Bikram hot yoga's campaign for copyright has implication for the Bay Area scene
YOGA Open source is all the rage these days, from platforms to beverages to biotech. And when it comes to yoga, the East's oldest standby for health and well-being, open source has been the way for thousands of years. But all changed when yoga won over the capitalistic West, and the West Coast became a hotbed for many of today's popular yoga trends.
But for Bay Area yogis who can't afford $92 pants to enhance their assets or $18 drop-in classes, there's Yoga to the People (www.yogatothepeople.com ): the East Coast invention of Greg Gumucio, which operates on a donation-based model.
Besides studios in New York and Seattle, YTTP has spaces on both sides of the Bay — in Berkeley and the Mission — and it has plans to open a hot studio in Berkeley as well. There, 90-minute classes will feature a familiar series of 26 poses in a sweltering 105-degree room.
But it's not Bikram Yoga, the "hot yoga" that's won its Indian founder a worldwide following.
Instead, it's what YTTP calls "traditional hot yoga." It's already on the docket at four of the group's five New York studios, and late last year, it landed them in hot water with Bikram Choudhury, who sued YTTP for infringing on his intellectual property.
While the class is similar to what Bikram-ites have come to expect when they walk into any one of the modern guru's more than 900 studios worldwide, "traditional hot yoga" doesn't rely on Bikram certified teachers or Bikram's copyrighted class dialogue, and Bikram receives no money.
Which makes the whole issue a little sticky: if YTTP were billing the classes as Bikram Yoga, they'd have to play by Bikram's rules: from teacher trainings and re-certifications to registering and paying studio dues — in fact, right down to the Bikram-required carpet on the floor.
But as Gumucio and his lawyers pointed out in an answer to Bikram's suit, they're not.
Furthermore, the response argues, copyright protection is limited to original works of authorship, from which the copyright statute expressly excludes "procedures, systems and methods of operation" — such as exercise systems.
In a December letter to YTTP's lawyers, the copyright office concurred, writing that the selection and ordering of exercises in the public domain (which Bikram's poses, having been taught by his teacher's teachers for generations, clearly are) "do not constitute the subject matter that Congress intended to protect."
Of course, there remains the slight problem of the office already having issued the copyright, a fact that Bikram's lawers have not failed to notice.
After a slew of articles hit New York presses, Yoga to the People has decided that they will no longer comment on the case, but Gumucio is taking the letter as the decisive answer to the question he posed on his website, Yogatruth.org: "Can yoga be owned?"
"Copyright office makes it official," he wrote in exuberant red print. "Yoga belongs to all people!"
It's easy to see the saga as a David and Goliath story — Yoga to the People, proclaiming," There will be no proper payment; there will be no right answers; no glorified teachers; no ego no script no pedestals," versus the Rolls Royce-collecting, sequined Speedo-wearing, wealthy, and self-promoting Beverly Hills-based Choudhury, purveyor of what many call "McYoga."
But Juicy Sanchez, who owns and teaches at the Bikram-certified studio Mission Yoga (www.missionyoga.com ) with her husband Steve, points out that some of the hype surrounding Bikram's larger-than-life personality and shady business practices are overblown.
For instance: claims that studios are required to pay monthly dues and franchising fees of more than $10,000, in addition to the cost of teacher trainings, which are required every three years.
"First, we're not a franchise," she says. "We're a loose affiliation."
"And it's just like any profession — doctor, lawyer, massage therapist — you're required to get re-certified periodically," she says. As for as the franchising fee, she says that because she and her husband bought an existing studio, they were not required to pay anything beyond their teacher training to open their business.
Though that may soon change. In April, Bikram will require studios to pay $300 a monthy for the right to use his name, which has people "freaking out."
"I suppose some people are always going to feel exploited," she says, "But personally, I think it's a bargain. How else do you buy into a brand?"
Of course, Bikram wasn't always considered a brand. Sanchez explains that when he arrived in the U.S. in the 1970s, he slept on the floor of his studio. He taught for free until the actress Shirley MacLaine, a student of his, took him aside and told him that if he didn't charge money, no one would value what he did.
But if yoga is truly about a practice, not a product, why continue to replicate this one man's 26 poses?
Brian Monnier, of the California Yoga Company (www.calyogacompany.com ), says of Gumucio, "I support his right to fight for this, but if your teacher doesn't want you teaching what he taught, why not grow and change the practice?"
Monnier points to his teacher Tony Sanchez, who learned directly from Bikram, but wasn't certified by Bikram's Yoga College of India. Instead, Sanchez returned to Bikram's own guru, Bishnu Gosh, in Calcutta. It was from him that Sanchez drew his practice, creating a new style of hot yoga altogether.
Even Bikram has said that the power should lie with the practitioner — not the teacher. The very idea for Yoga to the People came when Bikram asked Gumucio, then a student of his, to review another teacher. Gumucio gave a negative review, and Bikram chastised him, saying "You are your own teacher. You are responsible for your own experience."
How that plays out in the Bay Area remains to be seen. Katite Gumucio, Greg's sister and owner of Hot Yoga Ocean Ave., (www.hotyogaoceanave.com ) believes that yoga isn't so different from many other types of big business with the opportunity to change paths. "Yoga can segue into a new way of doing business. YTTP is clear that you're the center of it all; you don't need to realize through anyone else. People can lead us, they can grow and do great work, but when they reach the point where they can only lead by force, it's time to redistribute the power instead of trying to hold on."