The Hot Yoga Wars

A famous yogi and his once-prized pupil go to the mat in court.

In 2005, the group sued Bikram for sending its members cease-and-desist letters, only to lose the case. Though the settlement remains confidential, California U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton granted Bikram a summary judgment, agreeing that OSYU had violated his copyright. (OSYU declined comment for this story).

Gumucio was invited to join OSYU, but passed. His life had once again taken a new turn.

When his girlfriend got a job in New York, he sold his Seattle studios and followed her east to start a family. He also severed his relationship with Bikram.

Bikram Choudhury founded the hot yoga movement that now bears his name.
Courtesy of Bikram Choudhury.
Bikram Choudhury founded the hot yoga movement that now bears his name.

Gumucio removed himself from the yoga world until 2006, when he rented a small space in Manhattan and began teaching a donation-based class each Sunday. His role model at the time was Brian Kest, who'd launched donation-based power yoga studios in Santa Monica and believes in making yoga accessible to everyone.

Gumucio's first class had just 10 students. By the third Sunday, so many people showed up they couldn't all fit in one room.

Yoga to the People was born. Over the next six years, Gumucio opened five studios in New York, and expanded to Seattle, San Francisco and Berkeley.

"Yoga studios make pretty damn good money," Gumucio says. "What I did with the $8 yoga, you just get more people. ... So it's math. The price point is lower so we get a bigger volume."

But it wasn't just price that allowed Gumucio to gain so much ground on his mentor. If Bikram's theory was based on rigidity and obedience to an ultimate authority figure, Gumucio took the opposite approach, branding his studios with an everyman's populism.

Gumucio's mission statement: "There will be no right answers. No glorified teachers. No ego, no script, no pedestals. No, 'You're not good enough, or rich enough.' This yoga is for everyone."

"Yogis can be very elitist and give you attitude at the front desk when you walk in," says Ted Caine, who has taught at YTTP for four years. "I hate that, the 'we are better people because we do yoga.' I think that's dumb."

Yet while philosophy remains the outer crust of the dispute between Bikram and Gumucio, at heart it's a battle over money. Lot and lots of money. The industry is growing so fast that it's expected to reach $8.3 billion in sales by 2016.

With that much at stake, it was only a matter of time until the lawyers showed up.


The Yoga Code

Practitioners describe hot yoga as if it were as powerful — and addictive — as any drug. First-timers enter a studio with empty stomachs (if they are smart), but nothing prepares them for the wave of 105-degree heat that refuses to subside.

Anxiety begins to gather in their chests well before the first water break at the 20-minute mark. By the sixth of 26 poses — as they try to balance on one leg while pulling the other leg into a standing split — black spots start to pop before their eyes. At the end of the class, students are left flat on their backs catching their breath, hair matted and clothes soaked.

Outsiders might consider it a torture only a fool would choose to endure. But for true believers, something euphoric is delivered: They feel amazing.

Yet the Bikram-Gumucio feud has caused a nationwide divide, slicing the country's yoga practitioners into two schools of thought. Much like warring religious sects, they practice nearly the exact same form of yoga, but speak slightly different dialects. In the end, it's not a battle over questions great and eternal, but over the interests of two charismatic leaders whose followers are forced to choose sides.

For many Bikram students, there is a sense of profound respect and admiration for their yogi. And they invoke the yoga code: the belief that followers must respect the lineage and leader of the specific style of yoga they practice. Without properly trained teachers, students won't get the proper benefits. And if the Bikram method is allowed to be diluted, a great tradition will be lost.

"I just know I wouldn't be able to do that," Tricia Donegan says of Gumucio's discount studios. She owns a Bikram studio in New York and is best known as Lady Gaga's instructor.

"I wouldn't be able to pay the teacher the standard I want, pay for the heat system, the amenities, the shower, the space, the rent — keeping it the way it should be so the studio is not completely packed and crowded. ... If he makes it more affordable to people who can't afford it, I am all for that. If it starts to bring down the value of a yoga studio... then I think it becomes a problem."

To Donegan, this isn't a fight over money or market supremacy. It's a moral fray, a clear contest between right and wrong.

"He's not a businessman," she says of Bikram. "He's a terrible businessman. He's not copyrighting to make money. He just wants everyone to do his product the right way, because it is the right way."

This is the legacy Bikram hoped to protect by suing Gumucio. But as he has brought his foe's business practices into the limelight, his own are being scrutinized more than ever. For the past nine months, the validity of Bikram's copyright has been called into question repeatedly, most recently by the U.S. Copyright Office itself.

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2 comments
RoaminCadillac
RoaminCadillac

I have no idea if one can copyright an exercise routine, but I am going to copyright

"He's ass in the grass."

 

That phrase is gold.  Damn, what a word-smith!

Sotiredofitall
Sotiredofitall topcommenter

You can copyright an exercise routine?

 
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