Originally published Business2 Magazine/September 2002 by Paul Keegan
Yogis Behaving Badly
“Be successful” is the new mantra of the yoga universe, which has become so competitive that trying to crack the big leagues is far more difficult than it was even a few years ago. But how do yogis in our covetous culture separate themselves from the pack without violating asteya, the yama that strictly forbids stealing? For millennia, the intricate techniques of yoga were passed down freely from teacher to student. Today they form a collection of highly marketable intellectual properties — a phenomenon that has only encouraged some rather unenlightened behavior.
Bikram says there has been so much stealing of his “hot yoga” techniques during the last few years that he had to spend $500,000 in January for a lawyer to trademark his sequence of 26 asanas, or yoga poses, as well as his word-for-word monologues describing how to do them. Thus yoga, the franchise, was born. “People were doing illegal things,” Bikram growls. “I had to stop them.”
At Jivamukti in New York City — the downtown studio with 2,000 students per week and a website that lists 51 celebrity clients, from Steve Martin to Monica Lewinsky — owner David Life complains that several former teachers have set up shop nearby, offering the same method he painstakingly developed with co-owner Sharon Gannon during the last 17 years. “They’re not calling themselves Jivamukti, but the staff is almost 100 percent certified through our training program,” Life says, adding that he might consider taking action if they start using the word Jivamukti — which, naturally, the couple has trademarked.
Yoga teachers respond that big schools like Jivamukti and Yoga Works in Los Angeles don’t pay them nearly enough — $25 per class with 10 students, plus $2.50 for each additional student the teacher attracts, is not unusual — despite having revenue of well over $1 million per year. Such schools make the situation worse, they say, by requiring teachers to sign contracts that prohibit them from teaching at other schools within a wide geographical radius. “Most teachers simply want to share it, to give the gift of yoga,” says Mark Stephens, who recently opened the L.A. Yoga Center in Westwood. “Schools shouldn’t have contracts preventing them from doing that.”
Yoga scholars say these clashes are the inevitable result of trying to sell a spiritual experience that shouldn’t be marketed in the first place. But that hasn’t slowed the mad dash to own a slice of divinity: When Stephens started his business, he was amazed to find that nearly every sacred yoga word or phrase had been trademarked. The latest: A New York company selling “perfumes and colognes and essential oils for personal use” has applied for a trademark for “shanti,” the ancient Sanskrit word for peace. read more