A California appeals court has ruled against the infamous multi-millionaire yogi and founder of ‘hot’ yoga, Bikram Choudhury, ending his decade-long legal battle to copyright his sequence of yoga poses in a heated room.
Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw described Bikram’s sequence of 26 poses and two breathing exercises as an idea, process or system designed to improve health and to “yield physical benefits and a sense of wellbeing. Copyright protects only the expression of this idea – the words and pictures used to describe the sequence – and not the idea of the sequence itself.”
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In simple terms, this means 69-year-old Bikram has copyright over his books and DVDs and other expressions of his work, but not the exercise itself.
It’s a victory for the yoga community and a slap in the face for the self-styled guru, who appeared to some as being more interested in amassing personal wealth and recognition than staying true to the essence of yoga.
Bikram is a character: He claims to have magical powers making him irresistible to women.
He’s facing a number of lawsuits by women who claim he sexually harassed or raped them – charges he denies.
Known for conducting classes in his tight speedos with hundreds of half-naked students, his brand of yoga is far removed from any yoga I have ever experienced.
It’s more of a boot camp than a place of inner peace, a sexually charged environment that focuses on the body beautiful.
This is not to say Bikram hasn’t helped countless people around the world.
The yoga poses he teaches are therapeutic and, practised over time, can alleviate all kinds of ailments, both physical and emotional.
But the poses were, and remain, in the public domain.
Judge Wardlaw added that “although there is no cause to dispute the many health, fitness, spiritual and aesthetic benefits of yoga, and Bikram Yoga in particular, they do not bring the sequence into the realm of copyright protection.”
Intellectual property experts agree that Bikram stretched copyright law too far.
Had he been awarded intellectual property rights over his sequence, there would be nothing stopping others from copyrighting routine or specialised physical movements, such as brushing one’s teeth or performing a surgery, as forms of dance or choreography.
This case was not so much about who owns yoga, but whether yoga can be owned at all – whether it can be copyrighted as an expression of intellectual property.
In this latest case, the court rejected Bikram’s claims that his sequence of poses constituted a choreographed compilation and, therefore, entitled him to copyright protection.
The wider yoga community agrees that Bikram stopped being a yogi when he tried to own yoga.
He stopped being a yogi when he instructed his lawyers to go after those who dared to teach “his” yoga, intimidating smaller studios with limited resources, saying he would have them shut down.
Many of them caved and settled out of court, fearing the long legal battle. But one of them, Evolation Yoga, stood up to Bikram’s intimidation and fought back, and has now won.
Its founder, Mark Drost, spoke to me about the case in my film Who Owns Yoga?(directed and produced by Micah Garen & Marie-Helene Carleton) claiming Bikram was fighting a losing battle. He was right.
Born in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) in India in 1946, Bikram helped to popularise yoga in the US when he moved to California in the 1970s.
He found himself a receptive audience at a time when Americans were increasingly interested in Eastern philosophies and spiritual practises.
He counts many celebrities among his students. But his mass marketing techniques and his franchise model earned him the title of “McYoga”. For years, his legal battles to sue other yogis for teaching his method cast a dark shadow over yoga in the US and beyond.
In Who Owns Yoga?, I interviewed two of India’s most prolific spiritual gurus about this very issue.
And the response couldn’t have been clearer. Both Baba Ramdev and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev said what the US court has finally ruled: Yoga cannot be copyrighted, for how can ancient wisdom be owned?