The Hot Yoga War's Messy End: Why Yoga to the People Won't Be Teaching Bikram Yoga Anymore
Greg Gumucio sat behind the desk of his 27th street hot yoga studio in Manhattan eating a glazed donut. He wore a tight burgundy v-neck with the words "Yoga to the People" pulled across his chest and wore a large watch with a bright red band. Pop music played over the speaker system.
Young students milled about, bodies and clothes still moist from the hour-long class that had just concluded. This class had been unusual, at least for Gumucio and the collection of seasoned teachers who had turned up from their posts at other YTTP studios around the city to flank the front row of the class. Nothing in the instruction deviated from the traditional Bikram method, though some poses were conducted only once to accommodate a shorter time-frame, rather it was the moment in the life of the instructor himself. After nearly 17 years of learning and teaching Bikram yoga, this was one of the last Bikram classes Gumcio would ever teach.
Since last September when Bikram first issued his complaint against Gumucio, Gumucio had preached that he wanted to show that yoga belonged to the people and was a practice that should not be owned or copyrighted by any one person; Bikram had been adamant on protecting his intellectual property (Bikram yoga) and preserving the businesses that stemmed from it. Since June the two parties have been in the discovery phase of the lawsuit, collecting evidence, gathering depositions, and preparing for a trial (the date was set for early summer of 2013). At the trial a decision would finally be made about the strength of Bikram's copyright and whether or not Gumucio had violated it by teaching "traditional hot yoga" at YTTP.
In addition to claiming copyright and trademark infringement, Bikram had asserted unfair business practices and breach of contract. At the end of October, after day-long depositions of Gumucio and Rajashree Choudhury, and a 6-hour mediation ("that went nowhere," according to Gumucio), both parties agreed to take a break from litigation and consider under what terms a settlement might be reached. By reaching a settlement, however, Gumucio assured that his case would not be the one to reverse the copyright originally issued to Bikram, and at least for now, help to maintain the strength of Bikram yoga as the intellectual property of Bikram Choudhury.
"In the beginning I probably would have sworn hell or high water that I was going to see this thing through to the end, Gumucio said. "But then I got the point where I really wasn't liking who I had to be in it. You have to get messy." On the day Gumucio waved the white flag he asked to speak with Bikram, but the guru refused (at the advice of his legal council).
"I wanted to look him across the room and go 'what are you doing,'" said Gumucio, flipping his hand up with exasperation. "'I mean what are you doing? It is so unnecessary.'"
"I want him behind the bar," Bikram said he told the mediator. He considers Gumucio a thief, akin to a bank-robber and believes the punishment should be equivalent. "The big point," he said, "nobody can break the law, nobody [is] above the law."
As of February 2013, under the terms of the settlement, Gumucio and the teachers at YTTP will no longer be allowed to teach traditional hot yoga and in exchange, Bikram agreed to drop the lawsuit.
"I win, he lose, and that's it," Bikram said simply. "Nobody will ever be able to steal Bikram yoga anymore." He had just stepped off a plane from Chile, his life still full-tilt after attending lectures abroad, finishing his biannual teacher training, and spending a week with Nightline for an upcoming TV special. The purpose of this special, he explained, was to nationally emphasize that Bikram yoga is his intellectual property and should not be taught without proper certification and affiliation.
"I came to America to teach peace, humanity, love," Bikram said. "This is not the right thing to do as a yoga teacher or a guru, but what can I do? I have thousands and thousands of teachers and schools, and it is hurting their business when somebody is stealing their students. It is my obligation, my job, to protect their businesses."
According to Bikram's lawyer, Robert Gilchrest, as long as there are "infringers" these kinds of lawsuits will continue.
"People put in time and effort in order to develop works that are economically beneficial," Gilchrst said. "We are taking about the Jane Fondas and the Cindy Crawfords and the New York City Ballet and the whole, who have copyrighted beneficial exercise routines." However he also noted that this case made no precedent on the legal merits of the issue itself, and that the enforcement of copyright law is at each courts digression in any given circumstance.
In June the copyright office announced that no further copyrights would be issued for exercise practices, including yoga, but that this new policy would not retroactively effect previously issued copyrights (like Bikram's). This evidence was introduced into the case in the early summer but had still not been ruled on as of November.
It was the lack of court action, alongside the deposition of Rajashree Choudhury, a long-time friend of Gumucio, that led to his decision to seek settlement. "I got to a point where I wondered, why am I trying so hard to be associated with this man?" Gumucio said. The cost was also an issue: a single day of mediation cost $20,000.
As far as Bikram is concerned, ultimately, forgiveness is always possible.
"The case will be over and he maintains his dignity, as long as he does that, I will always forgive," Bikram said.