Bikram Choudhury Battles for Control of the Hot Yoga Tradition He Invented | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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Bikram Choudhury Battles for Control of the Hot Yoga Tradition He Invented 

Thursday, Jul 19 2012
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"I just know I wouldn't be able to do that," Tricia Donegan says of Gumucio's discount studios. She owns a Bikram studio in New York and is best known as Lady Gaga's instructor.

"I wouldn't be able to pay the teacher the standard I want, pay for the heat system, the amenities, the shower, the space, the rent — keeping it the way it should be so the studio is not completely packed and crowded," she says. "If he makes it more affordable to people who can't afford it, I am all for that. If it starts to bring down the value of a yoga studio ... then I think it becomes a problem."

To Donegan, this isn't a fight over money or market supremacy. It's a moral fray, a clear contest between right and wrong.

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

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"He's not a businessman," she says of Choudhury. "He's a terrible businessman. He's not copyrighting to make money. He just wants everyone to do his product the right way, because it is the right way."

This is the legacy Choudhury hoped to protect by suing Gumucio. But as he has brought his foe's business practices into the limelight, his own are being scrutinized more than ever. For the past nine months, the validity of Choudhury's copyright has been called into question repeatedly, most recently by the U.S. Copyright Office itself.

While the various yoga practices belong to the long tradition of Indian culture, the specific arrangement of these poses can be uniquely organized, and thus potentially owned by an individual — or so it was previously thought.

On June 22, the Copyright Office seemed to reverse itself. Deputy General Counsel Robert Kasunic issued a clarification, declaring that if yoga postures improve health, they cannot be copyrighted. He added that any prior yoga copyrights were "issued in error."

The announcement threw the dispute into the air. Now the question isn't just whether Gumucio violated a copyright but whether Choudhury's copyright is valid at all.

This would appear to leave Choudhury on thin ice. The healing of ailments has always been his primary selling point. At least, that's how Gumucio sees it.

"Not only does this get me out of my legal mess but it critically and unequivocally says yoga cannot be copyrighted," he says.

Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple. Nothing to do with the federal government ever is.

While Kasunic admits that Choudhury's copyright likely was issued in error, and that no new copyrights will be issued to yoga, he also says his office has no plans to re-evaluate the ones already issued.

In other words, his is a quintessential government mea culpa: Yes, we probably messed up. But you don't expect us to actually do anything about it, do you?

Instead, Choudhury and Gumucio will have to wait for a judge to settle their war when the case goes to trial in Los Angeles sometime next year.

To most of the country, the yoga war may be nothing more than another mercantile fight between two titans wrestling over the spoils of their industry. Yet back at the banquet hall in Boston, Choudhury frames Gumucio as a villain on par with the all-time greats.

"If you have a sick body, a screw-loose brain, you will only be surviving — that will be a man like Greg, Hitler or Osama bin Laden," he says, between bites of plump scallops.

Choudhury now claims "zero feeling" for his old disciple. He believes the U.S. courts eventually will decide that rectitude is at his side, where it belongs.

"You cannot steal somebody's intellectual property. Law and justice protect," Choudhury says, leaning close to be heard amid the roar of conversation, his small brown eyes red with exhaustion. "Because I'm a sweet, kind guy, everybody thinks I'm an idiot, I'm weak. Now I have to protect my franchising. If I don't, nobody will buy my franchising anymore."

Suddenly, there is the chime of a butter knife clinking against a wine glass for quiet. It comes from one of Choudhury's close friends, who is standing with his arm around the guru's wife, Rajashree.

"Today is Bikram and Rajashree's 23rd wedding anniversary," the man announces proudly as the room erupts in applause.

"Oh, I forgot! Shit!" Choudhury exclaims as a large mango cake is wheeled to the center of the room. "I forgot completely! Shit! Why you didn't remind me? Shit! You keep me too busy!"

The yogis sing "happy anniversary" to the tune of "Happy Birthday." Then Choudhury announces that, far from forgetting the occasion, he has bought his wife one of the world's most expensive cars, an $800,000 Rolls-Royce convertible.

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