Yoga: The Practice, the Profession, the Paradox

Any yoga teachers out there ever felt discouraged by the apparent paradox between yogic philosophies and the yoga business reality?  At odds with the Eastern vs. Western approaches to the practice?  Or otherwise all-out confused as to how the integrity of the Practice (its simplicity, humility and spiritual growth) can be maintained while still nurturing physical fulfillment…and while getting the bills paid on time?  And then do you think “Whoa.  What have we gotten ourselves into?”

These are the types of questions that I battle with frequently as both a yogini AND a yoga business owner.  This combo within itself seems an oxymoron.  It’s not a mere once or twice that I have received an eye roll and a sigh when I’ve stated the price of a service.  Shouldn’t yoga be free?  Shouldn’t it be by donation?  Isn’t yoga for the PEOPLE?  I have also felt the same sting when considering the ever-rising price of worldwide yoga trainings.  Inevitably, my forever-a-student’s heart drops, her eyes want to well up with fat tears.  Shouldn’t yoga be accessible?  Isn’t there a better way?  Well…my unintentionally ambiguous response to this line of questioning is “yes” coupled with a resounding “no”.

I recently watched a documentary called Yoga Inc. which offers interesting insight from some of the pioneers of yoga (to the Western world) on this exact paradoxical dilemma:  yoga and business and how complicated the two can be when mixed mindlessly.  The (un)fortunate reality is this:  with yoga’s rise in popularity there are more and more people who view yoga as exercise…nothing more and nothing less.  As a by-product we see gymnasium yoga, cardio stretching and booty lifting asana offered on every corner.  We witness a pack of pupils who couldn’t tell their yamas and niyamas from their gluteus maximus if their lives depended on it.  I personally don’t believe that these types of students are any less deserving of the gift of the practice than the other because after all; who am I to judge someone else’s Dharmic path?

The current level of yogic snobbery is awe-inspiring at times; “not spiritual enough” “not disciplined enough” “not challenging enough” “not a good enough lineage” etc.  Don’t we collectively as yogis pride ourselves on our ability to accept others and to step aside from judgmental claims?  Next time you catch yourself turning your nose up at the student who does yoga at the gym, or the fierce loyalty of your Ashtangi friends to their singular lineage, take note!  And bite your tongue!  This idea of competition amongst each other and the false claim of the existence of a “better” as compared to a “worse” doesn’t fit in with yoga’s original goal of moving beyond the ego.  Let us all just be grateful that so many people’s lives and hearts are now touched by yoga in all of its greatly varied shapes and sizes.  If some students want to take on their yoga in a sweaty room because it burns more calories…well…deep breath here…that is their path and their choice.  And they are entitled to it.  Something within that practice is feeding them, and isn’t that amazing?  Feel free to clad yourself in all white from head to toe, burn your sandalwood and hit up the nearest Ashram if you choose.  You’re entitled to your path, too.

In addition to this mix (or should I say clash?) of Eastern vs. Western philosophies, my landlord and the electric company long ago stopped accepting payment in the form of incense and prayer, coconuts and seashells.  How can I justifiably turn fitness junkies away as they file into my prayer flag and smudge stick enhanced space?   Meanwhile I am convinced that there’s got to be a balance somewhere between the starving yogi who survives on sun gazing and the yogi-moguls that we love to hate; the John Friends and Bikram Choudhurys of the world.  Those of us that see yoga as more than an exercise regimen and also have little desire to become a trade mark are put into this challenging position of compromise when we take on the daunting task of balancing yoga and business.  I have no drive to own an empire, patent a lineage or drive a Rolls Royce.  It would be nice though to provide healthy food, housing and community for my family, offer job security to employees and share what I so deeply love to a large and (gasp!) varied group of people who have the tapas, or maybe just the balls, to step onto the mat every day.

So where do we go from here?  Authenticity is the word that stands out for me.  I can only offer from my own learning path.  Those students that merely want to work their abs will likely over time find another teacher or practice to follow.  And that’s alright with me.  Those that are looking for competition and physical gain, well, there’s a place where they fit in, too.  And they have the right to be here and to be served by the practice as well.  Meanwhile I keep teaching what I know and what I have to offer.  Some students will stay.  Some will go.  My responsibility is to trust that process.  My responsibility is to stay true to my dharma and believe that a supportive group will stand behind both me, the teacher, AND me, the business operator.

David Life and Sharon Gannon, founders of the Jivamukti Yoga Method, have earned harsh criticism for their strict ideals and high training prices.  In Yoga Inc. they give candid interviews which served to remind me about the early days of yoga, the days when the student gave up EVERYTHING; earthly possessions, their home and sometimes (if distance interfered) their relationships with their families and friends in order to study with their Teacher.  There WAS a pay, a sacrifice and an energetic exchange.  There was some active plan for the creation of balance; albeit different than the likes of the modern day YogaWorks, Yoga Alliance or LuluLemon which don’t tend to ask so much for your loyalty as for your credit card number.  Yoga is and always was accessible, but if we take a look at the root of “Yoga”:  yoking, union…everything about the practice seeks to bring balance.  And balance includes give as well as a take, yin along with the yang.  There is nothing new in this concept; it traces back thousands of years to the start of the practice.

To return to the idea of Authenticity as a way to create balance between yoga (the practice) and yoga (the business) I have personally found it helpful to frequently check in with my “Karmic Responsibilities”.  The equation that has worked well for me is simple:  the more I am able to earn, the more I am able to give.  As I see growth in my business I also seek out more opportunities for deepening levels of community involvement or Seva:  scholarships, free children’s programs, education initiatives and collaboration with non-profits.  There is a cycle that is endless; grow and give, grow more, give more.  The more the business develops, the more financial and energetic excess I have to contribute!  I have the good fortune of not only seeing this as the teacher, but being blessed to see it from the vantage point of student as well and guess what?  This system works!  I am a firsthand witness that the growth of my practice AND of my business is a direct result of the assistance, authenticity and karmic responsibility demonstrated to me by some of the most amazing teachers.  These beloved ones have been an irreplaceable part of my life and my path.  I am humbled by what they have given to me by way of offering alternative options of creating balance.  I am so grateful for their gifts, knowledge and guidance and I am grateful for what I have been able to contribute to them in working toward their dharma as well as toward my own.  I work every day at paying it forward and furthering the balance.

Let’s face it, the face of yoga is changing; a practice, a profession, a paradox, oh my!  But, I am certain that this continued hunt for authenticity, balance, yoking, union, otherwise known as YOGA is both the question and the answer in this paradoxical dilemma.  And…if my bum happens to grow a little firmer during the exploration of it all, well, that’s alright with me, too.


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