With gratitude and thanks to James Russell.
“We must not always talk in the marketplace of what happens to us in the forest” Nathaniel Hawthorne
When I did my original teacher training, it was possible to imagine a future making a modest living as a yoga teacher in the UK. But the mushrooming, unregulated industry means that this is no longer viable, and it seems everyone needs a niche to teach yoga nowadays. Yoga for stress relief, yoga for cancer survivors, teenagers and depression; yoga informed by biomechanics, neuroscience, trauma awareness and psychotherapy; yoga foregrounding students’ relationship with their gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and body size/shape. And: yoga with kittens, goats, rabbits, dogs, wine, marijuana, chocolate, chicken nuggets, cellos, harps and guns; yoga in the airport, in a supermarket, in the snow, in a spa, in a rave, in a salt cave; yoga in designer clothes, yoga in no clothes … the spectrum of what yoga has become in popular understanding, and the heights of innovation and creativity or the depths of appropriation and disrespect, depending on your perspective, that it has reached, are frankly mind-boggling.
On a charitable day, I’m able to remember that in each of these niches, whatever we may think of them, are real human beings, often doing their damnedest to balance the need to make a living with teaching what they believe to be true to the spirit of yoga insofar as that is what they have themselves encountered. In a less generous mood, I confess to viewing the folk teaching things such as puppy yoga and beer yoga as caricatures, emblematic of the open secret that is the utter lunacy of yogalalaland. And yet, I get it. I trained as a yoga teacher, then a pregnancy yoga teacher, then a postnatal yoga teacher, then a fertility yoga teacher, then a women’s yoga therapist … niches within niches dictated as much by the expansion of the outer circle of niches within my locale, as by my interest in the subjects themselves.
It seems that fewer and fewer teachers are able to get by in the West by teaching “just” yoga. It’s difficult to know how much this is due to the niche market – not least the flood of yoga mashups – and how much the specialisations are due to the over-saturated teaching industry in the first place. What is clear is that the scrabble to attract students affects us all, teachers and students alike. It is also clear that the proliferation of niche yoga is part and parcel of the spread of the capitalist mindset. Can’t get by on your “just yoga” class? Try adding some gardening. Or swimming. Whatever it takes, right?
Many people are fond nowadays of some variation on the idea that “yoga is whatever you want it to be”. Whether this is the product of actual ignorance or is merely yoga doublethink – “I teach yoga; I’ve added some weight-lifting to this class, but because I am a yoga teacher, it is still yoga” – what it means, of course, is that the whims of our students, now recast as consumers, are the drivers of what yoga is becoming.
Because the marketplace has such a huge influence on what is taught as yoga, teachers have to create an appealing, marketable product. In an age when it is no longer anything like enough to simply set up classes to ensure students, yoga needs to be desirable. No matter that you are teaching from a solid practice foundation, and that you can trace the minutiae of what and how you teach back to genius teachers who also learnt from exceptional, committed teacher practitioners. If just down the road someone is running classes from a background of minimal practice experience, but fresh from a quick-fire teacher training, replete with gung ho optimism and a strong social media presence plus saleable yoga product, who do you think is going to draw the students? If only three people come to our traditional kriya and pranayama class, but twice that seem tremendously excited by the idea of some yoga-y shapes with a nice glass of wine and a bit of a social after savasana, well, it takes either a certain type of person, perhaps someone with absolutely no concerns about their financial situation, to stick with the former. (Anecdotally, in my experience, it is usually those with a solid practice history, especially if they are engaged in reciprocal, accountable relationships with teachers, who are most likely to fall into the former grouping.) And witness the peculiar phenomenon of social media celebrities who, having garnered thousands of followers, embark on a teacher training and then capitalise on their audience. Through the lens of “teaching yoga”, this is effectively a ready-made student base.
I’ve been told many times during my teaching years to “build it and they will come”, “just show up and teach”, “just do you”. And while there might be truth here, this is also the neoliberal market-based mindset in a nutshell. The cream does not always rise to the top in a society that indoctrinates all its members into individualistic, entitled thinking, and concurrently (largely invisibly) stratifies society so that the resources to actually act on this are only selectively available. And let’s make no mistake here – every single one of us operates from this basis. Every single one of us has the sickness of late capitalism raging through our veins, infecting the way we feel, the way we think, the way we relate – including to yoga, both practicing and teaching.
Or do you think you’re exempt? Do you think the purity of your love for yoga and your burning desire to share it insulates you from, or magically removes, this most insidious of conditioning?
Perhaps the invisibility of neoliberal capitalism, which is to say its triumph over other modes of societal structure, its seamless meshing with similarly oppressive structures (patriarchy, racism, heteronormativity) and its concurrent stealthy advance into every area of our lives, is one of the reasons that it is hard to see the proliferation of niches within yoga for what they are – a perfect example of capitalism at work. In diversifying as a yoga teacher, you may be acting as a good little capitalist unit as well as serving a specific population’s needs. (There are arguments to be made too that although it suits the yoga mindset well to view ourselves as simply wanting to benefit our students and being in service to them, it might be equally accurate to see the creation of a particular student body as entrepreneurship.) The more niches created, the more the possibility of commerce increases, and the more ideology of buying and selling prevails. More unnecessary products are created. The commerce around yoga builds.
Except … yoga itself … well, yoga’s not product.
Much has been written in recent years about the commodification of yoga, including tracing its history, its winners and losers, and whether it matters at all. It’s a complex issue, encapsulating many other hot-button subjects, and I don’t pretend to be able to add much to the plethora of excellent commentary on the topic. I can, however, write from my perspective as a practitioner. And from that perspective, I hope I can speak to all yoga teachers. Because if you are not a student of the practice first and foremost, and you identify more as a teacher than a practitioner, I humbly suggest that your attachment to your yogic identity might mean that capitalism has you in its teeth more than you think.
I was taught to “teach from my practice”. This makes sense on some levels. Especially in a world where teachers are accepted onto trainings with minimal, sometimes nothing in the way of personal practice, it could operate as a strategy to sift the good from the bad, the experienced (who, yes, I believe in most cases should by right have the lion’s share of the market) from the gung-ho newbie. But it is also deeply problematic. My original training was, like so many at that time, a new venture for my teacher, who saw an opportunity to create a yoga community and a business combined. And so like many others, my training, although offered in what was undoubtedly a spirit of generosity, was hopelessly disconnected from effective, time-tested modes of transmission. We were your classic modern school, cut adrift from both cumbersome heritage and bothersome red tape. We thought we were at liberty to take what worked. In fact, we thought that being able to take what we wanted – which looks a lot like exploitation, neocolonialism and flat-out privilege from a 2018 perspective – was a marker of that freedom … and that that freedom was “yoga”. We were influenced by a little bit of tantra, a smidgeon of Vedanta, a whole lot of Iyengar; by well-meaning immaturity, and the required large dash of arrogance that allowed us to disregard what appeared irrelevant (brahmacharya!), and to dismiss unethical behaviour and trust that we would learn how to handle the complexities of human beings along the way. There were no checks, no balances, no critical friends, not even any visiting tutors. Power was concentrated at the top despite lip service about peer support, community and sangha. The only thing I really had to draw upon was my own practice. I was encouraged to view this as the laboratory within which I explored yoga. Which, so long as I remained aware that this was only one body, with a highly specific history, subject to specific environmental influences, and therefore didn’t extrapolate too much from the data, might not be that problematic.
Except that it is. Because my practice is not for sale.
What happens to me in the forest; where I wander in the lands of the body and consciousness exploration, is not your business. I might find some gems there. I might choose to impart some of this hard-won wisdom, when appropriate, to students. And, I am grateful to the travellers, the psychonauts in the diverse regions of my life; the artists and the story-tellers. I am especially grateful to the yoga mapmakers. But I do not, will not, offer up my most intimate, tender experiences to a rapacious market that has no actual function other than to perpetuate itself. You won’t find pictures online of me with my toddlers suckling in eka pada rajakapotasana. Because although those moments happened, and although my parenting evolved from my embodied understanding of yoga as relationship, and is guided more by the principles of yama than the latest parenting expert, my children are not my yoga accessories. Equally, you won’t find me selling my marriage or my friendships in the form of workshops on “the yoga of sex/communication/relationships” or using the growth in self-awareness that those relationships have given me to market palatable (neo)tantric concepts and their therapeutic applications. You won’t find me mining the depths of my intimate relationships, or the secrets of my heart, using that intimacy as a signifier of “authenticity”, to hook students. Yes, I write a blog, and I occasionally teach yoga. But my personal dramas, my joys and tragedies, are not assets to be turned into a coherent (conveniently saleable) journey to self-knowledge and self-empowerment for others to find #soinspirational. Because these things are sacred to me.
We live in a world where it has become completely normal, utterly acceptable, to document every single tiny detail of our lives. But how did we arrive at the point where we think that nothing is lost through this? The idea of preserving that which is intimate, personal and potentially tremendously powerful is hardly new. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, for instance, says
The yogi who is desirous of attaining success … should keep the knowledge of hatha yoga very secret. It will be potent when it is kept secret and ineffective when publically revealed. (I 11)
And the Siva Samhita says
This yoga-sastra [doctrine of yoga] … is to be kept secret; and must be revealed only to those … who are sincere devotees. (I 19)
But somewhere within the last ten years, the common (but not unproblematic) practice of using asana photos to market your work as a teacher turned into a veritable avalanche of apparently everyone who practices yoga “sharing the practice” in this way. Of course, social media users who happen to fit the narrow beauty standards of the day (and sometimes those who explicitly pit themselves against them) are financially rewarded for this behaviour, in the form of lucrative clothing deals, ambassadorships, travel and teaching opportunities. Perhaps the loss of some kinds of freedom feels like a fair trade in these cases. But, deeper than this, how does it actually feel to live in this time of apparent boundless expansion? Do you really want to post that video of you in handstand? What happens when your post, your blog, your class, has less likes, less takers, than you secretly think you’re owed? Is it possible that believing you’re owed anything in the first place is a function of the relentless offering-up of your life that the yoga marketplace requires of you? Did you actually sign up for this, or are you just doing it because it’s “normal”? (If you did sign up, was it clear what you were signing up to?) What happens to us when we buy into this ostensible liberation; what is gained, what is lost?
What happens to yoga when, rather than learning or studying it, we consume it, and as part of our consumption we make it a thing for others to consume in turn?
I know, I’m not exempt. I am not outside of this dynamic, occupying some authentically yogic position; I cannot claim any kind of moral high ground. What I do have is an interest in, and a growing concern for what happens to us as yoga practitioners, as yoga teachers, as human beings, within the simultaneous yoga industry squeeze and the digital media explosion that makes the former appear an expansion. I have a care for how this feels at the level of our precious human bodies, how it impacts us when we’re alone on our mats. I suspect it structures our identities in highly specific ways. I’m increasingly convinced that we pay a heavy price by lending the yoga marketplace our energy, and that the seeming freedom it grants us is also working to structure our yoga relationships and communities in ways that might pull counter to what yoga actually is.
In parts 2 and 3 of this piece, which I will publish over the coming month, I explain this contention. I look at the construction of the self within social and digital media and the yoga marketplace, and how this might intersect with practicing and teaching yoga. I look at the ways that yoga has traditionally been transmitted in order to provide context. I also turn to yoga’s philosophy and ethics. This is used to illuminate the restrictive and dissociative yoga “self” formulated in neoliberal capitalism, and to consider ways in which we might integrate anything herein we find resonant, both at the level of the individual practitioner/teacher and as members of our yoga communities.
Part 2 is here