Yoga’s back in court again! In 2003, Bikram Choudhury obtained a copyright for the sequence of poses he developed for his namesake practice, Bikram Yoga. Since then, he hasn’t hesitated to sue those who violate that copyright. Now, in a new turn of events, his copyright is being deemed illegal.
Choudhury recently sued Yoga to the People, a donation-based hot yoga studio in New York City that was founded by a former Bikram student, along with two other studios, accusing them of teaching Bikram Yoga without permission to do so. But the studio owners say that you can’t copyright yoga—an argument many yoga teachers and practitioners have been posing for the last decade in retaliation to Choudhury’s lawsuits. Now the United States Copyright Office, which once allowed Choudhury to copyright his practice, is saying that actually it’s not legal to copyright yoga or other exercises.
Though so much of Bikram’s trip seems to be ego-driven—as evidenced by his frequent public statements about his genius and his collection of flashy sports cars—the battle brings up some questions that are worth looking at. Should yoga be protected under copyright law?
On the one hand, this idea that a sequence of poses belongs to the person who developed it screams of attachment in a practice that teaches us to let go. The main lesson in the Bhagavad Gita—one of yoga’s most essential texts—is to do your work and offer the fruits of it up to a higher power. The lesson is not to do your work and offer the fruits of it up to your bank account (and the select few who pass muster or, moreover, pay you for it). On the other hand, it takes years for master yogis to develop traditions, and I can understand why a teacher wouldn’t want elements from his or her tradition—or the name of the tradition, itself—thrown around in a hap-hazard way.
Choudhury is not the only one who has claimed ownership to a yoga tradition. Among others, John Friend’s Anusara and Rod Stryker’s ParaYoga are trademarked. Unlike Choudhury, these teachers haven’t drawn much criticism (though their not running around suing people). It is interesting to note that the most influential yoga teachers to date in this country—Iyengar, who developed Iyengar yoga (which led to all of the alignment-based systems) and Patthabi Jois who created Ashtanga (which led to all of the vinyasa-based systems)—never copyrighted their practices. And their teacher, Krishnamacharya, could have sued most of the teachers in the country according to this logic, but branding just didn’t seem to be a main concern of his.
What do you think? Should yoga sequences and traditions be trademarked or copyrighted? Can this help protect teachers and their well-crafted lineages from being ill-used? Or is it more about ego and attachment? Write in and tell us what you think.
Trademark protects a brand or image, so if Bikram trademarked Bikram Yoga, no one else could call what they teach Bikram Yoga without his permission (which would, I suspect, involve paying him a lot of money). I’m okay with that–he’s got a hot-yoga branding thing going on, he’s got a bunch of people teaching in his style and he doesn’t want others diluting his brand and riding his coattails. Perhaps not particularly yogic, but also not particularly offensive to me.
Copyright protects the content of creative works. I have always maintained that Bikram is an exercise regimen that happens to use yoga poses since, in my experience, all of the other elements of yoga are missing. To say that he could copyright what he teaches is akin to saying that Jane Fonda owns aerobics and no one else can teach them without her permission. He didn’t invent the poses and although he put 24 of them in a particular sequence in an overheated room, to say that no one else can do the same is stupid. The metaphor would be writing: most of us don’t invent the words we use, but we can gain protection for our written words under copyright law if we put the words in an original form. The really creative content in Bikram yoga–the poses themselves– have been around for thousands of years. And while I’m startled that he ever received copyright protection I’m not surprise the USPTO has reversed itself.
Nicely put, Lisa.
I’ve owned a hot yoga studio together with my husband for the past nine years. It opened its doors in 2002 as a Bikram’s Yoga College of India affiliate and we operated under the Bikram Yoga brand for the first seven years, until “creative differences” led to our formal disaffiliation from the Bikram organization in 2009.
We have trademarked our new business name, as it represents our vision, but have no intention of seeking any kind of intellectual property protection for the content or structure of our yoga classes. We openly and happily acknowledge Bikram for his catalytic role in yoga becoming our career path, and for what we have learned from him over the years. Perhaps that’s why our studio has never been “targeted,” i.e., sued, by Bikram for any kind of copyright infringement.
In yoga, as in nearly every other human endeavor, we all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. Personally, I feel that in many circumstances, an attitude of gratitude, along with proper attribution, may obviate the need for a bunch of lawyers and messy litigation.
a ygoa sequence made up yesterday isnt a tradition.
True, technically speaking, it’s not. How long, I wonder, does something have to be practiced to be considered a tradition?
I can simply use combinatorics to create all possible sequences of traditional yoga asanas and then copyright them all. Of course, that should not be possible.
I think the previous commenters reflect my sense as well. Trademark the name Bikram. That seems reasonable. But true, deep, intellectual property/capital of yoga, as in the poses? No. I am relieved that the trademarking of yoga poses has been deemed illegal. The government of India is taking steps to see that its indigenous knowledge — yoga and Ayurvedic medicines — are open sourced so that no one can trademark them and corner the market.