Calcutta-born, Beverley Hills-based yoga master Bikram Choudhury is getting a taste of his own medicine.
The best known yoga teacher in the US, Choudhury in the past has sued, and won settlements from, other institutions that sought to teach certain yoga asanas that he claims copyright to.
Last week, Open Source Yoga Unity, a San Francisco-based non-profit group of yoga enthusiasts, filed a federal lawsuit attacking Choudhury's patent on 26 yoga postures.
At the center of the suit is the question Whose yoga is it anyway?
Choudhury claims that the 26 postures he has strung together in a sequence, and which his followers perform, twice per session, in room heated to 105 degrees, is his intellectual property.
He says, further, that these poses cannot be taught, either in the same sequence or any derivative thereof, without the teacher having graduated from his personal training program, the going rate for which is $1,500 per person.
On completing the training program, the person still cannot teach the 26 asanas outside the Bikram Yoga umbrella, unless he pays a franchise fee.
OSYU is challenging this in court; it says that yoga is a 5,000-year-old tradition, and cannot be copyrighted by anyone. The OSYU suit asks the judge to determine whether Choudhury is in fact entitled to copyright and trademark the 26 poses, all of which are taken from the 84 poses that make up classic yoga.
The OSYU case followed when Choudhury's lawyers last year sent letters to over 100 institutions, asking them to cease teaching what the letters claimed were yoga courses that were close to the version taught in the Bikram Yoga courses.
The organization sought to mediate with Choudhury's lawyers, but failed to reach a conclusion as of early February. OSYU then decided to challenge Choudhury's copyright claim in court.
OSYU lawyer James Harrison told rediff.com that Choudhury's lawyers were going after 'mom and pop' yoga schools across the country that could not defend themselves.
"It is OSYU's mandate to resist the enforcement of the copyright protection of any yoga style, thereby ensuring its continued natural, unfettered practice for all to enjoy and develop," he said in a statement.
"Any attempt by an individual to own a Yoga style runs counter to the general spirit of Yoga and degrades the energy created by its teachers and practitioners. Any attempt to control another's teaching or practice of Yoga by means of copyright protection is outrageous, disreputable and arguably contrary to the copyright laws of the United States."
"OSYU is mindful that any legal precedent made by the courts on this issue will have long lasting and far reaching consequences."
Jacob C Reinbolt, Choudhury's attorney, notes that his client secured federal copyright registration last year 'for his original work of authorship in his asana sequence of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises.'
The copyright, Reinbolt points out, prohibits others from not just copying the sequence of asanas, but also from creating 'derivative' works of the sequence, he adds.
'Virtually all modifications or additions to the sequence will constitute copyright infringement, including the unauthorized use of even a small number of consecutive postures and the addition of different postures or breathing exercises to the sequence,' he explains.
A trial date has not yet been set.
Choudhury opened his first yoga school in 1973, in San Francisco, and now claims over 900 schools worldwide.
In the US, where the popularity of yoga is underlined by an estimated 19 million practitioners and annual revenues in the region of $25 billion, his Bikram Yoga school is front-runner thanks, in no small part, to celebrity clients ranging from pop diva Madonna to tennis superstar Serena Williams.
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