“Lady Gaga listens to me,” he boasted to a Boston audience this summer. “Her mantra is only one word—Bikram—because Bikram makes her what she is today. It works.”
Good grief. A hot yoga war rages in the heat of the summer. No it’s not over whose pose is the best, but who poses the biggest threat to Bikram Choudhury‘s livelihood, which is pretty lively indeed at an estimated $7 million in annual earnings, multiple Rolls-Royces, a diet of Coca-Cola and his own Vedic vitamins and plenty of diamond-encrustedness, not to mention his habit of spewing offensive, yes-he-really-did-just-say-that quotes, also still very much alive.
We wrote about the hot mess last fall when news of Bikram going balls out and suing Greg Gumucio, founder of Yoga to the People, for $1 million hit the yogawebs. An article in NYC’s Village Voice takes a deeper look at the sticky situation and brings us up to date on the state of yoga finders-keepers and gilded gurus.
In short, Gumucio used to be Bikram’s student and a “good disciple” massaging his way to the inner circle in the mid-90s.
“I decided to massage the evil villain in my life,” [Gumucio] recalls, laughing. Bikram noticed his new masseur and was impressed.
“From that day forward, he was nice to me,” Gumucio says. “But I had to pay a different kind of, you know, penalty. Because then he made me massage him, like, every single day for, like, four hours a day. I would be dripping with sweat all over, just from working on this crazy man.”
As the two became bros, Gumucio’s yoga and entrepreneur interests grew as well. This displeased Bikram who cried betrayal, and so the two split.
In 2006, Gumucio defected and started his own chain of studios called Yoga to the People which borrowed, like a lot, from the 26 postures and steamy temps of Bikram Yoga. But unlike Bikram Yoga, YTTP touts their “no glorified teachers, scripts or pedestals” policy, and instead of charging upwards of $15-$25 YTTP charges a suggested $8, which for many broke NYU students and East Village residents means free…ish, and very tempting.
Gumucio made a killing, and it’s estimated that his four NYC studios now lure in about 1,000 yogis a day (he also has west coast studios, besides). Bikram, who initially let it all slide, is steaming about the competition, claiming YTTP “directly copied” his copyrighted body shapes and has sued Gumucio on grounds of stealing intellectual property. He’s also probably still pretty pissed about a Penn Station studio closing last year, which was blamed on nearby YTTP stealing clientele and prompted legal action.
As much money as there is at stake, many are seeing this as more of a moral issue.
“He’s not a businessman,” [LES Bikram studio owner and Lady Gaga teacher, Tricia Donegan] says of Bikram. “He’s a terrible businessman. He’s not copyrighting to make money. He just wants everyone to do his product the right way, because it is the right way.”
Mhm. The “right way” which may have been wrongly protected by the U.S. Copyright Office. A clarification on yoga copyrighting was released on June 22nd stating that “if yoga postures improve health, they cannot be copyrighted” and any prior yoga copyrights were “issued in error.” Woops. That would seem to clear up the issue, rendering the case moot, but not so fast. The government clarified their stance on copyrights (sorta) but they’re not willing to make any moves to reevaluate ones already issued. And Bikram has no plans of backing down, or withholding from comparing Greg Gumucio to Osama bin Laden or Hitler.
“I am going to go to trial to get him punishment, to make him an example, so no one will ever have the guts to do that same kind of shit,” says Bikram.
“If you have a sick body, a screw-loose brain, you will only be surviving—that will be a man like Greg, Hitler, or Osama bin Laden,” he says between bites of plump scallops.
But in the age, or recent enlightened era of guru disrobement, is this a money issue or a case of incredibly inflated egos and blind guruship? With the yoga industry estimated to reach $8.3 billion in sales by 2016 and the Bikram Yoga franchise still growing at a feverish pace, there’s not a big chance YTTP will suck that much out of the Yoga Don’s deep pockets to make a dent. But perhaps it’s not the money he’s worried about so much as the loyalty and breadth of his empire.
Bikram seems to inflate with energy as he addresses his followers. “You work hard to make me famous,” he says. “Something I did right all over the globe.”
Bikram laughs. “Nobody in the world ever did this,” he continues. “Nobody built a family like this.”
Some years back, hot yoga teachers rebelled against Bikram forming the Open Source Yoga Unity (OSYU) “to get out from under his brain,” as Gumucio put it, and who sought to teach the practice freely. In 2005 the group sued Bikram for his cease-and-desist demands, but lost the case on the grounds of copyright infringement. With all of that up in the air now, will students and teachers rise again? And will that happen before or after yoga makes it to the Olympics?
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