With all the deserved criticism being leveled upon the yoga industry of late, it’s important to distinguish between the influence of corporate business and what is happening at the grassroots. There is no better example of the disparity between these two mores than the efforts of Yoga for NY, an organization of yoga centers and teachers that have banded together to see that their interests are represented in local government.
In 2009, faced with a decimated budget, the NY State Bureau of Proprietary Secondary Schools sought to re-interpret an old statute and fleece yoga teacher training programs by having them classified as vocational schools. The BPSS sent out 80 cease and desist letters to yoga centers throughout NY state threatening closure and heavy fines. The statute cited had an exemption clause for instruction in “dancing, music, painting, recreation and athletics.” Apparently, they didn’t think to include yoga when the statute was originally written in the 1940′s.
Apparently, yoga originates from Tantric sex cults. So says the senior science writer at the NY Times in a sequel to his debut about how yoga kills. In fairness, I’ve heard interviews with Mr. William J. Broad since his controversial foray into yoga and he seems like a thoughtful guy. He readily admits that he comes from a science background. In fact, before writing about yoga he was an expert on the global spread of nuclear weapons.
Scholars have long debated the origins of yoga, which existed as a purely oral tradition for thousands of years. I may not have any academic bona fides but I think it’s safe to say that just because there is a document, dating back to medieval India, stating that cobra pose has the specific purpose of sexual arousal doesn’t necessarily mean that yoga originated from Tantric sex cults.
The other day I was at Staples printing up some new student cards. A woman standing next to me noticed that I was doing something for a yoga center. She told me that she loved yoga and was curious if I worked there and asked what kind of yoga they practice. After learning I was the director and that we have a therapeutic orientation, she asked me if I could recommend some poses to help a situation with her lower back.
“I have this thing in my lower back.”
“A thing? You mean pain?”
“No. Not really pain.”
“OK. Well, do you feel this thing consistently or just during certain activities?”
“I feel it all the time. Last night it was really bad.”
“Really bad? That sounds like pain.”
Upon further inquiry, I learned that she attends power vinyasa yoga classes three times a week and runs avidly. She seemed confused that I was asking about her life. She just wanted to know some poses that would stretch out her back. The problem is that, in many instances, more stretching or strengthening does not make pain go away – especially if we’re not admitting to the pain we have until it reaches a critical mass that can no longer be avoided. When pain is chronic or enigmatic, a reevaluation of habitual activities and priorities is often the key to turning it around.
Infrequent visitors to the yoga blogosphere may not be aware of the recent kerfuffle surrounding a NY Times article about how yoga will hurt you, but there also has been some mainstream media coverage on the safety of yoga.
While the article seems to have broken a few glass jaws in the broader yoga community, practitioners with a therapeutic orientation have been sounding alarms about questionable practice for years and getting nothing but flak in return. Those with the courage to take a stand and level public criticism of overly aggressive and guitar-hero-like approaches are usually written off as haters who are just jealous of the cool kids with their feet on their heads.
Despite the plausibility of good intentions, the yoga industry’s emphasis on transformation around the new year feels a bit too opportunistic. Personal transformation may come as a natural progression in the context of yoga practice but the process is greatly hindered when the concept is used as a dangling carrot to sell memberships.
Owners of yoga centers know that some welcome maximization of profits can be had by working the new years resolution angle, offering a special deal that counts on the fact that most people are not going to make good on it. But exploiting human insecurities for financial gain goes against my broader purpose. Such are the ways of a reluctant businessman.
I’m not nay-saying new years resolutions or transformation. If some change is warranted and the mental will to help bring it about can be summoned then, by all means, be bold and go forth with a true intention. However, in my experience, transformation rarely comes in a flash from some flamboyant push. Real and lasting change tends to occur in a gradual and subtle way as a result of persistent effort, often recognized only in retrospect.
Instead of touting transformation, I propose we celebrate survival.
Is it just me or did 2011 feel like a complete wash? Nothing particularly horrible or great stands out. The small triumph of not letting daily mundane tribulations get the best of me may not rank high on a scorecard but I am nonetheless grateful for having managed to get through relatively unscathed.
An ever-increasing work load that has yet to yield exponential fruits has created an eerie sense of foreboding that makes it difficult to be optimistic. I simply can’t bear any more dashed hope.
Flipping through the catalog for a big name yoga and retreat center, I was shocked to notice that they advertised their yoga teacher training programs as “Yoga Alliance Approved.” Misrepresentations like this are the dirty little secret of the yoga industry. No one really wants to admit there is no accreditation for Yoga.
Anyone who claims to be “approved”, “certified” or “licensed” by the YA is either grossly uninformed or disingenuous. The YA maintains a registry of yoga teachers and training programs. In filling out the paperwork and paying the fees, yoga teachers and training programs purport to follow a vague set of curriculum guidelines that are posted on the YA website and assume a service mark of RYT (Registered Yoga Teacher) or RYS (Registered Yoga School.)
What no one ever seems to acknowledge or mention is that the YA provides no oversight whatsoever. No one checks to see if anyone is actually doing what they say. Everyone is on the “honor” system. Consequently, the registry amounts to a digital rubber stamp or paid advertising. Not to mention, the YA does not disclose what they do with the money they collect from the Yoga community.
Trolling yoga blogs and the comment threads that ensue reveals a prevailing sentiment of tough love. Sure, there are a few hold-outs from the sixties still hanging around but the new breed of yogi is way too savvy to be fooled by any fluff and seems more interested in what you can do than how what you do makes you think or behave.
A musician friend and student was telling me about his last tour. He was at a party after a show with some of the other bands that played on the bill. Apparently, a guy from another band was into Yoga and heard that my friend was also a practitioner. The conversation went something like:
“Hey, what’s up?”
“I heard you do you Yoga.”
“Yeah, I do.”
“Can you do headstand to crow?”
In and of itself, two dudes hanging out at a party after a rock-n-roll show talking about Yoga is a testament to Yoga’s new status in our culture. Back in the day, I was consistently the only man in class and, if it ever came up at a party, my inclination for Yoga was usually met with little more than a blank stare. Few people, men or women, had any frame of reference for Yoga much less a knowledge of headstand to crow.
When I chose to make Yoga my life direction, it was a decidedly un-cool thing to do. In fact, Yoga represented letting go of a need for external approval or recognition in favor of a greater sense of personal well-being and fulfillment. Sometime in the last fifteen years, my decision to abandon cool kid status has backfired. Yoga is the new hip.
Yoga teachers are headlining Lolapalooza-like events and referring to variations of downdog as “rockstar pose.” There are talent agencies for yoga teachers, celebrity endorsements and reality TV shows in the works. Yoga is now an undeniable marketing demographic and has spawned a muti-billion dollar industry.
Unfortunately, what is selling yoga as cool is not really all that cool.
Ever heard the one about the Dalai Lama and the hotdog vendor? Make me one with everything. This has always been my favorite joke. Recently, I was made aware of how, like a lot of effective humor, the punchline is based on a not so funny premise.
As an astute Shakespearean scholar once pointed out: “As long as there is pain and suffering in the world, there will always be something to laugh at.”
Exploitation of yoga in advertising is nothing new. When a product wants to associate with a low-stress or healthy lifestyle, invariably, the commercial features people doing yoga poses. Increasing popularity of yoga makes the marketing demographic undeniable.
A recent Advil campaign has taken this phenomenon to another level. Instead of merely showing imagery of yoga practice, there is an actual yoga teacher addressing the camera directly as spokesperson. She says:
“If I have any soreness, I’m not going to be able to do my job. Once I take Advil, I’ll be able to finish my day and finish off strong. I always find myself going back to Advil. It really works.”
In a previous post, Mind-Body Connection Optional?, I expressed views regarding appropriate practice and drew some distinctions between physical fitness and Yoga. I want to acknowledge that, even in the course of an appropriate practice, there is sometimes an amount of soreness that is felt as a body is conditioned. Also, I don’t think there is anything fundamentally wrong with taking Advil. In fact, I’m sure there are occasions when two Advil might be quite a blessing.
However, if a yoga teacher’s work is making them sore to the point that it actually impedes their ability to do their job then I feel compelled to suggest that something is awry in that teachers yoga. I can’t escape the strong opinion that effective yoga practice would prevent a need for taking Advil, not create it.
I have only been in one fight. It was in the third grade. I don’t recall what the impetus was but it ended up in a war of words between me and another boy on the basketball court. I remember deciding to hit him but when I went to strike my arm went slack. It was as if my body overrode my minds directive and I was incapable of trying to harm him.
The other boy did not have the same issue and I was quickly pinned and squirming to be free. The only black girl in our class, La Tisha, came to my aid and pushed him off of me before he got any punches in. We were friends and no one messed with La Tisha.
I can trace my inclination for yoga back to that day. I learned something important about myself. I am not naturally inclined towards violence. Even as a boy, I recognized that this was not true of everyone. As an adult, it makes sense that I embrace a life philosophy that puts a premium on nonviolence.
The first yama of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s is ahimsa, often translated as “non-harming.” Aligning myself with Yoga turned something that I had always seen as a weakness into a strength.
Yet, somewhere along the way, an unconscious loophole developed. While I was incapable of intentionally doing others wrong, I seemed to have no problem doing considerable inadvertent harm to myself. In fairness, I was under the impression that I was working towards enlightenment and did not grasp the full extent to which I was mistreating myself.
I continually assert that yoga practice encompasses more than physical fitness. As much as I generally try to avoid admitting it, this does implicitly question whether the use of yoga poses for physical fitness alone can even be considered yoga practice. My interpretation of what constitutes a yoga practice aside for now, I am thinking of a specific example where a principle of exercise science is at odds with a holistic perspective.