Fuck Your Neoliberal Yoga: Selling Yoga and Selling Ourselves in the Digital Age Part 1

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

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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.

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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

 

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27 thoughts on “Fuck Your Neoliberal Yoga: Selling Yoga and Selling Ourselves in the Digital Age Part 1

  1. Read right to the very end.. Loved every word. Niches upon niches as you say. We’re almost waiting for what’s next and which animal the world will do yoga with next. 🙂 i too have been interested in the explosion of digital media and this age of consumption we’re living in. Looking forward to part two and three.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Loved ready this! I feel compelled more than any other time to stick to my guns as a teacher for 18yrs..and watch what happens! It may come to a point of implosion at some time. I’m disliking the consumerism of yoga so much. I’m hoping balance will return eventually.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved this and can’t wait for more. I’ve been practicing since before social media was a thing, and was pondering if it is even true bc there are no photos on social media to document said practice……

    Liked by 1 person

  4. All true. Agreed. However nothing will change until the industry of teachers accepts a self-regulating body that demands a level of expertise standardized ethics and professionalism in order to be accredited or certified as a teacher. Yoga Alliance is one step in that direction but doesn’t quite cut it. Yoga teacher certification should be mandatory and regulated. Just as academic teacher, physical therapist, social worker, sociologist, to name a few examples. Yoga Alliance should consider changing its mission to be a regulatory body that certificaties teachers according to strict guidelines for practicing and teacher training. And then it needs to Market itself as such so Consumers become educated on the importance of practicing with experienced and well trained teachers that go through a strict training and practice in order to be certified. Otherwise the the wonderful ancient yoga practice will continue to be exploited and commercialized at the lowest levels of capitalism and sacrifice its integrity. Which is exactly what is happening.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. well … i am not anti-regulation, as i feel yoga is a precious resource and as such needs to be protected. quite how we would go about this though i am not sure. but i am very clear that the yoga alliance are part if the problem, not any kind of solution. there’s a link in the article to an old but still great piece on the ya’s utter uselessness, which is not, by the way, mitigated in the least by their current drive to sort out the(ir) mess and looks more like wanting to stay relevant to me. #boycott yogaalliance

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  5. Many thanks W-P, whoever you are. I see what you see, I think. Though in the end words will be just words – never quite enough to show what one sees… To me, there is ‘yoga-yoga’, which is untouched by commerce, untouched by our ideas – without ‘masters’, gurus, schools, experts. And there is ‘mm-yoga’ (mm=mickey mouse), the stuff we see out there on youtube, facebook, studios’ websites, etc. After nearly 20 years of teaching I am still running some mm-yoga classes, but as time goes, it hurts more and more. I am attempting to change it all.
    I am looking forward to reading more of your posts, and with your permission, I will share them with my groups.
    Ervin

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Yeah, totally get it. After falling in love with Yoga I was ready for change, independence, personal growth, a challenge, the opportunity to make a difference and started a (Yoga) clothing company. My intention was to try and implement what I learned, provide service as well as try earn a living, but always had the nagging thought ‘Is it possible for Yoga and a monetary exchange co-exist?’. I know only a few (UK)Yoga teachers who teach authentic Yoga and manage to find the ever illusive work life balance. I personally found it too difficult to try marry the two and have decided after 4 years to disassociate my business from Yoga and keep them separate. (well, at least on the surface).

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  7. “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.”

    This is about the weirdest thing I’ve ever read. It’s like some drug induced rambling of leftist buzz words. It’s not capitalism that makes “stealthy advance into every area of our lives”, it’s the socialist, repressive state.

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  8. “The Yogi should practice Hatha Yoga … in a country where justice is properly administered, where good people live, and food can be obtained easily and plentifully”. Does this sound like a socialist state to you?

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  9. I am curious about the ‘holier than thou’ utilisation of yoga. yoga makes me feel ‘better’: better performance, better resilience, better well being. It doesn’t make me ‘better than you’. I am an ape, you are an ape. we live on a coalesced rock made from the leftovers of the fusioning ball of gas that it is spinning around. there appears to be no point to it all. we simply are here together. yoga can make me feel better about this but it doesn’t make me better then you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. i’m a little confused by your comment, because i don’t know where you’re getting this from. literally nowhere in this piece or its follow ups do i say i think i’m better than anyone else. in fact i go out of my way to point out that i am part of these dynamics. are you introducing another topic entirely, or can you say more?

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  10. Miss you Joanne. I’m embarking on going back to school soon for a masters in counseling because I want to move on in a healthy direction from all this. It’s been a joyous ride in yoga and extremely eye opening. But I don’t want to sell it when I’m 60. I want to be a wise woman. Thanks for this.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. loved this article, very honest and eloquent. i think a lot of us have this struggle between commerce and being an authentic yogi. Teaching and practicing are my happy place where i connect with myself and my students. I love the constant unravelling
    and discoveries. I also decided a long time ago that with familial respo sibilites and being sole provider for my family that i needed another source of income. Am priviledged to support my family through the day job. My practice and teaching and continual study with my own teachers encourage me to try and be a decent employer and fellow human being, treating others as i wish to be treated. I dont always manage this but the practice helps get me back on the wagon when I lose the run of myself. Thank you for sharing – Loving the emergence of all the honesty and intelligence coming from yourself and others.

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  12. This brings up a lot of interesting points and reminds me of this article: http://www.decolonizingyoga.com/decolonize-yoga-practice/
    I wrote about some of these points in my novel as well, but your article has given me some new food for thought. Of course, as a young person in the digital age, I engage in posting yoga on social media, but I have always dissociated it from my real life. I have been offered an ambassadorship for a clothing company due to my posts, and I did become an ambassador, but I like the clothing based on their quality, durability, and the message they spread. The company does give back to others by partnering with an orphanage, and the owner does her best to ensure that products are produced ethically. Wearing their clothes, I feel like I’m representing myself, and I also feel like I am learning to donate many other items of clothing, in order to feel more deserving of buying more from my sponsor. For example, I try to donate twice as much as what I would like. This reply feels a bit like an attempt to justify myself to the internet, but in reality your article has just reminded me of my constant struggle with the life of capitalism. I don’t need to justify to a stranger that I deserve my practice and my teaching certification, or that there are ways my yoga does not fit into capitalism. Yet, I still felt somewhat compelled, because parts of this article tugged at me. I do seek to be better, by understanding more about yoga, by practicing the yamas and niyamas, to my own interpretation of course, but nonetheless not ignoring them. I have read the Gita, and have the story of Krishna to be read, and seek more to read to discover the truths, and have written my own novel about yoga because of the way it touched my life. I think there is a lot to be said for the way that people want to share with others how their practice has changed their lives and I think it is very interesting to examine the effect capitalism has on that. I learned to teach yoga because I want to bring it into my future classroom when I teach children in general, and because I saw the benefit it had for me, I could see how many children could benefit from the life skills learnt through yoga. When explaining my connection to yoga to people who do not practice, I identify myself as a yoga teacher, because it is the easiest. However, to myself, being a practitioner of yoga is a huge part of my identity, and though I am a certified yoga teacher, I do not currently teach, and thus do not tend to think of myself as a yoga teacher first, despite all the knowledge I gained from my training that has invariably changed my life. I have never expected to be able to make lots of money through teaching yoga, though, but it has never been about that. Being able to make some money, often on the side, through my yoga teaching has been a bonus. It has always been about wanting to share the practice, share the lessons, share the skills. Without yoga, I would probably be dead or unable to walk by now, and that meant so much to me that I had to learn to teach it, in case just one person could benefit from it. I am to help people like me, so I do look for those “niches upon niches” that you mention, but less for the monetary value and more because that will be the way to find the students who need the kind of yoga that I teach.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thank you for your thoughtful comment. i think we are all doing our best trying to navigate the yoga industry, and that that looks different for everyone. i was unprepared for the reception this blog has received, and it’s been quite amazing hearing how many people have been touched by it. i’m glad if it sparks lines of enquiry, glad conversations are happening; and glad that our critical brains are engaging with these issues.

      thanks again x

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Thank you for this blog. I am a yoga student and I thought about a yoga teacher training multiple times but the commercialisation of Yoga really brought me away from wanting to become a teacher. And what ‘worries’ me more is that there are so many yoga studios – 90 % of them are only hot yoga – but I have not found one studio that is affordable and has good teachers. Also presumable if a yoga teacher works at a studio they will see very little of the money that I pay for the class.

    My knew philosophy is to go to local yoga teachers and support their classes rather than the studios.

    Again thank you and I am glade I found your blog (funny enough a Shiatsu colleague shared it on Facebook – that’s how I found you)

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