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Latest Chapter in the Multibillion Dollar Yoga Wars: Patenting Online Yoga Videos

'Wired' classes are taking the industry by storm.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Edyta Pawlowska

 
 
 
 

This article originally appeared on CounterPunch, and is reprinted here with their permission.

Uh-oh, it may be time to call Lord Vishnu again. Another “evil” American capitalist is trying to slap a patent on yoga. For years, yogis complained about Bikram Chodhury’s push to patent his 26-posture “hot” yoga sequence. Now they’re up in arms about the efforts of YogaGlo, the leading online yoga company, to patent the way the company films its streaming video classes. Where will it all end?

In fact, these are just two of a growing number of patent disputes that have plagued America’s $10 billion yoga industry in recent years — with plenty more to come. Others have pitted posh yoga retailers like Vancouver-based Lululemon and an American company, Yogitoes, against competitors accused of copying their production processes. Last year, Lululemon sued Calvin Klein for using the same style waistband in its tight leisure pants that Lulu uses in its own hot-selling yoga stretch pants — and Lulu, which grosses nearly $900 million annually, recently settled the dispute on favorable terms. Yogitoes has accused both Lululemon and Under Armour of trying to duplicate their slip-resistant “sticky” towels. That dispute is still pending.

Yoga purists don’t seem to care much when these conflicts feature big yoga companies, especially ones owned and controlled by men. But when yoga women (who now dominate the industry teacher corps by almost nine to one) feel they aren’t getting an equal opportunity to cash in on Yoga, Inc., they’ve been known to pitch a hissy fit. No one can “own” yoga, they cry. Yoga is for everyone! In recent months, the Yoga Alliance, a quasi-trade association that helps “certify” yogis to teach, has enjoined the dispute. After one on-line yoga company, Yoga International, received a cease-and-desist letter from Yoga Glo, the Alliance’s new executive director Richard Karpel sponsored an online petition drive demanding that YogaGlo withdraw its patent and stop threatening to sue other online providers that may want to compete with YogaGlo by posting their own streaming videos. A nasty little web posting battle ensued, with the Alliance and its allies depicting YogaGlo as a greedy monopoly intent on discouraging competition and conquering the online yoga market for itself.

It sounds awfully David-and Goliath, of course, but in today’s yoga business wars, separating fact from fiction — and principle from principal — is never quite so easy. YogaGlo’s founder and CEO, Derek Mills may actually have a point about the narrow construction of his patent. It only covers a certain film-angle technique, not the filming of yoga classes generally, as the Alliance and others seem so intent on to claiming. And while it’s also true that big companies often use patents as a club to beat up their smaller rivals, many of them too small to afford lawyers to fight back, that’s probably not the case here. By all accounts, the half dozen or so online yoga companies that dominate the market are thriving, and in no danger of going under. And it could be YogaGlo’s bevy of top-name yoga teachers — including “super-model” Kathryn Budig and Anusara Yoga’s Elena Brower — as well as the unusual diversity of its course offerings, that’s actually giving the company its competitive edge, not its “unique” videography. At one level, Mills is simply doing what any serious business interested in maintaining its profitability does: exploiting intellectual property law to try to protect its corporate investment and expand its operations. Shareholders and investors expect nothing less. This may be yoga, but it’s still commerce after all.

And Karpel’s own hands are hardly squeaky clean. It turns out that a prominent company on his own governing board is suing a smaller yoga company over an alleged patent infringement, too. You’d think Karpel might try to clean up his own house before engaging in the kind of self-righteous polemics he’s launched at YogaGlo. But Karpel’s clearly intent on using this dispute to help shore up the Alliance’s credibility with the 10,000+ yoga teachers the group now claims as members. That’s still only 15 percent of the estimated 70,000 yoga teachers in the U.S. today. And they’re angry at having paid the Alliance membership dues for years with almost no benefits in return. Karpel recently instituted a health insurance plan and is trying to help teachers promote themselves. Now he says he wants to keep them from being bullied, too. Even if he loses, the Alliance, PR-wise, clearly stands to gain.