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Dog-eat-downward dog: Bikram yoga founder can’t copyright sequence of poses, court says

Bikram Choudhury, front, founder of the Yoga College of India and popularizer of Bikram yoga, leads a class in Los Angeles in 2003. (Reed Saxon/Associated Press)

The word “yoga” usually conjures up images of unworldly, peaceful practitioners sprawled on plastic mats in some kind of serene setting: a meadow, perhaps, or a sunlit studio situated high above the rumble of street traffic while a CD of flute melodies set to the sound of rustling trees churns in a boom box on the floor.

Bikram yoga is not that. It’s sweaty, relentless and famously regimented. It’s conducted in rooms so hot it would make even someone accustomed to swampy D.C. summers swoon, and its classes often come with a pricetag that could also lead to lightheadedness. And the career of its leader — an incredibly successful Los Angeles-based yoga magnate who conducts classes in a Speedo and a Rolex — is anything but tranquil.

For years, Bikram’s founder Bikram Choudhury (he named the practice for himself) has been embroiled in disputes, battling allegations of rape and sexual assault leveled against him in civil court — which he has denied

And he has fought to establish copyright over the yoga postures he popularized.

Those copyright efforts took a blow Thursday, when a federal appeals court ruled that Choudhury does not hold the exclusive right to teach the series of poses and breathing exercises he developed.

“The Sequence,” as the series is known, is an “idea, process or system designed to improve health,” U.S. Appeals Court Judge Kim Wardlaw said, according to the Associated Press. Choudhury can copyright expressions of that idea — books, diagrams, movies — but he can’t copyright its execution any more than a surgeon can stop other doctors from mimicking his techniques.

Choudhury, who was born in India and is a three-time national yoga champion there, developed his system of yoga in the 1970s. The guidelines are strict and highly specific: 26 poses executed in a 105-degree room over 90 minutes. Floors must be carpeted, the lights must be bright; music is banned, as is language not from the most current version of Bikram’s Yoga Class dialogue. Those rules are laid out in books, which Choudhury does hold the copyright to.

The practice made a name for Choudhury and made him his fortune. His boot camps where yogis are trained generate an annual $4.9 million in revenue, according to Forbes’s calculations, supplemented by hundreds of thousands of dollars from speaking engagements and book and CD sales. Choudhury says it helped extend the careers of Kareem Abdul Jabbar and John McEnroe and that it eases health complaints and promotes mental well-being. Among his devoted followers — athletes, yoga enthusiasts, millennials with money to spare — there are thousands who will support those claims. Some have called him the “Dr. Phil of yoga.”

By the early 2000s, Choudhury had franchised his practice to 600 studios. He had taught Madonna and Michael Jackson and was living in a mansion whose garage was stocked with Bentleys and Rolls-Royces.

“Everybody knows I’m superhuman,” he told The Washington Post at the time. “My spirit is in cosmic consciousness.”

As his demanding form of yoga surged in popularity, Choudhury began cracking down on studios that taught his style without authorization. In 2002, according to the Economist, his lawyers started sending out cease and desist letters to studios that marketed themselves as “Bikram,” demanding that they pay for use of the term and the practice.

Though several smaller studios initially settled, others, feeling that such litigiousness was un-yoga-ly, responded by forming the group Open Source Yoga Unity.

“For hundreds, even thousands of years, the wisdom of yoga has evolved and grown in the hearts and minds of teachers and students,” their Facebook page reads. “We encourage the free flow of information, including the wisdom of yoga, to all people.”

Over the next few years, OSYU challenged Choudhury’s copyrights. The cases were settled out of court, according to the Los Angeles Times, meaning that copyright questions were never fully resolved. In 2011, Choudhury took on Yoga to the People, a pay-what-you-can chain of studios in New York opened by one of Choudhury’s former students. Ultimately, that case was also settled — Yoga to the People’s owners agreed to stop teaching Bikram and hot yoga to bring an end to the suit. But it prompted the U.S. Copyright Office to issue a new policy clarifying that individual yoga poses aren’t subject to copyright laws, the same way a choreographer can’t lay claim to an individual ballet step.

Not long after, Choudhury was hit with a new kind of lawsuit: allegations in civil court that he sexually assaulted women at his training sessions. As of this year, six women are suing Choudhury, a conflict that has opened a schism among the legions of followers who studied under Choudhury and opened studios in his name.

“A lot of people have blinders on,” Sarah Baughn, 29, whose lawsuit against Mr. Choudhury in 2013 sparked the series of complaints, told the New York Times. “This is their entire world. They don’t want to accept that this has happened.”

In a statement given to the Times in February, Choudhury denied the claims and accused the women of “exploiting” the legal system for financial gain. And in April, he told CNN that he has not had sex with any of his accusers.

“If I wanted to have sex with women, I would not need to attack them or rape them or abuse them or assault them, there would be a line [of] millions of women in the world, as a volunteer,” he said.

The ongoing lawsuits have prompted some studios to cut their ties with Choudhury and drop the term “Bikram” from their names. Thursday’s appeals court decision will likely make it easier for those studios to keep teaching the style in some form.

Yoga, at least as practiced in the U.S., is a business, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be as scandal-ridden and litigious as any other industry. But still, many find it odd that a practice generally seen as meditative and spiritual is embroiled in so much legal conflict.

“Yoga goes to court,” Tim Torkildson, 62, a Utah retiree who does yoga every day, told the LA Times. “It seems very strange. There should be some kind of pose for that — the gavel position.”