Yoga copyright raises questions of ownership

By Mindy Fetterman, USA TODAY
India seems to be willing to go to the mat over yoga.
That's because Bikram Choudhury, the self-proclaimed Hollywood "yoga teacher to the stars," incensed his native country by getting a U.S. copyright on his style of yoga four years ago.

In response, India has put 100 historians and scientists to work cataloging 1,500 yoga poses recorded in ancient texts written in Sanskrit, Urdu and Persian. India will use the catalogue to try to block anyone from cornering the market on the 5,000-year-old discipline of stretching, breathing and meditating.

Bikram, who goes by one name like Bono and Beyoncé, says he sought legal protection for his yoga because "it's the American way."

"You cannot drive the car if you do not have a driver's license," he explains. "You cannot do brain surgery if you are not a brain surgeon. You cannot even do a massage if you don't have a license." And, he says, you shouldn't be able to teach his Bikram Yoga unless you pay him for a license.

India's counterattack goes way beyond Bikram.

The government wants to thwart anyone who tries to profit from the nation's so-called "traditional knowledge," from yoga to 150,000 ancient medical remedies. India already has successfully challenged one U.S. patent granted to two Indian-born Americans who used the spice turmeric in a wound-healing product. That patent was revoked by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

"Practically every Indian housewife knows (turmeric) and uses it to heal wounds," says V.K. Gupta of India's National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources, which is developing the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library.

When completed, perhaps as soon as December, the digital library will be translated into English, French, Spanish, German and Japanese and sent to patent, copyright and trademark offices around the world.

That way, when someone such as Bikram tries to get a copyright on yoga moves or patents on ancient medicinal cures, those offices could say: "No, that's not original. They've been doing it in India for thousands of years."

Typically, patents are given only to those who invent or discover something new. In general, copyrights go on written works; trademarks go on company and product names.

The digital library will "prevent the grant of bad patents," Gupta says. He calls such patents a "misappropriation of traditional knowledge."

India has no plans to challenge Bikram in court, Gupta says. But it hopes the digital library will stop others from following him.

Some of Bikram's fellow yoga teachers are skeptical of India's efforts to protect yoga.

"It's a little late in the game," says Beth Shaw, president of YogaFit in Hermosa Beach, Calif., which developed a yoga program for health clubs. "They should have done it 30 years ago."

In the world of yoga, Bikram, 60, is something of a star. A collector of Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, he teaches his classes of up to 100 students with flamboyant style. He began teaching yoga in the 1970s after immigrating to America. Bikram obtained his first U.S. copyright in 1979 for a book he wrote, Bikram's Beginning Yoga Class. He also got a trademark for the name of his company, Bikram's Yoga College of India.

In 2002, he succeeded in extending that copyright to his style of yoga — 26 poses and two breathing exercises performed in a specific order. He teaches in a room heated to 105 degrees. The saunalike atmosphere keeps "the body from overheating (contrary to popular misconception)" and helps "reorganize the lipids (fat) in the muscular structure," according to his website,

When others began using his methods, he became outraged.

"I asked the Justice Department what to do, and they said: 'Welcome to America. When in Rome, do what Romans do. Make your yoga copyrighted, protect your intellectual property.' "

So he did, sending cease-and-desist letters to yoga teachers who he thought were copying his style.

"One student was mixing my yoga up with other kinds, and I said, 'No, you cannot do that.' You cannot put calamari in the sushi and call it sushi," Bikram says.

"She said: 'But yoga is free!' And I said: 'Of course yoga free. But when you make a song a melody, it's a copyright.'

"It's like what my student Quincy Jones does."

In 2003, a group of yoga teachers sued Bikram, saying he couldn't copyright yoga. He fought back. "We didn't want what happened to pilates to happen to Bikram," says his lawyer on the case, Susan Hollander of Manatt Phelps & Phillips in Palo Alto, Calif. (Joseph Pilates, a former boxer, developed a style of stretching and balancing exercises in the early 1900s.)

"Now, anyone can teach pilates; the name has no protection," Hollander says.

A federal judge ruled in April 2005 that Bikram's copyright was legitimate and enforceable. According to Judge Phyllis Hamilton's ruling, you can get a copyright on a "compilation" of information that's in the public domain, as long as it's "assembled in a sufficiently creative fashion." Both parties settled out of court before the case went to trial. No details were released.

Hollander says Bikram's yoga is "like ballet. It's had pas de deux and plies for centuries, but Swan Lake is unique."

Having a copyright protects Bikram's style and, more significantly, the income he derives from the global yoga empire he's built. He's trained 4,000 teachers around the world, he says.

Developing countries are keeping an eye on what India is doing.

As corporations and researchers scour the globe for medical cures from plants or animals, or materials to use for genetic engineering, countries are beginning to try to protect their traditional knowledge. They want a new definition of the term "intellectual property" to be sure they'll profit from any uses of their knowledge and resources.

"Our system of patents is designed for Western knowledge — the 'Eureka! I've discovered it!' model," says Francis Gurry, deputy director general of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a U.N. agency based in Geneva. "But how do you protect the knowledge generated by the collectivity of people and maintained over generations with no known starting point?"

The WIPO administers and negotiates international treaties involving patents and can mediate disputes. Most challenges are made to the patent offices of individual countries and are decided through its courts.

In 2005, India's National Institute randomly selected 762 U.S. patents that had been granted for medicinal products using plants; it found that 49% were based on traditional Indian knowledge. Gupta estimates about 2,000 patents each year based on India's traditional medicine are taken out somewhere in the world.

Negotiations are underway at the WIPO on ways to protect traditional knowledge. But there's no consensus yet, Gurry says, on whether there should be a worldwide treaty and binding regulations, or merely guidelines.

"Around the world, there's a recognition that we have undervalued traditional knowledge, that historically speaking, indigenous peoples have not been well-treated," Gurry says. "There's a consciousness of a disrespect to their cultures."

As its popularity has exploded, yoga has become a big business, with licensing and certification from yoga schools, consolidation and takeovers.

As a result, yoga copyrights and trademarks are sure to increase, says Stephen Russell, president of the Yoga Alliance, which registers training programs for yoga schools. That's because there needs to be a "barrier to entry" in the business, Russell says, so people can "protect their niche."

Americans spend about $3 billion a year on yoga classes and products, including clothes, vacations, DVDs and books, according to Yoga Journal magazine. The magazine's 2004 poll of 4,700 Americans estimated that 16.5 million people practice yoga. That's an increase of 43% from 2002. An additional 25 million said they intend to try yoga.

The popularity of yoga in the USA is part of a "wellness" trend that includes everything from Whole Foods grocery stores, which sell organic foods along with wine and gourmet cheeses, to corporate fitness programs that aim to lower company health care costs, says Rob Wrubel of Yoga Works, with 14 studios in California and New York. It plans to expand nationally.

As the baby boomers age, Wrubel says, yoga will continue to grow, replacing the hectic workouts of health clubs and gyms.

Yoga's stretching and breathing routines will appeal to "all the guys in their 40s who are running out of options to stay healthy," says Wrubel, who co-founded the Internet search engine Ask Jeeves before joining Yoga Works in 2003.

Bikram's move, though, isn't sitting well with everyone in the yoga world.

Copyrighting yoga? "Insane!" is Wrubel's response. "The idea that something as individualized as yoga could be protected is crazy," Wrubel says. "It restricts yoga."

But Shaw of Yoga Fit backs Bikram's move. She says she's "put a trademark on everything I've ever done since day one." Right now, she's involved in a couple of litigation cases with former employees who are teaching her style of yoga, she says.

Why legal protection?

"This is an industry of rip-off people," she says. "There's not a lot of integrity in the fitness business."

Bikram says his copyright is essential to protecting his business, which he predicts — with his usual flair for the dramatic — to be the answer to all of America's woes: bad health from too much smoking, too much drinking, too much stress.

"I guarantee you, yoga will compete with computers, music, sports, automobiles, the drug industry," Bikram says. "Yoga will take over the world!"



'Hot' Yoga Burns Bright

CBS 60 Minutes, Wednesday, June 8, 2005

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(CBS) America’s obsession with good health and exercise is leading to a boom in yoga. One man at the forefront of the movement is Bikram Choudhury, an Indian yogi with an all-American approach.

Correspondent Mika Brzezinski reports Choudhury's turning up the heat with his "torture chamber" yoga method. Dressed in nothing but a Rolex and a Speedo, the 59-year-old yoga guru pushes his students to contort 'til it hurts in a room heated to well over 100 degrees.

"I don't sell cheesecake, you know that?" asks Choudhury. "So you come there to suffer. If you don't suffer, you don't get anything. Nothing easy in life."

But isn't yoga supposed to be relaxing and meditative – not torture? Choudhury says no: "That's the biggest problem in America. That's the way yoga [was] introduced to America. Yoga [in America] means sit and close your eyes and you will look at the lamp and look at the crystal and meditate."

In Bikram yoga, meditation starts on the outside, in pushing the body to its extreme.

Choudhury explains, "You use the body as a medium to bring the mind back to the brain. Perfect married between body and mind. Then, you can knock the door to the spirit."

His approach works, he says, because of the 105-degree heat, which loosens the body and allows the muscles and tendons to go farther and stretch even more.

The heat may make the body more limber, but it does nothing to stop a first-time Bikram student's potential pain. In fact, one doctor who spoke to 60 Minutes Wednesday said that people taking Bikram yoga classes should be warned, given instructions on hydration and on modifying poses to avoid pushing the body too hard.

Choudhury mocks the suggestion. "Tell the doctor [that] I say to start chicken farm." He adds, "What do you think I'm doing all this life? All these years?"

Judging by Choudhury's appearance, his "hot" yoga looks to be a great path to preserving and improving health. In fact, the yogi believes medical science will prove Bikram yoga is good for you. He’s collaborating in two separate clinical trials, with doctors from the University of Southern California and Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in New York. They're studying Bikram’s effect on bone density and the overall benefits of yoga.

In Hollywood, people have been swearing by Bikram yoga for decades. Choudhury lists Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Candice Bergen and Brooke Shields among his famous followers.

It's a list that includes none other than the 37th President of the United States, Richard Nixon. Nixon's the key player in the story of how the Indian guru came to America in the first place. It's a tale that, true or not, has become part of Choudhury's own personal folklore.

It was 1972, and Nixon, who was visiting the South Pacific, was suffering from phlebitis. Choudhury says he was summoned, and gave the president his special hot treatment.

Afterward, Choudhury says, "He got up, shave, with the dress, tie, suit, went for meeting. And he asked me first thing, 'Sir, who are you? Are you an Indian black magician?'"

Choudhury explained that he was a yogi, and says Nixon was so happy with the treatment, he gave him an open invitation to come and live in the United States.
Once in America, Choudhury embraced the American way: He franchised. There's a Bikram studio in almost every major city in America, with more than a million students served worldwide. In fact, Bikram yoga has earned a nickname: "McYoga."

The analogy is fine by Choudhury. "What's wrong with that?," he asks. "I eat Big Mac. That means, they mean, correct me if I'm wrong, it's getting more popular. You know, spreading out all over like McDonald's."

And just as that Big Mac tastes the same in every McDonalds, Choudhury wants every yoga student to have exactly the same experience, no matter which Bikram studio they visit. So, for around $5,000 a pop, plus an occasional refresher course, he teaches the teachers his exact set of 26 postures and two breathing exercises - what makes Bikram yoga, Bikram yoga.

Vanessa Calder wasn't trained by Choudhury, but comes from a whole family – her mother, father, sister and older brother -- that was. She says their family-run studio was doing well until June 2002, when it received a letter from Choudhury's attorneys telling them to "immediately cease and desist" teaching Bikram yoga or face legal action.

"It was extremely scary, says Calder. "Here we were, being threatened with lawsuits, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in claims."

Choudhury claimed that because the studio taught other types of yoga and let non-Bikram trained instructors like Vanessa Calder teach classes, they were guilty of copyright violations.

Can physical exercise really be copyrighted? Choudhury argued in federal court that his precise sequence of yoga postures and breathing exercises should be eligible for copyright protection, just as a choreographer can copyright the dance steps in a ballet, or a musician can turn a sequence of "do, re, mis" into a copyrighted song.

The copyright claims riled the yoga community, and Calder organized a group of Bikram instructors to take on the yoga master in court.

Calder says, "What we object to is him saying, 'You cannot teach Bikram yoga, if I say you cannot teach Bikram yoga. You cannot teach those poses in that order, because I own them.' And that's -- that's the problem."

"The ownership of the style," she says, is the problem. "Because yoga is not to be owned. They've existed -- hundreds of thousands of yoga poses -- have existed for thousands of years."

Choudhury says yoga "belongs to the earth. It's a god. But I picked up a piece of it and I created something." He says it's his personal property, and it should be practiced the right way.

This spring, a federal judge agreed with Choudhury's assertion that a yoga sequence can be copyrighted, and ruled that his aggressive stance “is well within Choudhury’s rights as the copyright owner.”

His business strategy has made Choudhury a rich man. He lives the life of a star, complete with a whole fleet of classic cars he’s restored himself. When asked if this isn't a bit un-yogi-like, he replies, "Depends which type of yogi. I’m an American yogi!"

But Choudhury's life hasn't always been that of a Beverly Hills yogi. He grew up in Calcutta, a city known for its poverty. And, although he’s been living in America for more than half his life, India – the birthplace of yoga – will always be home. He says India is "the only country in the world that still there is some humanity and spiritualism left."

Choudhury says that Americans can learn a lot from India, a place where the rich and even the poorest of the poor find the same peace of mind through yoga. He explains, "The philosophy of human life: Who you are? Human. Why you came to this earth as a human. What ultimate destination of your life. To understand all these things... you have to study yoga."

It is this philosophy, he says, more than sweat, that he is selling through the mental and physical challenge of Bikram yoga.

"In America, even you have everything," he notes. "More than anybody else in the world. Still you are not happy."

He adds, "Only materialistic success is the success of human life in America. India, no. I like money. You like money. We need the money. But, money is not going to bring humanity and spiritualism into your life."

Today, Choudhury is treated like a beloved son almost everywhere he goes in India, despite that fact that he made himself into America's guru so many years ago.

"I started with nothing," he says. "Zero. And I never cared for business. You people give me everything. Why? I make you understand what is the value of me and my country's philosophy to make your life better than anybody's life in the world."

Most people would think in Calcutta they have nothing, while in Beverly Hills people have everything. "Why?" asks Choudhury. "Because I bring Calcutta to Beverly Hills."


Yin, Yang and Back Relief at 105 Degrees


I NEVER thought I'd find myself standing on one leg in a mirrored room heated to 105 degrees, staring at my "third eye" while pretending to be a tree. But then again, I never thought I'd be reckless enough to bust my back riding a polo pony for the first time in 30 years. Funny how the old yin tries to reconnect with the young yang when the executive pursuit of pleasure becomes a pursuit of pain relief at all costs.

Of course, I knew from the moment I entered the Zebra Yoga studio in Sag Harbor that I wasn't supposed to think at all. I was supposed to clear my brain of noise and imagery. Allow my mind and body to become one. Just let it go. But I couldn't let it go — not with the reflection of my chimerical evil twin, Larry, smirking at my every awkward move.

Stripped down to identical black bathing suits and white T-shirts, Larry and I looked like sweat-soaked slow-breathing spitting images of each other. But there was a critical difference in focus. Instead of staring at his third eye, Larry kept glancing over at the reflection of the yoga teacher, Lienette Crafoord.

A strawberry blonde with robin's egg eyes and an athletic figure wrapped in black spandex, Lienette prowled the floor like a self-enlightened lioness, offering a nonstop stream of yoga instruction.

"You're standing tall and proud, reaching to the ceiling," she purred. "You're inhaling and exhaling through your nose. Your mind is clear. Your mouth is closed. Your face is relaxed ..."

I squinted at my reflection, trying again to clear my mind, but it was no use. I kept thinking about how Larry had led me to yoga in a classic case of doing the right deed for all the wrong reasons. It all started the previous Saturday when we joined Lienette and a crowd of local businesspeople at the Sag Harbor Village Ladies Improvement Society's annual fund-raising ball. Next thing I knew, Larry made his move, preceding me like a bad reputation.

"You have this glow about you," he told Lienette as if it were just a matter of fact, extending his right hand and then introducing himself by my name.

"A lot of people notice it," Lienette returned, grasping his outstretched hand. "A lot of people want a part of that. That's why they come try yoga."

Larry barreled through that opening quicker than you can say Buddha, affecting the air of a high-rolling corporate executive and putting foot in mouth when he should have had tongue in cheek. "Just hurt myself real bad playing polo down in Palm Beach," he said, groaning and twisting his torso from side to side "Early in the season; horses were too fresh; like riding jackhammers."

Larry grabbed the bar rail, arching his back. "Brand-new Ferrari Modena stalled twice on the way back to the boat," he continued. "Canceled the sail to Lyford Cay, jumped right in the hot tub. Thank God, I had the corporate jet that weekend. Never would have made it flying commercial."

Lienette just kept glowing her glow and smiling a blissful smile, as though she could see right through to Larry's lying soul and it didn't faze her at all.

"Many people come to yoga because of injury," she said. "Then they discover it's not just physical. There are all these opportunities for emotional and spiritual healing. Suddenly, having come for an injury, they go on a journey of self-discovery."

Larry immediately signed us up for sessions at Lienette's studio, leaving me, as usual, to do the due diligence. I quickly discovered that there were about as many kinds of yoga as there are words in the Kama Sutra. Indeed, yoga had undergone an explosion of popularity over the last decade with an estimated 15 million people in the United States practicing traditional disciplines like astanga, Iyengar and vinyasa, and innumerable new-age variations.

Lienette taught Bikram yoga, also called "hot" yoga. It was invented in 1974 in Beverly Hills by Bikram Choudhury, a three-time national yoga champion from India. It consists of 26 poses performed in an indoor space heated to over 100 degrees, the equivalent of working out in a sauna. According to the Bikram Web site, the heat enhances the healing of chronic injuries by enabling you to "work deeper into your muscles, tendons and ligaments to change your body from the inside out."

Once disparaged as a Hollywood fad, Bikram yoga has attracted numerous celebrity followers over more than 30 years. But entertainment industry students like Shirley MacLaine, Raquel Welch and Quincy Jones have recently been joined by former world-class athletes like John McEnroe and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and by the conditioning coach of the Seattle Seahawks football team, who prescribed it not only for injured players but also for those seeking an edge in flexibility and endurance.

A former triathlete and professional sailor, Lienette had turned to hot yoga to heal a nagging hip ailment. Amazed by the overnight results, she went on to study with Bikram Choudhury for nine weeks in Beverly Hills to become certified as an instructor.

After consulting at various studios for four years, she moved to Sag Harbor to become the operating partner in Zebra Yoga. Her classes cost only $20, and they attract lawyers, bankers, real estate executives and entrepreneurs looking to relieve workday stress, as well as "weekend warriors" hoping to heal sports injuries.

"I'm a yogi, you're a yogi," Lienette said when Larry and I arrived. "If you're practicing the connection between mind and body, you're a yogi."

The only yogis I knew had the last names Bear and Berra, but I figured this might be my last legal hope for lasting pain relief. I had learned on a visit to a chiropractor that my borrowed polo pony had pounded my L-5 vertebra, sending my iliocostalis and quadratus muscles into spasms. After massaging me with electrical current, the chiropractor had adjusted — make that yanked — my back so violently, I felt as if I'd been hit by a truck.

It took me only one 90-minute session to realize that Bikram yoga was not for wimps, either. Lienette guided us through 55 minutes of standing poses with names like half moon, standing bow and awkward pose, which demanded that you do a knee bend perched on your toes. I stumbled and wobbled a lot more than I posed, straining muscles I never knew I had and feeling like a doddering fool. Larry's reflection kept smirking at me in the mirrors.

We then spent 35 minutes on the mats, twisting ourselves into human pretzels. I was supposedly striving for a "tourniquet effect" by compressing my organs into the postures, then releasing the postures to flush my organs with oxygenated blood. But my beleaguered system seemed to flush only sweat, tears and malodorous bile. "There are a lot of toxins coming up," Lienette allowed, "especially when you've been injured."

By the end of the session, I felt as if I'd been run over by another truck. I spent the rest of the evening in bed practicing savasana, the so-called dead body pose. Larry ran off to a local pub, purportedly to lubricate his system.

But when I awoke the next morning, I was stunned. My old yin had reconnected to my young yang. I rolled out of the sack without crippling back pain for the first time in over a week. Elated, I rushed over to Zebra Yoga for a second session.

Upon entering the studio, I saw Larry's reflection in the wall mirrors. I immediately disclaimed him and all his misbehavior. "You are whole and perfect just as you are," Lienette said. "Nothing should be stealing your peace."

Moments later, Lienette guided me into a half moon. I stole a glance at the wall mirrors — almost all of my back pain had miraculously disappeared and so had Larry's reflection.


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