be vindictive and often acts out of anger and capriciousness. “I think a lot of the things he and his lawyer are doing are bluffing,” Sanchez says. But even if they are a bluff, it’s one that most struggling teachers and studio owners don’t want to call, given Bikram’s deep pockets.
Mark Morrison and his wife, Kim, proprietors of the Yoga Studio in Costa Mesa, California, are an exception. Kim was part of Bikram’s first teacher training program in 1994 and opened a Yoga College of India in 1996. Deteriorating relations with Bikram date from 1999, when the Morrisons decided for marketing reasons to change the name of their space to the Yoga Studio. They continued to use the name Bikram Yoga for some of their classes–based on Kim’s teaching certificate, which they considered to be unrestricted–but they also offered other styles of yoga. The Morrisons heard rumblings that Bikram was unhappy with them and was encouraging students to open a Yoga College nearby; that dissatisfaction took a concrete form when they received a cease-and-desist letter in July 2002. Mark says that when he called Bikram and asked why he was taking legal action, Bikram said, “We’re suing you because you’ve been around a long time and you’re an attorney, and if you submit to us, others will follow.”
Bikram’s camp offers a different explanation: According to one source close to Bikram, the Yoga Studio was offering unauthorized teacher training and selling bootleg videos. “The Morrisons were not operating in accordance with the commitments they made in writing to Bikram, and were infringing on his proprietary rights,” says Cecil Schenker of Akin Gump, one of the 12 largest law firms in the country and Bikram’s current legal representative.
An out-of-court settlement was reached in June of this year at the instigation of the judge in the case. The Morrisons’ insurance company was required to pay an undisclosed sum of money. The couple also agreed to stop teaching Bikram Yoga. But no determination was made on the legal merits of Bikram’s case, and the results cannot be applied to future cases.
With the specter of legal action hanging over studio owners and teachers, Open Source Yoga Unity (www.yogaunity.org), a nonprofit corporation founded by attorney (and yogi) Jim Harrison, filed a Complaint for Declaratory Relief in a federal district court in San Francisco this past July. It asked the court for a legal ruling on Bikram’s claims of ownership, which could then be used as a precedent in other cases. The case–if the judge agrees to hear it–should determine the legitimacy of Bikram’s charges and perhaps the future success of his franchising efforts. While the case is pending, Bikram cannot initiate other legal proceedings.
But what does this all mean to other Bikram teachers? No one knows, and therein lies the problem. Teachers are afraid their certification could become worthless. “A lot of the teachers don’t want to be bullied,” Barkan says. “They find it offensive but they’re scared, because they don’t know what hes going to do.”
Diane Rabinowitz, Bikram’s director of affiliate relations, acknowledges that “we were a bit premature in announcing the franchise” but adds that all the anxieties and fears are unwarranted. “We have been reassured by the person designing the franchise that it will be completely optional and absolutely desirable.”
Tentative franchise fees being floated seem relatively modest: According to a knowledgeable source, payments will be computed on a sliding scale based on how much a studio grosses: $200 a month for earnings under $10,000 a month, $300 up to $15,000, $400 from $15,000 to $20,000, and $500 for more than $20,000. A one-time fee will also be collected from new schools joining the network, but existing affiliates will be exempt from that fee. All fees are said to be designed only to cover operating expenses of the franchising program.
While all existing certificates and licenses will be subject to review, Schenker insists there is nothing to worry about. “We’re very upset with the amount of misinformation that’s being published about what Bikram’s intentions are, because they’re all incorrect,” he says. “Bikram is prepared to honor every agreement that has been made to every operator that is operating in compliance with his agreements.”
Here Come the Yoga Police
In yoga’s development through antiquity, no one ever claimed ownership of it. “It was all part of the great Shiva consciousness and handed down through succession,” says Dharmanidhi Sarasvati, founder of the Tantric College of America in Berkeley, California. “You never had Iyengar Yoga or Bikram Yoga or anything like that.” But this is the United States, and senior Bikram teacher Mike Winter, who owns two Yoga Colleges in Houston, thinks that asserting such a claim is a healthy and necessary step in preserving the lineage. He argues that “Bikram Yoga has to be taught in a very specific way. If you start diluting it, it only works 90 percent, and then in two or three years, it only works 80 percent, and in 10 years, you don’t recognize it at all; it’s a hodgepodge of styles.”
Bikram himself feels that his identity is being stolen, and Jivamukti Yoga cofounder David Life concurs. “If someone wants to open a John Doe Yoga Center, it’s no problem, but if they want to open a Bikram center, and given the context where people will take as much as they can get and pay as little as possible, then Bikram has to do something about that. No one else will do it for him,” says Life, who has, in fact, trademarked the Jivamukti name. “He can’t let people run rampant with his name or distort it in any way they feel like on a whim. I totally understand where he’s coming from. He’s in a corner.”
People respond differently to perceived threats to their intellectual property, depending again on their motives. “I don’t see Pattabhi Jois running after [It's Yoga founder] Larry Schultz in San Francisco, saying, ‘Why did you create Power Yoga?’ I don’t see Iyengar running after Rodney Yee saying, ‘Why did you leave me?’” admits a highly placed Bikram instructor. “I don’t know how to account for the difference in response–maybe because they’re over in India.”
In fact, Ashtanga Yoga–which was created by Jois–has very few restrictions. Some teachers are certified by Jois, but many more who teach the system are not. There is no governing body, and nothing is formalized. “As a teacher, I feel I don’t own this; I’m just passing it on,” says Chuck Miller, senior Ashtanga teacher and cofounder of Yoga Works in Santa Monica, California. “But as a business owner, there’s a certain sense of wanting to protect the entity and not let people siphon it off.”
And while Miller reluctantly defends the YogaWorks trademark as warranted, he’s no longer prepared to be a cop for Ashtanga Yoga. When he began teaching in Los Angeles in 1987, he was so worried about people going off and distorting the method that he tried to stop it. “I found myself playing the role of a yoga policeman,” he says, “which mostly aggravated me and appropriately pushed people further into finding their own expression.” He adds, “I realized all I could do was my own practice and present what I know and what I learned from my teacher, and let the next generation of students make their own choices.”
The Iyengar response has been markedly different. Early this year, Theresa Rowland, owner of Studio Yoga in Chatham and Madison, New Jersey, sent an e-mail to Terri Updergraff, who runs the Yoga Company in Sonoma, California. The note was about a workshop Updergraff had scheduled with Sarah Powers–who draws on various styles of yoga, including Iyengar, as noted in the workshop description. In the e-mail, Rowland informed Updergraff that “it is no longer possible to use the word Iyengar in a workshop description unless the workshop is only Iyengar yoga” and that this restriction was being imposed at “the request of Iyengar,” who was said to be considering making it “a legal distinction.”
If this wasn’t the yoga police, it was certainly the advance guard. The Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States (IYNAUS) has indeed been concerned about uncertified teachers using the Iyengar name to express or define what they teach.
This differs from Bikram’s attempt to control not only the use of his name but of the postures themselves. But on at least one point, the Iyengar community and Bikram agree. “If individual teachers have told Bikram, or the head of any school, that they agree to teach what they have been taught without mixing methods, then that’s what they have to do,” says Gloria Goldberg, member of the certification committee of IYNAUS.
Still, the Iyengar approach is much gentler than Bikram’s. A few years ago, IYNAUS trademarked Iyengar logos exclusively for certified teachers and Iyengar Associations. But the money it charges for membership and use of the logos is minimal–more like professional dues than a franchising fee–and much of the revenue it raises is pumped back into the organization. Other trademarks and copyrights of the Iyengar name are being investigated. “I think we’ve all talked about doing something legally,” says Goldberg, “but how to do something that’s not detrimental to teachers, students, and the yoga community at large–all that needs to be considered.”
That same spirit of consideration seems to infuse the Kundalini Yoga taught through the 3HO organization. The Kundalini Research Institute, which preserves the teachings of Yogi Bhajan, has copyrighted all of his books, lectures, and videos. “We definitely feel that we want to have a lot of say in how the teachings are put forth and taught, so people can get the most benefit,” says Nam Kaur Khalsa, executive director of the 3HO International Kundalini Yoga Teachers Association in New Mexico. She doesn’t find franchising objectionable in theory. “I don’t see it as a bad thing if it’s done in the right spirit,” she comments. “But the consciousness behind the organization doing the regulating needs to be such that people don’t feel stifled or like they’re not making any money for their efforts. It has to work for everyone.”
As the business of yoga expands, the practice of yoga continues to move farther from its roots and traditions. And if you ask Bikram, he is the savior. “I brought hatha yoga to the Western world,” he says. “Now hatha yoga is being crucified in America; people are messing with our Indian tradition and culture. So I think this franchising and copyrighting will help another 10 kinds of yoga to build up their business and help more people.”
Others think the increased control will negatively affect the evolution of yoga. “What’s good about yoga in the United States is that people really have a vision and are motivated,” says David Gordon White, professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “But this could have a similar effect to creating a monopoly in the corporate world. It’s going to drive out the small entrepreneur and make everything mediocre as a result. The lawyers will take over once again.”
But given the chance, not every school of yoga will want to focus on business, copyrights, and franchising. “I think what will actually happen is that some people will say, ‘That’s really cool. I’m going to do that too,’” Chuck Miller says. “And some will be against it and say, ‘That really stinks. Im not going to do that.’ And there will be some people in the middle. That’s kind of how human beings are. All of the above will happen, and something will survive out of that.”
James Greenberg is former deputy editor at Los Angeles magazine and has written extensively for the New York Times. He lives in Santa Monica, California.