Two Yogis Battle Over the Fate of a Tradition (And a Very Large Pile of Money)
In a large Chinese banquet hall in Boston, hung with open-mouthed dragons and bulbous red lanterns, the hot yogis have taken over. Seventy Bikram yoga teachers are sprawled between the tables. At the helm of it all, clad in a black silk suit, a rhinestone tie, and a diamond encrusted Rolex, is one of the world's most famous yoga instructors, Bikram Choudhury.
The small, svelte man from Calcutta runs his hands anxiously through thin, wiry hair that falls from a mostly bare crown past his shoulders. Despite his diminutive looks, his presence clearly commands the room. Heads flick in his direction from other tables, eager for proximity to — and attention from — the man they consider to be their personal guru.
Everyone here practices the Bikram method of yoga, a series of 26 postures and two breathing sequences performed for 90 minutes in a climate-controlled environment of 105 degrees. It's the only correct way to practice yoga, Bikram insists. Everything else is "shit."
I have been granted the seat of honor beside him. While everyone else is discussing yoga, we are talking about one of the ugliest lawsuits to occur in this otherwise tranquil world.
"I am going to go to trial to get him punishment, to make him an example, so no one will ever have the guts to do that same kind of shit," says Bikram, a man so synonymous with yoga that people are often surprised to learn he is still living, and not just a mythical icon.
In September, he sued Greg Gumucio, his former student and right-hand man, for copyright infringement. Gumucio once occupied the chair where I now sit. But for the past several years, he's distanced himself from his former mentor, starting his own chain of competing studios, Yoga to the People (YTTP).
Since 2006, Gumucio has been growing a strong business on the coasts. He charges only $8 for a single class, while a standard Bikram class costs between $15 and $25. The result has been a billowing client roster. A total of nearly 1,000 students pass through Gumucio's four New York City studios each day.
Bikram originally turned a blind eye to Gumucio's hotter hot yoga until last September, when a Bikram studio in Manhattan was forced to close due to competition from two YTTP studios thriving nearby. That's when Bikram decided to sue Gumucio for copyright and trademark infringement, unfair business practices, and breach of contract.
Though yoga is a centuries-old tradition, Bikram had copyrighted his particular version under the same protections afforded choreographers. And he had used it to bat down competitors from practicing it without paying franchise fees.
But Gumucio proved the greatest threat to his multimillion-dollar empire.
Bikram's lawsuit asserts that Gumucio not only stole his intellectual property, but jeopardized the success of other Bikram studios. When placed head to head, his studios struggle to compete with Gumucio's discount pricing and populist practices. And since YTTP teachers are trained by Gumucio, Bikram contends that the entire field has been cheapened by the selling of a lesser product, the same way Chinese knock-offs damage the reputation of Louis Vuitton purses.
For Bikram, a man who believes he saves lives through his yoga, any alteration to his method not only devalues his product, but defiles his legacy. He sees his life's work on grand terms, and having his business undermined by his former protege isn't just a legal battle, but a moral one.
"I always forgave my students, like Jesus," he says. "But I reached a point where I have to protect my regular legal schools."
Bikram moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s. His first book, published in 1978, preached that his hot yoga sessions could heal everything from knee injuries to obesity and arthritis. Through the years he appeared on programs like The Tonight Show and 60 Minutes. His message remained the same: Kill yourself for 90 minutes a day and he would single-handedly transform your life.
In health-crazed Hollywood, this small man from Calcutta seemed to have the key to the fountain of youth. Over the next four decades, his clients would include three presidents — Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton — in addition to George Harrison, Charlie Sheen, Prince Harry, and Jennifer Aniston.
"Lady Gaga listens to me," he boasted to a Boston audience this summer. "Her mantra is only one word — Bikram — because Bikram makes her what she is today. It works."
Today, his success has earned him celebrity and the wealth to match. He lives in the Hollywood Hills with his collection of Rolls-Royces, earning an estimated $7 million annually.
"I kind of run this city," he says. "They depend on me."
It wasn't until 1994, however, that he began training new teachers en masse in his fabled method. At that point, there were only four Bikram studios in the world, all in the United States, and Bikram was still training teachers one-on-one, the traditional method in India.
But as part of his new approach, he began schooling larger and larger numbers of people at a time, eventually working his way up to 400 people in one session. The courses weren't cheap — today they run $10,900 per student. He was training so many students that, eight years later, he decided to copyright his method. If someone wanted to teach his style of hot yoga, he or she had to sign a franchise agreement — with the requisite fees kicked back to Bikram.
There are now more than 330 studios in America — 600 worldwide — with the greatest concentration in California, where Bikram yoga is offered at 86 separate locations.
Over the years, a handful of former students have attempted to set up unaffiliated studios. Bikram successfully sued a few of them. But none of these insurrections have been as big, painful, or lengthy as his current battle with Gumucio, his former favorite student.
The various suits have sent a palpable chill through the world of hot yoga, considered the largest and fastest-growing segment of the field. Bikram claims that 35 million Americans practiced his brand of yoga last year alone.
Like his former mentor, Gumucio has dark, shoulder-length hair, though his flows in luscious waves. Heavy eyebrows and a large Roman nose accent a ruddy, usually unshaven face. If Bikram seems like the energizer bunny, a constant stream of nervous energy, Gumucio is his counterpart, exuding a slow, cavalier confidence.
They first met in Los Angeles in 1996. Gumucio had quit his job as a Seattle radio announcer and moved to L.A., somewhat on a whim. He'd taken only three Bikram classes when his sister convinced him to enroll with her in the teacher training program.
That first day, he attempted to stand in the half-moon pose, his feet together, arms pressed tight overhead, torso stretched to the right. Ideally, the body curves into an upside-down L shape, which requires the sides of the body to stretch further than feels humanly possible and leaves one's abdomen shaking. Yet the novice strained to tilt more than a few inches to the side. As his eyes focused on his posture in the mirror, Gumucio says, Bikram approached him from behind.
"What the hell are you doing here?" the teacher asked quietly.
Gumucio smiled. "Well, I'm here to do your teacher training."
Their eyes locked in the mirror, Gumucio still struggling to bend his body sideways. "Good luck," Bikram said, giving him a look of slight disgust before moving on.
"So for the next eight weeks, he literally tried to kill me," Gumucio says. "I mean, maybe not literally, but he made it, like, uncomfortable, because I think he couldn't believe this guy with so little training would go to the teacher training."
To the uninitiated, a Bikram class can seem like a cult. It's not uncommon to see girls brush the guru's hair or massage his body as he lectures, as if he were a deity.
One day, while struggling through class, Gumucio says he decided to take matters into his own hands. He signaled to one of the girls that he wanted to take over. "I decided to massage the evil villain in my life," he recalls, laughing. According to Gumucio, Bikram was impressed.
"From that day forward, he was nice to me," says Gumucio. "But I had to pay a different kind of, you know, penalty. Because then he made me massage him, like, every single day for, like, four hours a day. I would be dripping with sweat all over, just from working on this crazy man."
All that fawning worked. By the end of Gumucio's training, the men had formed a close friendship. Six months later, says Gumucio, Bikram trusted him to return to Los Angeles to run his world headquarters studio and stay in his home, while Bikram and his family went to India on vacation.
Gumucio had been welcomed into the inner circle of one of the world's foremost yogis.
"He is a very good disciple at the beginning," Bikram would later say. "He was my good student."
Their relationship would remain solid for the next five years. Gumucio helped with teacher training and speaking engagements. The men vacationed together and stayed in each other's homes.
Gumucio would go on to open four studios in Seattle, but they weren't called "Bikram yoga." Instead, he used generic names like "Yoga Fitness." The field had yet to see the popularity it has today, and Gumucio believed that greater success could be had by appealing to a wider, more athletic audience than the "new-age, tree-hugging" type Bikram attracted.
Yet their friendship began to strain in 2000. That's when Gumucio met John McAfee, a software billionaire turned yoga teacher, and visited his Colorado estate. The pair immediately clicked. Soon McAfee was inviting him to teach at a retreat, spending several days in nature practicing yoga in complete silence. By the time it was over, Gumucio decided he wanted to teach multiple forms of yoga, incorporating McAfee's kriya method, which focuses on the spine.
"That's when things started to go south," Gumucio says. Bikram felt a sting of betrayal at seeing his protege take on a new mentor. "He said, 'You cannot be a fucking prostitute. You cannot have your feet in two holes.'"
At the same time, other students had begun to rebel against Bikram. They formed Open Source Yoga Unity (OSYU) "to get out from under his brain," says Gumucio.
For a $500 membership fee, hot yoga teachers could join OSYU anonymously, in the process gaining an advocate that would help them "teach yoga freely."
In 2005, the group sued Bikram for sending its members cease-and-desist letters, only to lose the case. Though the settlement remains confidential, California U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton granted Bikram a summary judgment, agreeing that OSYU had violated his copyright. (OSYU declined comment for this story).
Gumucio was invited to join OSYU, but passed. His life had once again taken a new turn.
When his girlfriend got a job in New York, he sold his Seattle studios and followed her east to start a family. He also severed his relationship with Bikram.
Gumucio removed himself from the yoga world until 2006, when he rented a small space in Manhattan and began teaching a donation-based class each Sunday. His role model at the time was Bryan Kest, who'd launched donation-based power yoga studios in Santa Monica and believes in making yoga accessible to everyone.
Gumucio's first class had just 10 students. By the third Sunday, so many people showed up they all couldn't fit in one room.
Yoga to the People was born. Over the next six years, Gumucio opened five studios in New York, and expanded to Seattle, San Francisco, and Berkeley.
"Yoga studios make pretty damn good money," says Gumucio. "What I did with the $8 yoga, you just get more people . . . So it's math. The price point is lower so we get a bigger volume."
But it wasn't just price that allowed Gumucio to gain so much ground on his mentor. If Bikram's theory was based on rigidity and obedience to an ultimate authority figure, Gumucio took the opposite approach, branding his studios with an everyman's populism.
Gumucio's mission statement: "There will be no right answers. No glorified teachers. No ego, no script, no pedestals. No, 'You're not good enough or rich enough.' This yoga is for everyone."
"Yogis can be very elitist and give you attitude at the front desk when you walk in," says Ted Caine, who has taught at YTTP for four years. "I hate that, the 'we are better people because we do yoga.' I think that's dumb."
Yet while philosophy remains the outer crust of the dispute between Bikram and Gumucio, at heart it's a battle over money. Lot and lots of money. The industry is growing so fast that it's expected to reach $8.3 billion in sales by 2016.
With that much at stake, it was only a matter of time until the lawyers showed up.
Practitioners describe hot yoga as if it were as powerful — and addictive — as any drug. First-timers enter a studio with empty stomachs (if they are smart), but nothing prepares them for the wave of 105-degree heat that refuses to subside.
Anxiety begins to gather in their chests well before the first water break at the 20-minute mark. By the sixth of 26 poses — as they try to balance on one leg while pulling the other leg into a standing split — black spots start to pop before their eyes. At the end of the class, students are left flat on their backs catching their breath, hair matted, and clothes soaked.
Outsiders might consider it a torture only a fool would choose to endure. But for true believers, something euphoric is delivered: They feel amazing.
Yet the Bikram-Gumucio feud has caused a nationwide divide, slicing the country's yoga practitioners into two schools of thought. Much like warring religious sects, they practice nearly the exact same form of yoga, but speak slightly different dialects. In the end, it's not a battle over questions great and eternal, but over the interests of two charismatic leaders whose followers are forced to choose sides.
For many Bikram students, there is a sense of profound respect and admiration for their yogi. And they invoke the yoga code: the belief that followers must respect the lineage and leader of the specific style of yoga they practice. Without properly trained teachers, students won't get the proper benefits. And if the Bikram method is allowed to be diluted, a great tradition will be lost.
"I just know I wouldn't be able to do that," Tricia Donegan says of Gumucio's discount studios. She owns a Bikram studio in New York and is best known as Lady Gaga's instructor.
"I wouldn't be able to pay the teacher the standard I want, pay for the heat system, the amenities, the shower, the space, the rent — keeping it the way it should be so the studio is not completely packed and crowded . . . If he makes it more affordable to people who can't afford it, I am all for that. If it starts to bring down the value of a yoga studio . . . then I think it becomes a problem."
To Donegan, this isn't a fight over money or market supremacy. It's a moral fray, a clear contest between right and wrong.
"He's not a businessman," she says of Bikram. "He's a terrible businessman. He's not copyrighting to make money. He just wants everyone to do his product the right way, because it is the right way."
This is the legacy Bikram hoped to protect by suing Gumucio. But as he has brought his foe's business practices into the limelight, his own are being scrutinized more than ever. For the past nine months, the validity of Bikram's copyright has been called into question repeatedly, most recently by the U.S. Copyright Office itself.
While the various yoga practices belong to the long tradition of Indian culture, the specific arrangement of these poses can be uniquely organized, and thus potentially owned by an individual — or so it was previously thought.
On June 22, the Copyright Office seemed to reverse itself. Deputy General Counsel Robert Kasunic issued a clarification, declaring that if yoga postures improve health, they cannot be copyrighted. He added that any prior yoga copyrights were "issued in error."
The announcement threw the dispute into the air. Now, the question isn't just whether Gumucio violated a copyright, but whether Bikram's copyright is valid at all.
This would appear to leave Bikram on thin ice. The healing of ailments has always been his primary selling point. Or at least that's how Gumucio sees it.
"Not only does this get me out of my legal mess, but it critically and unequivocally says yoga cannot be copyrighted," he says.
Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple. Nothing to do with the federal government ever is.
While Kasunic admits that Bikram's copyright likely was issued in error, and that no new copyrights will be issued to yoga, he also says his office has no plans to re-evaluate the ones already issued.
In other words, his is a quintessential government mea culpa: Yes, we probably messed up. But you don't expect us to actually do anything about it, do you?
Instead, Bikram and Gumucio will have to wait for a judge to settle their war when the case goes to trial in Los Angeles some time next year.
To most of the country, the yoga war may be nothing more than another mercantile fight between two titans wrestling over the spoils of their industry. Yet back at the banquet hall in Boston, Bikram frames Gumucio as a villain on par with the all-time greats.
"If you have a sick body, a screw-loose brain, you will only be surviving — that will be a man like Greg, Hitler, or Osama Bin Laden," he says, between bites of plump scallops.
Bikram now claims "zero feeling" for his old disciple and believes that the American courts eventually will decide that rectitude is at his side, where it rightfully belongs.
"You cannot steal somebody's intellectual property. Law and justice protect," Bikram says, leaning close to be heard amid the roar of conversation, his small brown eyes red with exhaustion. "Because I'm a sweet, kind guy, everybody think I'm an idiot, I'm weak. Now I have to protect my franchising. If I don't, nobody will buy my franchising anymore."
Suddenly, there is the chime of a butter knife clinking against a wine glass for quiet. It comes from one of Bikram's close friends, who is standing with his arm around the guru's wife, Rajashree.
"Today is Bikram and Rajashree's 23rd wedding anniversary," the man announces proudly as the room erupts in applause.
"Oh, I forgot! Shit!" Bikram exclaims as a large mango cake is wheeled to the center of the room. "I forgot completely! Shit! Why you didn't remind me? Shit! You keep me too busy!"
The yogis sing "happy anniversary" to the tune of "Happy Birthday." Then Bikram announces that, far from forgetting the occasion, he has bought his wife one of the world's most expensive cars, an $800,000 Rolls-Royce convertible.
Bikram seems to inflate with energy as he addresses his followers. "You work hard to make me famous," he says. "Something I did right all over the globe."
"Brainwashing!" someone calls out.
Bikram laughs. "Nobody in the world ever did this," he continues. "Nobody built a family like this."
A family — with all the usual exclusions and estrangements.
When he returns to the table, Bikram turns to me. "Greg Gumucio, he's finished," he says. "He's ass in the grass."
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