Hot Yoga War: Two yogis battle over the fate of a tradition (and a very large pile of money)

Hot Yoga War: Two yogis battle over the fate of a tradition (and a very large pile of money)
Zuma Wire/Newscom
Famed yoga instructor Bikram Choudhury and his wife Rajashree Choudhury with some of the competitors at the 2010 International Yoga Asana Championships in Los Angeles. He is now suing his former student and right-hand man, Greg Gumucio, for copyright infringement.

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 of it all, 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 looks, 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 90 minutes in a climate-controlled environment of 105 degrees. It's the only correct way to practice yoga, Bikram insists. Everything else is "shit."

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 has 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. A total of nearly 1,000 students pass through Gumucio's four New York City studios each day.

Bikram originally turned a blind eye to Gumucio's hotter hot yoga until last September, when a Bikram studio in Manhattan was forced to close owing 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 he also 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, the entire field has been cheapened by the selling of a lesser product, the same way Chinese knockoffs damage the reputation of Louis Vuitton purses.

For Bikram, a man who believes he saves lives through his yoga, any alteration to his method devalues his product and defiles his legacy. He sees his life's work on grand terms, and having his business undermined by his former protégé 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 such as The Tonight Show and 60 Minutes. His message remained the same: Kill yourself for 90 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."

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
yogacatgirl
yogacatgirl

The whole point about yoga is, to remove your ego from yourself .I used to teach yoga and got fed up with the whole thing when I saw other yoga teachers letting  their egos get in the way of teaching. Yoga is over 5,000 years old and why does he think he can put a copyright on  yoga poses? 

It's not about making money either and I was always taught by my yoga teachers  to share my knowledge of yoga with others and I did with anyone who wanted to learn it. It sickens me when I see how greedy people are with teaching yoga I hope people who read about  Choudhury and his Birkram hot yoga think twice about giving him anymore of their money. He's into making large amounts of money for himself and his empire. This is NOT what yoga was EVER about!

AJLind
AJLind

I don't see how anyone can trademark or copyright BODY POSITIONS in a hot room.  That is simply idiotic. No offense, but Bikram seems greedy and gluttonous and hardly like any of the Indian yogis I have met in India where material things are inconsequential.  He actually comes across as a fraud.  P.S., I don't do yoga these days at all after getting plantar fascitis from it.

egolterman
egolterman topcommenter

Since you publish in St. Louis and for St. Louisans it might have been good to be aware that

John Golterman two decades ago was Bikram's point-man in the New York area-so to speak-establishing in Chelsea. His reputation,  skills and demeanor  'advanced' the movement. After 9-11

John took 'hot' joga to Williamsburg, Brooklyn just a few blocks up from the River.  Not to criticize a very thorough article. His overview of all of this might have been helpful.

Ghosts of WGNU
Ghosts of WGNU

Yes, this seems to be from the RFT's sister publication in Los Angeles. The common thread: Both are owned by Phoenix-based Village Voice Media (formerly NewTimes). It goes the other way as well; other VVM publications have picked up stories from the RFT. That's how it is when you own multiple publications in several cities. A quick check of VVM's web sites shows it's being picked up by most of VVM's publications this week.

The_gormans
The_gormans

Didn't I read this exact article in the LA weekly in February??? Who is Rebecca Moss? She is not listed on your masthead as a contributing reporter? Are you recycling articles from other publications???

Mohd. Cohen
Mohd. Cohen

As a copyright and trade mark attorney for more than 25 years I have carefully studied the legalities of Bikram Yoga and did a thorough research of its copyright validity. I am 100% sure that Bikram would prevail based on two major components of copyright law. One, he has a very strict sequence of yoga postures and two breathing exercises., two, each posture of Bikram yoga has a very strictly worded composition of script that must be narrated at each class by the teaching yogi teacher. I am positive that Bikram couldn't fail less a great majority of musical, playrights, and several types of physical exercises, become invalid if Bikram's copyright is reversed.

Goku_Mizuno
Goku_Mizuno

It could be that Mr. Gumucio is just teaching a generalized style of yoga, and not Bikram yoga itself. It is the onus of Mr. Choudhury to prove that his copyright is being infringed on; he cannot claim to have invented yoga, and thus, only his yoga can be taught.  There are dozens, if not hundreds of different styles of yoga, and YttP may be different from Bikram.

 
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