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Bikram Originator Sues Yoga to the People for 'Stealing' Poses

By Serena Solomon | November 30, 2011 12:00pm
The sign outside Yoga to the People at its East Village location on St. Mark's Pl.
The sign outside Yoga to the People at its East Village location on St. Mark's Pl.
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EAST VILLAGE — Yoga to the People has been forced into a painful pose.

Yoga guru Bikram Choudhury, creator of the worldwide yoga craze known at Bikram Yoga, has sued the East Village-based yoga studio, claiming its founder Gregory Gumucio ripped off his style by illegally using Bikram's copyrighted poses and super-heated rooms inside Yoga to the People classes.

“The particular class identified in the case is a virtual mirror image of Bikram Yoga and it used virtually verbatim the Bikram Yoga dialogue,” Choudhury's lawyer, Robert Gilchrest, told DNAinfo, adding that they sent an undercover investigator into a YTTP "Traditional Hot Yoga" class to inspect it prior to filing the lawsuit in California on Sept. 27.

The lawsuit accuses Gumucio of "nam[ing] the class 'Traditional Hot Yoga' in order to conceal the fact that the class incorporates and infringes upon, among other things, Bikram's copyrighted Asana Sequence and Dialogue" — including a strict 90-minute regimen that follows a rigid format of 26 poses performed in a 105-degree room.

Choudhury founded Bikram — also known as "hot yoga" —in the 1970s and copyrighted it in 2002, as it skyrocketed to success and began being practiced by a host of celebrities, including Lady Gaga.

The lawsuit seeks damages in excess of $1 million, as well as an injunction stopping Yoga to the People from conducting hot yoga classes.

It's the latest in a series of lawsuits by Choudhury,  who also sued Prana Yoga in Los Angeles in 2003, claiming copyright infringement similar to the YTTP lawsuit. Prana Yoga settled, agreeing to pay out “substantial monetary compensation,” according to a Bikram Yoga press release.

Other local yoga studios have also taken issue with what they call YTTP's under-cutting prices and unlicensed yoga classes.

Bikram Yoga Manhattan, which is licensed to use the Bikram name, closed its Midtown branch in early August. The owner, Raffael Pacitti, blamed YTTP for eroding his business with rock-bottom prices and uncertified teachers, according to a Daily News article.

It costs $10,000 per teacher to be certified as a Bikram instructor, according to the lawsuit.

Gumucio called the lawsuit "ridiculous" and added, "I think that yoga should be made available to everybody. It should be in the hands of the people, not in the hands of a few.”

Gumucio said he was first introduced to yoga at a Bikram Yoga training program in 1996, and considered himself Choudhury’s right-hand man for five years, before the pair fell out of favor.

“He started talking about suing people, and I didn’t feel comfortable,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Bikram Yoga's Los Angeles headquarters declined to comment on Gumicio or the lawsuit.

Gumucio said YTTP's mission — which began in 2005 at 12 St Mark’s Pl. and has grown to include a dozen studios nationwide — is to provide affordable, accessible yoga. In the face of designer yoga studios and high prices, YTTP  offers classes with a suggested donation of $5 or $10 and charges $8 for the “Traditional Hot Yoga” class — less than half the price of an average $20 fee from a single a Bikram yoga class.

Those filing into YTTP’s original studio Tuesday night said they rejected the idea that any yoga pose could be protected by copyright.

“It is crazy and it shouldn’t be allowed,” said 20-year-old student Jamie Farley, who had arrived for a 9 p.m. class. “It is like writing a book on walking and copyrighting walking.”

“Yoga needs to be available to everyone. They can’t own it,” added Ian Foster, a 25-year-old East Village resident, who said it would be hard for him to afford a yoga class without YTTP's discounted rate.

Before each class, instructors at YTTP have been notifying students about the lawsuit, requesting them to sign a petition defending the studio.

So far more than 3,000 people have signed on, Gumucio said. Despite the support of those who practice at YTTP and his confidence in the studio's case, he said he would be forced to stop offering "Traditional Hot Yoga" classes if he lost his studios.

“If the court said he owns it then he owns it," Gumucio said, "but it will be a sad day for humanity."

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misstated the location of the Prana Yoga studio sued by Bikram Choudhury in 2003. That studio is located in Los Angeles, not Miami.