Yoga Soars As Americans Seek Refuge From Economy

In 2003, Choudhury caused an uproar when he copyrighted the 26 sequences that make up his distinctive form of yoga, practiced in 105 degree heat. Over the years, courts have sided in his favor when the copyright was challenged. Choudhury has also set up a franchise that now oversees hundreds of studios around the world and whose owners must each be re-certified every three years.

A representative of Bikram's Yoga College of India, the Los-Angeles-based parent company, tells ABC News.com that Choudhury is out of the country and not immediately available for comment.

Yoga Franchises and Bootcamps

Other popular yoga masters have since followed his lead. There's Baron Baptiste, who introduced "Power Vinyasa Yoga" and now runs bootcamps and teacher certifications around the country. There's John Friend's "Anusara Yoga." There's Duncan Wong's "YogicArts."

"When you get to be a teacher at the mega yogi level, and you're selling DVDs and books and charging thousands of dollars for appearances, you are basically a yoga corporation," says Neal Pollack, author of the upcoming book "Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude." As such, these entrepreneurs have little choice but to sue when others try to steal their techniques. "That's what corporations do to protect their business interests."

Others disagree. There's a large contingent of yoga devotees who believe they more closely follow the practice's ancient tradition of ascetism and spirituality. They are the ones who argue that yoga wisdom should not be trademarked, since yoga only exists today thanks to a tradition of teachings passed on through the generations.

Selling Yoga Like 'Sausages'

In a New York Times op-ed a few years ago, the Indian-American writer Suketu Mehta pointed out that "yoga" means "union" in Sanskrit, and that Indians believe in a universal mind that all human beings can tap.

"It's a mystery to most Indians that anybody can make that much money from the teaching of a knowledge that is not supposed to be bought or sold like sausages," writes Mehta. "Should an Indian, in retaliation, patent the Heimlich maneuver so that he can collect every time a waiter saves a customer from choking on a fishbone?"

Among mainstream US yoga experts, however, most seem to defend entrepreneurs' rights to profit from customer demand. They point out that many Americans practice yoga as a form of exercise, not as a path to spiritual enlightenment and that anyone who does prefer a more ascetic form can easily opt out of the commercialized version.

Says author Pollack: "As with anything, you have people following it for altruistic purposes, and others for capitalist intentions. Just because it helps people in the aggregate doesn't mean it's exempt from the dark side of human nature."

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