Patented Yoga

If you are of a certain age, you will recall when yoga came to the shores of America and staked a claim in the suburbs. Housewives with toddlers would don their college sweatpants and gardening blouses (this is pre-lycra, remember), and watch the daily half-hour of yoga brought to them by their local PBS station on 13″ government-issue black and white TVs. Yoga was racy, yoga was exciting, yoga was the hot new vibe thrown off by the Flower Power generation and given just enough distance by the decay of the 1960s to make it acceptable on Country Club Drive.

When I was 10 my brother and I watched our mother struggle to assume the full lotus position and curse a blue streak at the TV, only to laugh in resignation when we both became yogis in miniature and started walking around the living room on our knees with our legs crossed. “One day you little Gumbys will see how hard it is too,” she said. “Sure, Mom, uh huh,” we replied. “Not gonna happen.” Fast forward some 35 years and it turns out she was right — I can no longer cross both legs with my feet on top, and I’m pretty sure my brother can’t even touch his toes. All across America, however, 10 million haute executives, exercise junkies and suburban teens are waltzing from Pilates to their next yoga class, and every new mother seems to have a yoga mat glued to one hand and a binky to the other. The yoga revolution is not only here, it’s been here for so long it’s not even a revolution anymore.

The one twist in the pretzel that forms the yoga movement is the funky dynamic of hot yoga, where you can go stretch and bend and purge your inner demons in 105° heat along with a hundred of your closest sweaty friends, and lose ten pounds in the bargain. Bikram Yoga is all the rage, from the Funky Door in San Francisco to the Tragic Rabbit in Seattle, and has spawned a spate of lawsuits over its founder’s successful attempt to patent his product.

Bikram’s basic assertion — that the mere organization of millennia-old forms into a discrete system renders it patentable — seems spurious at best, and is risible if one thinks too hard about it. These are forms, after all, that have been taught by wizened yogis in their hidden caves and mountains in India for literally thousands of years. Yet here comes Bikram swanning along in his Hummer with his gold chains and hair-actor vibe trying to steal their thunder. Saying “I discovered it” because you revealed its existence to the world doesn’t make it so, of course, but apparently if you keep saying it REALLY LOUD over and over again then a certain sector of the audience will suddenly start believing you. As Americans this shouldn’t surprise us, since we live in the land of the television pundit and the blowhard, but for it to infect yoga as it has organized religion is just somehow . . . disheartening.

If, as we are taught, Prometheus gave man fire, Krishna gave man yoga, God gave man brains, and Mother knows best, then it follows ipso facto that the Patent and Trademark Office simply hands out patents for the asking. Which is good to know, right? Tomorrow I’ll just turn up the thermostat while you’re at work and you can pay me a fee for my new patented “Hot Lawyering Techniques.”

What do you think? Will the patent office go for it?

9 comments

  1. Clare says:

    I was not aware that Choudhury had actually patented anything at all, or is it in another name? I have never come across any applications or registrations on either the USPTO or the Questel Orbit databases.

    I am aware that he has trademark registrations, and has secured copyright protection at the USPTO, which he asserts against other parties trying to teach his sequence.

    As a UK Patent and TM attorney and daily yoga practitioner, I’d be interested to know of any patents which do exist?

    In the UK S 16 of the CDPA 1988 recites that it is an infringement of copyright
    …..
    (c) to perform, show or play the work in public (see section 19);
    ….

    I assume that it is the equivalent provision in the US that he enforces against copiers?

    I agree that yoga should not and can not be patented, but I am not sure where you should draw the line regarding his copyright and trademark rights. Does Choudhury’s time and effort spent devising a sequence and building up a reputation in his brand not deserve protection?

    Does he try to enforce his rights against people who are not simply trying to trade on the goodwill he has developed in his brand?

    • Thanks for chiming in. Looks like I’m going to have to change my blog title to Who Is Your Sloppy Lawyer. There are no patents that I could find this morning by Choudhury, and only two patents that mention Bikram Yoga — the yoga strap for the sweaty practitioner, and the patented yoga mat with a contoured weave. Choudhury does, of course, own the trademark “Bikram Yoga” in the United States, as well as his copyrighted asana sequence of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises and the various books with Bonnie Reynolds. Not to mention the tapes and the videos.

      I’m not sure how organized Choudhury’s litigation team is these days. He seems much more interested in simply franchising and selling DVDs than going after individual practitioners. And since the Open Source debacle, most instructors seem to just use “Hot Yoga” as an alternative buzzword — which appears to actually be a better hook for newcomers who’ve heard their friends talk about hot yoga but can’t remember Bikram’s name.

      I (obviously) don’t have a problem with Choudhury protecting the trademark for his school, or the copyright in his books, but I don’t applaud the approval of the copyright for the sequencing of the asanas. I think the regulators just didn’t get it, which is why India is now putting together the 10,000 hour video of yoga poses to protect its national heritage from sharp practitioners who want to make a buck off of our quest for inner peace.

  2. Clare says:

    Thanks for the update, I didn’t want to think I might have missed a patent or two out there!

    I think I agree with you re copyright in the asana sequence; I am quite surprised that he was able to enforce it!

  3. Myrna Beard says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Robert S. Lawrence, Robert S. Lawrence. Robert S. Lawrence said: Patented Yoga for Dummies: Bikram’s basic assertion — that the mere organization of millennia-old forms into a … http://bit.ly/fPZgDi […]

  4. There’s a new Choudhury lawsuit against traditional teacher Greg Gumucio claiming that teaching 26 yoga postures violates Choudhury’s copyright in the moves. Ridiculous, of course, since Choudhury just copied them from ancient texts.

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