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Bikram Choudhury Battles for Control of the Hot Yoga Tradition He Invented 

Thursday, Jul 19 2012
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In a large Chinese banquet hall in Boston, hung with open-mouthed dragons and bulbous red lanterns, the hot yogis have taken over. Seventy Bikram yoga teachers are sprawled around the tables. At the helm of it all, clad in a black silk suit, a rhinestone-studded tie and a diamond-encrusted Rolex, is one of the world's most famous yoga instructors, Bikram Choudhury.

The small, svelte man from Calcutta runs his hands anxiously through thin, wiry hair that falls from a mostly bare crown past his shoulders. Despite his diminutive looks, his presence clearly commands the room. Heads flick in his direction from other tables, eager for proximity to — and attention from — the man they consider to be their personal guru.

Everyone here practices the Bikram method of yoga, a series of 26 postures and two breathing sequences performed for 90 minutes in a climate-controlled environment of 105 degrees. It's the only correct way to practice yoga, Choudhury insists. Everything else is "shit."

click to flip through (8) ILLUSTRATION BY TOM CARLSON
  • ILLUSTRATION BY TOM CARLSON
 

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I have been granted the seat of honor beside him. While everyone else is discussing yoga, we are talking about one of the ugliest lawsuits to hit this otherwise tranquil world.

"I am going to go to trial to get him punishment, to make him an example, so no one will ever have the guts to do that same kind of shit," says Choudhury, a man so synonymous with yoga that people often are surprised to learn he is still living and not just a mythical icon.

In September, he sued Greg Gumucio, his former student and right-hand man, for copyright infringement. Gumucio once occupied the chair where I now sit. But for the past several years he has distanced himself from his former mentor, starting his own chain of competing studios, Yoga to the People (YTTP).

Since 2006, Gumucio has been growing a strong business on the coasts. He charges only $8 for a single class, while a standard Bikram class costs between $15 and $25. The result has been Gumucio's billowing client roster. His four New York City studios serve a total of nearly 1,000 students each day.

Choudhury originally turned a blind eye to Gumucio's hotter hot yoga until last September, when a Bikram studio in Manhattan was forced to close due to competition from two YTTP studios thriving nearby. That's when Choudhury decided to sue Gumucio for copyright and trademark infringement, unfair business practices and breach of contract.

Although yoga is a centuries-old tradition, Choudhury had copyrighted his particular version under the same protections afforded choreographers. And he had used it to bat down competitors from practicing it without paying franchise fees.

But Gumucio proved the greatest threat to Choudhury's multimillion-dollar empire.

Choudhury's lawsuit asserts that not only did Gumucio steal his intellectual property but he also jeopardized the success of other Bikram studios. When placed head to head, his studios struggle to compete with Gumucio's discount pricing and populist practices. And since YTTP teachers are trained by Gumucio, Choudhury contends that the entire field has been cheapened by the selling of a lesser product, in the same way that Chinese knockoffs damage the reputation of Louis Vuitton purses.

For Choudhury, a man who believes he saves lives through his yoga, any alteration to his method devalues his product and defiles his legacy. He sees his life's work on grand terms, and having his business undermined by his former protégé isn't just a legal battle but a moral one.

"I always forgave my students, like Jesus," he says. "But I reached a point where I have to protect my regular legal schools."

Choudhury moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s. His first book, published in 1978, preached that his hot yoga sessions could heal everything from knee injuries to obesity and arthritis. Over the years he appeared on TV shows such as The Tonight Show and 60 Minutes. His message remained the same: Kill yourself for 90 minutes a day doing his yoga and it would transform your life.

In health-crazed Hollywood, this small man from Calcutta seemed to have the key to the fountain of youth. Over the next four decades, his clients would include three presidents — Nixon, Reagan and Clinton — in addition to George Harrison, Charlie Sheen, Britain's Prince Harry and Jennifer Aniston.

"Lady Gaga listens to me," he boasted to a Boston audience this summer. "Her mantra is only one word — Bikram — because Bikram makes her what she is today. It works."

Today, his success has earned him celebrity and the wealth to match. He lives in the Hollywood Hills with his collection of Rolls-Royces, earning an estimated $7 million annually.

"I kind of run this city," he says. "They depend on me."

It wasn't until 1994, however, that he began training new teachers en masse in his fabled method. At that time, there were only four Bikram studios in the world, all in the United States, and Choudhury was still training teachers one-on-one, the traditional method in India.

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