When Dharma means Business

Image: Jean Henrique Wichinoski
Bikram is a type of Hot Yoga, a modern take on an ancient Indian tradition used as a tool for meditative development.  Bikram merges this spiritual practice with an aggressive business model making it one of the most successful yoga franchises worldwide. Like many highly successful businesses, such gains cannot be met without a degree of cunning. What has resulted is a bastardisation of Yoga, and a lucrative empire with millions of avid if not misled supporters.

Bikram sets itself aside from ordinary yoga by heating its studios to 45 degrees at 40% humidity. The heat is used as a marketing tool to promote Bikram yoga as superior in increasing flexibility and weight-loss. However there are few studies which prove this superiority complex; in fact the American Council of Exercise compared Bikram Yoga to normal yoga and found there to be only minimal differences. Wheres Bickram yoga is known to feel intense, science cannot vouch for a proportionate physical benefit.
Business has diluted and corrupted a practice that should be approached with modesty and respect

Bikram Yoga is named after its creator Bikram Choudhry, “guru to the stars.” He is a man in his late 60s, a Yoga mogul whom has capitalised on his success using highly contended means. He begun on the road to success by trademarking his name and copyrighting his posture sequence – a move some would consider self-righteous given that the asanas preceded him thousands of years. Despite the yoga communities displeasure in his methods, his celebrity status lives on. Public figures such as Jennifer Anniston and Madonna are known members of his following. However not all people in high places support Choudry and his vision of capitalism. In 2006 the Indian Government took steps to prevent the pillaging of classical practices by building  the “Traditional Knowledge Digital Library”. This database documents traditions including yoga, to protect them from patent and corporate interest.

However logic and databases have been unable to protect individuals from Choudhry’s legal action. In 2003, him and his wife filed a lawsuit against Mark Morrison and his Buisness  Prana Incorporated. Claims of copyright infringement, trademark infringement and violation of the rights of publicity resulted in a big win for the Choudhrys. The case lost Morrison the right to practice Bikram’s sequence and had him pay Choudhry compensation for damages. This wasn’t the only win for Choudhry whom in 2011 took his former student Gumucio to court for teaching Bikram in New York. Gumucio agreed to stop using Bikram’s poses despite the US copyright office clarifying that choreography possessing medical benefits cannot be held under copyright. Regardless of this Gumucio no longer teaches the sequence and Choudhry continues to harass yoga studios across America.

  Immense benefits from regular practice

Unfortunately copyright disagreements are not the only lawsuits involving Choudhry. To date there have been 6 allegations of sexual assault brought against him, a cascade of victims coming forward to file civil law suits. Television interviews showed that Choudhry’s money and influence made some victims feel particularly powerless against him, explaining why a handful of victims initially refrained from police involvement. Many of Choudhry’s victims were participating on his teacher training programme – a $12,500-$16,600 undertaking, making it one of the most expensive Yoga Teacher Training programmes. Some victims felt that this financial investment was too burdensome to risk being kicked off the course if they did not concede to Bikram’s advances. In response to these allegations many studios have dropped Bikram’s name to avoid being associated with him.

Whereas many are displeased at how business has diluted and corrupted a practice that should be approached with modesty and respect, it is important not to dismiss peoples’ personal experiences of Bikram. Many have seen immense benefits from regular practice and feel it has positively impacted many areas of their life. However it could be beneficial for Bikram students to try other forms of Yoga – Hatha, Iyengar, Vinyasa to name but a few schools which align physical practice with spiritual wellbeing – core values which are not respected by Bikram and his business.

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