A litigious mega-rich guru threatens to disrupt the tranquil world of yoga as his hot yoga copyright case draws to a close. The Law Report steps into the furnace to learn why the yoga world is sweating on the outcome.
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What is yoga? Is it exercise, is it something spiritual, is it a choreography-like dance? That’s really where I think the kernel of the debate is at this moment.Allison Fish
Yoga: a freeing place for those pursuing health and wellbeing. A place for mindfulness and introspection, removed from the commercially saturated blur of the outside world.
What peculiar terrain then for a heated high-profile lawsuit surrounding alleged copyright infringement.
The case, in Pasadena, California, is specific to the wildly-popular practice of hot yoga, known commonly as Bikram yoga.
The individual responsible for filing the suit is Bikram Choudhury, credited founder of hot yoga and its accompanying sequence of postures.
According to Indiana University’s Allison Fish, a lawyer and cultural anthropologist with a particular interest in yoga, Choudhury is a divisive figure in the international yoga community.
‘Bikram is quite well known in the American yoga community for his strong and some might say aggressive and almost bombastic personality,’ says Fish.
‘Bikram argues that he created the 26 yoga postures plus two breathing exercises series from his own blood, sweat and tears when, in his late teens, he had a weightlifting accident that crushed his knee.
‘In the rehabilitation from that accident he developed the 26-plus-two series. So that’s that literal blood, sweat and tears.’
The sequence, which is conducted in a studio heated to 40 degrees Celsius, with 30 to 40 per cent humidity, has proved incredibly lucrative.
Choudhury lives in a Beverly Hills mansion surrounded by luxury cars, with a business net worth in the billions.
Yet he instigated legal proceedings against two of his former students, Mark Drost and Zefea Samson.
‘In the late 2000s, they decided to leave the Bikram lineage because of different political views about what yoga was meant to be,’ explains Fish.
‘They still decided to teach hot yoga because they found value in it, [but] in 2011 Bikram filed copyright infringement suits against Drost and Samson.’
Yoga postures have been passed down for thousands of years, but Choudhury’s claim is based on copyright of his ‘expression of ideas’.
‘Under copyright doctrine, expressions are protectable, whereas ideas are not protectable because it is with the expression of the idea that the creativity of the author and the labour of that author inheres, and it’s that creativity and that labour that deserves protection under the law,’ says Fish.
‘Legally, Drost and Samson are arguing that actually yoga is a form of exercise, and as exercise it is… actually a system or process that is functional and consists more of an idea and not a creative expression, therefore it does not deserve protection.
‘Then the question that turns up is, well, what is yoga? Is it exercise, is it something spiritual, is it a choreography-like dance? That’s really where I think the kernel of the debate is at this moment.’ Continue reading >>