India has officially compiled and patented 1,300 yoga postures, known as asanas, and made them publically available through the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL), which also includes a wealth of authoritative information on ayurvedic medicine. In addition, 250 of the most popular postures – such as downward facing dog and cobra – were videotaped for the highest level of clarity possible (describing the postures with words alone proved too difficult). The effort involved coordinating 200 scientists as well as Hindu gurus who worked together on 16 ancient texts. Phase II of the project involves an additional 20 texts, which would be the source for even more postures.
The project to patent asanas was initiated by Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in 2006; at that time, 16.5 million people were practicing yoga in the United States alone and the size of the yoga market was $2.96 billion annually. Those statistics have only become more impressive in the intervening years. The “yoga industrial complex”, as it has been christened by the website YogaDawg, will doubtless continue to grow and thrive as more people find their way to a mat for various reasons – to relieve stress, look younger, lose weight, or even for spiritual reasons.
In the United States, there are currently over 130 patents, 150 copyrights, and 2,300 trademarks to yoga related products and services, although no poses have been recognized as intellectual property. India believes that these statistics, when viewed in combination with the ones above, represent a threat to its role as yoga’s birthplace and cradle. The tradition is over 2,000 years old and is still widely taught in India, mostly in public parks and free of charge (in contrast to the highly commercialized American model). By patenting asanas, the CSIR hopes to prevent other countries from infringing on what is seen as a uniquely Indian invention.
There is a precedent for patenting postures. Bikram Choudhury, a native of Calcutta, invented the eponymous and wildly popular bikram yoga and patented his series of 26 postures which take place over 90 minutes in a room heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit with 40% humidity. In 2002, Bikram successfully shut down studios offering “bikram hot yoga” when they deviated from his exact methodology by playing music and changing the temperature. When Bikram was asked why he would seek to patent his yoga, he simply stated that, “…it’s the American way.” Allegedly, outrage over Bikram’s patent was part of what sparked the CSIR project to patent asanas.
It remains to be seen how effective the patents within the TKDL will be at quashing the efforts of entrepreneurs in other countries to create their own yoga brands. As experts note, none of the intellectual property protections have been granted to the posture itself, only a particular set of conditions or environment. Also, it is up for debate if other methods of protection (such as an approach similar to the one taken by France regarding champagne) would be more successful. However, Japan’s patent office has already entered into an agreement to use the information on yoga contained within the TKDL, and other international patent offices are sure to follow. At the very least, the patents will provide protection for yoga in the broadest sense of the word and significantly tighten the legal association between yoga and India.