The Missionaries of Position
Disturbed by mood lighting and New Age music, yoga never appealed to Robert Sidoti. "It's awkward for most guys just to cross their legs," says the Martha's Vineyard (Mass.) personal trainer. "There's this stigma that yoga is this real groovy, open your heart, 'I love you, man' kinda thing." When his wife finally persuaded him to try it, however, Sidoti discovered his golf swing improved. Inspired, he started teaching dude-friendly yoga classes set to Radiohead and Coldplay in 2008. "My style taps into men's upper body strength," says Sidoti. "It's a primal, powerful way for guys to let go." He calls his method BROga®—a term he trademarked in 2009.
BROga is in good company at the patent office. During the past decade, a yoga trademarking craze has produced everything from Hillbilly Yoga® to Cougar Yoga™ (think Demi Moore, not mountain lion). Of the 2,213 trademark applications containing the word "yoga," more than 2,000 have been filed since 2001 relating to yoga styles and products, according to the government's Trademark Electronic Search System. As the Eastern mystic practice has spread from hippies to soccer moms to Metallica fans (yes, there's Metal Yoga™), aspiring gurus are seeing an opportunity in the $6 billion U.S. yoga market. "Yoga today is where the Food Network was 15 years ago," says Ava Taylor, whose Brooklyn-based Yama Talent manages the careers of 41 ambitious yogis. "Many of these teachers will cross over into the mass market."
Plenty are already trying. Tara Stiles opened Strala Yoga studio in New York in October. She also recently released an iPhone app with soul guru Deepak Chopra (she's his personal instructor) and a DVD with Jane Fonda, and has been tapped to endorse Nissan's new electric car, the Leaf. "I want yoga to be the thing you do for 45 minutes while your boyfriend is in Best Buy (BBY)," says Stiles, who hopes to bring a line of yoga studios to strip malls. While some of her routines—Couch Yoga, Hotel Room Yoga, Yoga for Rachel Maddow—have been criticized for cheapening the practice, Stiles, who's represented by Creative Artists Agency, is preparing to open a second studio. She's also considering trademarking opportunities. "It's about time," she says.
The blueprint for meditative success was created by man-thonged Bikram Choudhury, the Emeril of yogis. Like soccer stars, pop singers, and Buddha, Bikram has attained the ultimate in groupie fame: one-name status. He achieved it in 2002 by trademarking and copyrighting Bikram, his sequence of 26 poses practiced in 105F heat. "When in Rome, I must do as the Romans do. When in America, copyright and trademark," he said at the time. Now Bikram charges fees for instructor training ($10,900), studio setup ($10,000), and franchise royalties (up to 5 percent of gross monthly revenues)—all contributing to $5 million in annual revenue.
Enterprising yogis are now trying to eclipse even the Bikram model. "For all the talk of Bikram's moguldom, if you look at the numbers, they're kind of a joke," says Stefanie Syman, author of The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America. "He's just a garden- variety millionaire." While working for yoga apparel behemoth Lululemon Athletica (LULU) in 2009, Ava Taylor made the same observation. She thought the company's climbing revenues were at odds with yoga teachers' low salaries, which the job search website Simply Hired estimates to average $35,000 annually. "When I got to know the teachers off the mat, I realized that many of them were struggling," she says. Begun in January 2010, her Yama Talent helps them book jobs and develop their own brands.
Yet the yoga entrepreneur movement is not without its adversaries. Since 2001 the Indian government has been cataloging more than 1,000 postures in a compendium created to protect against intellectual property infringement—what it calls "yoga theft." (The yoga portion of Traditional Knowledge Digital Library is scheduled to go online this spring.) Yet many yogamongers seem undeterred. Says Derek Beres, a New York-based Yama client who registered his EarthRise Yoga® in 2008: "While I understand that I have not invented any of the poses or underlying ideas that form the basis of [EarthRise Yoga], the way I've synthesized the elements is my own." Beres's challenging course blends traditional yoga poses with martial arts—set to an upbeat world-music soundtrack that he produces. "It's very much like language," he says. "Very few of us create our own words."
Time will tell whether or not this generation of aspiring stars can avoid the fate of its forebears. Joseph Pilates, the godfather of the namesake mind-and-muscle control fitness routine, suffered for failing to trademark. When Pilates Inc. tried to protect the use of his name in 2000, the courts ruled that "pilates" was free for unrestricted use. "Yoga and money have a long-standing history of butting heads," says Taylor. "While I don't think we'll ever become a kind of LeBron James, 13-cars-in-the-driveway industry, there's no reason teaching yoga shouldn't be sustainable. We don't live in the Himalayas anymore."