From an ancient spiritual tradition to a Lycra-clad fitness fad, yoga has been transformed beyond recognition since its large-scale arrival in North America some 30 years ago. And no one is altering the tradition more aggressively -- and controversially -- than Bikram Choudhury. The India-born, Los Angeles-based yoga teacher, who came to the US in 1970, has made himself into a gold-plated entrepreneur with a fleet of Rolls-Royces and a roster of celebrity students that includes Brooke Shields and Ricardo Montalban. But, as James Greenberg reports in Yoga Journal (Dec. 2003), Choudhury's most controversial move has been to claim copyright of his sequence of asanas (yoga poses) and to plan a business franchise with more than 700 Bikram Yoga studios worldwide.
Although several other prominent yoga teachers, including B. K. S. Iyengar, have copyrighted elements of their teachings, Choudhury is the first to copyright a sequence of asanas (he acknowledges that the poses themselves, coming from the Yoga Sutra of the second-century master Patanjali, are public domain). And he has been notably litigious and aggressive in defending his 'brand,' alienating many former students in the process. A lawsuit against two of them, Mark and Kim Morrison of Costa Mesa, California, claimed that they were offering unauthorized teacher training and selling bootleg videos. Yet Mark Morrison told Greenberg that Choudhury was more matter-of-fact about his motives in a telephone conversation, telling Morrison that 'we are suing you because you've been around a long time and you're an attorney, and if you submit to us, others will follow.' The Morrisons eventually boarded up their Bikram studio and paid an undisclosed amount in an out-of-court settlement.
Choudhury claims that the copyright is the only way he can ensure that his powerful teachings aren't distorted or corrupted. 'I created something from Patanjali's hatha yoga system, and it works,' Choudhury told Yoga Journal. 'I don't want anybody to mess with my system.' Other yoga teachers agree. Jivamukti Yoga Center cofounder David Life told Greenberg, 'If someone wants to open a John Doe Yoga Center, it's no problem, but if they want to open a Bikram center . . . then Bikram has to do something about that. He can't let people run rampant with his name or distort it in any way they feel like on a whim.'
Yet many argue that Choudhury's actions are contradictory to yoga philosophy and that he should take a kinder, gentler approach. Chuck Miller, a master Ashtanga teacher, spent a good deal of time in the late '80s attempting to stop other teachers from altering the Ashtanga method -- but eventually gave up. 'I found myself playing the role of a yoga policeman,' he told Greenberg, 'which mostly aggravated me and appropriately pushed people further into finding their own expression. I realized all I could do was my own practice and present what I know and what I learned from my teacher, and let the next generation of students make their own choices.'
It remains to be seen whether the Bikram Yoga franchise plan, still in development and said to be relatively inexpensive and moderate in its terms, will help keep one branch of yoga pure -- or turn it over to the lawyers.