News & Thoughts on Yoga in DC

Questions About Who (Anyone?) Owns Yoga Poses

In News on April 27, 2011 at 6:00 AM

India is sounding the warning shot: Keep your Prana Flow® off our poses.

© AFP/ Dibyangshu Sarkar

Prana Flow® is a trademarked style of yoga developed by California yoga master, Shiva Rae. Though the Indian government has not cited a specific American school of yoga, it has filmed hundreds of yoga poses and registered them with international patent offices. Its goal is to stop American and European entrepreneurs from patenting yoga poses and advertising they have created new types of yoga. This week it also signed an agreement with the Japanese Patent Office.

Yoga originated in India. People cannot claim to invent a new yoga when they have not,

says Vinod Kumar Gupta, who runs the Indian government’s Traditional Knowledge Digital Library which is heading the effort.

As American as Aerobics and Revival Meetings

Almost 16 million American adults practice yoga, spending $5.7 billion a year on yoga classes and products, according to a study released three years ago by Yoga Journal. Americans practice everything from Christian yoga and Jewish yoga to Naked Yoga and Laughter Yoga. The U.S. Patent Office has issued more than 130 yoga-related patents (most for merchandise), 150 copyrights and 2,300 trademarks related to yoga. Most of copyrights and trademarks are for yoga-studio branding and training manuals; none is for individual poses.

The firestorm over yoga ownership was lit in 2004 in Beverly Hills when Calcutta-born Bikram Choudhury claimed ownership of a sequence of 26 postures he called Bikram Yoga practiced by students in a hot room. He tried to collect money from other studios that also offered “Hot Yoga” classes, according to The Washington Post. So far no one in the U.S. has patented a yoga pose.

Wasted Energy

Some experts wonder why the Indian government is spending resources on a non-issue.

“If copyrights have been granted on works depicting the yoga practices of concern, the rights granted would be limited to prohibiting others from copying instructional videos or books used to teach the yoga moves or positions,”

wrote patent attorney Joseph Breimayer in a blog post.

“Copyright cannot be used to prohibit teaching or performing the moves or positions by someone who has learned to do so using the copyrighted materials.”

For Indian Eyes Only

India is releasing 30 to 40 of the yoga videos to the public, says Gupta. The government will not allow yoga practitioners to see or use most poses, many of which he says have been culled from ancient Sanskrit texts.

A Missed Opportunity for India

Americans will continue to Americanize yoga. Who knows what’s next; perhaps reality TV. Might we see:

  • Extreme Yoga Makeover?
  • Project Down Dog?

India has the chance to share new poses — and millennia of yoga tradition — with hungry yoga students:

  • Imagine a You Tube site featuring “new” ancient poses.
  • Imagine distributing Indian yoga for free.
  • Imagine even charging 99 cents per download, and giving the proceeds to India’s other national treasure: their starving children.

Despite India’s economic boom, at least 46 per cent of very young children in India suffer from malnutrition, according to a 2009 study backed by the British Government. There are a number of private India charities who are doing the hard work of feeding, clothing and educating 1000s of destitute kids and could use the help.

Or we can argue about who owns yoga.

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