Bikram Yoga’s Arab Spring

Various studios around the country challenged his iron-fist approach; others simply closed down, or they altered the sequence, removing all language and resemblance to Bikram Yoga in order to appease him. Hence, Bikram-like doppelgängers called “hot yoga” have sprung up around the country.

In June of last year, the federal Copyright Office issued a clarification on compilation copyrights in general—including Mr. Choudhury’s claim—saying specifically that the copyright for his sequence of yoga moves was issued “in error.”

Pupils pose as a photograph of Mr. Gumucio and Mr. Choudhury hangs outside. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

Pupils pose as a photograph of Mr. Gumucio and Mr. Choudhury hangs outside. (Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

“This, in my eyes, was a fight for the future freedom of yoga,” Mr. Gumucio said after he settled with Mr. Choudhury, adding that he chose to alter the sequence despite the original copyright ruling because he wanted to “free” his classes from Mr. Choudhury.

Beyond the settlement for Yoga to the People, the Copyright Office’s decision has effectively declawed Mr. Choudhury. Benjamin Lorr, a former student of Mr. Choudhury’s and the author of a book, Hell-Bent, about his experiences in the world of Bikram Yoga, said that lifting the copyright has resulted in an “Arab spring” of hot yoga. Without the copyright on the sequence, the entire yoga community is free to take nearly everything but the Bikram name.

“There are two sides—there’s one side that’s very loyal to [Mr. Choudhury], and to them, it doesn’t matter if he loses these lawsuits, because it’s a respect issue,” Mr. Lorr said.  “There’s another side that’s quietly beginning to think, hey, the emperor doesn’t have any clothes on, and I can go off and teach whatever I want.”

HotYogaAlliance.com, a message board for hot yoga teachers, is abuzz with chatter about whether or not they stay beholden to their guru or cut their ties. “In my opinion Bikram has lost his way and his original intention has been clouded with greed and ego,” one poster said. “I do think it is important now maybe more than ever to separate Bikram the man from the yoga.”

In New York City, studio owners are deciding whether or not they will continue to send their teachers to Mr. Choudhury at all for teacher training. Competitors like Yoga to the People are even offering their own training seminars.

(Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

(Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

Tricia Donegan, a Bikram studio owner on the Lower East Side who has remained loyal to Mr. Choudhury, said that she’s been noticing shorter classes across the city, down from Mr. Choudhury’s required 90-minute routine. “The hot yoga in New York has gone from 90 minutes to 75 to 60 minutes,” she said. “Now there is a lot of inconsistency in the product. It deflates the standard and integrity of the yoga.”

Others disagree. “Yoga is about the mind, body and soul, and I feel [Mr. Choudhury] has chipped away at his soul with this lawsuit,” Keanna Louise, a new student of hot yoga, said, wiping the sweat from her brow, after the debut class of Yoga to the People’s new sequence. That day’s session was free. Henceforward, it would be $8, nearly $20 cheaper than a comparable Bikram Yoga class.

After revealing the new positions for the first time, Ms. Dombrowski hugged some students she recognized. She turned down the temperature in the studio and shut the door. To the left of the door hung a photograph of Mr. Choudhury seated in the center of a studio. Mr. Gumucio is standing behind him, smiling.