Bickering Bikram

A copyright dispute pits yoga king Bikram Choudhury against competitors and followers alike

It is minutes before the 5:30 p.m. Bikram yoga class at Funky Door Yoga on Polk Street, and about three dozen students have taken their places in a sparse, sunlit studio. They sit cross-legged on mats or lie in restful Savasana positions, awaiting the start of their vigorous workout and already perspiring in a room that has been heated to 100 degrees.

Most of them are regulars, braced to contort their bodies into 26 poses and execute two breathing exercises in 90 minutes while exposed to the oppressive heat. They know exactly what to expect because Bikram Choudhury, the flamboyant Calcutta native who created the wildly popular yoga style nearly two decades ago, has carefully scripted the entire experience.

At Funky Door, Choudhury's edicts are closely observed; the owners are among his most faithful devotees in San Francisco, and often teach new instructors.

Promptly at 5:30, co-owner Lynn Whitlow, wearing a headset microphone, mounts a platform at the front of the room. The carpeted studio, mirrored on three sides, is precisely arranged, heated, and lit according to Choudhury's specifications. And as a Bikram-certified instructor, Whitlow uses a "dialogue" developed by Choudhury -- which she is expected to repeat verbatim every time she teaches a class -- to guide her students through various poses.

As the scene at Funky Door illustrates, Choudhury has exacting standards. Last year, as his athletic style of yoga continued to explode in popularity, the charismatic instructor decided to copyright his method of yoga and trademark his name. He is not the first instructor to copyright a yoga style, but unlike others who have done so, Choudhury has put enthusiasts on notice that he'll sue if they mimic his particular sequence of poses. He has already gone to court against a Costa Mesa studio; the case was recently settled on undisclosed terms.

In the 5,000-year-old world of yoga, in which the values of humility, inner peace, and noncompetitiveness are paramount, Choudhury's actions have baffled many and infuriated some.

"For people practicing traditional yoga, this is not something that would ever occur to anyone to do -- to trademark or copyright their series of poses," says Trisha Lamb Feuerstein of the Yoga Research and Education Center, a Manton, Calif., outfit that assists students, scholars, filmmakers, and others seeking information about the ancient art.

A San Francisco group called Open Source Yoga Unity, however, is challenging Choudhury in court. The group, composed of yoga instructors and studio owners who say they fear lawsuits from Choudhury, petitioned a federal judge July 9 to clarify whether it is indeed possible to copyright and trademark a brand of yoga.

Open Source's lawsuit asks the judge to declare, among other things, that "no yoga style, routine ... can be copyrighted under United States law" and that a trademark on "Bikram yoga" is unenforceable because it has been "freely and commonly used ... for more than two decades" to refer to yoga performed in a hot room.

"Through fear and intimidation, really, [Choudhury] is trying to get people to pay him money," says Sacramento attorney James Harrison, who represents Open Source.

Choudhury's spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit, but the yoga master's students ardently support the man they say has been woefully mischaracterized by the media. "He has a unique series he developed," says Elizabeth Leanse, a longtime Bikram student from Los Angeles. "He felt like he needed to keep it pure. He wants to make sure that when you go to a Bikram class, you get what you expect. He's really a peaceful, non-confrontational man. He was pushed into this. This is absolutely about quality control and safety."

Some legal experts say Choudhury's maneuvers, while perhaps philosophically unsavory, are pragmatic in today's business world. "If I'm representing somebody who's got novel approaches or ideas in a given art form, then I would think that to protect those interests, one would pursue a copyright claim," says M.J. Bogatin, a San Francisco lawyer who represents local artists and performers on intellectual-property issues. "Quality control is a legitimate concern, as well.

"It's a corporate mentality, but that's business in America in the 21st century," Bogatin continues. "It's definitely the American way to make money off of your name; this is a capitalistic society, after all. And there are laws there to enforce those rights. So even if there is a clash of cultures, it's not surprising that [Choudhury would] use them."

Choudhury does not claim to own a copyright on the yoga postures he uses, which were created thousands of years ago and are clearly in the public domain. Instead, he asserts legal protection for his sequence of poses, and warns on his Web site that "virtually all modifications or additions" to the combination entitle him to $150,000 in damages.

"The question is whether there is a degree of originality in the way he picks and chooses his moves and the way that he put them together," says Nate Cooper, an attorney with California Lawyers for the Arts who practices Bikram yoga. "You could liken it to a musical scale. Lining up these 26 poses -- is that more like a 26-note musical scale or is it a song? Is it steps or is it a dance?"

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