federal court rules that bikram doesn’t own yoga: copyright claim can’t stand the heat
In a much-anticipated ruling that will affect the yoga community worldwide, a federal court pronounced on Dec. 14 that the popular sequence of 26 yoga postures that Bikram Choudhury has claimed as his own is, in fact, not copyrightable, and therefore, may be taught freely.
It may come as a surprise, even among people who practice Bikram Yoga, that “Bikram” is a person – Bikram Choudhury, the charismatic and often controversial hatha yoga guru who is as famous for his collection of Rolexes as he is for healing the broken bodies of Beverly Hills’ most rich and famous with a specific sequence of 26 yoga postures performed in a heated room. Those who wish to teach that sequence, however, very quickly become aware that “Bikram” is not a method, but a man — a man who claims to own the 26-posture sequence, and who will not hesitate to sue anyone who teaches it without his explicit permission.
This is precisely what happened to evolation yoga, a collective of yoga teachers and studios founded by Mark Drost, one of Choudhury’s students and, formerly, one of his closest associates. Drost started evolation in 2009 to create opportunities for yoga teachers and students with a foundation in the 26-posture sequence to, well, “evolve and elevate” the practice and themselves. “From the beginning, our intention was not to replicate or imitate Bikram,” Drost says. “Rather, we made a conscious choice to part ways with Bikram Yoga, because we saw room for improvement in the sequence, the teaching method, and the philosophy, and we were not free to explore those things as part of the Bikram organization.”
Indeed, Choudhury requires his affiliates to adhere to a very rigid business model and class structure. Bikram Yoga studios may not offer any classes other than the 90-minute class in a 105-degree room. Teachers may not veer from the 26-posture sequence even slightly, and must repeat a specific class script (“the dialog”) during every class. Studios are required to have specific physical dimensions and very specific characteristics, such as carpeted yoga room floors, mirrors, and podiums. On top of which, in recent years, Choudhury has attempted to create a franchise, requiring studios to pay him substantial fees and relinquish even further control over their businesses (which may be closed down entirely at Choudhury’s whim).
After many years of maintaining Bikram Yoga studios under these restrictions, Drost and his wife Zefea Samson (also an experienced Bikram Yoga teacher and decorated yoga champion) decided that, as teachers, practitioners, and business owners, it was time to move on. They converted their Bikram Yoga studio in Buffalo, NY to evolation yoga Buffalo, and they began to offer their own teacher training program, which teaches the 26 postures from a decidedly different perspective, with much greater emphasis on nuance, yoga philosophy, and individual mentoring. They offer teacher training sessions around the world, but most frequently in their state-of-the-art headquarters in North Tonawanda, NY and in what they call the “evolation Oasis” in Santa Barbara, CA.
Soon after forming evolation, Drost and Samson partnered with local Bikram-certified teacher Summer Crawford to open evolation yoga Tampa in Tampa, Florida. The studio offers the core evolation classes, including the “Hot 90”, in which the 26-posture sequence is taught with a few variations to increase safety and facilitate more attention to breath and meditation. Evolation also offers a more beginner-friendly 60-minute class (the “Warm 60”, which introduces the 26 postures in a one-set sequence, with a bit less heat and a bit more instruction), as well as meditation classes (“Chill 30”) and vinyasa-based Flow, Prenatal, and Gentle classes.
Crawford explains that in all of their offerings, the current evolation studios embody many of the values that the owners carried over from their Bikram Yoga background, such as a straightforward teaching style, minimal distractions and frills, and an emphasis on discipline and mindfulness. However, “from our wooden floors, to our wider range of classes, to our overall less-rigid approach to yoga, the student’s experience at evolation bears little resemblance to the experience at a Bikram studio.” Thus, to avoid confusion, and to make a clean and respectful break from their teacher, evolation chose not to use any of Choudhury’s intellectual property, including his name, his likeness, or the term “Bikram Yoga.” Choudhury is famous for telling students and affiliates that “it’s my way or the highway” — so, as Crawford states, “we chose the highway.” Nevertheless, based on their use of the 26-posture sequence, in 2011, Choudhury filed a lawsuit for copyright infringement against Drost, Samson, and evolation yoga LLC. Around the same time, Choudhury filed similar lawsuits against two other hot yoga organizations, including the much-publicized Yoga To The People in New York.
Although Choudhury has brought multiple lawsuits over the years, all have settled before a court had a chance to rule on the validity of his alleged copyright. Unfortunately, Choudhury inaccurately portrayed these settlements as “victories” in the media, implying that anyone who teaches the sequence is on the wrong side of the law. For this reason, evolation was committed to seeing the case through to a judgment, in the hopes that clarity on the issue would lead to less fear, intimidation, and divisiveness in the yoga world.
Seeing it through would not have been possible without the substantial legwork of Greg Gumucio of Yoga To The People, who tirelessly trudged through the early stages of his own lawsuit and inspired the yoga community to take a stand.
Nor would it have been possible without the commitment, support, and vision of evolation’s attorney, Eric Maier of Maier Shoch LLP (based in Los Angeles). Maier was determined to resolve the issue of yoga “ownership” once and for all, and he kept his focus sharp, refusing to be intimidated or distracted by Choudhury’s camp. Although other issues remain in the lawsuit, Maier calls this resolution of the main question “a total game changer.”
Crawford, a former attorney herself, is “thrilled” with the ruling, not just because it releases evolation and the yoga community from decades of restriction and intimidation, but because it is simply good law. She explains, “it always has been the case that healing processes cannot be owned. That’s why Bikram had to argue that this sequence is a ‘pantomime or choreographic work.’ Really? I seriously doubt that even he believes that. We all know that it’s something we do because it has real effects on the body, not because it’s some sort of artistic expression. I’m kind of amazed that he would deny those healing effects just for the sake of winning and controlling others! This sequence, like every other yoga sequence that gets created every day, is in the public domain, like CPR, or like a recipe. It is certainly possible to be grateful to Bikram for putting it out there without going 10 steps further to conclude that he should be able to control the businesses and personal lives of everyone who utilizes it.”
Drost goes on to note that “Bikram has been, essentially, trying to hold this particular yoga sequence hostage, so that no one can improve upon it, re-interpret it, or teach it with a different energy. It is hard to see how this serves his goal of bringing yoga to as many people as possible.”
“We were not looking for a fight,” he adds, “but when we found ourselves defending against this stranglehold on a practice that has been handed down without restrictions throughout its history — essentially, defending yoga itself — we resolved to take it all the way in service to the greater community.” And, he notes with a genuine smile, “we, collectively, won. We hope from the bottom of our hearts that this will bring all of us in the yoga community closer, so we can support each other on this path.”
**For more information about this topic, to contribute to the defense effort, or to schedule an interview with Mark Drost, Eric Maier, or local affiliates of evolation yoga, please email firstname.lastname@example.org