Lawsuit Pits Bikram Choudhury and Yoga to the People

Thursday’s 11:30 a.m. session at the Bikram Yoga NYC studio in the Flatiron District began as usual: a handful of half-dressed students slowly flapped their elbows as they decelerated their breath and stared at themselves in the mirror. After paying as much as $25 each, they began their mindful workouts in the 105-degree “Torture Chamber,” while outside on Fifth Avenue, pedestrians scurried past in coats.

Meredith Hoffman reports on The New York Times’ City Room blog

A few blocks away, on West 27th Street, about 30 pupils soon began the same breathing exercises, dripping with sweat in the 103-degree heat. But this class, labeled “Traditional Hot Yoga” and offered by the growing studio chain Yoga to the People, cost just $8.

“Yoga should be for everyone,” Matt Hillock, a blissed-out, wrung-out student, said after the lower-priced class.

But Bikram Choudhury, the millionaire founder of Bikram Yoga, believes his kind of yoga belongs to him — he has even copyrighted it. Now, he has sued Yoga to the People for copyright infringement, seeking monetary damages and asking a federal judge to block Yoga to the People from offering its hot yoga class.

“We sent an investigator to take the classes,” Robert Gilchrest, Mr. Choudhury’s lawyer, said on Thursday. “The classes were virtually mirror images and the dialogue was consistently the same.”

Despite yoga’s long history, Mr. Gilchrest said that Mr. Choudhury had the right to claim his own 26-posture sequence and the instructor’s dialogue.

“Words have been in existence since women and men started speaking, but you can copyright a sequence of words,” Mr. Gilchrest said.

The founder of the Yoga to the People studios, Greg Gumucio, began as Mr. Choudhury’s student. He said the guru enlightened him by saying, “You are your own teacher. You are responsible for your own experience.”

That led Mr. Gumucio to the realization that high-profile (and expensive) instructors were not necessary for successful yoga study. [...]

Mr. Choudhury’s suit, filed in California, where Bikram is based, has a different philosophy — that he is responsible for students’ success. Aspiring Bikram teachers must take his formal nine-week, $7,000 course. Once certified, instructors must obtain his permission to open studios.

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