A few weeks ago I decided to try yoga for the first time. Running makes my back sore and lifting weights at a gym four nights a week has just never really been my jam. So I figured why not try something new for exercise? And people say that yoga changes their life.
As it turned out, the studio closest to my apartment specialized in a practice called "Bikram Yoga". For those of you who are scratching your head, Bikram Yoga is essentially just like regular yoga, except the class follows a strict set of postures and is conducted in a boiling hot room. Like hot as a sauna. If you're gonna try Bikram, bring a few towels and a gallon of water, because you will sweat out roughly a bathtub's worth of perspiration.
Considering the fact that we are talking about the peace and love world of yoga, you might assume (like I did) that Bikram is an eastern practice that has been handed down by generations of Indian yogis for a thousand years. You might also assume (like I did) that Bikram is one of those things that is free to all, like transcendental meditation, WiFi at Starbucks or Fight Club. Well, I hate to disturb your chakra levels, but I have some very crazy news. Bikram yoga is actually a multi-million dollar, copyrighted franchise empire that is controlled by one person: The one and only Bikram Choudhury.
Bikram Choudhury was born in Calcutta, India on February 10, 1946. He began practicing all forms of yoga starting at a very young age. When he was just three years old he was proficient at several poses. At the age of five, Choudhury studied under Bishnu Ghosh, one of the most famous yogi/gurus in India. At 13, he won three straight National India Yoga Championships.
When Bikram was 20, he suffered a horrible weightlifting accident. Doctors told him he might never walk again. As you can imagine, it was a terrifying diagnosis for such a physically active person. According to Bikram, he slowly began to rebuild his strength and recuperate his injures by following a new method of yoga that he had developed just before the accident. The method involved performing 26 very specific yoga poses in a strict sequential order for 90 minutes. And since he was in India at the time, where daytime temperatures frequently topped 100 degrees, his method was always performed in a very hot room that made you sweat.
To the utter amazement of his doctors, instead of never being able to walk again, Bikram made a full recovery within six months.
In 1970, at the age of 24, Bikram made the move to Los Angeles. As you can imagine, with his super-natural sensibilities and fanciful promises of revolutionary health, Bikram fit into Hollywood instantly. He founded yoga studios in Los Angeles and Hawaii that were huge hits with celebrities and common folk alike right off the bat. Celebrities like George Harrison and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar swore by the practice. Bikram Choudhury made guest appearances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and was the subject of a 60 Minutes segment. He was invited to The White House where he instructed President Nixon. He even gave Elvis a free session at Graceland. Clearly business was booming. Then Bikram Choudhury performed his most brilliant yoga move yet.
At some point in the early 1970s, Bikram made the very wise decision to copyright his eponymous 26-move, 90 minute, 105 degree yoga practice. From that point on, anyone who wanted to teach those 26 sequential moves would be forced to pay Bikram a royalty. The same as if he had copyrighted a song that someone wanted to use in a movie.
Bikram's popularity did not wane over the ensuing years. In 1978, he released a book about Bikram that helped spread the practice out of elite coastal enclaves like Hollywood, New York and San Francisco. Pretty soon Bikram yoga studios began popping up all over the country. And though Bikram did not own the new locations that bore his name, every one of them had to pay him a royalty. Even if the studio did not use the word "Bikram" in any way, if they practiced his 26-pose method without paying a royalty, they would be in violation of United States Copyright law.
By the early 1980s, this boy from Calcutta was a very rich man. He bought a mansion in the Hollywood Hills, fancy cars and lots of jewelry. To this day, Bikram is rarely seen without his diamond-encrusted gold Rolex watch. His current mansion in the Hollywood Hills houses a veritable collection of Rolls Royces and various other super cars.
How Much Money Are We Talking About?
Today there are over 350 Bikram Yoga studios in the United States and over 600 worldwide. In California alone there are an estimated 85 Bikram studios. Each one pays the man an annual royalty to use his copyright and trademarks. When it's all added up, these royalty payments amount to $7-10 million EVERY YEAR. Bikram Choudhury's personal net worth is $75 million.
In 2011, Bikram sued a former student named Greg Gumucio who had set up his own competing chain of hot yoga studios. Gumucio had reportedly been conducting the 26-pose method since 2006 without paying his former guru a red cent in royalty. To make matters worse, Gumucio's studios charged half of what rival royalty-paying studios were charging ($8 vs $15). The lawsuit, which involved both copyright and trademark infringement, was eventually decided in Bikram's favor. Choudhury has successfully sued a number of infringing studios over the years.
Unfortunately (for Bikram), in December 2012 a Federal judge overturned Bikram's long-standing 26-pose copyright. In reaction to several Bikram lawsuits (including the one against Greg Gumucio) the U.S. Copyright Office ruled that "while choreography can be copyrighted, that might not be the case for choreography that purports to have medical benefits."
During the course of the lawsuit, Greg Gumucio reported that "It's kind of like if Arnold Schwarzenegger said I'm going to do five bench presses, six curls, seven squats, call it 'Arnold's Work Out' and nobody can show that or teach that without my permission. That's crazy to me."
So Bikram lost the ability to sue studios that teach his exact sequence. But he still maintains many other valuable trademarks and copyrights that generate millions in annual royalties. Anytime you see a yoga studio bearing the "Bikram" name (in California I see five such studios anytime I take a walk) Mr. Choudhury is earning a royalty.
As of January 2014, five women are suing Bikram Choudhury alleging sexual harassment, false imprisonment and rape. The lawsuit claims that Bikram has a "pattern and practice of causing, inducing or persuading young women to enroll in teacher training classes to become yoga instructors only so he can sexually assault and/or rape them." The lawsuits are still on going and fairly eyebrow-raising.
Ignoring legal controversies, you gotta give Bikram credit for his business skills. After moving from Calcutta to Hollywood, he built an empire that has not only made him fabulously wealthy, but has improved the lives and health of millions of people. I for one really enjoyed Bikram Yoga and have gone back around 10 times. I highly recommend doing Bikram on a Sunday night after a hard weekend of partying. You'll sweat out all the weekend's toxins and sleep like a baby that night.