It's a balmy 87 degrees on a late July afternoon in Miami, but for the dozen people gathered at Bikram Yoga in South Beach, that's not nearly hot enough.
Walking past the shops lining 11th Street between Washington and Collins avenues, practitioners of Bikram yoga climb a short flight of stairs and enter a studio with pastel-colored walls and Eastern art. Then they get as close to naked as they can — donning shorts, Lycra pants, sports bras, and tank tops — and head into a mirror-lined room where the temperature is 106 degrees.
For the next 90 minutes, they stretch, bend, and sweat profusely, drenching their yoga mats and gulping down water. Among the people taking part in this afternoon class is John Elliott, the 44-year-old manager of Bikram Yoga. He'll be teaching later in the evening, but that doesn't keep him from twisting and contorting with the paying members in the sauna-like atmosphere. For Elliott, who has taught Bikram for the past ten years, the combination of extreme heat and yoga is uniquely purifying.
"It gives my body and mind peace," he says after the class, still sweating. "It sends me in a direction I want to go."
Bikram has exploded in popularity in recent years, with more than 330 studios around the nation and seven in Miami-Dade offering the sweat-soaked workout.
But yoga's hottest trend is now at the center of a sizzling dispute between its founder — legendary yogi Bikram Choudhury — and one of his best students, a man named Greg Gumucio who founded his own chain of studios. There's more at stake than just millions of dollars in revenue; Bikram has persuaded the government to let him copyright hot yoga, raising serious questions about whether it's possible to copyright a type of exercise — which is very much a part of the conflict between Bikram and Gumucio.
Whoever wins that battle, many in the yoga world worry the fight could seriously affect a practice that has won millions of adherents by selling a stress-reducing, Zen-like lifestyle.
Bikram, for one, doesn't care about the cost. "I am going to go to trial to get him punishment, to make him an example, so no one will ever have the guts to do that same kind of shit," says the man so synonymous with yoga that people are often surprised to learn he is still living and not just some mythical icon.
Born in 1946 in Calcutta, where he made his name as a yogi by winning a series of youth competitions, Bikram moved to Los Angeles in the early '70s. His first book, published in 1978, preached that his 90-minute hot yoga sessions could heal anything from knee injuries to obesity and arthritis.
It wasn't until 1994 that he began teaching others his fabled method. At the time — 20 years after arriving in the States — there were only four Bikram studios in the country. Bikram was still training teachers one-on-one, the traditional method in India. That year he began educating teachers in groups, schooling up to 400 people in a given session. The courses weren't cheap — today they run $10,900 per student. But he was training so many people that, eight years later, he decided to copyright his method.
In health-crazed Hollywood, the small man's teachings exploded. His clients would include three presidents — Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton — in addition to George Harrison, Charlie Sheen, Prince Harry, and Jennifer Aniston.
"Lady Gaga listens to me," he boasted to a Boston audience during a June lecture. "Her mantra is only one word — Bikram — because Bikram makes her what she is today. It works."
The success earned him celebrity as well, and a starlet's ego to match. He lives in the Hollywood Hills with his collection of Rolls-Royces, earning an estimated $7 million annually. "I kind of run this city," he says. "They depend on me."
In Miami, Bikram has been popular since the '80s, the first studio opening in 1985. It operated in a Little Haiti gym before moving to Miami Beach and eventually settling on 11th Street between Washington and Collins in 2005. An average class boasts anywhere from ten to 30 students, peaking on the weekends. Despite the down economy, business has been good, Elliott says, and he's seeing more people every year.
Like his former mentor, Gumucio has dark, shoulder-length hair, though his locks flow in luscious waves. Heavy eyebrows and a large Roman nose accent a ruddy, usually unshaven face. He first met Bikram in Los Angeles in 1996. Gumucio had quit his job as a radio announcer in Seattle and moved to L.A., somewhat on a whim. He had taken only three Bikram classes when his sister persuaded him to enroll with her in the teacher training program.
That first day, he attempted to stand in the half-moon pose, his feet together, arms pressed tightly overhead, and torso stretched to the right. The novice strained to tilt more than a few inches to the side. As his eyes focused on his posture in the mirror, Gumucio says, Bikram approached him from behind.
"What the hell are you doing here?" the teacher asked quietly.
Gumucio smiled. "Well, I'm here to do your teacher training."
Their eyes locked in the mirror, Gumucio still struggling to bend his body sideways. "Good luck," said Bikram, giving him a look of slight disgust before moving on.
"For the next eight weeks, he literally tried to kill me," Gumucio says. "I mean, maybe not literally, but he made it, like, uncomfortable, because I think he couldn't believe this guy with so little training would go to the teacher training."
Gumucio not only survived but also eventually impressed the master. Six months later, he says, Bikram asked Gumucio to run his world headquarters studio and stay in his home in Los Angeles while Bikram and his family went to India. Gumucio had been welcomed into the inner circle of one of the world's foremost yogis.
"He is a very good disciple at the beginning," Bikram would later say.
Their relationship would remain solid for the next five years. Gumucio helped with teacher training and speaking engagements. The men vacationed together and stayed in each other's homes.
Gumucio opened four studios in Seattle, but none was called "Bikram Yoga." Instead, he used more generic names like "Yoga Fitness." Gumucio instinctively knew that greater success could be had by appealing to a wider, more athletic audience than the "new-age, tree-hugging" type Bikram attracted.
Their friendship began to strain in 2000, when Gumucio met John McAfee, a software billionaire turned yoga teacher. Gumucio visited him on his estate in Colorado and the pair immediately clicked. McAfee invited Gumucio to teach at a silent retreat, which involved spending several days in nature practicing yoga in complete silence. By the time it was over, Gumucio decided he wanted to teach multiple forms of yoga, incorporating McAfee's Kriya method, which concentrates on the spine.
"That's when things started to go south," Gumucio says. Bikram was not the type who could share a student's adulation with another mentor. "He said, 'You cannot be a fucking prostitute. You cannot have your feet in two holes.'"
When his girlfriend got a job in New York, Gumucio closed his Seattle studios and followed her east. He simultaneously severed his relationship with Bikram, and was removed from the yoga world until 2006, when he rented a Manhattan room and began to teach a donation-based class each Sunday.
So began Yoga to the People. Over the next six years, he would open five studios in New York and then expand to Seattle, San Francisco, and Berkeley. Unlike traditional Bikram studios — which charge $15 to $25 — Yoga to the People charges just $8 per session. Bikram Yoga charges $25 for a single class and then offers weekly and monthly memberships with unlimited visits at $50 and $150.
"Yoga studios make pretty damn good money," Gumucio says. "It's math. The price point is lower, so we get a bigger volume."
Gumucio branded his studios with an Everyman's populism. His mission statement in part reads, "There will be no right answers. No glorified teachers... This yoga is for everyone."
In September 2011, Bikram sued Gumucio for copyright infringement.
It seems odd the feds would ever allow him to copyright a traditional teaching in the first place. Such art forms are passed through thousands of hands through the ages. Everyone's version is simply a variation of another's. It would be akin to allowing preachers to copyright a certain spin on Christianity.
The U.S. Copyright Office seemed to acknowledge that point on June 22, when deputy general counsel Robert Kasunic issued a clarification that if yoga postures improve health, they cannot be copyrighted. He added that any prior registrations of yoga copyrights were "issued in error."
But it's not quite that simple. Kasunic says his office has no plans to re-evaluate the copyrights already issued.
All of which means that Bikram and Gumucio will have to wait for a judge to settle their war when the case goes to trial sometime next year.
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In the meantime, the Bikram-Gumucio beef has caused a nationwide divide, slicing the country's yoga practitioners into two schools of thought.
Bikram's camp cites the yoga code, the belief that followers must respect the lineage and leader of the specific style of yoga they practice. If the Bikram method is allowed to be diluted, a great tradition will be lost.
Elliott, manager of the South Beach Bikram studio, says Gumucio is merely practicing a cheap facsimile of the genuine article. And that could bring about the demise of real yoga. "They think this yoga is great, but [they should] do the right thing and do the training for it," he says. "It's another person trying to make money on someone else's idea."
After 90 minutes of sweating, stretching, and contorting into downright uncomfortable-looking positions, the afternoon Bikram class winds down. The instructor claps her hands, commends students for making it through the hour and a half of heat, and bids them farewell with a phrase common to all yoga followers. "Namaste," she says, and they echo it back to her. Be well.