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Yoga, Inc.

Mises Daily: Tuesday, August 19, 2008 by

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Like a lot of baby boomers I make my living sitting behind a desk. Unlike my father who stood and cut hair all day, or my grandfathers, one who was a farmer, the other a carpenter, my job in the deflating credit bubble business requires no physical exertion — just mental stress. So, the idea to do yoga seemed like a natural. After a few months of stretching and bending, I'd be posing like a sweaty Patrick Swayze in Road House, I thought.

That's why most people practice yoga — for physical fitness. Forget the spirituality, I just want to be able to touch my toes again (I'm getting real close). But it turns out that yoga is the "development of self-awareness to the point of enlightenment," according to yoga expert Trisha Lamb when interviewed in John Philp's documentary Yoga, Inc.

There are 18 million of us across America, stretching and sweating with enlightenment the furthest thing from our minds. But, as Philp's film points out, the yoga business is big business. Most people spend $1,000 a year on the classes, books, mats and uniforms. There are even chakra panties for sale. That makes yoga an $18 billion business according to marketing expert Barry Minkin — bigger than Coca-Cola.

Maybe the Hindus and Indians saw the practice of yoga as a lifetime journey to enlightenment, but high-time preference Americans demand "instant enlightenment" cult expert Rick Ross points out in Yoga, Inc. and thus yoga franchises — disparagingly called "McYoga" by yoga purists — have popped up in shopping malls around the country.

Philp serves up yoga bad boy Bikram Choudhury as the villain for his story. Yogiraj Bikram Choudhury is the founder of the worldwide Yoga College of India™. According to his website, Bikram practiced yoga at least four to six hours every day and at the age of thirteen won the National India Yoga Championship. He is cashing in on the yoga craze after founding Bikram Yoga, also known as Hot Yoga, a copyrighted series of 26 hatha yoga postures that are performed in a hot (105 degrees Fahrenheit or greater) environment. Bikram has threatened to sue anyone who teaches his yoga postures without permission, which to many seems rather un-enlightened and not very yoga-like.

Choudhury contends that yoga studios wanting to teach Bikram Yoga must pay franchise and royalty fees, change their studio names to Bikram's Yoga College of India, stop teaching other yoga styles, refrain from playing music during classes and use only Bikram-approved dialogue when instructing students, according to an article in Salon by Nora Isaacs.

Of course the idea that some ancient body movements and poses preformed in a hot room can somehow be intellectual property seems preposterous. As N. Stephan Kinsella concludes in his just published monograph Against Intellectual Property, intellectual property laws violate individual property rights and "cannot be justified." After all, its not like these movements are scarce, and just because I might choose to get twisted up Bikram style, that doesn't keep thousands of others from doing the same; yogi Choudhury is just using the force of government to limit competition.

In an interview filmmaker John Philp makes the point; "I don't think anyone can own yoga, because yoga really is a belief system, at its most quintessential. It's really a path to enlightenment, and no one can own that." And even copyright lawyer Ken Swezey (who likely views copyright laws as sacred), told Salon's Isaac that Choudhury's copyright might not hold up in court. "A court would have to be convinced that a sequence of the exercises is original, protectable 'expression' rather than merely collection of factual material."

Philp's shot of Choudhury sipping Starbucks coffee while preparing to judge a yoga competition visually captures the diametric views held about the yoga king. His fans adore him for making yoga accessible to the masses, while at the same time his detractors claim he embodies all that is wrong with modern yoga.

Choudhury is executing a business plan that is attracting millions of customers, but at the same time it is putting many mom and pop yoga studios out of business. And that has plenty of hippie-turned-yuppie yoga entrepreneurs up in arms. But does it matter to those just looking for a fitness alternative or seeking enlightenment — no. The point was made in the documentary that studios must have commercial success in order to provide the spirituality.

Philp captures much of the controversy surrounding modern yoga in his film, but not all.

What the filmmaker misses — probably on purpose — is the cult aspect of many yoga programs. Some yoga instructors require total devotion from their students, while some former yoga students allege that brainwashing and mind control techniques are used at their yoga studio, along with high-pressure sales tactics.

And all I want to do is touch my toes.