Who Owns Yoga?
Over the past century, yoga has made a radical shift in the U.S.—from an obscure religious practice to a $6 billion-a-year industry. The biggest player in this transformation, Bikram Choudhury, is also the most controversial. Choudhury is a yoga pirate, someone who copyrights ancient yoga routines to prevent others’ using them. It raises the question: Can someone own yoga? In America, the modern yoga code of ethics is up for grabs.
It is a common misconception that yoga arrived in the West fully formed during the 1960s. In fact, Swami Vivekananda brought the Hindu practice of Vedanta yoga to the Chicago Parliament of Religions in 1893. But yoga’s first big boost in America came in the 1920s, when Paramahansa Yogananda introduced Kriya yoga, an ancient meditation technique for self-realization, under the direction of his guru in India, Sri Yukteswar. Yogananda grounded yoga in science to appeal to both Christians and Hindus, earning him the title Father of Yoga in the West. In 1920 Yogananda founded the Self-Realization Fellowship in Boston (now with 500-plus locations in more than 175 countries), and in 1946 he wrote the best-selling Autobiography of a Yogi.
Self-realization, a term Yogananda coined to describe a transformative union with God, was translated as “self-focus,” using Carl Jung’s 1960s psychology lexicon. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, American practitioners shied away from yoga’s religious core, as expounded upon by Yogananda and Vivekananda, instead incorporating it into various self-help strategies. The hippie counterculture’s secular identification with yoga crystallized when Swami Satchidananda addressed half a million concertgoers at 1969’s Woodstock festival. Peace, love and music—and now self-realization, too.
Bikram Choudhury and Paramahansa Yogananda are cut from the same cloth, though you’d never know by looking at them. Yogananda, one of the first Indian yogis to immigrate to the U.S., taught yogic philosophy during his 1924–1935 cross-continental lecture tour, connecting with Westerners by anchoring yoga in scientific methodology and Christian texts. His monkish robes and flowing locks are in stark contrast to the Armani suits and Speedos of Bikram Choudhury, the proprietor of the Bikram Yoga franchise. Choudhury’s Hatha yoga, taught in a heated room, provides exercise before spirituality. His controversial fitness regimen and legal bullying has inspired detractors and zealots alike, yet his success is unparalleled: He has brought more adherents into the yoga fold than anyone in the world.
Despite their differences, Yogananda and Choudhury share a spiritual lineage that bridges the gap between Eastern and Western cultures. The alignment of their goals is no accident: Bishnu Ghosh, Choudhury’s guru and a world-renowned physical culturist, was Yogananda’s brother and disciple. The guru-disciple relationship is a holy institution in India, facilitating a direct connection to God. Although Choudhury and Yogananda were both reared by their gurus, they downplay their religiosity to make yoga agreeable to Western sensibilities.
In the 1920s when Paramahansa Yogananda’s philosophy was first adopted in the West, it looked nothing like today’s yoga of high-intensity exercise and celebrity-endorsed clothing lines. Yogananda taught yoga as a meditation technique, explaining, “Yoga means union with God, or union of the little ego-self with the divine Self”—a bridge between mind and body, between the sacred and the worldly.
Americans latched on to Hatha yoga, the physical component of India’s meditation system, as a way to boost bodily health, shifting yoga’s target market from spiritual seekers to fitness enthusiasts. The documentary Yoga, Inc. depicts the meditation practice and its adherents as caught between two competing ideologies—the spiritually pure versus the superficial, fueled by the country’s $6 billion yoga industry.
For 21st-century yoga, the line between the sacred and the profane is increasingly blurred. Is yoga’s co-option by the fitness industry a sign that we’ve exchanged the spiritual for the superficial? Or can we still find yoga’s message beneath the hype? For now, Yogananda’s philosophy remains a distant but attainable goal as Americans struggle to embrace these contradictions and find the intersection between Eastern philosophy and Western practice.
Yoga’s association with Hollywood began in 1947, when Indra Devi, known as the First Lady of Yoga, opened the first yoga studio in California. The documentary Yoga, Inc. traces yoga’s path after its adoption by Hollywood and the baby-boomer generation: The 1970s was yoga’s television era, headed by fitness instructor Lilias Folan. In the 1980s yoga won the endorsement of America’s medical community, thanks to Dr. Dean Ornish’s study of yogic treatment for heart disease. The 1990s ushered in the era of commercialized meditation and sports suits. Today celebrities like Lady Gaga, George Clooney and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stump for the yogic lifestyle and studios are as numerous as ATMs—all offering classes that promise to rid us of disease, fat and stress.
As Yoga, Inc. points out, Western yoga is only part of the original, eight-limbed spiritual system. Hatha, the physical limb, is the most widely practiced in America, and it is usually what we talk about when we talk about yoga. Hatha is designed to purify the mind, body and vital energies (the chakras), but the ancient yogis practiced it only sparsely. Their goal was not to achieve otherworldly six-packs but to prepare the body for yogic awakening.
Bikram Choudhury, known as the bad boy of yoga, is seen both as yoga’s Antichrist and savior. Critics cringe at Choudhury’s fleet of Rolls-Royces and self-aggrandizing monologues, yet millions express a devotion to Bikram Yoga that borders on religious. Choudhury’s 26 Hatha yoga postures (compared by some to boot camp), performed in 104-degree heat, impose a physical rigor and mental discipline that takes would-be disciples some getting used to. His classes are taught in the style of his guru, Bishnu Ghosh, and are designed to break down the ego and sculpt a body worthy of piety. With thousands of franchises worldwide, the Bikram empire grows stronger by the day.
Choudhury began practicing Hatha yoga at age four. At 13, Swami Shivananda dubbed him Yogi Raj (“king of the yogis”), after Choudhury won four National India Yoga Championships. Choudhury’s commitment was tested at 17, when a weight-lifting accident left him crippled beyond medical repair. Choudhury crawled back to Bishnu Ghosh’s brutal yoga regimen and made a full recovery, spurring a lifelong ambition to heal others through yoga. Choudhury leaves many purists cold, but his core message reflects their own: “Yoga is free. It belongs to the earth. It’s a god.”
Bikram Choudhury is widely considered the captain of yoga piracy—the controversial practice of copyrighting traditional yoga postures. Although he is criticized for exploiting ancient tradition for profit, he is not breaking the law. Instead, he’s employing a classic American business strategy to reach the largest audience possible. As he says, “When in Rome, I must do as the Romans do. When in America, copyright and trademark.” Whether his intention is to preserve the integrity of yoga or protect his booty is a matter of hot dispute.
From 2003 to 2011 the litigious yogi sued hundreds of studios that taught his branded method. Copyright infringement fees ran up to $150,000 for each violation, enough to make mom-and-pop yoga studios walk the plank. Most cases settled out of court, so Choudhury’s copyright claims went untested until the Bikram’s Yoga College of India LP v. Yoga to the People Inc. case in December 2011. The verdict: Choudhury’s copyright wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. It turned out he had obtained the original copyright as a choreography sequence—yoga postures are, in fact, considered exercises, which are not patentable material.
In response to cases of yoga piracy (the copyrighting of yoga postures), the Indian government collaborated with prominent Indian yoga schools to write the Digital Traditional Knowledge Library for use in patent offices. Intended to protect hallmarks of ancient Indian lifestyle from privatization, the digital library places yoga postures, breathing techniques and ayurvedic medicine in the public domain. Estimates suggest the library will fill 30 million digital pages. On the grounds that yoga developed in and emerged from India, the Indian government claims the authority to control its public legacy.
For the Hindu-American Foundation, however, it’s not enough to document the poses—it wants yoga’s religious roots to be the focal point of American yoga practice. Historians trace the classical system of yoga, developed between the second and fifth centuries B.C., back to the Bhagavad Gita, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and the Upanishads. After nearly a century of Americans’ divorcing popular yoga practice from religion, the HAF’s Take Back Yoga campaign went public in 2010, targeting Western secularists who claim yoga to be their own “spiritual practice.” Dr. Aseem Shukla, HAF’s cofounder, explains its reasoning: “Our issue is that yoga has thrived, but Hinduism has lost control of the brand.”