The Hot Yoga War

Two yogis battle over the fate of a tradition (and a pile of money)

“That’s when things started to go south,” Gumucio says. Bikram felt a sting of betrayal at seeing his protégé take on a new mentor. “He said: ‘You cannot be a fucking prostitute. You cannot have your feet in two holes.’”

At the same time, other students had begun to rebel against Bikram. They formed Open Source Yoga Unity (OSYU) “to get out from under his brain,” Gumucio says.

For a $500 membership fee, hot yoga teachers could join OSYU anonymously, and in the process, they would gain an advocate that would help them “teach yoga freely.”

In 2005, the group sued Bikram for sending its members cease-and-desist letters, only to lose the case. Although the settlement remains confidential, California U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton granted Bikram a summary judgment, agreeing that OSYU had violated his copyright. (OSYU declined to comment for this story.)

Gumucio was invited to join OSYU but passed. His life had once again taken a new turn.

When his girlfriend got a job in New York, he sold his Seattle studios and followed her east to start a family. He also severed his relationship with Bikram.

Gumucio removed himself from the yoga world until 2006, when he rented a small space in Manhattan and began teaching a donation-based class every Sunday. His role model at the time was Bryan Kest, who’d launched donation-based power yoga studios in Santa Monica and believes in making yoga accessible to everyone.

Gumucio’s first class had just 10 students. By the third Sunday, so many people showed up they couldn’t all fit in one room.

Yoga to the People was born. During the next six years, Gumucio opened five studios in New York and expanded to Seattle, San Francisco, and Berkeley.

“Yoga studios make pretty damn good money,” Gumucio says. “What I did with the $8 yoga, you just get more people. . . . So it’s math. The price point is lower, so we get a bigger volume.”

But it wasn’t just price that allowed Gumucio to gain so much ground on his mentor. If Bikram’s theory was based on rigidity and obedience to an ultimate authority figure, Gumucio took the opposite approach, branding his studios with an everyman’s populism.

Gumucio’s mission statement: “There will be no right answers. No glorified teachers. No ego, no script, no pedestals. No, ‘You’re not good enough or rich enough.’ This yoga is for everyone.”

“Yogis can be very elitist and give you attitude at the front desk when you walk in,” says Ted Caine, who has taught at YTTP for four years. “I hate that, the, ‘We are better people because we do yoga.’ I think that’s dumb.”

Although philosophy remains the outer crust of the dispute between Bikram and Gumucio, at heart, it’s a battle over money. Lot and lots of money. The industry is growing so fast that it’s expected to reach $8.3 billion in sales by 2016.

With that much at stake, it was only a matter of time until the lawyers showed up.

The Yoga Code

Practitioners describe hot yoga as if it were as powerful—and addictive—as any drug. First-timers enter a studio with empty stomachs (if they are smart), but nothing prepares them for the wave of 105-degree heat that refuses to subside.

Anxiety begins to gather in their chests well before the first water break at the 20-minute mark. By the sixth of 26 poses—as they try to balance on one leg while pulling the other leg into a standing split—black spots start to pop before their eyes. At the end of the class, students are left flat on their backs catching their breath, with matted hair and soaked clothes.

Outsiders might consider it a torture only a fool would choose to endure. But for true believers, something euphoric is delivered: They feel amazing.

Yet the Bikram-Gumucio feud has caused a nationwide divide, slicing the country’s yoga practitioners into two schools of thought. Much like warring religious sects, they practice nearly the exact same form of yoga but speak slightly different dialects. In the end, it’s not a battle over questions great and eternal, but over the interests of two charismatic leaders whose followers are forced to choose sides.

For many Bikram students, there is a sense of profound respect and admiration for their yogi. And they invoke the yoga code: the belief that followers must respect the lineage and leader of the specific style of yoga they practice. Without properly trained teachers, students won’t get the proper benefits. And if the Bikram method is allowed to be diluted, a great tradition will be lost.

“I just know I wouldn’t be able to do that,” Tricia Donegan says of Gumucio’s discount studios. She owns a Bikram studio in New York and is best known as Lady Gaga’s instructor.

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