The new India, its boosters proclaim, is the ultimate fusion of modernity and tradition. The latest incarnation is the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, a 30-million-page electronic encyclopedia of yoga poses and herbal remedies slated for completion before the end of this year. An effort of the Indian government, its purpose is to patent the country’s collective traditional knowledge of ancient techniques, stymieing Western "yoga pirates" who are expropriating the country’s heritage for profit. "Piracy is an increasingly big problem for us," says Ajay Dua of India’s Department of Policy and Planning, which oversees intellectual property rights. "It’s our job to safeguard the wealth of our traditions."
Some 100 government researchers in New Delhi are poring over age-old texts and cataloging more than 1,500 yoga poses and 150,000 traditional treatments originally recorded in Sanskrit, Hindi, and Persian. The guide will be translated into English, French, German, Spanish, and Japanese, and distributed to patent, copyright, and trademark offices around the world. "Once this documentation is released, no one else can claim that these therapies are their own inventions," says Dua.
India’s efforts, however, may be a bit late. In the United States alone, yoga is now a $30 billion-a-year business. The U.S. Patent and Trademark office has already issued at least 137 patents and 1,098 trademarks and copyrights relating to yoga. The most notorious copyright and trademark holder is Beverly Hills yogi Bikram Choudhury. He’s protected a series of 26 yoga positions adapted from more than 80 traditional poses. Others are getting in on the act, too; one American even holds a patent for a yoga mat.
"In the last few years, yoga has been seriously over-commercialized," complains Kathryn Arnold, editorial director of the San Francisco-based magazine Yoga Journal. Arnold fears that the profit motive in the yoga business is too strong for India’s efforts to have much of an effect. A real solution may require greater meditation.