Bikram Choudhury Battles for Control of the Hot Yoga Tradition He Invented
ILLUSTRATION BY TOM CARLSON
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."
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.
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"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.
But as part of his new approach, he began schooling larger and larger numbers of people in a group, eventually working his way up to 400 people in one session. The courses weren't cheap — today they run $10,900 per student. He was training so many students that, eight years later, he decided to copyright his method. If someone wanted to teach his style of hot yoga, that person had to sign a franchise agreement — with the requisite fees kicked back to Choudhury.
There are now more than 330 studios in America — 600 worldwide — with the greatest concentration in California, where Bikram yoga is offered at 86 locations.
Over the years, a handful of former students have attempted to set up unaffiliated studios. Choudhury successfully sued a few of them. But none of these insurrections have been as big, painful or lengthy as his current battle with Gumucio, his former favorite student.
The various suits have sent a palpable chill through the world of hot yoga, considered the largest and fastest-growing segment of the field. Choudhury claims that 35 million Americans practiced his brand of yoga last year alone.
Like his former mentor, Gumucio has dark, shoulder-length hair, although his flows in luscious waves. Heavy eyebrows and a large Roman nose accent his ruddy, usually unshaven face. If Choudhury seems like the Energizer Bunny, a constant stream of nervous energy, Gumucio is his counterpart, exuding a slow, cavalier confidence.
They first met in Los Angeles in 1996. Gumucio had quit his job as a Seattle radio announcer and moved to L.A., somewhat on a whim. He'd taken only three Bikram classes when his sister convinced him to enroll with her in the teacher training program.
That first day Gumucio attempted to follow Choudhury's directions to stand in the half-moon pose: feet together, arms pressed tight overhead, torso stretched to the right. Ideally, the body curves into an upside-down L shape, which requires the sides of the body to stretch farther than feels humanly possible and leaves one's abdomen shaking. Yet the novice strained to tilt more than a few inches to the side. As his eyes focused on his posture in the mirror, Gumucio says, Choudhury approached him from behind.
"What the hell are you doing here?" the teacher asked quietly.
Gumucio smiled. "Well, I'm here to do your teacher training."
Their eyes locked in the mirror, Gumucio still struggling to bend his body sideways. "Good luck," Choudhury said, giving him a look of slight disgust before moving on.
"So for the next eight weeks he literally tried to kill me," Gumucio says. "I mean, maybe not literally, but he made it, like, uncomfortable, because I think he couldn't believe this guy with so little training would go to the teacher training."
To the uninitiated, a Bikram class can seem like a cult. It's not uncommon to see girls brush the guru's hair or massage his body as he lectures, as if he were a deity.
One day, while struggling through class, Gumucio says he decided to take matters into his own hands. He signaled to one of the girls that he wanted to take over. "I decided to massage the evil villain in my life," he recalls, laughing. According to Gumucio, Choudhury noticed his new masseur and was impressed.
"From that day forward he was nice to me," Gumucio says. "But I had to pay a different kind of, you know, penalty. Because then he made me massage him, like, every single day for, like, four hours a day. I would be dripping with sweat all over, just from working on this crazy man."
All that fawning worked. By the end of Gumucio's training, the men had formed a close friendship. Six months later, Gumucio says, Choudhury trusted him to return to Los Angeles to run his world-headquarters studio and to stay in his home while Choudhury and his family went to India on vacation.
Gumucio had been welcomed into the inner circle of one of the world's foremost yogis.
"He is a very good disciple at the beginning," Choudhury would say later. "He was my good student."
Their relationship would remain solid for the next five years. Gumucio helped with teacher training and speaking engagements. The men vacationed together and stayed in each other's homes.
Gumucio would go on to open four studios in Seattle, but none was called "Bikram yoga." Instead, he used generic names like "Yoga Fitness." The field had yet to see the popularity it has today, and Gumucio believed that greater success could be had by appealing to a wider, more athletic audience than the "new age, tree-hugging" type Bikram attracted.
Their friendship began to strain in 2000. That's when Gumucio met John McAfee, a software billionaire turned yoga teacher, and visited his Colorado estate. The pair immediately clicked. Soon McAfee was inviting Gumucio to teach at a retreat, spending several days in nature practicing yoga in complete silence. By the time it was over, Gumucio decided he wanted to teach multiple forms of yoga, incorporating McAfee's Kriya method, which focuses on the spine.
"That's when things started to go south," Gumucio says. Choudhury felt a sting of betrayal at seeing his protégé take on a new mentor. "He said, 'You cannot be a fucking prostitute. You cannot have your feet in two holes.' "
At the same time, other students had begun to rebel against Choudhury. They formed Open Source Yoga Unity (OSYU) "to get out from under his brain," Gumucio says.
For a $500 membership fee, hot yoga teachers could join OSYU anonymously, in the process gaining an advocate that would help them "teach yoga freely."
In 2005, the group sued Choudhury for sending its members cease-and-desist letters, only to lose the case. The settlement remains confidential, but California U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton granted Choudhury a summary judgment, agreeing that OSYU had violated his copyright. (OSYU declined to comment for this story.)
Gumucio was invited to join OSYU but passed. His life had once again taken a new turn.
When his girlfriend got a job in New York, he sold his Seattle studios and followed her east to start a family. He also severed his relationship with Choudhury.
Gumucio removed himself from the yoga world until 2006, when he rented a small space in Manhattan and began teaching a donation-based class on Sundays. His role model at the time was Bryan Kest, who'd launched donation-based power yoga studios in Santa Monica and believes in making yoga accessible to everyone.
Gumucio's first class had just 10 students. By the third Sunday, so many people showed up that they couldn't all fit in one room.
Yoga to the People was born. Over the next six years, Gumucio opened five studios in New York and expanded to Seattle, San Francisco and Berkeley.
"Yoga studios make pretty damn good money," he says. "What I did with the $8 yoga, you just get more people. ... So it's math. The price point is lower so we get a bigger volume."
But it wasn't just price that allowed Gumucio to gain so much ground on his mentor. If Choudhury's theory was based on rigidity and obedience to an ultimate authority figure, Gumucio took the opposite approach, branding his studios with an Everyman's populism.
Gumucio's mission statement: "There will be no right answers. No glorified teachers. No ego, no script, no pedestals. No 'You're not good enough, or rich enough.' This yoga is for everyone."
"Yogis can be very elitist and give you attitude at the front desk when you walk in," says Ted Caine, who has taught at YTTP for four years. "I hate that: 'We are better people because we do yoga.' I think that's dumb."
Yet while philosophy remains the outer crust of the dispute between Choudhury and Gumucio, at heart it's a battle over money. Lots and lots of money. The industry is growing so fast that it's expected to reach $8.3 billion in annual sales by 2016.
With that much at stake, it was only a matter of time until the lawyers showed up.
Practitioners describe hot yoga as if it were as powerful — and addictive — as any drug. First-timers enter a studio with empty stomachs (if they are smart), but nothing prepares them for the wave of 105-degree heat that refuses to subside.
Anxiety begins to gather in their chests well before the first water break at the 20-minute mark. By the sixth of 26 poses — as they try to balance on one leg while pulling the other leg into a standing split — black spots start to pop before their eyes. At the end of the class, students are left flat on their backs catching their breath, hair matted and clothes soaked.
Outsiders might consider it a torture only a fool would choose to endure. But true believers say they feel euphoric and amazing.
Yet the Choudhury-Gumucio feud has caused a nationwide divide, slicing the country's yoga practitioners into two schools of thought. Much like warring religious sects, they practice nearly the exact same form of yoga but speak slightly different dialects. In the end, it's a battle not over questions great and eternal but over the interests of two charismatic leaders whose followers are forced to choose sides.
For many Bikram students, there is a sense of profound respect and admiration for their yogi. And they invoke the yoga code: the belief that followers must respect the lineage and leader of the specific style of yoga they practice. Without properly trained teachers, students won't get the proper benefits. And if the Bikram method is allowed to be diluted, a great tradition will be lost.
"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.
"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.
Choudhury seems to inflate with energy as he addresses his followers. "You work hard to make me famous," he says. "Something I did right all over the globe."
"Brainwashing!" someone calls out.
Choudhury laughs. "Nobody in the world ever did this," he continues. "Nobody built a family like this."
A family — with all the usual exclusions and estrangements.
When he returns to the table, Choudhury turns to me. "Greg Gumucio, he's finished," he says. "He's ass in the grass."
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