Off the Mat, Into Court: Lawsuit Pits Bikram and Yoga to the People

Thursday’s 11:30 a.m. session at the Bikram Yoga NYC studio in the Flatiron District began as usual: a handful of half-dressed students slowly flapped their elbows as they decelerated their breath and stared at themselves in the mirror. After paying $25 each, they began their mindful workouts in the 105-degree “Torture Chamber,” while outside on Fifth Avenue, pedestrians scurried past in coats.

A few blocks away, on West 27th Street, about 30 pupils soon began the same breathing exercises, dripping with sweat in the 103-degree heat. But this class, labeled “Traditional Hot Yoga” and offered by the growing studio chain Yoga to the People, cost just $8.

“Yoga should be for everyone,” Matt Hillock, a blissed-out, wrung-out student, said after the lower-priced class.

But Bikram Choudhury, the millionaire founder of Bikram Yoga, believes his kind of yoga belongs to him — he has even copyrighted it. Now, he has sued Yoga to the People for copyright infringement, seeking monetary damages and asking a federal judge to block Yoga to the People from offering its hot yoga class.

“We sent an investigator to take the classes,” Robert Gilchrest, Mr. Choudhury’s lawyer, said on Thursday. “The classes were virtually mirror images and the dialogue was consistently the same.”

Despite yoga’s long history, Mr. Gilchrest said that Mr. Choudhury had the right to claim his own 26-posture sequence and the instructor’s dialogue.

“Words have been in existence since women and men started speaking, but you can copyright a sequence of words,” Mr. Gilchrest said.

The founder of the Yoga to the People studios, Greg Gumucio, began as Mr. Choudhury’s student. He said the guru enlightened him by saying, “You are your own teacher. You are responsible for your own experience.”

That led Mr. Gumucio to the realization that high-profile (and expensive) instructors were not necessary for successful yoga study. And in 2006 he opened Yoga to the People in the East Village. Now the chain, which also offers its classes in non-heated rooms on a voluntary-donation basis, has five studios in New York and one each in San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif., and Seattle.

Mr. Choudhury’s suit (see also below), filed in California, where Bikram is based, has a different philosophy — that he is responsible for students’ success. Aspiring Bikram teachers must take his formal nine-week, $7,000 course. Once certified, instructors must obtain his permission to open studios.

The suit, reported Wednesday by the Manhattan news site DNAinfo, calls Mr. Gumucio’s instructors “impostors,” and charges that he broke his agreement to follow Mr. Choudhury’s rules.

The rivalry has been brewing for some time. In August, another Bikram outlet, Bikram Yoga Manhattan, said it was closing one of its studios because “the presence of our competitors,” namely Yoga to the People, “has made it impossible for us to continue.”

Mr. Gumucio, however, said he never agreed to abide by Mr. Choudhury’s rules and that was why he split with him.

“For almost five years, I worked with Bikram was often a guest in his home and he in mine,” Mr. Gumucio wrote in an e-mail. “I have never agreed with Bikram and his idea that he owned the yoga, or that he should sue anyone.”

Mr. Choudhury has taken legal action against imitators before. He is currently suing two other studios for copyright infringement, Mr. Gilchrest said, and he reached a monetary settlement with a Los Angeles studio in 2003.

One regular student of Yoga to the People, Diane Pamphile, pronounced Mr. Choudhury’s suit “mean.“

“I’m a student,” she said. “We can’t afford expensive yoga classes. I commute from Queens just to come here.” She is one of more than 3,000 signers of a petition on the Web site yogatruth.org that defends Yoga to the People’s ability to continue teaching the style.

Chelsea Channing Portney, 23, a Bikram student for nearly five years, said she loves the classes, but doesn’t think Mr. Choudhury should be able to claim the poses as his own.

“I don’t believe that Bikram should be able to own those moves, since they have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years,” she said.

Still, she will keep going to the classes. “While I don’t agree with Bikram, I personally love my teachers and the people I have met,” she said.

Mr. Gumucio said that his sequence of poses is not exactly the same as Mr. Choudhury’s.

“I cringe at the thought of the far, far reaching ramifications that this lawsuit holds,” he wrote. “If the originators of this traditional knowledge had attempted to copyright, trademark or own in any way yoga, a yoga pose, a yoga sequence, then perhaps nobody today would have the joy of experiencing yoga.”

In a 2007 op-ed in The New York Times, the writer Suketu Mehta noted that the United States had issued 150 yoga-related copyrights and called Mr. Choudhury’s legal actions “a gross violation of the tradition of yoga.”

“There is a line in the Hindu scriptures: ‘Let good knowledge come to us from all sides,’ ” Mr. Mehta wrote. “There is no follow-up that adds, ‘And let us pay royalties for it.’ ”

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