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Are We Commoditizing Yoga?


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Allow me to begin with a quote featured in this week's Boston Globe, citing Justine Wiltshire Cohen's approach to sharing the practice of yoga. "We believe that yoga studios should act in ways that are consistent with the teachings of yoga,'' it says. "We will never sell plastic water bottles that go into landfills [because ahimsa means 'do no harm']. We will never sell $150 yoga pants [because aparigraha means 'identifying greed']. We will never accept offers from companies to promote their gear in exchange for free publicity or products (because satya means "truthfulness''). We will never brand, trademark, or pretend we've made up a new style of yoga.''

Wiltshire garnered the attention of the newspaper with a panel discussion that took place October 17th at Down Under Yoga titled "Balancing Acts: Poses, Products, and the Future of Yoga in America," which was led by her and yoga mavens such as Barbara Benagh, Patricia Walden, and Peentz Dubble. It was to address the issues coinciding with the growing popularity of yoga: How do we appreciate the fact that so many people are interested and practicing in mainstream culture, while remaining focused one the sacred, authentic core of its teachings, without the corruption of commodity and consumerism?

I was impressed to learn about the panel and the urgency the teachers involved seemed to bring to the issue. And I was even more intrigued by the flurry of press around it, the opinions that began to emerge in blogs and posts, and that it seemed to strike a nerve across the yoga community in an interesting way. Cohen described the topic as "the elephant in the room."  I believe her to mean that it is addressing a topic of glaring concern to many within the yoga community, and that it is simply not talked about enough in an open forum.

This issue is something I think about constantly. I've been watching the "business" of yoga explode and evolve over more than a decade, having taught at a host of studios in different cities and enjoyed the sanghas following many teachers. "Yoga has become a way of life," a friend remarked to me the other day. It has become part of our culture and products have come to market for this segment and opportunities to capitalize on it abound. Some of it I absolutely love. And some of it literally hurts to look it, when I see a product or teacher espousing its yogic wonders, when it has so many inconsistencies with the tenets of yoga that I find it damaging and diluting to the practice.

Yes, I am a yoga teacher and yes, I am the owner of a consumer products company. So, yes indeed, this issue is close to my heart. I myself sell To-Go Ware to studios and yogis all over the country. And, quite frankly, they are some of my favorite customers. Not merely because I enjoy the engagement of my own community, but because yoga practitioners are incredible ambassadors. Our products are meant to help people wake up to consumption, to walk their yoga practice off the mat and into their lives, and to give them a tool to do so. Yogis get it, help spread the message and it feels almost and honor to have this awakened segment of the population to work with. So, biased or not, I can see great merits to using conscious consumerism mindfully amongst the yoga world. 

This begs the question, where do we draw the line in a today's day and age of what is yoga and what is not? Here's where I see a mindful discernment needing to enter the picture. There is of course the renunciate path, where a student can abandon worldly possessions and experiences and retreat from our consumer society. That's an easy way to solve the problem. But for the majority of us, we are still living in the world with stuff and services all around us.  We need to be thinking about how we engage, how we consume, and how it aligns with yoga (if at all).

This is why I love what Justine Wiltshire Cohen and Down Under Yoga have done to bring this topic into greater awareness and start a lively conversation about it. I hope that it continues to proliferate and encourage people to start asking questions about the things they consume and the things they offer in the name of yoga. May it lead us all to better answers.

*image above courtesy of Yogadork

Stephanie Bernstein is the Founder and CEO of To-Go Ware. She has been practicing and teaching yoga for 12 years and currently resides in Oakland, CA.

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Comments

We will never sell $150 yoga pants [because aparigraha means 'identifying greed']. We will never accept offers from companies to promote their gear in exchange for free publicity or products (because satya means "truthfulness''). We will never brand, trademark, or pretend we've made up a new style of yoga.''

this is funny from the yoga journal, i recently attended the estes park yoga journal conference, (from the UK) and was devatasted, it cost $10 just to change a class with 20minute queues, $80 for the class, a minimum of $60 for a mat, if you didnt have one, and $20 if you were unfortunate enough to have lost your paper copy

the staff were unhelpful, unless what you needed was specifically in their remit, and the whole approach contrasted strongly with the approach of the YMCA and the YMCA staff, i was really, really dissapointed

We will never sell $150 yoga pants [because aparigraha means 'identifying greed']. We will never accept offers from companies to promote their gear in exchange for free publicity or products (because satya means "truthfulness''). We will never brand, trademark, or pretend we've made up a new style of yoga.''

this is funny coming from the yoga journal, i recently attended the estes park yoga journal conference, (from the UK) and was devatasted, it cost $10 just to change a class with 20minute queues, $80 for the class, a minimum of $60 for a mat, if you didnt have one, and $20 if you were unfortunate enough to have lost your paper copy

the staff were unhelpful, unless what you needed was specifically in their remit, and the whole approach contrasted strongly with the approach of the YMCA and the YMCA staff, i was really, really dissapointed

Rachel, I hope you will give this info to YJ directly so they can both make it right to you and make sure that whoever the entrusted with training & supervising the frontline workers there is not in charge at future conferences. I've been at professional & commercial conferences where glitches like this were quickly and kindly referred to someone who could help. Maybe it was a case of overwhelmed volunteers, since you allude to long lines. Or maybe they fell prey to overbooking --overpacked classes may be the next overdue discussion. In any case, it's this sweet individual blogger who has highlighted the panel in Boston, not YJ itself. I looked at the website for the new studio that sponsored the panel, and everything about it , from listing the public transportation options to the lending library of yoga books is so different from celebrity-focussed yoga!

Yoga is going to have a business model whether anyone wants it to or not. Protestant ministers have a business model; basketball players have a business model. Like any other phenomenon, as long as yoga exists, those who propagate it and those who study it seriously are going to need a livelihood. How will we support them? How many should we support? What should we expect in return? These are questions that any nascent profession needs to ask. Right now the model is ad hoc; yoga teachers are paid in a variety of ways, but usually through tiered membership fees. Likewise, there are different standards as to what a teacher's experience should be, and what the classroom environment should be like. Should a yoga teacher be more akin to a spinning instructor or a doctor? How many students should the teacher work with at any given time?

If we look at T. Krishnamacharya, it appears that he taught relatively few students. A few paid spectacular sums in the form of support for his school, and the rest paid nothing. He could command that capital from wealthy patrons because he had something they felt they could not get elsewhere for less - plus those patrons were accustomed to a culture in which they were responsible for funding public spiritual institutions.

Fast forward to America in 2010. Acceptable standards of living for yoga teachers are relatively high. We also have a culture that emphasizes straightforward, one-dimensional payment for market value of services rendered. In other words, rich people are generally not inclined to pay more for yoga so that others can act as free riders. So yoga teachers need to make a substantial amount of money, and they need to have a basic line of products with prices assigned to each one. How can they make that work? For most teachers and studios, the compromises to reach solvency can feel troubling: endorsements, advertising, and teacher trainings that exacerbate the glut of inexperienced instructors. Retail sales of themed consumer items, accessories, and music. But what are their other options in an all-or-nothing society? Should they cut costs by downgrading teacher pay, which would probably solidify a culture of Wal-Mart yoga? Should they do it by practicing in locations with really cheap overhead, or would that decrease demand too much? Should they find another way to boost revenues? Really, the only viable way (on a large scale) to have yoga without consumerism, taught by people devoting their lives to the subject, and with classes held in un-dangerous parts of town is to pay a lot more for the privilege.

Should we attempt to restrict yoga to that, then? Make it an expensive luxury, like organic raw local fair trade cheese? Or should there be commodity AND luxury yoga, the former shallow and full of consumer yuckiness and the latter pure, rich and creamy? I don't know. I don't like the thought of compromising on principles. But I also cannot afford expensive yoga, and I think that even a studio with inexperienced teachers and an emphasis on expensive yoga gear can be beneficial to the world by creating an identity that doesn't scare away mainstream society and tells our culture that it is cool to take care of yourself and think about spirituality just a tiny bit.

These are the discussions that need to be worked out, and it's very good to see that the yoga community is starting to do it.



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