Bikram Choudhury's sweaty techniques are a hit with yoga studios. Now he wants his cut.
What's a yogi's ride of choice? If you're Bikram Choudhury--the short, chiseled and youthfully radiant 62-year-old inventor of "Bikram Yoga"--it could be one of his several dozen Rolls-Royces or Bentleys, fine complements to his 8,000-square-foot mansion in Beverly Hills. His taste in food is more modest: Choudhury says he subsists on one small high-protein meal after midnight and less than three hours of sleep, though he does have an appetite for diamond-encrusted Rolex watches.
Choudhury's yoga routine involves a 90-minute series of 26 poses and two breathing exercises performed in 105-degree rooms. About 350 U.S. studios market Bikram Yoga classes--under the condition that instructors survive a nine-week training course hosted by Choudhury's company, Bikram's Yoga College of India. The boot camp includes several steamy sessions per day; graduates say vomiting and/or intravenous rehydration are common (Choudhury claims he's never witnessed either). Recent training costs: $10,500 per session, including $3,000 for room and board in Palm Desert, Calif. At two sessions a year, each of which draw about 325 trainees, that's $4.9 million in annual revenue. To that add 15 speaking engagements, generating about $20,000 each in ticket sales, plus another few bucks from books and dvds. "I'm a yogi, not a businessman," Choudhury demurs.
That yogi now wants another revenue stream: franchising fees paid by studios that use his name. His alternative is to have lawyers send threatening letters to all studios who sell Bikram Yoga without paying for training. "I can't afford to pay the lawyer bills anymore," he laments. In August Choudhury mailed out a 150-page franchise disclosure document to all affiliated studios demanding their signatures within 60 days of the mailing date.
Under the terms, existing studios would cough up 1% of their revenue in royalties, while new ones would pay 5% or $1,000 a month, whichever is greater. New studios would also fork over $10,000 in startup costs--not including instructor training--and $400 per month to cover advertising, Web site development and other overhead. Owners that don't sign on must give up the right to use Choudhury's name and techniques. "So many people are stealing Bikram Yoga," he says. "It's like you're practicing medicine, but you're not a doctor."
Choudhury has fought to capture more value for years. Since 1978 he has secured eight copyrights covering a series of poses and instructor scripts, and in 2002 trademarked "Bikram Yoga" (along with variations on the name). That same year Choudhury sued a Costa Mesa, Calif. studio that used the Bikram name but did not employ teachers formally trained by him, for copyright infringement. Following a federal district court ruling that leaned Choudhury's way, the studio paid an undisclosed sum and agreed not to run Bikram-style classes.
Choudhury's threat might not only lack teeth but might also invite lawsuits coming the other way, says Philip Zeidman, a franchise lawyer at dla Piper. That's because the Federal Trade Commission could claim Choudhury has been operating as a franchise for decades by letting others use his name, asking for a degree of control and requiring affiliates to pay for the privilege (via those training sessions). Studio owners could potentially sue Choudhury for operating as a franchise without proper documentation. (Choudhury's lawyer James Ullman, of Greenberg Traurig, says that the yogi's affiliation agreements do not constitute franchise relationships.)
check out the flyer for the fall 2009 teacher training class in las vegas which has bikram clothed in a form-fitting leather top and leaning against what i assume to be one of his rolls-royces. if he manages to convince all the bikram studio owners to cough up the new franchising fees, the flyer for the next teacher training session could find him draped in an even more exotic animal skin and leaning against his own personal jet...