For millions around the world yoga is a source of relaxation and spiritual sustenance. Not so for the Indian Government, which has worked itself into a furious twist over efforts by American entrepreneurs — including an Indian-born celebrity “yogi” — to patent the ancient practice.
Indian officials announced yesterday that they would lodge official complaints with US authorities over hundreds of yoga-related patents, copyrights and trademarks that have been issued in recent years.
The Health Ministry said that it would take up the matter directly with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, while the Commerce Ministry said that it would write to the US Trade Representative.
“How can you patent yoga — something that has been in the public domain for thousands of years?” said Verghese Samuel, joint secretary of the Ministry of Health department for yoga and other traditional practices. “It’s a ridiculous decision,” he told The Times. “We’ll have to challenge it. We’ve already started the process.”
The dispute has exposed the differing attitudes towards yoga — and intellectual property rights over “traditional knowledge” — in India and the US.
In India, where yoga has been practised for 6,000 years, it is regarded as a Hindu exercise, involving philosophy as well as fitness, and beyond the control of government or private enterprise. In the United States, where yoga first became popular in the 1970s, it has been largely stripped of its cultural and religious overtones and turned into a $3 billion-a-year subset of the fitness industry.
As yoga has moved from marginal to mainstream, US authorities have issued 150 yoga-related copyrights, 134 patents on yoga accessories and 2,315 yoga-related trademarks.
Indian authorities appear to have been particularly upset by the copyright and trademark granted to Bikram Choudhury, the founder of “Hot Yoga”, for his brand of 26 yoga poses performed in a steam room.
Mr Choudhury, who is originally from Calcutta and opened his first yoga studio in California in the 1970s, copyrighted his yoga sequence in 1978 and obtained a trademark for Bikram Yoga in 2002. In 2005 he won a legal argument with a group of yoga teachers who disputed the copyright and trademark. He argues that his sequence of poses, combined with high temperatures — they should be done at above 105F (40.5C) and 50 per cent humidity — is unique.
“The analogy to music is perfect,” John Marcoux, his lawyer, said. “He’s not claiming ownership of individual notes, but of a particular selection of notes and the arrangement of those notes.”
“If you look at the number of yoga poses in the universe and at how many sequences you can create, the numbers are astronomical,” he added. “This doesn’t hurt yoga, it helps spread it around the world.”
The 61-year-old self-proclaimed “yogi to the stars”, who has about 900 studios around the world, plans to open his first Indian outlet in Bombay.
His plans have been overshadowed by a barrage of criticism in the Indian media from government officials and yoga experts. “One cannot patent yoga. It is an Indian treasure,” said Suneel Singh, who has been teaching yoga for 25 years.
Yoga is one of thousands of traditional Indian products — including basmati rice and turmeric — that the Indian Government has been fighting to protect from Western patents in recent years.
In 2002 it set up a task force to compile a Traditional Knowledge Digital Library with details of 4,500 medicinal plants, Ayurvedic remedies and thousands of yoga postures.
The library, which draws on texts in Sanskrit, Tamil and other ancient languages, is designed to provide a body of evidence to help to fight attempts to copyright Indian traditional knowledge.