No copyright on yoga (not yet…!)

.We’re obsessed with detoxification, always looking for the next “cleanse” tea, “detox” salad for lunch, or the next “detoxifying” retreat. The business-savvy Bikram Choudhury meets us right there. He’s got the perfect solution: You perform his set-in-stone series of 26 postures in a room heated to 104 degrees (yes, that’s 40 degrees Celsius, for the Europeans among us), and you’re sorted.

It’s hugely popular and the self-made millionaire Indian was smart enough to trademark his “Bikram Yoga”. Ever wondered why there are so many “Hot Yoga” studios popping up? Exactly, because they don’t want to (or simply can’t afford to) pay royalties to Bikram. Yes, that’s right: First you pay a franchising fee, then ongoing royalties in order to call your yoga “Bikram Yoga”. It’s genius, really. All he has to do is sit back and watch his wealth grow.

Sweat, and devotion.

Sweat, and devotion.

Bikram has also been in the press because of several lawsuits that accuse him of rape and sexual harassment. A number of women have come out and talked about their experience and even if just half of what’s being reported is true, it’s shocking.

But there’s more: Bikram does not want anyone else to use his set series of postures. It’s the foundation of his wealth, after all, so protecting the series is key. In fact, he does have a copyright on it, but it’s not as clear-cut as that.

Here is a brief version of what happened so far (thank you, Nadya Davis, Associate at law firm Holland & Hart – all quotes are taken from her article in the National Law Review):

  • Bikram owns a copyright registration on his sequence “attained as a supplemental registration to a 1979 copyright he owns in his book Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class, which describes the sequence” – that’s what I call far-sighted! He’s also sued quite a number of people who taught something that he thought was too similar to his own sequence.
  • Various legal battles have been going on, however, there’s a consensus “that each yoga asana, itself, is firmly in the public domain“. The dispute evolves around the sequence, and whether “his hot yoga sequence is a creative expression, copyrightable as choreography, or merely uncopyrightable functional physical movements”. That’s why sports are not copyrightable – every game is different.
  • Now comes the most interesting part: The United States Copyright Office issued a statement (this was back in 2012), that a yoga sequence is “not the equivalent to a pantomime or a choreographic work” and “could not be protected as compilations”. What does this mean? They “recognised that it had been an error allowing Mr. Choudhury to file his supplemental registration, and that no other registrations of that type would be allowed”. Blimey!! Imagine that: You’ve got it all copyrighted, and no one else will. I’m sure they popped a cork or two, over at Bikram’s headquarters.
  • However, “the Copyright Office’s Policy Statement is merely that; it is not law”, Davis points out. But in a case filed after the statement had been made, the court endorsed it, “holding that where the poses are said to result in improvements in one’s health or physical or mental condition, as Mr. Choudhury claims they do, they are not copyrightable”.
  • Bikram appealed – and we are awaiting further decisions.

The yoga world is so full of the wrong kind of news, it’s hard to stand out – but this type of yoga certainly does.

Do you practise Bikram yoga? What do you think of the royalty system?

Please share your thoughts!

~ Andrea

Image credit (post and featured) here.

6 replies »

  1. Bikram is brilliant as a businessman but he certainly has helped take the “yoga” out of Yoga. He can have “his” yoga, we’re all much better off doing “our own” yoga.


  2. I’d be very happy to hear the copyright is invalid – I think that he’d have a hard time sueing in the UK. I would love to teach this series but can’t take the time to travel to US, the £8k and time away from my family to do it. The franchise works, but so many more people would benefit if it were taught without Bikram’s restrictions (Such as not mixing services with other types of yoga at one centre, or disqualifying someone from training on the last day because he doesn’t like them). Also at £1k+ per year to practice, there has to be a better way… reducing the barriers to teacher training is key.


    • You’ll be glad to hear that it’s not possible to copyright yoga – there has just been another court ruling 🙂
      Yes, he seems to put up quite a few barriers to protect his type of yoga (and his source of revenue, essentially). However, I know a few people here in Australia who are experienced yoga teachers and teach in a heated room (28-32 degrees) and who have never done his teacher training. So in the end, people always find ways around these issues 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for picking out the salient legal points for us, Andrea. Murky waters I think. Personally I’m quite happy that my local studio is ‘hot’ not ‘Bikram’…. The ‘ownership’ of yoga is a difficult enough idea, esp given ccontroversies about modern postural yoga and how this relates to any authentic tradition. The notion of yoga copyrights takes this to a whole different level.


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