Bikram yogis are fiercely committed to their practice. For many Bikram practitioners, no other yoga class will suffice. That’s because Bikram is the X Games version of yoga. There are no lavender eye pillows at a Bikram studio. The 90-minute series of postures and breathing exercises is performed in a studio heated to 105 degrees. Devotees wear the intensity as a badge of honor.
To be sure, having a customer base that is hyper-obsessed with your product is good for business. And owning the Bikram yoga series is big business. Bikram Choudhury, the controversial “guru” who developed the series in the 1970s, has become exceptionally rich off studio franchise fees and teacher training tuitions. He’s famous for his collection of Rolls-Royces.
But a federal court ruling just handed down this week is putting Choudhury’s hot-yoga empire on ice.
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California on Thursday ruled that a series of yoga postures can not be copyrighted. The opinion, handed down by Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw, says that while a particular expression of an idea can be copyrighted, the idea itself cannot.
Choudhury was born in Calcutta, India, and began studying yoga at age four. He came to Beverly Hills, Calif., in the early 1970s where he became known as the yoga teacher to the stars for his work with celebrities including the likes of Marilyn Monroe and elite athletes like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He documented his Bikram series of 26 postures and two breathing exercises in a book, called Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class, which he published in 1979.
Choudhury’s ownership of the series was brought before the court by two teachers, Mark Drost and Zefea Samson, who started teaching a parallel hot yoga series without calling it Bikram yoga.
Opening a Bikram franchise is expensive, starting with a $10,000 franchise fee. Studio owners are then required to pay a percentage of sales to Choudhury, including a royalty fee of 5 percent of gross revenues and an advertising fund fee that is 2 percent of gross revenues, according to the Bikram website.
But in her ruling, Wardlaw argues that it is not possible to own a yoga series.
“Though Choudhury emphasizes the aesthetic attributes of the Sequence’s ‘graceful flow,’ at bottom, the Sequence is an idea, process, or system designed to improve health. Copyright protects only the expression of this idea—the words and pictures used to describe the Sequence—and not the idea of the Sequence itself,” she writes. “Because the Sequence is an unprotectable idea, it is also ineligible for copyright protection as a ‘compilation’ or ‘choreographic work.’”
The ruling was cheered as a win by the Yoga Alliance, a nonprofit trade association.
“On behalf of the entire yoga community, Yoga Alliance is proud to have been able to contribute to the positive resolution of this this troubling issue. Yoga instructors can now put together a sequence of yoga poses without fear of infringing copyrights,” the organization said in a statement responding to the ruling.
This is not the first time the Bikram yoga entrepreneur has come under the spotlight. A half dozen former students have levied rape charges against the teacher. Choudhury has denied the allegations.