Bad Karma for Bikram Yoga

Santa Barbara Studio Fends off Copyright Lawsuit

<strong>YOGA GOES TO COURT: </strong>Mark Drost, pictured inside his Evolation Yoga studio in Summerland, stood his ground against guru Bikram Choudhury, and won.
Paul Wellman

Bikram Choudhury ​— ​the multimillionaire founder of Bikram Yoga, a 90-minute sequence of 26 traditional poses performed in a heated room ​— ​has long maintained the inviolability of his technique, so much so that he has sued unaffiliated yoga studios for supposedly poaching his program.

His claims of copyright infringement ​— ​backed by a powerful legal team ​— ​scared off alleged offenders more often than not. But that wasn’t the case with Mark Drost and Zefea Samson, the Santa Barbara–based husband-and-wife owners of Evolation Yoga, which has a Summerland studio in the Big Yellow House building.

“He sued us in 2011, and we made a commitment to not back down at any point,” Drost said. On October 8, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Choudhury, solidifying a lower court’s ruling from December 2012. “That [first ruling] was exciting,” Drost said of his studios’ efforts to fend off Choudhury’s claims of copyright violation. “But to have this decision from the appeals court is really big news for the yoga community around the world.

“Yoga is way beyond a fad,” Drost added. “Many [interested parties] would love to take a sequence [of poses] and corporatize it as their own. This decision throws that out the window. It also lifts a large weight from the shoulders of those who want to pursue freely what they teach and how they teach it.”

Neither Choudhury nor his legal team replied to requests for comment about the ruling and whether he would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Shortly after becoming a certified Bikram instructor in 2002, Drost worked closely with Choudhury for five years, helping organize teacher-training events internationally. Choudhury’s teacher-training workshops typically run nine consecutive weeks and cost students $12,400-$16,600, depending on hotel accommodations, according to the Bikram’s Yoga College of India website.

Samson ​— ​a certified Bikram instructor since 2005 ​— ​also worked in Choudhury’s “inner circle,” as Drost described it. By 2008, however, the couple “had seen enough” of their instructor’s bullying behavior, he said. “We didn’t want to be part of it anymore.”

The 69-year-old Choudhury currently faces allegations of sexual assault and rape, described in civil court documents filed by former trainees. He does not face criminal charges and has denied any wrongdoing.

In late 2008, Drost and Samson launched Evolation Yoga, which now supports several dozen affiliates. Earlier this year, they opened the Summerland studio, which offers instructor training, meditation, vinyasa and kids yoga, and hot-room classes based on the Bikram method.

“Believe it or not, we’re doing our best to honor the teacher-student relationship with Bikram,” Drost said. “His techniques work. He has a good sequence, and he’s brought hatha yoga to millions who wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to it. We still see that as a contribution.”

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