After the success of the International Day of Yoga (as also for quite some time before it) claims are flying thick and fast about who owns yoga or whom it actually belongs to.
“Modi has rebranded Yoga.”
“Yoga is Hindu.”
“Yoga doesn’t belong to any religion. It is just an exercise!”

This fascination for attributing yoga to oneself and claiming rights over it becomes more understandable once you realise that it is estimated to be a massive $27 billion industry. Yoga teachers have been trying to monopolise yoga long before the politicians got into the game.

Hot Yoga

Bikram Choudhury developed the Bikram Yoga system, consisting of 26 yoga poses and two breathing exercises. The system was taught by his franchisees in special Bikram Yoga Studios. He authored several books and created CDs about his system as well. He claimed that he had a copyright over not only the actual written or audiovisual works, but the depicted yoga sequence as well since his system required that the asanas (poses) be always performed in the same order and in a room heated to 40.5 degrees Celsius. This heated room requirement has led to his system as well as other similar ones being dubbed ‘hot yoga’.

When some other yoga classes taught the poses from his system he promptly sued. While his strategy was initially successful (he even managed to get some to settle and not teach ‘his’ poses, the law soon caught up with him. In 2012, a US District Court held that yoga poses were not copyrightable subject matter. The Court emphasised that copyright covers only the “expression of an idea” but not the idea itself. It was held that:
Although books or photographs that depict a compilation of exercises may be copyrightable, the compilation authorship would not extend to the selection, coordination or arrangement of the exercises themselves that are depicted in the photographs or drawings.

A similar issue arose before the Delhi High Court in the case of Institute for Inner Studies v. Charlotte Anderson. The plaintiffs claimed copyright over the technique of “Pranic Healing” since they possessed copyright over books, CDs and other materials produced by Master Choa Kok Sui. Adopting a legal strategy similar to Bikram Choudhury’s, they claimed that “Pranic Healing” yoga techniques were a “choreographic work” or a “dramatic work” and thus copyrightable. Preliminary injunctions were sought to prevent others from practicing these techniques. Justice Manmohan Singh rightly pointed out that copyright existed only on the manner in which the techniques were explained in the book and not on the techniques themselves. He made a prima facie finding that the techniques which are routine exercises were also not covered within the ambit of dramatic works and refused to grant the injunction.

The law is thus clear that even if you are (or claim to be) a great yogi, you can only copyright your book on yoga but cannot get any copyright over the yoga postures or asanas themselves. Or in other words, you can stop people from copying without permission the text, photos or illustrations contained in your books but you can’t stop them from performing yoga.

Trademarks: a different story

In India, the trademark claim over “Pranic Healing” was rejected for being too generic. Similarly, in the US Bikram Choudhury was refused a trademark over “Hot Yoga” since it was merely descriptive and lacking in a “distinctive element”. However, he did manage to successfully register a trademark over “Bikram Yoga”. Nobody can claim to teach Yoga using his name. There thus seems to be no legal obstacle to registering a trademark over your own brand of Yoga though you can’t get copyright over the postures which you actually teach.

A quick search on the website of the Controller General of Patents, Designs and Trademarks shows that in India there are already 381 trademarks containing the word “Yoga”. They range from the simple “Isha Yoga” and “Shuddhi Yoga” to the innovative “Yoga OMline”, “Skyoga”, and “Kidyoga” to the absolutely bizarre “Flying Bird Yoga” and “Yogatree”.

So if you plan to start yoga classes, give a skip to copyright but make sure you rush to the Controller of Trademarks before your preferred one gets registered by someone else.

Sagar Godbole is a student at the Gujarat National Law University.