Business, Finance & Economics

Yogi fight: Bikram takes on Yoga to the People


Yes, it hurts. In a good way. Students practice the unique Bikram Yoga on March 13 2007 in London, England.


Matt Cardy

Full disclosure: I do a lot of hot yoga; specifically, the series of 26 torturously sweaty poses done in 105 degree heat designed by Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram Yoga.

So it was with great interest that I read this post today from Meredith Hoffman of the New York Times, which details a copyright infringement lawsuit filed by Choudhury that targets rival Yoga to the People

It's the kind of drama that gets to the heart of great business journalism, where good intentions mix with the bottom line, and where the pursuit of better health rubs, sweatily, against the pursuit of economic happiness. 

At issue: can Choudhury rightfully copyright something that's — according to many estimates — hundreds or even thousands of years old?

And should Bikram Yoga be allowed to prevent others from offering similar workouts, at a much lower price (Bikram Yoga typically costs $25 per session; Yoga to the People offers classes for as low as eight bucks).

Here's how Hoffman summed it up:

“Yoga should be for everyone,” Matt Hillock, a blissed-out, wrung-out student, said after the lower-priced class.

But Bikram Choudhury, the millionaire founder of Bikram Yoga, believes his kind of yoga belongs to him — he has even copyrighted it. Now, he has sued Yoga to the People for copyright infringement, seeking monetary damages and asking a federal judge to block Yoga to the People from offering its hot yoga class.

“We sent an investigator to take the classes,” Robert Gilchrest, Mr. Choudhury’s lawyer, said on Thursday. “The classes were virtually mirror images and the dialogue was consistently the same.”

What makes this story even more interesting is the fact that Yoga to the People founder Greg Gumucio is a former student of Choudhury, who according to Hoffman's piece, claims his guru once told him: “You are your own teacher. You are responsible for your own experience.”

Of course, the current weak economy plays into this hot drama. People are always looking for a bargain and eight bucks for, essentially, the same product that costs $25 is a pretty good deal.

So what would The Buddha say about all this?

Here's a telling clue from the Hoffman piece:

In a 2007 op-ed in The New York Times, the writer Suketu Mehta noted that the United States had issued 150 yoga-related copyrights and called Mr. Choudhury’s legal actions “a gross violation of the tradition of yoga.”

“There is a line in the Hindu scriptures: ‘Let good knowledge come to us from all sides,’ ” Mr. Mehta wrote. “There is no follow-up that adds, ‘And let us pay royalties for it.’”

For more from Thomas Mucha on Twitter: