NYC Bikram Studio Loses Yoga War

When Bikram Yoga Manhattan sent out their newsletter last week announcing studio closure of their Penn Station location, owner and director Raffael Pacitti lambasted nearby studios Yoga to the People (YTTP) for offering Bikram classes in all but name for over 50% cheaper, making it “impossible to continue.” The charges stem from Pacitti’s complaints that YTTP recently opened three locations within walking distance of Penn Station, offering “traditional” or “hot yoga” classes that are identical to Bikram from instructors untrained in the Bikram approach.

Pacitti’s primary gripes, shared in the 10-paragraph email, relate to the failure to honor Bikram’s tradition and lineage, the alleged exploitation of YTTP instructors by Gumucio, and the charge that “Mr. Gumucio and his team have taken it upon themselves to violate this honorable and ancient system in the interest of commerce and making money … It is devastating to see others … bypass what we believe to be a powerful journey and intent.”

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According to Gumucio, however, his only goal in opening the studios was to render yoga accessible to all.  “In New York, you’re paying $20 to 25 a class,” Gumucio said. “To me, that was just very cost prohibitive. Our commitment was to give the less financially able an opportunity to practice.”

What is bemusing about this debacle are Pacitti’s charges that YTTP is “violating this ancient and honorable system in the interest of commerce and money,” given YTTP’s stated aims and prices, in contrast with Bikram’s track record: multiple lawsuits waged to protect the Bikram name, logo, flow, and other characteristics; a teacher training that costs $7000; and NYC classes that average $20 each.

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Such voracious ownership may seem contrary to “traditional” yoga (where yogis or gurus were not infrequently mendicants or renunciates), and more characteristic of the greed and acquisition common to our modern, consumption-driven society.  To claim that YTTP is violating the “foundations of yoga” is an assumption so fallacious as to seem ignorant of yoga’s origins and rich historical heritage, where lineages and traditions comingled and informed one another; where plurality was celebrated as the many faces of truth, rather than the singularity to which Bikram appears beholden.

As Steve Sonnefeld, a studio owner reflecting on Bikram’s lawsuits in 2004 shares, “Living a yoga lifestyle means greedlessness, simplicity, humility, seeing your connectedness to others,” Sonnefeld says. “This is not an ego-driven activity. Bikram has decided to copyright his brand and it’s made him a very wealthy man.”

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