NEW DELHI — The Indian government is furious that yoga practices dating back thousands of years are being “stolen” by gurus and fitness instructors in Europe and the United States.
Foreign practitioners are already said to have claimed hundreds of patents and copyrights on poses and techniques lifted straight from classical Indian yoga treatises.
“Yoga piracy is becoming very common, and we are moving to do something about it,” says Vinod Gupta, the head of a recently established Indian government task force on traditional knowledge and intellectual-property theft.
“We know of at least 150 asanas [yoga positions] that have been pirated in the U.S., the UK, Germany and Japan,” he says. “These were developed in India long ago and no one can claim them as their own.”
In an effort to protect India’s heritage, the task force has begun documenting 1,500 yoga postures drawn from classical yoga texts — including the writings of the Indian sage, Patanjali, the first man to codify the art of yoga. The data is being stored in a digital library whose computerized contents will soon be made available to patent offices worldwide.
“This is a very good idea,” says B.K.S. Iyengar, the 86-year old yoga guru credited with having introduced yoga to the West in the 1970s. “Yoga is an essential part of our heritage, and India has to protect it.”
The worst “culprits” are Indians based in America, where yoga has become a $30 billion-a-year business — a growth fueled by celebrity adherents such as Madonna.
Among Western gurus who have prompted the concern, according to an Indian official, is Bikram Choudhury, whose “Bikram” or “Vikram” method is currently one of the most fashionable styles in the West. A session involves a series of 26 poses in a room heated to 90 F to 100 F, enabling students to adopt more “extreme” positions than at normal temperatures.
A spokesman for Mr. Choudhury refused to discuss the task force report, but the guru previously said that rather than claiming intellectual ownership of the individual postures themselves, he has copyrighted a sequence of poses, the dialogue that accompanies them and the environment in which they are performed during his classes. These, he asserts, are all of his own devising.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has issued 134 patents on yoga accessories, 150 yoga-related copyrights and 2,315 yoga trademarks, says the Indian task force. It also says that Britain has approved at least 10 trademarks relating to yoga training aids that are mentioned in ancient texts.
According to one report, attempts have even been made in America to patent the syllable “om,” the sacred sound with which Hindus begin their chants.
“No one should be able to claim ownership of these traditional postures,” says Mr. Gupta. “The information has been in the public domain in India for thousands of years. But, until now, it has only been available in languages which people in the outside world cannot understand.”