Downward Dogfight

It's a bright fall morning , and Baron Baptiste is giving instructions to a group of 20 or so preschoolers at Barefoot Books in Cambridge. The kids struggle through a series of yoga poses, each attempt at poise met with an equally unsteady loss of control resulting in myriad tumbles and near collisions. “Don't kick your neighbor,” Baptiste commands. He is here to plug his newly released children's book, My Daddy is a Pretzel, the latest offering in the multimillion-dollar, multimedia yoga empire he's built since starting to transform American yoga in the 1980s. A tranquil smile on his broad, tanned face, he is in a position he knows well: the eye of the storm.

Last summer, Baptiste and his business partner, Rolf Gates, co-owner of the Baptiste yoga studio in Boston, went to war after

Baptiste's sudden firing of Gates's wife, Mariam, then the studio manager, and three other employees. The firings stemmed from what Baptiste calls the mismanagement of the Boston studio, which he says Gates used to secretly plan and promote his own yoga company. It's an unlikely drama, part of a larger story that involves backbiting, conspiracy theories, sexual harassment accusations — even the Kennedys.

In February a jury is scheduled to hear the case of Baptiste v. Gates . Until then, many questions remain — among them, why would Baptiste, a man whose life has been steeped in a discipline intended to bring inner peace, take on the swagger of a corporate raider? And why would Gates be slapped with a lawsuit when the studio he was running seemed such a success? Baptiste claims he knows things about the management of the studio — and about Gates's plans — that justify his actions. Gates, who has countersued, denies any wrongdoing.

The yoga war has sent shock waves through the ranks of the city's most flexible and tranquil-seeming of citizens. “It's a situation that a lot of people feel sad about,” says one yoga teacher. “We were all comrades in arms, and it split right across a lot of different friendships. But it happened, and when something like this happens, people choose their sides.”

Baron Baptiste was born to be a yogi. His father, a former Mr. America, and mother helped bring yoga to this country. Baptiste grew up in San Francisco practicing yoga and working at his parents' health food store long before either thing was considered trendy. In his early twenties, he moved to Los Angeles and became a yoga teacher under Bikram Choudhury, who had invented his own form of yoga practiced in a room heated to 105 degrees. Baptiste eventually left Bikram in an acrimonious split that ended with Bikram critiquing Baptiste's methods. “He's not doing yoga,” Bikram said. “He's doing aerobic exercise. He's doing Jane Fonda.”

Baptiste went on to teach his classes in gyms, slowly eking out a living and beginning to make a name for himself as Hollywood's favorite yogi, with a celebrity client list that included Raquel Welch, Elizabeth Shue, and Helen Hunt. He was soon discovered by the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, Jeffrey Lurie, who asked him to come to Philadelphia and work with the team. Baron piled his family into a car and headed east. He stayed in Philadelphia for four years, working with the Eagles and moonlighting as a yoga instructor.

During this time, Baptiste befriended Max Kennedy, Robert Kennedy's son and then an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, and started getting invited to Hyannisport. Eventually, Kennedy encouraged Baptiste to open a studio in Cambridge and gave him seed money. One weekend in Hyannisport, Kennedy, Baptiste, and their wives signed an informal contract that set out the terms of the business agreement, which called for Kennedy to receive a share of the profits from any Baptiste studios in Boston.

Barely five years after the good-natured signing of the deal, Baptiste took Kennedy to court to render the business partnership void. Baptiste charged Kennedy with breaching the contract by, among other things, “engaging in unprofessional, harassing, and [wrongful] conduct with female staff” at the studio. In a counterclaim, Kennedy complained that Baptiste had “bragg[ed] to third parties that he would intimidate the Kennedys by making allegations that M. Kennedy engaged in unprofessional conduct to avoid their contractual and fiduciary obligations and/or to exact financial concessions from the Kennedys.”

Kennedy countered Baptiste's charge of harassment by saying that Baptiste himself had breached the contract, in part by “engaging in unprofessional conduct with students and/or instructors including making improper sexual advances to female students and having at least one sexual affair with a student.” Quietly settled last year, the dispute painted Baptiste as a vigilant protector of his profits.

Baptiste's business in Cambridge was booming from the outset, mainly because what he was offering was so new and different. He had transformed the ancient art of yoga into an intensely physical workout without all the fancy contortions and elaborate chanting. “If Baron wasn't doing something that was downright exciting that first year, you weren't in the class with him,” says Gates, who had come to Baptiste's classes from a background working as an Army Airborne Ranger, an emergency medical technician, and an addictions counselor before training to become a yoga teacher at the Kripalu Center in Lenox. “I remember watching Baron walk into a room and walk out, and I think he probably made $400 or $500 in that 90-minute period, and I'm like, that's a funding strategy. I could go a long way with that.”

Soon after beginning to take classes at the Cambridge studio, Gates quit graduate school in social work and began training to teach with Baptiste. Around that time, Baptiste and his wife, D'ana, decided to divorce, and she took the couple's three sons to Utah. Gates says Baptiste left him in charge of day-to-day operations while he turned his attention to his kids and his burgeoning yoga empire.

Gates thrived on the responsibility. “There were times when I worked way too much, but I had this opportunity to outwork any other teacher in the country,” Gates says. “And I was like, you know what? I have a clear shot here. There won't be anyone in the country who can say they worked harder than I did at becoming a good yoga teacher.

With Baptiste traveling so much and working on the first of two books for which he'd reportedly received an advance of $2 million from Simon & Schuster, Gates began to dream of taking over the Cambridge studio. But his hopes were dashed. “As [the studio] became hugely profitable and successful, it became clear that no reins were going to be turned over,” Gates says. “I wasn't going to be sharing any profits. I was going to be a salaried employee in this studio indefinitely, and that wasn't what I'd anticipated.”

Gates went on leave in 2001 to write his own book, Meditations from the Mat. When he returned, he told Baptiste that he was thinking of moving to Seattle and starting a studio of his own with his wife, Mariam. Gates and Baptiste disagree about who invited whom to join forces and open a studio in Boston. But whatever the genesis of the idea, Gates eventually decided to do it because, he says, “anything we were contemplating [in Seattle] was going to be on a smaller scale. And we were like, why don't we do a big-scale thing while we're young and can have a larger impact?”

So the couple sold two condominiums Mariam owned and plunged their life savings — $135,000 — into the creation of the Boston studio. Baptiste's cash contribution was significantly less, but he provided his staff, credit history, and brand name. “My contribution was really more than theirs. I was bringing my name and my brand,” says Baron, adding that when he started in the business, “I didn't have what Rolf had. He walked into a silver platter of a career.”

The Boston studio was a huge success. Soon Gates's Saturday and Sunday morning sessions came to be a kind of substitute church service for his loyal Boston following. Gates deviated from the Baptiste method by telling personal stories in his classes. His fans call this inspiring, even life-changing. But Baptiste loyalists say it amounts to preaching. “He might as well have a pulpit in the middle of the room,” says Coeli Marsh, a teacher at the Cambridge studio and Baptiste's one-time girlfriend.

Baptiste's apparent jealousy and Gates's purported lack of appreciation fed increasing friction between the partners. Behind the scenes, the rift was growing.

The lease on the Boston studio was set to expire at the end of this year, and both sides were starting to realize that something would have to change. Though classes were packed at the studio, it was hard to make a decent profit under the weight of the lease and other expenses. Gates, who didn't have the kind of diversified business interests Baptiste had built up, was particularly stuck. The two began to discuss who would buy out whom and for how much. For months they went back and forth. Each now complains that the other wouldn't answer the most straightforward of questions.

Baptiste wanted to be sure that there would still be people to run the Boston studio if he bought it. He asked Gates's protégé, Glen Cunningham, and other key figures at the studio whether they would stay and bristled when they wouldn't answer him directly. “It was like they were all in on this big secret,” Baptiste says, adding, “I always felt like there was this inner circle [at the Boston studio]. I felt like an alien, and people who worked there felt like aliens. And that's not how it was at my other studios.” Cunningham says he was like a child in a divorce being forced to choose between his parents. “I got as honest with [Baptiste] as I could. [I said,] 'Why don't the parents make a decision and then come talk to the kids?'”

But it wasn't just the staff Baptiste was worried about. In the spring, he started showing up more regularly at the Boston studio to scrutinize the books. One of the complaints in the lawsuit is that Gates had let the electric bill reach more than $55,000. Gates says the electric company had accidentally read only one of the two meters for two years, then hit the studio with a huge bill when it realized its mistake. He says he told Baptiste about the problem immediately, and the studio was on a payment plan with the electric company to rectify it. But Baptiste continues to regard the unpaid bill not only as an example of Gates's inability to manage the studio, but as proof that Gates was running it into the ground because he knew he would be leaving. And it was where Gates was headed next that may have been Baptiste's biggest concern.

After teaching a class in Boston last spring, Baptiste was approached by an interior designer who said she'd been asked to draw up plans for a yoga studio on St. James Avenue, around the corner from Baptiste's Boston studio. When a surprised Baptiste asked her who the tenant would be, she said, “Rolf Gates.” Gates admits he was considering the space for a studio, but says he was looking into it, along with six other properties, because he thought the Boston studio would be closing at the end of the year. “I went and did my research,” Gates says. “That's what you do. It wasn't premature to be looking. It was prudent.”

Around the same time, the head of the teachers at the Cambridge studio, Gregor Singleton, told Baptiste that Gates had approached him to see if he would go into business with him and Cunningham. Gates's plan, Singleton told Baptiste, was to open a studio in Harvard Square that would compete directly with the Baptiste studio in Porter Square. “It became obvious to me that Rolf was shutting the place down,” Baptiste says.

What yogis call “bad energy” came to a head on July 14 when Baptiste set in motion a plan to clean house. He hired a police officer to stand guard while he dispatched letters of termination to the people he'd determined to be Gates loyalists. While he never raised his voice, according to some reports he acted in a way that seemed most unbefitting a yogi.

Mariam Gates was first. She came out of a yoga class at 10:30 a.m. to find Baptiste and a group of teachers from the Cambridge studio assembled in the downstairs office. “He told me not to change my clothes,” she says. “I tried to gather my things and he told me I was taking too long. And, you know, the studio has been my home for the past two and a half years, so I have a lot of things there, and he asked me what part of leave did I not understand.”

Baptiste denies he lost his yogic cool. “There was shock in the air,” he says. “When someone gets terminated, there's hurt feelings. It's emotional, it's sad, it's painful. But never once did it get wild.”

As the day unfolded, Cunningham and another manager were also fired. (A fourth employee was fired when she returned from vacation.) When he handed Cunningham what he called his “walking papers,” Baptiste reportedly smiled and said, “The truth is on our side.” Several students say Baptiste, having ended Cunningham's career for the time being, proceeded to celebrate by high-fiving his assistant.

Two days later, the Gateses were informed that Baptiste was suing them for damages for mismanaging the studio, allegedly refusing to sign non-compete agreements, and using the studio to build and promote their own business. The Gateses estimate that it will cost them $175,000 to defend against the lawsuit.

“If Baron had beaten the living piss out of me and Mariam, it would have been a hell of a lot better than this,” Gates says of the suit. “If he had taken us out back, beaten us up with a baseball bat, and said, 'Okay, see you later,' I would have chosen that.”

To defend themselves, the Gateses have gathered money from a variety of sources, including, according to Rolf, a student, Mariam's father, and “a friend of the family's, who just happens to be an heiress.” But while the Gateses have also had to take out a second mortgage on their house to cover legal fees, they hope to win their case in court and are moving forward with plans to start their own studio next year.

The feud between Baptiste and Gates has left many Boston yogis wondering if their regular workout will be the next casualty. Many of Gates's students continue to attend classes at the Boston studio but say they plan to leave as soon as he opens his new studio. Others are troubled by the thought of supporting Baptiste financially by visiting the studio, which he still owns. As one longtime Gates follower, Alan Filzer, says, “I will not go to Baron's studio or buy any of his products. I think Baron should read in his own book about being kind and caring about people. And I'm not saying that you can't fire people. But quite honestly, I think this is a very, very bad chapter for Baron.”

Others believe it's Gates who has been acting out of line. Brandon Compagnone, a former friend of Gates who has come on board to teach Gates's classes at the Boston studio, says of his boss, “I know Baron. He's kind, he's grateful, he's open-minded. I trust his judgment.” Without apparent irony, he also says, “[Rolf's] not with acting with love at all. He's being — excuse my language — a fucking asshole.”

Baptiste himself doesn't seem worried about this chapter of his life — or the next. Like Gates, he believes he will win his day in court. “This is kind of a blip on the radar screen for me,” he says calmly of the chaos swirling around him. “I mean, I love this studio, and I'd love to keep it here. It serves the community in a wonderful way. It is actually coming more to life.”

Baptiste has just renewed the lease on the Boston studio, but the war of the yogis is far from over. And, as one yoga teacher says, “the law of karma has got to catch up with you eventually.”