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    South Asia
     May 9, 2012

Yoga all in a twist
By Neeta Lal

NEW DELHI - A spate of unsavory controversies in the United States is cracking up yoga's wholesome image, with accusations of financial fraud, sexual misconduct and copyright issues involving asanas (positions) plaguing the community.

As a result, India, the land where the physical, mental and spiritual discipline of yoga began in ancient times, is truly getting itself into a twist.

The intensifying debates around yoga seem all the more pertinent considering the staggering reach of the discipline and the exponentially growing business around it.

An estimated 16 million Americans practice yoga, which generates, according to the Yoga Journal, US$5.7 billion annually in class fees, books and video sales, sale of mats and other


accessories. There are about 100,000 yoga instructors in the US, while an unofficial estimate puts the number of teachers in India at 175,000.

Often, it is the issue of "ownership" or copyright/trademark over a particular system of yoga that is the bone of contention. This is because apart from a spectrum of yogas - Hatha yoga, Tantra yoga, Ashtanga yoga or Hot yoga, to name a few - the practice has mutated into countless sub-strands that are being embraced by millions across the world.

This has resulted in many yoga studios and instructors claiming copyright to their "style". By 2008, the US Patent and Trademark Office had issued 150 yoga-related copyrights and 2,315 yoga trademarks.

The most recent case involves Bikram Chowdhary, founder of the "hot yoga" school known as Bikram Yoga, who has copyrighted a sequence of poses in the US and licensed these to teachers.

Trouble began when the Bikram Yoga Studio in New York - which offers hugely popular $25 sessions for workouts in 105-degree heat - received competition from a nearby studio (Yoga to the People) that started tagging its "traditional Hot yoga" package in 103-degree heat at just $8. This resulted in a "yoga war", or a legal battle between two yoga studios.

Bikram Choudhury, Bikram Yoga's founder, who has copyrighted Bikram Yoga, sued Yoga to the People for copyright infringement. He sought monetary damages and asked the court to block Yoga to the People from offering hot yoga.

Bikram contends that those who teach hot yoga must follow a set of guidelines, including teaching a series of 26 postures and breathing exercises, at the precise temperature and humidity he specifies, with the studio set up in a prescribed fashion. Anyone who deviates from this routine ought not to call it Bikram Yoga, it is claimed.

The instructor's case was finally settled out of court, but it left people polarized on whether Bikram could exercise exclusive control over postures that are essentially rooted in an ancient practice. His supporters, meanwhile, are unambiguous about his right to control his intellectual property.

Another yoga "war" in the US revolves around Ashtanga Yoga, founded by the late Sri Krishna Pattabhi Jois, which is known for its intensity and complexity. This yoga form finds a resonance with several A-listers including Madonna and Sting. The nub of the matter is a simmering discontent between an affluent sponsor of Jois' acclaimed legacy, his successor and grandson Sharath, and longstanding Ashtanga teachers.

The controversy intensified with the teaming up of Sonia Tudor Jones, noted philanthropist and long-devoted student of Jois who has clubbed Sri Krishna's teachings into "Jois Yoga", launched a Jois line of clothing and opened a slew of Jois Yoga studios. This branding and commercialization, say traditionalists, is a "betrayal" of Guruji's lineage.

As the yoga wars roil the community, its followers appear confused about this "corporatization" of the discipline. For many, topics like branding and ownership of yoga seem incredulous. "How can anybody 'own' yoga?," questions Nimerta Chawla, who runs a studio in New Delhi. "Yoga is not a religion; is a way of life. Anybody can practice it without getting embroiled in ownership issues or ancillary religious discourses."

As a pre-emptive measure, the Indian government is making digital copies of ancient drawings showing the provenance of more than 4,000 yoga poses, to discourage further claims by entrepreneurs like Bikram Choudhury.

However, the debate over who can lay claim to yoga has been gaining traction across the world, drawing in bestselling writers, thinkers and practitioners. The controversy gathered further momentum when New Age guru Deepak Chopra, author of over a dozen bestselling books and a devotee of yoga, asserted that nobody can "own" yoga.

Lending another dimension to the controversy is Dr Aseem Shukla, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota medical school and co-founder and board member of the Hindu American Foundation, who feels strongly about the "theft of yoga" and yoga practitioners' lack of acknowledgment to Hinduism as the core of its existence.

Shukla, 41, contends that yoga owes a "debt" to Hinduism and laments that the discipline is increasingly being presented without any reference to Hinduism. This sentiment has been the impetus behind his Take Back Yoga campaign.

"Yoga, meditation, Ayurvedic natural healing, self-realization - they are today's syntax for New Age, Eastern, mystical, even Buddhist, but nary an appreciation of their Hindu origins," Shukla wrote in the Washington Post.

However, many believe that the provenance of yoga goes back to the Vedic culture of Indo-Europeans who settled in India in the third millennium BC, long before the tradition now called Hinduism emerged. Others trace the first written description of yoga to the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred Hindu scripture believed to have been written between the fifth and second centuries BC.

The underpinning of Hinduism in yoga, say purists, is what gives the practice its gravitas. The Take Back Yoga campaign, they say, does not ask yoga devotees to become Hindus, or instructors to teach more about Hinduism. The small but increasingly influential group behind it only suggests that people become more aware of yoga's debt to the faith.

That suggestion has drawn strong reactions. Deepak Chopra has dismissed the campaign as ill-informed. He wrote in the Washington Post:
The whole point of yoga is to achieve enlightenment, and that the most revered practitioners, whether known as yogis, swamis or mahatmas, transcend religion. In fact, even if yoga were granted a patent or copyright by the United States Patent Office, there is no denying that enlightenment has always been outside the bounds of religion.

That's where the spiritual path leads, not into the arms of priests or yoga instructors. Before Hindu Americans complain about hatha yoga (what is regarded as exercise-based postural yoga) being deracinated, they might want to promote the ideas that are the very essence of Indian spirituality, which preceded Shiva, Krishna, cows and castes.
Complicating the yoga dynamic further are the sexual scandals engulfing the practice. Earlier this year, John Friend, founder of Anusara Yoga, was accused of widespread womanizing and inappropriate behavior. Against a tsunami of accusations, the highly influential Friend - who has a putative following across America's political and cinematic spectrum - had to stop his teaching and retreat into exile.

However, Friend is hardly the first yoga guru to be accused of sexual "misconduct", say old timers. Swami Muktananda (1908-1982), known for his penchant for dark glasses and gaudy robes, was accused of sexual "impropriety" too. The powerful swami had established a network of hundreds of ashrams and meditation centers around the globe with the help of a powerful client list that included Hollywood movie stars and political celebrities. Swami Rama (1925-1996) also had to counter similar allegations.

As yoga's exponential growth continues across the world, drawing in more and more followers, experts say it will serve the community well to codify a set of copyright rules and guidelines in synergy with the medical community. This will not only streamline the ancient discipline that resonates with millions across the globe, but also protect its treasured legacy from being abused.

Neeta Lal is a widely published writer/commentator who contributes to many reputed national and international print and Internet publications.

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