Bikram Yoga’s Arab Spring

At noon on a recent Friday, 40 people filed into Yoga to the People’s 27th Street hot yoga studio. “We’re going to be doing a new class today,” instructor Lindsay Dombrowski announced. “It’s going to be super-intense.”

Wearing a tight tank top and short green shorts, Ms. Dombrowski led her nearly naked pupils through a series of poses, or asanas.

(Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

(Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

At one point, instead of stretching into the Awkward Pose, in which students squat with their hands jutting outward, she directed them to the Thunderbolt Pose, in which students’ palms stretch directly overhead.

The position swap was one of six changes that the studio’s instructors have made to the traditional Bikram Yoga regimen, a sequence of 26 yoga moves promoted by Bikram Choudhury and taught in Bikram studios around the world.

Until very recently, fiddling with Mr. Choudhury’s tightly guarded yoga practice in any way would have been a heresy tantamount to dashing off new verses for the Bible. In the same vein, the use of the poses in uncertified studios was fiercely forbidden.

The new poses at Yoga to the People, which debuted earlier this month, are the result of a legal settlement between the studio’s founder, Greg Gumucio, and Mr. Choudhury, who sued Mr. Gumucio last year for copyright infringement, among other complaints.

For more than 30 years, Mr. Choudhury has carefully guarded his 90-minute regimen, performed in 105-degree rooms, by copyrighting the order of the positions, charging aspiring teachers large training fees and insisting upon complete control of the practice. Mr. Choudhury has ferociously protected his franchise, suing numerous protégés for infringement and shuttering their studios.

Various studios around the country challenged his iron-fist approach; others simply closed down, or they altered the sequence, removing all language and resemblance to Bikram Yoga in order to appease him. Hence, Bikram-like doppelgängers called “hot yoga” have sprung up around the country.

Hot yoga practitioners perform Vasisthasana, or the Side Plank Pose, in a new Bikram-less class at Yoga to the People. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

Hot yoga practitioners perform Vasisthasana, or the Side Plank Pose, in a new Bikram-less class at Yoga to the People. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

In June of last year, the federal Copyright Office issued a clarification on compilation copyrights in general—including Mr. Choudhury’s claim—saying specifically that the copyright for his sequence of yoga moves was issued “in error.”

“This, in my eyes, was a fight for the future freedom of yoga,” Mr. Gumucio said after he settled with Mr. Choudhury, adding that he chose to alter the sequence despite the original copyright ruling because he wanted to “free” his classes from Mr. Choudhury.

Beyond the settlement for Yoga to the People, the Copyright Office’s decision has effectively declawed Mr. Choudhury. Benjamin Lorr, a former student of Mr. Choudhury’s and the author of a book, Hell-Bent, about his experiences in the world of Bikram Yoga, said that lifting the copyright has resulted in an “Arab spring” of hot yoga. Without the copyright on the sequence, the entire yoga community is free to take nearly everything but the Bikram name.

Pupils pose as a photograph of Mr. Gumucio and Mr. Choudhury hangs outside. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

Pupils pose as a photograph of Mr. Gumucio and Mr. Choudhury hangs outside. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

“There are two sides—there’s one side that’s very loyal to [Mr. Choudhury], and to them, it doesn’t matter if he loses these lawsuits, because it’s a respect issue,” Mr. Lorr said.  “There’s another side that’s quietly beginning to think, hey, the emperor doesn’t have any clothes on, and I can go off and teach whatever I want.”

HotYogaAlliance.com, a message board for hot yoga teachers, is abuzz with chatter about whether or not they stay beholden to their guru or cut their ties. “In my opinion Bikram has lost his way and his original intention has been clouded with greed and ego,” one poster said. “I do think it is important now maybe more than ever to separate Bikram the man from the yoga.”

In New York City, studio owners are deciding whether or not they will continue to send their teachers to Mr. Choudhury at all for teacher training. Competitors like Yoga to the People are even offering their own training seminars.

Tricia Donegan, a Bikram studio owner on the Lower East Side who has remained loyal to Mr. Choudhury, said that she’s been noticing shorter classes across the city, down from Mr. Choudhury’s required 90-minute routine. “The hot yoga in New York has gone from 90 minutes to 75 to 60 minutes,” she said. “Now there is a lot of inconsistency in the product. It deflates the standard and integrity of the yoga.”

(Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

(Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

Others disagree. “Yoga is about the mind, body and soul, and I feel [Mr. Choudhury] has chipped away at his soul with this lawsuit,” Keanna Louise, a new student of hot yoga, said, wiping the sweat from her brow, after the debut class of Yoga to the People’s new sequence. That day’s session was free. Henceforward, it would be $8, nearly $20 cheaper than a comparable Bikram Yoga class.

After revealing the new positions for the first time, Ms. Dombrowski hugged some students she recognized. She turned down the temperature in the studio and shut the door. To the left of the door hung a photograph of Mr. Choudhury seated in the center of a studio. Mr. Gumucio is standing behind him, smiling.


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