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Who Owns Yoga?

Who Owns Yoga?

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Yoga? For me, the word used to conjure up images of Indian priests sitting in meditative poses. Not anymore.

When I think of Yoga now, I picture – and this may be because I’ve lived in New York – rich, svelte women walking about briskly with their designer totes slung casually over their shoulders cradling the all-too-precious personal yoga mat. Lunchtime Yoga classes at the office are a must-attend; the salad can wait.

But lately there’s another association that comes to mind. India and the U.S. are in a tug-of-war over the patenting of Yoga. Much to the annoyance of Indians, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has granted 134 patents on yoga accessories and 2,315 yoga trademarks.

This is often the case with age-old wisdom. It languishes in dusty tomes or gets warded off as grandma remedies for thousands of years, and then one day, for a variety of reasons – grandma’s not entire crazy – the old way of doing things becomes the next hot thing, attaining an almost divine-like position with new converts sparring with long-time practitioners to claim first dibs. Yoga has now become the latest bone of contention.

The hue and cry started when Beverly Hills, CA, based Bikram Choudhury – a high profile yoga teacher of Indian origin (watch a 60 Minutes interview here) and a favorite of some Hollywood celebrities applied to patent his form of yoga in which 26 asanas (positions) are performed in a heated room which he calls it the “torture chamber”. Back in 2002 Bikram had obtained copyright protection for this version of yoga, which was first challenged, in 2004, by ‘Open Source Yoga Unity’, a San Francisco-based yoga group who clearly took their inspiration (and name) from friends in the computer business. That case was later settled and the lawsuit was withdrawn.

Now Bikram’s filed a patent application and it’s gotten the goat Indian gurus, who claim that yoga is a kind of knowledge that cannot be legally made the property of one person. The practice of yoga is first described in Hindu sacred texts dating back five thousand years and Hindu sages have been practicing the art for centuries. By any measure that’s “prior art” which would – even if this weren’t a silly argument to begin with – invalidate any patent or copyright attempt in this millennium. The gurus, rightly, see yoga as an Indian tradition that is being popularized and, to some extent corrupted, by the West. Why is Bikram so anxious to stake his legal claim? Yoga has changed its image. An element of Indian culture – a quasi-religious element – has become a multibillion-dollar industry.

And that’s become an odd point of national pride. Responding to the strong write-ups in the press, the Indian government has decided to take up the issue with the U.S. This is not the first time India has issued a legal challenge over and age-old practice “discovered” by the West. It successfully got USTPO to revoke a patent it issued to two Indian-born researchers at the University of Mississippi for the use of turmeric in healing wounds. Turmeric is the herb that makes curry yellow but it’s long been a medicine in India. An attempt to patent the use of neem oil (from a tree that grows in most Indian backyards ) was granted, then revoked, in Europe for similar reasons. The Western claim was really an extension of India’s long-time practice: Using neem oil as a fungicide.

The yoga patent is no different. Says New York-based writer Suketu Mehta, “should an Indian, in retaliation, patent the Heimlich maneuver, so that he can collect every time a waiter saves a customer from choking on a fishbone?”

Certain things are not one person’s property. Yoga is one of them.