Framing the Conversation: Who Gets to Define Yoga?
“In the absence of teachers framing the conversation and defining yoga in authentic ways, the market will always fill the gap with whatever sells,” says J. Brown in this thought-provoking piece on yoga in today’s society. “We will only reach a turning point when enough people who have practiced yoga for long enough come to their own informed determinations about what yoga is and why they practice it.”
I started teaching yoga when I was 23 years old. At that time, there was no Google, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter or Lululemon. There was no 200-hour yoga teacher certification. There were no commercials for banks with people doing yoga poses in them. And there was no multi-billion dollar yoga industry to fuel. Now, I’m forty years old. I am married with a kid and I own a yoga center and train yoga teachers in my neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. I rode the crest of the yoga wave that started in the early nineties and have grown into my adulthood along with the emergence of yoga in our culture.
Over the years, major tectonic shifts in the modern yoga world have created an entirely new landscape for both the industry and consumers. The founding generation of yoga trend-setters, whose innovation and entrepreneurial spirit fostered what is now established convention, have largely achieved the goal of ushering yoga into the mainstream of society, and no longer speak from the same obscure or vaulted mantles they once did. And some of the most renowned among these figures have fallen from proverbial pedestals, revealing the fallibility of yoga celebrity and a vacuum of substance.
I remember watching the rise of John Friend and Anusara Yoga and thinking to myself: “Wow. This is the future. This is what is possible for a yoga teacher to achieve.” Now that the brand is all but defunct and the man is considered by many to be a pariah in the field, there is a tragic irony to the Youtube videos of once prominent and self-identified Anusara Yoga teachers who sincerely hope to help others better brand themselves into abundance.
Still, the increasingly mainstream nature of yoga has continues to fuel its commercialization. According to the most recent official Yoga Journal study of the yoga industry, released in early 2013, the number of American practicing yoga increased 29% from 15.8 million in 2008 to 20.4 million in 2012. A full 8.7% of American adults now practice yoga. Spending on yoga classes, equipment, clothing, vacations and media is estimated at $10.3 billion a year, almost double the $5.7 billion estimate from 2008. Significantly, among the 91.3% of Americans who do not practice yoga, 44.4%—almost half—say they are interested in yoga but have yet to give it a try.
Among serious-minded practitioners, there is palpable discontent with the course the yoga industry seems to be on. Teachers, who in the past were voices defining what yoga is in the 21st century, are now understandably more concerned with enjoying their latter years then attempting to push back against entrenched forces that care little for the soul of yoga. The newer generation has often been thrown out into the wilderness without the tools or knowledge to fulfill their impulse to carry the torch. In the absence of teachers framing the conversation and defining yoga in authentic ways, the market will always fill the gap with whatever sells.
The good news is that we may be reaching a turning point. That will happen when enough people who have practiced yoga for long enough come to their own informed determinations about what yoga is and why they practice it. I can’t think of the last time I met someone who had never heard or read of yoga before. There is a new savvy among the uninitiated and greater discernment among veteran attendees. And while most of what they hear and read about yoga is horribly inaccurate, still more and more, people understand that yoga is being utilized with different purposes and there are choices to be made.
Folks are not buying just anything as yoga anymore. And they are telling their friends. The rampant commercialization and co-opting of yoga has become so overblown that even the unfamiliar are skeptical. Times remain too tough to effectively continue hocking candy-coated platitudes. From out of the daunting malaise of pressures and seeming demise, conditions are becoming more ripe to slough off obsolete thinking. No more will we be led around by false gurus or complacent with hypocrisies. No longer will success be defined by status or achieved at the expense of others. We can and will do better. Let us have the courage to imagine it so.
What do you think? Is yoga becoming overly commercial? Are we giving the market place too free reigns in defining what yoga is? Do you feel okay with yoga teachers doing product placements prior to their workshops in some yoga conferences? Share your own thoughts below.
J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and across the yoga blogosphere. Visit his website at yogijbrown.com