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Who “Owns” Online Yoga?

by STEWART J. LAWRENCE

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 9-1) 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% of the estimated 70,000 yoga teachers in the US 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.

The financial stakes of this dispute are actually quite high.  That’s because, while still in its infancy, online yoga could prove to be an enormously cost-effective and convenient way for millions of consumers to participate in America’s wellness practice of choice without having to attend a live yoga class. For busy high-powered professional women on the go – one of yoga’s core demographics – that’s a huge advantage.  It  means they can stay connected to their dharma even when their boss has them attending a monthly business conference cooped up in some cheap hotel in Podunk, Arkansas, where there may not be any nearby yoga studios with classes at convenient times.  (And besides, who has time to look?)

But cyber-yoga isn’t just about the industry’s core demographic, which may well be close to saturated:   by reaching out to the broader “wired” community, it also has the potential to extend the yoga consumer market to new demographics — people who are turned off by the industry’s youth- and fashion-oriented studio culture and who may not have time and money to take expensive on-site classes – seniors, working housewives, men, and students, among others.   Many of these consumers probably aren’t motivated enough to develop their own home-based practice, as veteran yogis tend to do, without continuing teacher support and guidance.    Now they don’t have to.  Online yoga, which costs as little as $15 per year – and offers specializations not only by yoga brand but by body part – e.g. yoga for sore hips —  can bring top names in yoga directly to their homes — on demand, and for as many classes as they like.  A consumer who takes three classes a week at $20 per class could end paying just 10% of that amount in the course of a year. That’s an enormous savings in today’s down economy.

So far, the online patent dispute has been all Karpel and Mills.  How are YogaGlo’s own teachers responding?   They’re largely keeping quiet, it seems.  They know a good thing when they have it – and some like Brower, Amy Ippoliti and Noah Mazé who are refugees from Anusara Yoga, which nearly disbanded after its infamous debacle in 2012, probably realize that being associated with yet another yoga scandal could only damage their reputations further.   However, one former Anusara teacher, Christina Sell, did publicly criticize YogaGlo after the company insisted that she cease producing You Tube videos and other online offerings that they claim violated her non-compete agreement.  Sell did the math and realized that she was better off operating on her own, and feels content to fight YogaGlo in court if the company tries to claim damages. Michelle Marchildon, who writes a popular blog, and streams her own videos online, recently cheered Sell’s decision.  The implication?  If you try to commercialize yoga online as a hot-shot male, you must be greedy.  But if you do the same thing as an independent yogini entrepreneur, you’re a true rebel and pioneer.

Apparently, the subtlety of this American gender distinction has been lost on many Indian yogis, though.  In a surprising irony, perhaps, a movement is afoot in yoga’s ancestral homeland to discourage Americans and other Westerners from “bastardizing” any form of yoga for commercial gain.  From the Indian perspective, these conflicts between Mills and Sell, or between YogaGlo and its competitors, aren’t David-and Goliath battles for economic justice at all.  They’re simply different factions of spiritual neo-colonialism arguing over how best to divide up the spoils of a war against India’s sacred patrimony.   India’s yoga scholars have spent years cataloguing their contributions to health and medicine, and asserting their own intellectual property rights – on a global scale.  And they’ve already scored at least one victory.   An American company that patented an indigenous medicine faced a formal legal challenge from Indian scholars who demonstrated that Indian women had used that used that same remedy for generations.  It wasn’t new at all, and it certainly wasn’t American.  A US court ordered the company’s patent to be revoked.

Indian claims on American yoga aren’t just based on charges of cultural misappropriation, though.  They also reflect fears that the practice is losing its sacred character under the pressure of commercialization.  Even with the rise of instructional videos and DVDs in recent years, no one imagined that a mind-body practice traditionally passed down from gurus to specially chosen disciples in secluded ashrams could end up as yet another variant of American “distance learning” – cheap, readily accessible, and easily compartmentalized, and streamed online as a packaged alternative to on-site classes. Does yoga teaching in this setting actually “work”?  No one knows, because it’s never actually been studied.  But we do know from studies of online learning in other settings – in colleges, for example – that online education alone tends to degrade the quality of the learning experience, unless the environment also allows for ongoing teacher-student interaction, preferably in real-time.  Is there any reason to believe that the same dynamic wouldn’t be present – and perhaps even more so – in the case of yoga, where classes are merely taped and downloaded at will?

In fact, some cyber-yoga consumers say they miss the experience of “adjustments,” when teachers use their hands and sometimes their entire bodies to help students adapt and correct their poses.  However, they also note that yoga teachers these days are more and more reluctant to touch their students, mainly because of the potential for injury – and the possibility of lawsuits.   “My studio yoga classes are starting to feel like my online classes anyway,” Maya Joseph-Gotenier, a YogaGlo afiiconado, told me.   She gravitates to online classes while away on business trips, she says, because it’s often hard to find studios with convenient class times.   Still she can’t wait to get back to a studio class near her office when she gets back home.  “There’s definitely something different about practicing with others in the same room,” she notes.

These are just some of the issues that American yoga teachers might want to confront as they rush, collectively, to embrace the brave new world of cyber-yoga.  Part of the miracle of capitalism is that it does make goods and services more widely available, and generally at lower cost.  Clearly online yoga holds this potential, too.  But yoga is more than the imparting of physical techniques.  It’s also about spiritual guidance and support, which require a degree of presence and authenticity not found in most fitness, exercise, or dance instruction.  And there’s also something about schelepping to a yoga class that compels students to actually work for their practice, not simply have it delivered to them and watched like one of their favorite movies on Netflix.  Online yoga may do in a pinch, while also drawing in marginalized consumers, but in an age when too much of the population is already addicted to the Internet, does cyber yoga really foster detachment from the material world or is really just another technological gimmick?

Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at stewartlawrence81147@gmail.com

See an exchange on this article between Stewart Lawrence and Richard Karpel here.

Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at stewartlawrence81147@gmail.com

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