The hot yoga war: How a Colorado billionaire helped fuel a scorching legal fight

In a large Chinese banquet hall in Boston hung with open-mouthed dragons and bulbous red lanterns, the hot yogis have taken over. Seventy Bikram yoga teachers are sprawled between the tables. At the helm, clad in a black silk suit, a rhinestone tie and a diamond-encrusted Rolex, is one of the world's most famous yoga instructors: Bikram Choudhury.

The small, svelte man from Calcutta runs his hands anxiously through thin, wiry hair that falls from a mostly bare crown past his shoulders. Despite his diminutive stature, his presence clearly commands the room. Heads flick in his direction from other tables, eager for proximity to — and attention from — the man they consider to be their personal guru.

Everyone here practices the Bikram method of yoga, a series of 26 postures and two breathing sequences performed for ninety minutes in a climate-controlled environment of 105 degrees. It's the only correct way to practice yoga, Bikram insists. Everything else is "shit."

New York Bikram studio owner Tricia Donegan claims Choudhury is "not copyrighting to make money. He just wants everyone to do his product the right way, because it is the right way."
courtesy of Bikram Choudhury
New York Bikram studio owner Tricia Donegan claims Choudhury is "not copyrighting to make money. He just wants everyone to do his product the right way, because it is the right way."
Greg Gumucio's Yoga to the People studios pose a financial threat to Choudhury's: "The price point is lower, so we get a bigger volume."
Kevin P. Casey
Greg Gumucio's Yoga to the People studios pose a financial threat to Choudhury's: "The price point is lower, so we get a bigger volume."

I have been granted the seat of honor beside him. While everyone else is discussing yoga, we are talking about one of the ugliest lawsuits to occur in this otherwise tranquil world.

"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, a man so synonymous with yoga that people are often surprised to learn he is still living, and not just a mythical icon.

In September, he sued Greg Gumucio, his former student and right-hand man, for copyright infringement. Gumucio once occupied the chair where I now sit. But for the past several years, he's distanced himself from his former mentor, starting his own chain of competing studios, Yoga to the People (YTTP).

Since 2006, Gumucio has been growing a strong business on the coasts. He charges only $8 for a single class, while a standard Bikram class costs between $15 and $25. The result has been a billowing client roster. Nearly 1,000 students pass through Gumucio's four New York City studios each day.

Bikram turned a blind eye to Gumucio's hotter hot yoga until last September, when a Bikram studio in Manhattan was forced to close due to competition from two YTTP studios thriving nearby. That's when Bikram decided to sue Gumucio for copyright and trademark infringement, unfair business practices and breach of contract.

Though yoga is a centuries-old tradition, Bikram had copyrighted his particular version under the same protections afforded choreographers. And he had used it to bat down competitors from practicing it without paying franchise fees.

But Gumucio proved the greatest threat to his multimillion-dollar empire.

Bikram's lawsuit asserts that Gumucio not only stole his intellectual property, but jeopardized the success of other Bikram studios. When placed head to head, his studios struggle to compete with Gumucio's discount pricing and populist practices. And since YTTP teachers are trained by Gumucio, Bikram contends that the entire field has been cheapened by the selling of a lesser product, the same way Chinese knock-offs damage the reputation of Louis Vuitton purses.

For Bikram, a man who believes he saves lives through his yoga, any alteration to his method not only devalues his product, but defiles his legacy. He sees his life's work on grand terms, and having his business undermined by his former protegé isn't just a legal battle; it's a moral one.

"I always forgave my students, like Jesus," he says. "But I reached a point where I have to protect my regular legal schools."

The Making of an Empire

Bikram moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s. His first book, published in 1978, preached that his hot yoga sessions could heal everything from knee injuries to obesity and arthritis. Through the years, he appeared on programs like The Tonight Show and 60 Minutes. His message remained the same: Kill yourself for ninety minutes a day and he would single-handedly transform your life.

In health-crazed Hollywood, this small man from Calcutta seemed to have the key to the fountain of youth. Over the next four decades, his clients would include three presidents — Nixon, Reagan and Clinton — in addition to George Harrison, Charlie Sheen, Prince Harry and Jennifer Aniston.

"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."

Today, his success has earned him celebrity and the wealth to match. He lives in the Hollywood Hills with his collection of Rolls-Royces, earning an estimated $7 million annually.

"I kind of run this city," he says. "They depend on me."

It wasn't until 1994, however, that he began training new teachers en masse in his fabled method. At that point, there were only four Bikram studios in the world, all in the United States, and Bikram was still training teachers one-on-one, the traditional method in India.

But as part of his new approach, he began schooling larger and larger numbers of people at a time, eventually working his way up to 400 people in one session. The courses weren't cheap — today they run $10,900 per student. He was training so many students that, eight years later, he decided to copyright his method. If someone wanted to teach his style of hot yoga, he or she had to sign a franchise agreement — with the requisite fees kicked back to Bikram.

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7 comments
kantorr
kantorr

Bikram drives rolls-royce, wears rollex lol...this guy is suing people because they want to help others for a few less bucks then he does...wow what a scumbag.  Yoga should never be about money...i dont even know where to start with this...all that really matters is that this guys is a money hungry entrepreneur and in it for himself so he can continue his lifestyle of luxury, he doesnt care about anyone's well being besides his own clearly.  As someone who has been practicing yoga for self-healing this makes me sick.  Hope this guy looses this case and people still have the choice to practice where and how they wish.

patricia.calhoun
patricia.calhoun moderator topcommentereditor

sorry about the disappearing comments. we switched commenting systems yesterday; they should reappear soon.

patricia.calhoun
patricia.calhoun moderator topcommentereditor

I'd like to use some of these comments in our print edition, ideally with your full name. Let me know if that's okay at patricia.calhoun@westword.com

Tangible666
Tangible666

What happened to all of the comments that were up here?

Yachna
Yachna

If you read any of the ancient yoga texts, it says Yoga should be practiced in the early cool hours and not in the sun as practicing yoga increases the internal heat of the body. This is a prime example of commercialization of an ancient old practice for one's own financial gain. This Bikram guy is in it for the money. He is not a true yogi

Yachna
Yachna

If you read any of the ancient yoga texts, it says Yoga should be practiced in the early cool hours and not in the sun as practicing yoga increases the internal heat of the body. This is a prime example of commercialization of an ancient old practice for one's own financial gain. This Bikram guy is in it for the money. He is not a true yogi.

davis Heiskell
davis Heiskell

In a large Chinese banquet hall in Boston hung with open-mouthed dragons and bulbous red lanterns, the hot yogis have taken over. Seventy yoga teachers are sprawled between the tables. Property Preservation Services

 
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