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Modern Postural Yoga, Social Issues, Yoga Cultural History

The Rise of the Yoga “In-Crowd”

Originally published on Type A Yoga Blog, October 20, 2012

As I was reading this recent Huffington Post article, I realized how much it answers the question of why I put everything I’ve ever had at risk to open a yoga studio. Many people think I’m crazy, stupid, or brave for opening my own yoga studio in this economy, particularly in a sub-region without a lot of existing yoga ‘culture’ nestled in one of the oldest yoga communities in the US, the SF Bay Area. Motzenbecker’s article discusses one of the most ironic elements to a culture that hypothetically celebrates unity: “Yoga has begun attracting a crowd that promotes exclusivity and division. I’d like to underline the point that people in the yoga community can be some of the harshest and meanest critics out there.” The fact is, I opened our studio due to the prevalence of that “crowd” in the studios I frequented.

Yoga instructors have tried a lot of studios, teachers, trainings, and workshops by the time they stand in front of a class. Prior to the last few years, the options in our central Contra Costa area were limited. If you wanted to go through a fully registered training program, you could only choose so many possible locations. If you wanted a certification or workshop with a renowned master teacher, you generally had to be willing to commute to SF or Berkeley. In each of these few available studios, you find an established crowd of people who may or may not be welcoming to newcomers.

Part of the motivation, I think, for this exclusionary attitude is the idea that there is a One True Yoga. Traditionally, you learned one main style of yoga, and forsaking all others before it, agreed to train and teach in that one style. Obviously, you thought your style was superior to others because that is the impression your teachers gave you. Sometimes you’d have to sign a waiver stating that you would not agree to even study other types of yoga!

Older, more established studios were often founded with these values. Out here in the ‘burbs, some of those studios became somewhat more flexible because they had to adjust to market conditions. We have a hard time convincing people to try yoga, and as a result had to start appealing to a greater target market. However, in an effort to maintain a sizable class in a highly competitive market, instructors intentionally or unintentionally created an air of superiority and excluded or even occasionally demeaned the contributions of other instructors. In order to balance out the ebbs and flows of the drop-in attendance, instructors would begin to promote certain products as lifestyle choices in order to increase retail sales.

I agree with many that yoga is a lifestyle, not just a hobby. For me that means trying to study the philosophy, the anatomy and physiology, the history within context, and the therapeutic benefits of yoga., and trying to behave in a manner that is consistent with your values as you understand them from moment to moment. For others, that can mean accessorizing with appropriately impressive status symbols.Published shortly after Motzenbecker’s article, another blogger in the Huffington Postpoints out the increasing financial power the yoga Industry (emphasis added) has in trying to attach the concept of yoga to all sorts of products that will somehow magically make you more yogic. Apparently, simple things like renaming bread has some transitive property that will transfer said bread’s yogic-ness to you, all for a low, low price. Doubtless, if you don’t eat yoga bread, you will not be one of the cool kids in class tomorrow, and isn’t that what really matters? However, both of these issues are intertwined and not all that terribly new. Certainly, within the history of yoga, the last decade or so is probably a minor blip on a massive timeline, but the commodification of yoga has been happening for quite some time.

In 2003, my personal space in the tech bubble deflated and I decided to go back to school. I fell into a community college class looking for an easy PE unit and before the semester was out I saw the yoga industry transform drastically. I struggled to find a mat for my first class, but shortly thereafter cheap starter mats and kits were at Target, even Barnes and Noble and T.J. Maxx. Yoga was already the new “TaeBo” fitness fad. To some extent Zumba has picked up some of the over-hyped fitness trend slack since then, but yoga is still very much a big business. Once it became a status symbol and fashionable accessory, people had to vie for authenticity: “My yoga is true, and deep, and meaningful because I have a Manduka mat and Lululemon clothes. Your yoga is shallow and insincere because you have been practicing for fewer years, and bought your accoutrement at Target.” Bodhisattva used to stay on earth to lead everyone to a path of enlightenment; apparently now they stay to ensure people know where to buy high quality products to really emphasize that butt they got doing all those bridges, warriors, and chairs. Yeah, I’m looking at you “sheekynistas.”

Now, astute readers have probably noticed that by discussing the commercial force of yoga, I am potentially arguing a form of “authenticity” myself and passing judgment on others. Frankly, considering we have a small retail section at the studio, you could even make a case for hypocrisy. I would argue otherwise. I think there is room to make your own guidelines without necessarily prescribing them toward others. The goal is the same. The means will be different for all of us.If you have chosen a path that differs from mine, even if it is one I have evaluated and rejected, then so be it. It may provide a different value for you than it did for me. In the excitement of trying to absorb this newly found gift, you may be making purchases to help you find ways to incorporate or assimilate the practice. If a cute outfit builds your confidence, or a pricey mat encourages you to stand on it more than you would if it were cheap, then more power to you! However, I think it is dangerous to assume that others have the same path as yours, and instilling your values or goals on to them could become especially awkward if somewhere along the way you decide that what used to matter doesn’t anymore. I have no problem with being human, using a crutch, finding little ways to overcome internal obstacles… I personally feel that my life runs smoothest when I maintain awareness of these fleeting and insubstantial tools instead of thinking they are the only way to live. I might someday decide I want to wear a MeSheeky skirt– however I’d make sure I stayed consciously aware of the underlying commercialism, the potential sexualizing of yoga, and the fact that it did not somehow make me a Better Yogi than the all other kids at school.

In my study of yoga I have had to occasionally train beside people who derided others, belittled other styles with no practical experience or data instead of offering a rational critique, or who inflict their own holier-than-thou interpretation of what real yoga was and wasn’t on others who didn’t meet their view of a Real Yogi. These people were rarely long-term practitioners often practicing for under a few years. I have seen yogis who have never attempted to read a text of yoga philosophy, but insist on the accuracy of a misunderstood, old wives tale, hearsay version of something someone else who never read a book once told them. Despite this lack of adherence to a significant yoga principle, they will unhesitatingly and unquestioningly tell someone else they are a less advanced student because they bought the wrong mat brand.

Mind you, I am not intending to pass judgment on the inevitably human and flawed stages of whatever path they are on, and conversely, I am sure there are teachers who have been practicing for decades longer than I have who will find problems with my perspective as well. I’ve also made purchases of more expensive yoga items when I felt the price accurately reflected a technological advantage or characteristic that solved a problem in my practice. However, openly sending superiority or hostility toward a new-to-you practitioner over the material world, whether it be the material of body image or yoga consumables from props to dietary, is not I choose to practice and I like having the option to practice without that energy around me when possible.

I’d much rather attend classes at a studio that welcomed everyone, regardless of where they are on their own path. I’d like to see more diverse backgrounds, body types, attitudes, and yoga styles. I think Iyengar and Vinyasa, Integral and Forrest, Viniyoga and Restorative all help each other by balancing out the potential shortcomings of the others to meet an individual’s particular needs and by giving you options for the physical practice of yoga to match your energy and physical needs day by day. The yoga industry in general has begun to shift away from the “one size fits all” attitude, re-embracing theunited lineage of many of these styles and using them in complementary combinations. When I jokingly put “No Granola” in our slogan, I was thinking of people like Motzenbecker’s colleague: “Once I suggested egg whites as a reasonable, light snack to have a couple hours before a yoga class, and was sternly (and seriously) asked by a fellow yogi if I’d taken my ‘stupid pills’ that day.” While I agree with the values of living a life free of animal cruelty, I am still developing my own understanding of what that means given this current context, and there are too many people in yoga ready to condemn you for what they perceive is not an appropriate diet, wardrobe, or vacation.

In the interest of disclosure:

  • I am neither vegan nor macrobiotic
  • I have never stayed in an Ashram, let alone one in Mysore.
  • I do not wake with the sun to follow a strict ritual of early morning sun salutations and meditation before harvesting the vegetables I will use for my breakfast.
  • I am completely comfortable with the above characteristics at this time. I feel I practice in other ways.
  • Your mileage may vary.
In the interest of FULL disclosure:

Sadly, I was unable to find a convenient studio that was as welcoming and accessible as I would have liked. As I tried to take friends and family with me to yoga, they quickly felt uncomfortable or unwelcome and transferred that emotional reaction to the practice itself. Most of the studios I looked at followed the old model of One True Yoga, heavily slanting their courses toward Iyengar style or a Power Yoga style without offering a variety. Many of these studios were financially comfortable with their large, over-sized classes of established status-conscious regulars who all hung out and chatted about inside jokes, particular ways their teacher taught a given pose being the only right way, and their cute new tank tops that only cost $50 and really emphasize their values of unity and inclusion, and thus they never had a reason to reach out to new students. Don’t get me wrong– people have found value in these studios and have taken time to develop their personal practice in their own ways, and I would never suggest that these studios didn’t enrich people’s lives. Unfortunately, however, they also caused other people to develop a dislike of yoga itself due to the exclusionary, clique-y mentality. Ultimately, I took my ball– my bouncy 65cm fitness ball of course– and went home, my search for the yoga island of misfit toys unfulfilled.

Running a business is time consuming, so I am not often able to try out other studios. As a result, I’ve nearly forgotten how “high school” some studio experiences can be. I’ve tried to keep my connection to the beginners and the ‘Total Newbies’ so I can make sure other people who could potentially be turned off by yoga can benefit. These recent blog posts, while not really talking about anything that hasn’t been an issue for a decade, made me mindful of how my ego, and the egos of students and instructors here, could make our little studio just as clique-y and unwelcoming as those I’ve visited. Without the experience of feeling judged and the resulting experience of questioning essentialized or reductive views of What Yoga Is, we would not have the empathy and deeply personal inquiry that continue to lead us to set aside our respective egos, recognize when we have been imperfect or unkind, and become better yogis as a result.

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