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Yet while philosophy remains the outer crust of the dispute between Bikram and Gumucio, at heart it's a battle over money. Lot and lots of money. The industry is growing so fast that it's expected to reach $8.3 billion in sales by 2016.

With that much at stake, it was only a matter of time until the lawyers showed up.

The Yoga Code

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."

Practitioners describe hot yoga as if it were as powerful — and addictive — as any drug. First-timers enter a studio with empty stomachs (if they are smart), but nothing prepares them for the wave of 105-degree heat that refuses to subside.

Anxiety begins to gather in their chests well before the first water break at the twenty-minute mark. By the sixth of 26 poses — as they try to balance on one leg while pulling the other leg into a standing split — black spots start to pop before their eyes. At the end of the class, students are left flat on their backs catching their breath, hair matted and clothes soaked.

Outsiders might consider it torture only a fool would choose to endure. But for true believers, something euphoric is delivered: They feel amazing.

Yet the Bikram-Gumucio feud has caused a nationwide divide, slicing the country's yoga practitioners into two schools of thought. Much like warring religious sects, they practice nearly the exact same form of yoga but speak slightly different dialects. In the end, it's not a battle over questions great and eternal, but over the interests of two charismatic leaders whose followers are forced to choose sides.

For many Bikram students, there is a sense of profound respect and admiration for their yogi. And they invoke the yoga code: the belief that followers must respect the lineage and leader of the specific style of yoga they practice. Without properly trained teachers, students won't get the proper benefits. And if the Bikram method is allowed to be diluted, a great tradition will be lost.

"I just know I wouldn't be able to do that," Tricia Donegan says of Gumucio's discount studios. She owns a Bikram studio in New York and is best known as Lady Gaga's instructor.

"I wouldn't be able to pay the teacher the standard I want, pay for the heat system, the amenities, the shower, the space, the rent — keeping it the way it should be so the studio is not completely packed and crowded.... If he makes it more affordable to people who can't afford it, I am all for that. If it starts to bring down the value of a yoga studio, then I think it becomes a problem."

To Donegan, this isn't a fight over money or market supremacy. It's a moral fray, a clear contest between right and wrong.

"He's not a businessman," she 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."

This is the legacy Bikram hoped to protect by suing Gumucio. But as he has brought his foe's business practices into the limelight, his own are being scrutinized more than ever. For the past nine months, the validity of Bikram's copyright has been called into question repeatedly, most recently by the U.S. Copyright Office itself.

While the various yoga practices belong to the long tradition of Indian culture, the specific arrangement of these poses can be uniquely organized, and thus potentially owned by an individual — or so it was previously thought.

On June 22, the Copyright Office seemed to reverse itself. Deputy General Counsel Robert Kasunic issued a clarification, declaring that if yoga postures improve health, they cannot be copyrighted. He added that any prior yoga copyrights were "issued in error."

The announcement threw the dispute into the air. Now the question isn't just whether Gumucio violated a copyright, but whether Bikram's copyright is valid at all.

This would appear to leave Bikram on thin ice. The healing of ailments has always been his primary selling point. Or at least that's how Gumucio sees it.

"Not only does this get me out of my legal mess, but it critically and unequivocally says yoga cannot be copyrighted," he says.

Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple. Nothing to do with the federal government ever is.

While Kasunic admits that Bikram's copyright was likely issued in error and that no new copyrights will be issued to yoga, he also says his office has no plans to re-evaluate the ones already issued.

In other words, his is a quintessential government mea culpa: Yes, we probably messed up. But you don't expect us to actually do anything about it, do you?

Instead, Bikram and Gumucio will have to wait for a judge to settle their war when the case goes to trial in Los Angeles sometime next year.

It's Still Good to Be King

To most of the country, the yoga war may be nothing more than another mercantile fight between two titans wrestling over the spoils of their industry. Yet back at the banquet hall in Boston, Bikram frames Gumucio as a villain on par with the all-time greats.

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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 editortopcommenter

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

patricia.calhoun
patricia.calhoun moderator editortopcommenter

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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