Inside the Intense Legal Battle That’s Dividing the Yoga World

Photo: Stocksy/Aaron Thomas
Lawsuits, scathing social media posts, online bullying—sounds like a late-night episode of Law & Order, right? Actually, all of this drama just unfolded in real life, and in the last place you’d likely expect: the yoga community.

If you follow any superstar yogis on Instagram, you’ve probably seen mention of the feud in question, which centers around yoga influencers Dana Falsetti and Kino MacGregor, online yoga class platform Cody, and celeb-approved yoga apparel brand Alo. It’s a crazy complicated situation, but at its core, the dispute raises some pretty big questions about the tricky intersection between yoga as an industry (it generated over $9 billion dollars in the US in 2015) and as an ancient practice, which according to purists, rejects excessive materialism.

The dispute raises some pretty big questions about the tricky intersection between yoga as an industry and an ancient practice, which according to purists, rejects excessive materialism.

In short, here’s what went down: In 2014 and 2015, respectively, MacGregor and Falsetti both began filming classes for Cody, which was acquired by Alo in 2017. When Falsetti learned that her content was now Alo’s property, she asked for her videos to be removed from the site—as a leader of the body-positive inclusivity movement in yoga, she contended that Alo’s marketing campaigns weren't diverse enough for her to align with the brand.

But she didn’t stop there: In December 2017 Falsetti also posted an Instagram Story airing her grievances against Alo, and following that, Cody filed two lawsuits against her. These suits, which were settled out of court this week, alleged that Falsetti publicly announced the partnership between Alo and Cody before either party was ready to do so, and accused her of making libelous, false statements about Alo. (Although Falsetti remained silent about the matter while the legal dispute was going on, she counterclaimed that "Cody's calculated sale of its company to Alo, including materials incorporating [her] name and image, harmed [her] reputation" as an advocate for "large-bodied persons.") Fast forward to last month, when MacGregor published an article in Elephant Journal, a yoga lifestyle site, defending Falsetti and revealing that she, too, asked for her content to be removed from Cody.

“Just like Dana, I simply do not want my teaching being rolled up in the Alo Yoga/Cody App subscription service,” she wrote. “My videos are on their channel as a result of an old prior contract with the Cody App—then, and now, against my will, despite repeated requests to remove the content and seek an amicable termination.” (A source close to Alo responds that the brand has been actively engaging in discussions with MacGregor and her attorneys about removing or selling back her content since November 2017. "As part of her work for Cody, MacGregor was paid more than $535,000 for the rights to her content," adds an Alo spokesperson. "We’d like to better understand what her grievances are and solve them amicably.")

When asked about this figure, MacGregor did not confirm or deny the dollar amount: "Alo/Cody had a revenue share agreement with me, which means that they earned the exact same amount of money," she says. "I got paid a 50/50 revenue share off the sales of my classes while Cody was able to use my name and likeness to promote their whole business."

Who’s in the right—the yogis who want to control the content they helped create, or the brands who own it?

MacGregor also created a crowdfunding page for Falsetti's legal bills while calling on 62 of Alo’s Instagram yoga and fitness ambassadors individually for a response, many of whom were later pressured by fans to choose sides in the feud. All this outspokenness on the matter has led some members of the online yoga community to send a sizable amount of criticism MacGregor's way. 

"The last three weeks have been filled with anxiety for me," she says. "[I've] gotten threats to my [personal] safety, along with prank calls, hateful comments, and angry messages. Each day I get people who say to just drop it already, proclaim that they will 'unfollow' me, tell me to just 'shut up,'  call me awful names, question my integrity, and write me off as a money-grubbing narcissist."

It's clearly a charged and complex scenario, with strong opinions on both sides of the fence. So who’s in the right—the yogis who want to control the content they helped create (and speak their minds about it), or the brands who own it?

I know I've gone nearly silent on the yoga front. 4 years of working in corporatized yoga has been enough to exhaust me. I think the biggest reason has been that I'm working in a world that still mostly isn't for me. Doesn't mean I don't know I deserve this space, but it's hard to feel that and I feel it consistently. I feel the vibe, get the looks when I enter studios. Many companies who want to work with me don't come from a genuine place. Many companies don't want to work with me because of my body or my message and worry how their audience will respond. When I show up for shoots or features it's all about the flashiness, because a fat girl can only redeem herself if she is extraordinary (usually physically, to make up for the fatness). I am grateful every opportunity to be myself and help others. It's just caught up with me recently, and I needed the reminder for myself that the very things making me tired are all the reasons I do this work. Because so much needs to change. Those who perpetuate body shame, who create and uphold standards, who box people out... that's why. I do this work BECAUSE this space still isn't for me as someone in a fat body, because I still shock people with my body, and I've got a lot of privilege working in my favor. So for me to still feel that... I can only imagine how so many others feel and hear their experiences often. Of course nobody wants to step foot in their first yoga class. Of course people think this practice isn't for them. We can pretend the western (yoga) world isn't full of privilege (many kinds) or we can call it like it is and make shifts. I'm not above this. I am discussing it. I try to use my privilege to get important messages into the world, to share yoga with those who never see themselves on the cover of Yoga Journal, or in ads for yoga apparel, or in photos of asana, or in a live class. My hope is to continue better serving you as I learn. It's not just about self love, though I hope everybody can come to that place. It's about recognizing the ingrained bs that hinders us and deciding to rise. It's been my pleasure to watch you rise. Without you showing up for you, I wouldn't have the energy to continue.

A post shared by Dana Falsetti (@nolatrees) on

From a purely legal perspective, talent usually doesn't have much of a case when it comes to taking back their content from a production entity, says Mikey Glazer of Talent Law, an entertainment attorney who represents influencers, podcasters, and experts in branded content deals. “Generally, a [subscription video service] that commissions content from a personality will own it outright,” says Glazer. (Note: Neither Glazer nor Well+Good has access to the specific contracts between Falsetti, MacGregor, and Cody, so these are all generalized statements and not commentary on the specific case at hand.) “Finished productions are assets—just like desks, chairs, and inventory—that are sold and licensed when companies change hands. Often, that’s precisely what companies are buying.”

Furthermore, “most talent agreements contain confidentiality provisions,” Glazer says. Remember: In one lawsuit, Cody accused Falsetti of announcing its partnership with Alo before the news went public. According to documents from that lawsuit, her contract did include a provision that prohibited her from disclosing Cody's business plans to any third party. (In this case, the "third party" would be her sizable Instagram following—331,000 people, at press time.)

Falsetti has since admitted that she made a mistake by doing so. "I posted the Instagram Story that ignited this in haste and anger, speaking too freely and loosely in a reactive way," she wrote on Instagram yesterday. "I see now that I was so focused on my position that I did not consider the consequences my posts would have for Alo, Cody, and all of their constituents, including my own colleagues."

But here’s what's rubbing a lot of people the wrong way: While Cody and Alo may have had legal grounds to do what they did, is it really right for a conscious company to, as MacGregor says, “[drain] Dana of resources that could otherwise be used to do her important and positive work in the world” in the name of “one Instagram Story that was on the internet for a few hours?”

According to Well+Good's fitness historian, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, questions like these have been plaguing the yoga community since before Alo or Cody even existed. “For quite a while—at least since the late 1990s, when Lululemon launched and Yoga Journal got acquired by investors—there's been lots of grumbling about how commercialization threatens to ruin yoga's original, anti-materialistic, inclusive ethos,” she says. “There's no question that yoga has become big business and that the profits of this mass appeal have not always benefited the independent proprietors and practitioners who helped popularize the practice and who are most learned in its traditions.”

Although sometimes they have.

As Petrzela points out, in the age of Instagram celebrities, we shouldn’t be quick to assume that yogis are automatically the underdogs. “One interesting dynamic in this developing story is how quickly many were to buy into the 'David and Goliath' analogy that Kino MacGregor put forth; it's a seductive, and yes, sometimes accurate, depiction of the relationship between individual instructors and the big companies that profit off their labor,” she says. “That dynamic is even more pronounced when so many yoga instructors are women and corporate management remains male. But it appears, in this case, that the ‘David’ may not be so helpless. To me, this is relevant because it shows both the increased power that some influencers are accruing—MacGregor and Falsetti exhibit that in different ways—and also the precariousness of some yoga businesses, many of which are startups.”

"To me, this is relevant because it shows both the increased power that some influencers are accruing."—Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

As Petrzela sees it, there are a couple of big lessons to be learned here. “We need to resist the temptation to rely on simplistic dualities that don't fully express what's going on,” she says. “We also need to continue to be attentive to the unique ways that power works in the yoga world, especially when it threatens to silence those marginalized by their gender, size, race, age, or otherwise.”

On a more practical level, this situation may also lead wellness brands and social media stars to become a little more cautious when joining forces in the future. "There can be a lot of difficult areas to navigate for both brands and influencers with contracts," says Evan Asano, CEO and founder of leading influencer marketing agency Mediakix. (He's not a lawyer, so don't take his comments as legal advice.) "You don't want anything up to interpretation." Because, let's be honest—this is one type of warrior pose that no yogi wants to assume.

Another issue rocking the yoga world: its #MeToo stories. (Like the one that led this major NYC studio to rebrand.) 

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