Indian Government in Knots Over U.S. Yoga Patents

Indian government argues that U.S. patents on yoga encroach on India's heritage.


May 22, 2007 — -- An international battle over yoga has the Indian government all bent out of shape.

Last week, in response to reports that the United States had granted a patent to a yoga instructor, several members of the Indian parliament took to the media and blasted the U.S. Patent Office for giving out patents on yoga products and teaching methods.

The U.S. Patent Office maintains that it has not given out patents for yoga routines but has granted numerous patents for yoga-related products.

Nevertheless, India -- the country that boasts of having invented yoga -- is aiming to keep the ancient practice free of commercial entanglements and ownership. As first reported in the Indian press and in a recent New York Times op-ed, India has gone on the attack.

"We have had yoga for 5,000 years. It is not proper for anyone to give out patents on yoga," Vijay Kumar Malhotra, spokesman for the Indian parliament's Bharatiya Janata Party, told ABC News.

Though Malhotra did not name names, the Indian media has swirled with rumors that parliament is specifically targeting Bikram Choudhury, arguably the best-known yoga patent holder in the United States.

Choudhury, who was born in Calcutta but now lives Los Angeles, built his Bikram Yoga empire on a series of 26 carefully choreographed asanas, or yoga positions, performed in a heated room and accompanied by a specific set of instructions. All of this, according to Choudhury, is patented, copyrighted and trademarked.

"I have a brand name," he said.

The Bikram Yoga brand has made Choudhury something of a celebrity -- his studios are all over the country, he sprinkles conversation with the names of A-list clients and friends like Quincy Jones and Shirley MacLaine, and his brand of yoga is practically a household name. Every year he reaps the profits from his best-selling books, videos and exclusive line of yoga clothing.

Yet despite the notoriety, or perhaps because of it, Choudhury is a divisive figure in the yoga world. Indians argue that he has stolen their ancient traditions and is now profiting from them, while Choudhury believes he is entitled to protect his style of yoga since he created it.

"No one in the world does yoga the way I do -- not even in India," he said.

Vinod Gupta, head of the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, an electronic encyclopedia of India's traditional medicine, sees it differently.

"It is not his own," said Gupta. "Those asanas were created in 2500 B.C."

Gupta's Digital Library is an archive-in-the-making. He and his team are cataloging all of India's ancient knowledge on medicine to prevent individuals in other countries from patenting drugs or remedies that have existed in Indian culture for centuries.

The library was created in 2001 after India won its first patent battle against the United States. The United States had given out a patent on turmeric -- an ancient Indian medicinal remedy -- and India succeeded in having the patent revoked.

Again, the U.S. Patent Office said Choudhury does not hold a patent on his Bikram brand of yoga, but he does have patents on related products. And the routine itself is protected by a copyright, and since he also holds a trademark on his sequence of moves, he controls how Bikram Yoga is marketed and sold.

None of these legal protections allow Choudhury to "own" his routine -- people are still free to practice it in the park, for example. But no one can market themselves as a licensed Bikram practitioner without his OK .

Despite the brewing controversy, Choudhury said he remains unfazed. He believes that rather than trying to block him from making money, India should focus on making its own profits from yoga.

"Yoga is a multimillion dollar industry," he said. "How much has India made out of it? Nothing. I think they are a little bit jealous."

Nevertheless, Gupta and the Indian government remain focused on their goal -- to protect yoga as an Indian invention. Gupta said he believes that by issuing patents, the U.S. government may be allowing individuals to restrict the practice.

"No one is against Bikram making money, but he shouldn't stop others from teaching yoga. We are not saying that you cannot perform yoga until you pay the government of India. We are saying, yoga belongs to our culture. It's our heritage," he said. "We want the system of knowledge that is India's to be available to everyone but not appropriated to a few."

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