If you've ever contorted your body into rabbit pose in a 105 degree room, you may be familiar with Bikram Choudhury, the Beverly Hills-dwelling Indian-American who popularized Bikram yoga in the 70's.
Bikram yoga is controversial for many reasons, including Choudhury's efforts to sue anyone who uses his posture sequence without permission -- but now, a U.S. appeals court has officially ruled that yoga poses can't be copyrighted.
Choudhury, who has acted as yogi-to-the-stars for celebs like Madonna, Lady Gaga, Ashton Kutcher, and Kobe Bryant, initially detailed his customized sequence of yoga poses and breathing exercises in a book over 30 years ago.
The technique made him a millionaire, and Choudhury has repeatedly threatened to sue competing yoga studios for using the techniques he claims to have invented, despite the fact that, as Details writer Clancy Martin once pointed out, "Yoga is thought to date back 5,000 years, and for Hindus, claiming it as intellectual property is akin in Christian terms to copyrighting the Lord's Prayer."
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday (Oct. 8) that copyright law protects Choudhury's book, but not the sequence of yoga poses. To be clear, Bikram yoga uses yoga poses that have been around for thousands of years -- Choudhury was just trying to copyright the sequence.
The Los Angeles Times reported that one of the three judges who ruled in the case, Judge Kim McLane "described the Bikram succession of poses and two breathing exercises as 'an idea, process, or system designed to improve health' and to 'yield physical benefits and a sense of well-being,' and wrote that "copyright protects on the expression of this idea -- the words and pictures used to describe the sequence -- and not the idea of the sequence itself."
Bikram has also been criticized (along with many other forms of yoga in the West), for being culturally appropriative. Dr. Aseem Shukla, co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation, once spoke about Bikram in an interview with Details. "Call it exercise," he said. "Call it a good workout. Call it what you like. But don't call it yoga. It's a cynical appropriation of Hinduism."
According to the same L.A. Times report, Cydney Tune, a lawyer for Yoga Alliance and an expert in copyright law, "noted that yoga poses are thousands of years old and in the public domain," and that if Bikram had won and it was possible to copyright a sequence of poses, the consequences could be devastating for all kinds of fitness instructors.
“If you were an instructor, you could be infringing copyrights if you had your push-ups follow your flys,” Tune told the L.A. Times. “Everybody would be afraid.” The L.A. Times also noted that this is the same reason you can't copyright a recipe or a surgical technique.
“[Now] Everyone will have the freedom to teach and practice yoga without worrying they will be infringing a copyright based on the order in which they did the poses,” Tune told the L.A. Times.
This isn't the first time the Rolex-wearing yogi has been embroiled in controversy -- Choudhury has also faced lawsuits from a number of women alleging that he sexually assaulted them. He denies the allegations, and has never faced criminal charges.