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Lawsuits, Copyrights and Yoga: A Letter from Greg Gumucio on His Case vs. Bikram

in Business of Yoga, YD News

Bikram copyright lawsuits are the gift that keep on giving. As we learned last week, the year-round Santa of Sweat, Bikram Choudhury, was more or less triumphant over defender and former Bikram consort Greg Gumucio who, according to the settlement, will no longer offer a somewhat copycat class of 26 poses in a heated room at his Yoga To The People studios come February 2013. Faced with being sued by Bikram threatened to be “incredibly expensive as well as mentally and emotionally exhaustive,” but Gumucio fought on, mainly on the principle that a yoga sequence can’t be copyrighted (which the U.S. Copyright Office actually confirmed themselves in June). But don’t call Gumucio a hero. Don’t call him a victim or a martyr. Just call him a smart guy getting the hell out of bedlam.

In his letter (to the people, as it were) posted on the YTTP website, Gumucio lays out his reasons for pursuing justice and eventually coming to the conclusion that, screw it, it’s just not worth his trouble, and his path to arriving at an enlightened higher road/”Kumbaya”/yoga for all disposition.

Understanding that the legal endeavor was going to be incredibly expensive as well as mentally and emotionally exhaustive, I still felt compelled to fight. My primary objective wasn’t that Yoga to the People would be free to teach a particular sequence. My wholehearted objection was to the concept of copyrighting yoga sequences, which I felt had to be prevented. Yoga is meant to be accessible to the masses as much as the air we breathe, the water we drink. I felt the scope of this issue reached far beyond Bikram Yoga and Yoga to the People. This, in my eyes, was a fight for the future freedom of yoga for all.

He references his brand’s oft-shared manifesto, as well as a new book called Hell-Bent  by Benjamin Lorr (the rest of the title goes - Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga so you can guess what that’s about.)

Reading it forced me to consider deeply why I continue to maintain an association with Bikram the man and Bikram the December 3, 2012 yoga sequence—even if from a distance. There is so much good yoga to be explored, played with, and created!

See? No hard feelings. In fact, even though Gumucio has to stop teaching the Bikram-style classes he actually feels he, or perhaps yoga in general, is the victor.

Intuitively, I no longer felt the need to be entangled in the Bikram battle. I feel complete in the job I set for myself which was to free yoga from the destructive threat of copyright custody and ownership. What becomes of the 26-posture sequence commonly known as Bikram Yoga, and Bikram’s uninformed copyright claim to it, is now in the hands of the studio owners and teachers who practice it. I have decided it’s time for a new journey and a continuation of YTTP’s commitment to make yoga accessible to everyone.

Here’s the full letter:

December 3, 2012
Dear Yoga to the People Students and Teachers,

On behalf of Yoga to the People, I am pleased to announce a settlement has been reached with Bikram Choudhury, Rajashree Choudhury, and Bikram’s Yoga College of India after they sued us for, most specifically, copyright infringement. While the case did not run its full course, we feel victorious in that the US Copyright Office issued their first official position on yoga, submitted into the record of the US Library of Congress on June 22, 2012, which states that yoga compilations and sequences are not copyrightable. In regards to copyrights issued prior, it further clarifies, “In retrospect, and in light of the Office’s closer analysis of legislative intent, the Copyright Office finds that such registrations were issued in error.” https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2012/06/22/2012-15235/registration-of-claimsto-copyright#p-3

Their statement detailed that the Copyright Office will not revisit all of their past errors— they will be handled in the courts. However, their guidance was clear, citing Bikram Yoga, “Choudhury claims that he arranged the asanas in a manner that was both aesthetically pleasing and in a way that he believes is best designed to improve the practitioner’s health. While such a functional system or process may be aesthetically appealing, it is nevertheless uncopyrightable subject matter.” This ruling is huge for the yoga community at large, and is in line with YTTP’s mission statement that asserts,
“…This yoga is for everyone…This power is for everyone.” And we are now fully confident that the sacred and traditional knowledge explored through yoga remains in the public domain, truly accessible to everyone.

Bikram’s suit with us began just over a year ago when he claimed, and continues to claim, that he owns a particular sequence of poses described in his book and taught at many yoga studios bearing his name—analogous to an author who writes a cookbook, claiming that no one has the right to make a dish using the sequence of ingredients described in a recipe. I find the idea of anyone claiming ownership of yoga asanas, or sequences, counterintuitive to the essence of yoga. I believe that this sacred and traditional knowledge is a gift to all mankind, and thus beyond claims of ownership and copyright.

Understanding that the legal endeavor was going to be incredibly expensive as well as mentally and emotionally exhaustive, I still felt compelled to fight. My primary objective wasn’t that Yoga to the People would be free to teach a particular sequence. My wholehearted objection was to the concept of copyrighting yoga sequences, which I felt had to be prevented. Yoga is meant to be accessible to the masses as much as the air we breathe, the water we drink. I felt the scope of this issue reached far beyond Bikram Yoga and Yoga to the People. This, in my eyes, was a fight for the future freedom of yoga for all.

Throughout this litigation I have received a tremendous amount of commentary—much of it supportive and some of it accusatory. Often, those voices of support had an angry “lets destroy” kind of attitude. And the accusatory opinions painted me as a villain trying to steal something that belonged to another simply to make a buck. Both of those December 3, 2012 assessments and judgments are off point; the reality is I have been very conflicted during this entire period of lawsuits and litigation. I struggled with and didn’t take any joy in being at odds with Bikram. My first experience with yoga came with Bikram. He was my initial influence and primary teacher. Regardless of his personal feelings for me, I still have an incredible amount of gratitude in my heart for the impact that the crossing of our two paths has had on my life. There was a time when I considered him not just my teacher but also a dear friend. He shared yoga with me, we broke bread in each other’s homes, and he opened his family to me. However, there are times when we can disagree with those we respect, love, or feel indebted to—that is the case here.

Now that the lawsuit is settled, I want to be crystal clear about how and why we made the decision to resolve the legal matter and our commitment and enthusiasm moving forward. After a year of lawyers and fighting and deposing, I started to feel very dirty, tired, and ultimately enlightened. Unless you have been in a significant lawsuit that burns at the center of your heart, you have no idea how deeply you become consumed by it. I didn’t like the way I had to think, strategize, and behave in order to protect myself, YTTP, and what I believed in from the onslaught of litigation. In the end, there were three major factors that contributed to my decision in agreeing to settle the dispute.

The biggest turning point in the case for YTTP and myself came about when the U.S. Copyright Office issued their first official position on yoga. As aforementioned, for me, this was an important victory. What this victory lacked, however, was closure to the case. While the U.S. Copyright Office’s statement provides more than substantial doubt that Bikram’s copyright, “issued in error,” will be upheld in court, it doesn’t automatically win or dismiss the case. Court proceedings are necessary, and are standard procedure, to judicially determine and declare that the copyright is invalid.

And as the case continued, a second and most surprising dynamic arose, influencing my decision to settle. My reference to Rajashree that follows is difficult to share. This is personal, but to leave out one of the major factors of my decision-making wouldn’t be authentic. It had a profound impact on my choice to settle the case. I had always thought (maybe even counted on) that Rajashree would one day lead the Bikram community to a renewed place of honor, respect, and understanding. However, during her deposition, I was blindsided by the realization that she had no intention of rising to this occasion for her community. During the course of the 7-hour deposition, it became abundantly clear that the Choudhuryʼs are entirely united in the determination to own the sequence or postures known as Bikram Yoga. This saddened me on a personal level that’s not easily expressed. It played the “tipping point” for me internally in realizing that it was time for me to step away, to let go completely, in order to create distance from the past and emerge newly from this lawsuit.

Reading the book Hell Bent by Benjamin Lorr, served as the third major influence to my thought process in regards to how to proceed with the suit. Benjamin wrote a balanced book that was thought provoking and insightful. Reading it forced me to consider deeply why I continue to maintain an association with Bikram the man and Bikram the December 3, 2012 yoga sequence—even if from a distance. There is so much good yoga to be explored, played with, and created! Why have a connection with someone with whom I disagree with on so many levels? Others have faced a similar conflict. Tony Sanchez has always been considered Bikram’s foremost student, and he was confronted with a situation years ago when he refused to compromise his morals or his integrity and choose to leave Bikram. He has created a beautiful system of yoga, the essence of which is grounded in dedication, listening, and unassuming mastery. I have a remarkable amount of respect for what he and his wife, Sandy, have created for themselves and others. In many ways they humble me. http://tonysanchezyoga.com. Even more recently, Jimmy Barkin was at a similar crossroads and walked away. He too has been successful in sharing, teaching, and exploring yoga apart from Bikram. http://barkanmethod.com.

Intuitively, I no longer felt the need to be entangled in the Bikram battle. I feel complete in the job I set for myself which was to free yoga from the destructive threat of copyright custody and ownership. What becomes of the 26-posture sequence commonly known as Bikram Yoga, and Bikram’s uninformed copyright claim to it, is now in the hands of the studio owners and teachers who practice it. I have decided it’s time for a new journey and a continuation of YTTP’s commitment to make yoga accessible to everyone. My teachers agree; I talked at length with about 30 teachers at a recent company retreat in the mountains and shared with them as I am now sharing with you.

They wholeheartedly understood the circumstances and gave their support for letting go. We have been excited and energized ever since! We celebrated with the grand opening of Yoga to the People II in New York City this past weekend. And we look forward to our new donation-based Vinyasa studio opening in Phoenix in the first of the year. Thank you for all of your support ~ All Bodies Rise!

As for the Hell-Bent author Ben, we asked him to share his thoughts on the outcome:

A proud day for Hell-Bent and the six-hundred-and-sixty-six ring circus it covers! This really does seem like a victory for common sense: the oft untaken high road in yogic disputes, aka a wise decision not to participate as Bikram Choudhury indulges his own worst tendencies.

Further reading:

Feeling the Heat, Yoga Chain Bows to Bikram, Despite Federal Ruling - New York Times

The Hot Yoga War’s Messy End: Why Yoga to the People Won’t Be Teaching Bikram Yoga Anymore - Village Voice

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Earlier

12 comments… add one

  • Adan

    As a yoga teacher and an intellectual property attorney, I don’t understand why YTTP didn’t just change the sequence in the first place. Even if Bikram shouldn’t have a copyright, it is not worth the expense and heartache (and court violence) that goes with fighting a lawsuit.

    Sure, you’d be giving up on the principle that you can’t copyright sequences, but so what? Just because Gershwin copyrighted a few melodies, it didn’t stop a whole lot of music to spring forth since. The same would have happened here…

    Let Bikram have his sequence and his millions of dollars. If he feels that’s his path to ananda, so be it. It is not for me to judge. But I certainly will avoid getting close to his one-size-fits-all sequence…

  • Dan

    Gershwin didn’t and couldn’t copyright the underlying harmony, which is the important thing. It’s not permitted to copyright chord sequences. Thus we have hundreds of tunes based off the harmony to “I Got Rhythm” but only one melody called “I Got Rhythm.”

    Likewise, I don’t think a sequence of yoga postures should be copyrighted either.

  • Adan

    Dan, yes, Gershwin couldn’t copyright a chord sequence, but he could and did copyright the melody and the harmony (counter-melody). Both the melody and harmony are sequences of notes.

    Think of asanas as musical notes. The Bikram sequence is a sequence of asanas/musical notes that can thus be copyrighted in the same manner that dance choreographies can be copyrighted.

    Of course this analysis is from a legal perspective. Whether they should be copyrighted from an ethical perspective is another question…

  • Annie

    Bikram doesn’t make “millions of dollars” from “his” sequence. I don’t know how much money he has, no one does, only that he says it’s a lot. He says lots of stuff.
    Bikram doesn’t make a penny, not one red cent, on any of the affiliated studios. They are completely independent. He gives only his consent that they exist according to his wishes, that they teach the 26 and 2 exactly as the dialog proscribes, that they have showers and carpeting and fluorescent lighting in the studios, and so on. He tried to get a franchise going but it was poorly executed and in the end, a failure.
    He makes money at teacher trainings, twice a year 300 – 400 students per session, at $5000 – 10000 per student. He also owns some studios himself, including his HQ studio in LA. He says people give him money because they love him so much. I know nothing about that. Most of the things believe about Bikram are things he made up or embellished. He’s from a region in India where, culturally, it’s considered normal and perfectly socially acceptable to tell stories with a little “flair” so what he says must be taken with a grain of salt.
    As for why fight? Adan, I think you have a solid place to stand when you say you feel most at peace when you just let him have his tantrum while you carry on with your own journey. I take one of many other possible perspectives in that I do think it’s beneficial to all of us to create an understanding that yoga is a universal gift and therefor can not be owned. Note that Bikram doesn’t “control” the postures or the sequence, he can’t. They exist in the universal consciousness so they are forever a thing in the world and cant be taken away from someone who has learned them. That means they are mine. Because I have them. As they are his. Because he taught me them. They are yours because you’re talking about them.
    I donated money to Gumucio when he had his page up taking donations. If every yogi in the country had given $10 – the average cost of a single class – we could have freed the yoga from the “law of the land” and returned it to natural law, which is that yoga is an idea and you can’t control or imprison an idea once it has been shared with one person, it is free, it belongs to us all.

  • Raj

    Annie,

    2013 rates for teacher training is $11,400 (or $15,500 if you want to have your own room). Lets say for arguments sake that 3oo people per session (low estimate based on your numbers) are paying an average of $13,500. If you then multiply that by two sessions (600 people total), that amounts to $8070000.00 That’s 8 million dollars revenue. Per year.

    Then consider all the hundreds of Bikram studios that sell his books and DVDs (and only his) for which he receives royalties, as does every Barnes and Noble in America (not to mention the world), as do the two largest retailers on the internets, Ebay and Amazon. Those royalties likely add many millions more to his revenue. Every Year.

    Alas, I’m sure Bikram would be delighted to hear so many people besides his accountants counting his money, because that is truly what he is about, which is fine, here in America. But his ethics are extremely questionable, and no amount of money can buy virtue. Success without ethics does not a yogi make.

  • Adan

    Add to the calculation that Bikram believes that the teacher training should be repeated every 2-3 years (unlike most other yoga teacher training programs) and you can see Bikram’s income stream being nice and steady…

  • Stewart J. Lawrence

    Bottom line: don’t try to steal from people more enlightened and creative than you that gifted you in the first place. Or they will likely rip you the new asshole you deserve.

    If that’s as far as your yogic imagination runs, get into another line of work. Accounting? Sex toys?

    Hail Bikram!

  • Yoga Guy

    Bikram, Shmikram. Dickram. A copyrighted 26-posture sequence? HA!… serious cameldung (I tried it several times; wasn’t for me, but that’s okay…, whatever floats your boat, and to each ‘is own yoga style).
    But how this “enlightened” Bikram person was granted (?) a copyright to 26 yoga postures hundreds of years old (conducted in a specific sequence in a ridiculously hot environment) is beyond comprehension—only in the United Snakes of America, I s’pose.

    #disgusted

  • adan

    Yoga guy, the asanas are old but the routine is not. Think of the asanas as musical notes. It would be like copywriting a melody everyone though the notes are hundreds of years old.

  • Arlet Koseian

    oh dear god! thank you– this is over!
    @Annie- you are wrong about Bikram not making money on affiliate studios. You must pay a heafty franchise fee to Bikram, as well as royalty fees every month based on how much your studio makes. http://extendyoga.com

  • Adan

    @Arlet, this skirmish may be over, but this copyright issue is not. This is the second lawsuit that Bikram has effectively won. While there was no trial in either case (Open Source Yoga was the first one), in both cases the parties agreed that the copyright was valid and enforceable. Regardless of the advisory opinion of the Copyright Office, Bikram’s sequence is still copyrighted. So he can still bring other lawsuits against other people…

  • Raj

    In Bikram’s classes there is no mention of Prana or Pranayama, no practice of Mudras or Mantras or Meditation, and certainly no homage given to Divine or Earth or Mother. A person could contort their body for 90 minutes in a hot room for dozens of years and never once have a spiritual thought much less Samadhi.

    Mr. Choudhury might have riches beyond measure in his bank accounts, but given his penchant for lawsuits and given that Karma probably exists, there might very well come a day when he will be sued for calling his calisthenics ‘YOGA.’ In truth, his fortune is literally built on sweat and sex appeal. Which is totally legit (in America at least) so that’s not a criticism just an observation.

    Bikram if you ever read this please know that I love you for inadvertently introducing me to the IDEA of Yoga, which I eventually started practicing in other studios once I got bored with going to the studios with your name on and above the door, and inside on every surface. Bikram, Bikram Bikram! Are you Bikram or is that just your name? :)

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