Today's Daily Tip
Asana™The headquarters of Bikram's Yoga College of India is much like the office of any celebrity in Los Angeles. The walls are plastered with pictures of Bikram Choudhury with his star students: There's one with a beaming Brooke Shields, another with Ricardo Montalban. He's even posed (not the asana kind of posing) with Teddy Kennedy and Bill Clinton.
One famous student you won't find on the wall is Raquel Welch. That story didn't have a happy ending. An avid yoga practitioner, Welch published a health and fitness book in 1986 based on her studies with Bikram (who is known universally by his first name). Bikram was devastated. He felt she had ripped off his yoga, and worse, she didn't pay him anything for it. So he sued her. (The suit was settled out of court.)
Now, 18 years later, Bikram has again taken up the legal cudgel against students and instructors who, he feels, are stealing his teachings. Claiming ownership of a 26-pose sequence and other identifying features of his practice, Bikram has copyrighted and trademarked everything from his name to the verbatim dialogue that accompanies the teaching of his classes. To enforce what he sees as his proprietary rights, he initiated one lawsuit and has sent out at least 25 cease-and-desist letters. But all that legal action was in preparation for an even bigger move that startled the yoga community when it was announced on his Web site (www.bikramyoga.com) in May 2002: Bikram was going to franchise his yoga.
Franchising is not a new idea for Bikram. In 1994, he told students in his first teacher training class that he wanted to do it but that his lawyers had advised him that there would be too much red tape. So why carry out the plan now? Bikram attributes his decision to the explosive growth of his schools--from about 10 in 1996 to more than 600 in the United States (more than 700 worldwide) today--and to the need for quality control. "I created something from Patanjali's hatha yoga system, and it works," Bikram says. "I don't want anybody to mess with my system."
To some extent, franchising was an inevitable development in the modernization and continuing commercialization of yoga. Founders of other lineages, including Iyengar, Jivamukti, and Kundalini, have copyrighted and trademarked their intellectual property, including names, logos, books, and the like. Still, it is unsettling to many in the yoga community to see legal principles of ownership invoked as they might be for laundry detergent or candy bars. As in yoga practice, the question is one of intent. Sometimes the motive is protection, sometimes it's commercialization, and sometimes it's both. One thing is for sure: Whatever Bikram's reasons, his actions, successful or not, could have a profound effect on the evolution of yoga in the West.
"His motives are to control and own yoga, and I don't think those are the best motives to have," says Tony Sanchez, executive director of the San Francisco Yoga Studio, who trained with Bikram as far back as 1976. "But he has devoted himself to yoga since he was a little kid, and if you talk to him about yoga, the way he presents it is quite powerful. You really feel he's very sincere."