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Copyright in Yoga?

If you’re doing a sequence of yoga positions in a 105 degree room, chances are that you are experiencing many sensations. One of them should be gratitude (or anger, depending on how you like to appraoch your exercise) at Bikram Choudhury. 1979, Mr. Choudhury wrote a book called “Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class.” The book includes descriptions of 26 poses and two breathing exercises that comprise “Bikram Yoga.” In 1994, he started a teacher training course. In 2002 and 2005, two particlar students completd this three month course and then started their own yoga studio called Evolation Yoga. According to a recent court case, this studio

offers several types and styles of yoga, including “hot yoga,” which is similar to “Bikram’s Basic Yoga System.” Evolation acknowledges that hot yoga “includes 26 postures and two breathing exercises and is done for 90 minutes, accompanied by a series of oral instructions, in a room heated to approximately 105 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mr. Choudhury filed a lawsuit in 2011, claiming that Evloation Yoga violated his copyright by offering a course using his sequence of yoga positions. A district court in California dismissed this claim in 2012 and Choudhury appealed. In 2015, the appeals court agreed with the trial court because “the sequence is not a proper subject of copyright.”

Why not? This case illustrates an important part of copyright law known as the idea/expression dichotomy. Copyright protects expression of ideas, but not the ideas themselves. The court explains:

Section 102(a) of the Copyright Act of 1976 sets forth the proper subjects of copyright protection. 17 U.S.C. § 102(a). Section 102(b) expressly excludes protection for “any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.”

In this case, the court reasons that a sequence of yoga positions is an idea, process, or system. Therefore, it is ineligible for copyright protection. In reaching this conclusion, the court relies in part on a Supreme Court case from 1879:

In Baker v. Selden, 101 U.S. 99 (1879), the Supreme Court addressed the protection copyright law provided to a book, a classic subject of copyright protection, explaining a system of book-keeping… The Court held that the book’s expression of the book-keeping system was protected, but the system of book-keeping itself was not entitled to copyright protection.

Mr. Choudhury also argued that his sequence is a copyrightable form of choreography. Choreeogrpahy is not well defined in the context of copyright law, although courts have leaned on a Compendium of Copyright Office Practices, which is a document that the US Copyright office publishes. This document defines

“dance” as “static and kinetic successions of bodily movement in certain rhythmic and spatial relationships.” Compendium II, § 450.01. 12 The “dance movements,” according to the Compendium II, “must be more than mere exercises, such as ‘jumping jacks’ or walking steps.”

The court recognizes that a sequence of yoga poses requires “static and kinetic successions of bodily movement in certain rhythmic and spatial relationships.” The court finds these characteristics insufficient to categorize a sequence of yoga poses to be choreography, because “successions of bodily movements” are also necessary “to churn butter or drill for oil.” The court reasons implicitly that because butter churning is not a dance, neither is a sequence of yoga poses. Rather, the court concludes that–just like a sequence of movements to churn butter–a sequence of yoga poses is “an idea, process or system” and therefore not eligible for copyright. Artisans and yogis alike could find reasons to question this judgement.

Running underneath the court’s explicit analysis may be a recognition that because yoga is an ancient art and that Choudhury did not invent any of the poses, it is not fair to allow him to copyright their sequence. The court begins its opinion with the following history:


The Indian practice and philosophy of yoga date back thousands of years. See Linda Sparrowe, Yoga 9 (2002). Derived from ancient Hindu scriptures, including the Bhagavad Gita, the practice of yoga teaches students to attain spiritual fulfillment through control of the mind and body. See Stefanie Syman, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America 4 (2010). Yoga has evolved into a diverse set of spiritual, philosophical, and physical disciplines. Some students practice yoga to transcend the physical body and unite with divine powers; others focus on improving strength, flexibility, and overall physical fitness. The history of yoga in the United States reflects its wide ranging appeal. Some of yoga’s first American adherents included nineteenth-century transcendentalists, such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who were fascinated by yoga’s approach to achieving enlightenment.

In the early twentieth century, yoga grew more popular as scientists and physicians began to study the physical benefits of the practice. These physical benefits caught the attention of Hollywood celebrities, including Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, and Marilyn Monroe, who embraced yoga as a tool to fight illness and aging. See Pankaj Mishra, Posing as Fitness, N.Y. Times, July 23, 2010.1 By the 1960s, Americans increasingly turned to yoga as a “non-religious, decidedly unspiritual” form of physical exercise. Sparrowe, supra, at 50. In 1971, Bikram Choudhury, the “self-proclaimed ‘Yogi to the stars,’” id. at 56, arrived in Beverly Hills, California. He soon became a central figure in the growing popularity of yoga in the United States. Born and raised in Calcutta, India, Choudhury began studying yoga at age four and learned hundreds of traditional Hatha yoga “asanas,” or individual poses. Hatha yoga places particular emphasis on the physical components of yoga. Choudhury developed a sequence of twenty-six asanas and two breathing exercises, arranged in a particular order, which he calls the “Sequence.” See Bikram Choudhury, Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class (1979). Choudhury opened his own studio, where he began offering “Bikram Yoga” classes. In a Bikram Yoga class, the Sequence is practiced over the course of ninety minutes, to a series of instructions (the “Dialogue”), in a room heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit to simulate Choudhury’s native Indian climate.

This somewhat long but (for some copyright bloggers and failed yogis at least) quite interesting passage demonstrates the court’s respect for yoga’s ancient history and shades Mr. Choudhury’s requests for protection as support for an appropriation rather than an invention.

Either way, this case provides a clear and memorable example of the idea/expression dichotomy. Copyright law protects Mr. Choudhury’s book, but not the ideas he expresses in it.  Anyone is free to teach a yoga class based on the sequence of positions that Mr. Choudhury’s book and courses explain.


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