Thursday, August 11, 2011

A biased view of the yoga industry from someone who's glad her writings don't count for marks any more :)

I have been wanting to write about this topic for a long time but everyone else seems to be able to address exactly what I wanted to talk about, with much better understanding and much more eloquence. Nobel talked about yoga teacher training and the yoga version of the American dream. Grimmly also wrote a post about yoga teacher training. "It's all Yoga, baby" wrote about New York Time's interpretation of Ana Forrest vs. John Friend vs. Tara Stiles. As far as I know, these three styles are pretty accurately and succinct described in this post. Her previous post of NYT's overall portrayal of yoga points out how mainstream media's skepticism about yoga can negatively influence people who are thinking about trying out yoga, or are currently confused by yoga.

I've been pondering about yoga and capitalism. In the early days, students who really wanted to learn yoga had to go beg the teacher to teach them. The guru would make these bright-eyed hopeful students go through crazy difficult tests to confirm their determination for this practice. I guess when the (western) students have experienced the benefits of the practice, they want to share it with people back home. They knew such a disciplined practice wouldn't appeal to the masses, so they've modified and marketed yoga in a way that people would want to try it out. There is nothing wrong with that. I think anyone who has tried yoga has received benefits of relaxation, improved breathing, more limber body, and more. The thing is, when yoga turns into a business, rent and electricity costs money, and studio owners end up having to recruit more and more customers by whatever means they can to pay the bills as opposed to teaching it in the strict traditional form. People would only pay so much money for practice, so all these other things are born - clothing lines, jewelries, expensive mats and mat cleaners, and - teacher training! Initially meant to uphold the quality of yoga teachers, in a capitalist society this screams "career opportunity", and everyone jumps at it, because seriously, being a yoga teacher and make other people feel good feels 1000 times more meaningful than, say, a bank job where you count other people's cash all day, or a secretarial job where you do the most boring administrative paperwork stuff for the rest of your life. Most friends I know with traditional jobs often talk like they work in a prison, or just avoid talking about their work at all.

So then we get into this situation where the market is filled with well-intentioned yoga teachers who have practiced yoga themselves for barely a few months. The market demand for yoga classes are so high that sometimes these teachers end up teaching full time and have no time for personal practice. We get students who take classes with these teachers for awhile, who want to dig deeper into yoga, but the only option to go deeper seems to be to sign up for $3000+ teacher training, because a lot of these teachers are too inexperienced to offer adjustments or teach headstands (for safety/liability reasons I'm glad they don't). What a brilliantly crafted money-making business plan (that I think happened somewhat accidentally)!

Yoga nowadays is kind of like Christianity. It is spread broadly by people who have felt the benefits of the practice but don't fully understand the history and the deepness of the tradition. You get a lot of teachers who take bits of what they like about yoga (or what students might prefer) and sell them to students, while ignoring bits that they don't quite understand/believe in themselves, as well as parts that might clash with conventional beliefs and personal comfort zones. Don't like talking about spirituality? OK, we'll take that out of this yoga class. Jump backs and jump throughs frustrate students? No problem. Just don't introduce them in class and students will never know they existed. Feet together in Samasthiti feels unbalanced? Let's teach people to stand feet hip distance apart instead. The teachers who first started teaching this way understood the intentions behind the modifications, but new yoga practitioners subsequently taking teacher training programs don't seem to realize these are modifications (partly because they can't do the full form themselves, which takes years to achieve) and teach them as strict rules instead.

What ends up happening is a lot of confused yoga practitioners. I attended a yoga conference last year when barely started practicing yoga, so some of the classes and variations were kind of confusing to me. What was really daunting for me, was that about half the attendees claimed to have gone through some sort of yoga teacher training program, yet they seemed more confused than I was. It made me really appreciate having encountered a great teacher at the beginning of my yoga journey. My yoga teacher is a total stickler for teaching the original Ashtanga form (e.g. hands together in warrior I even if one has tight shoulders, grab the toe in trikonasana even if one has super tight hips, etc). I wondered for the longest time why he doesn't teach the modified forms like all other teachers seem to do.  Some students (and even yoga teachers) stay away from his classes because of this reason. It took me awhile to realize but now when I encounter variations, it's obvious to me (without anyone informing me the reasons) that they are modified forms to make beginners' lives easier. I've heard some teachers complain that Ashtanga doesn't seem to teach a lot of alignments. I've been to classes with a ton of verbal alignment cues, but half the cues didn't jive with my body. Even when the cues felt helpful, I saw a lot of people in class still had crap alignments, and the teacher didn't do anything to physically assist anyone (which Ashtanga teachers tend to do). Since the results are about the same, the preference is up to the students then. It's good to have a choice between the preferred method of being taught.

In the beginning I totally disagreed with reformulating yoga into marketable products (anti-gravity yoga, yoga for runners, yoga for weight loss, yoga with live music, etc). Now I no longer think it's wrong, because just like it always has been, the mass public doesn't want to be put through a disciplined spiritual practice. They want to entertained and to feel good -- instant gratifications. Maybe I'm a bit of a weirdo but it's happened so many times that when I went out friends for a drinking gathering, I would join them for a few drinks, but as I noticed people started behaving funny as a result of intoxication, instead of "catching up" I wold stop myself because I didn't really feel like becoming the same way (plus I get a headache right away from too much alcohol anyway). When I attend a yoga class with good music and lots of feel good messages but no challenge, I feel entertained but at the same time I would sense that something is missing. When the sequencing of a yoga class doesn't feel quite right or if a class is all about getting a work out I also become very disappointed. However other students seem to enjoy the class no less. Perhaps I'm just too hard to please?

I guess I like things I do to have meaning, and Ashtanga seem to be so well crafted that every pose as well as the details of the sequencing have reasons to back up this practice. Not everyone needs every activity they do to have meaning. Not everyone wants to read into the history of yoga. Not everyone wants to have the basic alignment for each pose memorized. Hence the yoga industry shapes itself to fit mainstream crowd's desires. I am just glad that I came across a yoga style that suits my personality and that the system is rich enough for me to explore for many years to come. I've heard people complain that yoga should be cheaper and be available to more people, yada yada. I wonder if they really mean that everyone should be taught basic breathing techniques and basic stretches, because not all yoga styles are the same. I think at the rate that current teacher training program churns out yoga teachers, we would soon have enough yoga teachers qualified to teach exactly such at every school, hospital and community center. This would indeed benefit the public at large. However, for a deeper yoga practice, it is up to me to put in the effort to go find the right teacher for proper guidance. To be able to study with a good yoga teacher is a privilege rather than one of the basic human rights. I must remember that.

Also, there's nothing wrong with doing yoga for social and entertainment purposes. Ashtanga will always be my grounding practice, but I am still allowed to attend other styles of yoga for fun!


  1. I share many of your frustrations with the yoga industry, and am currently living through endless questions as a teacher training student (with a lot of practice under my belt).

    However, I think there are different ways to truly challenge people. Whether I end up teaching or not, I'm aiming for meditative classes that might not work up a mad sweat, but will definitely push the boundaries of attention, and mindfulness of body and breath.

    Because what I am seeing is how much focus is placed the physical aspects of practice and how often the more subtle, deeper elements are short changed.

  2. Hi Nathan, I think your meditation classes might do really well because there aren't that many good ones out there! I'm not exactly "frustrated" by the yoga industry. I am a little surprised that there are so few progressive classes. I really thought there would be a demand for them. I guess people do teacher training programs instead, but learning how to teach vs. Learning to further one's own 8-limbs yoga progress are two different things in my mind.

  3. wow. that John Friend video hit a nerve. I recently blogged about it also....see "babies teaching babies" post....

  4. there's really only one way to learn. do your practice EVERY DAY over a period of YEARS & all of the answers come. 99% of the questions about almost ANYTHING yoga happens only after thousands of practices. the answers are in the practice.
    than you are ready to teach.
    nice blog

  5. Hi Linda, loved your post! It's tough to be a yoga teacher these days eh? It's unfortunate that the good yoga teachers have to compete with the not so good but better looking and more charismatic ones, but it's kind of like that with every industry I think.

    Hi Bindy, I agree with you totally. When I first started I would ask the teacher lots of questions and get frustrated when they can't always answer me (not general questions, ones that are very specific to my body). With repeated practice the answers were eventually revealed on their own. It's quite cool actually. If only everything else in life were like this too :)

  6. Nice one Y! Key word: Meaning.

  7. Love coming here Yyogini, this burnt sienna is gorgeous. Great post though I struggle with part of it. Paragraph five you seem to be using ashtanga as a reference point as If Ashtanga is an origin and everyone has veered away from that, simplifying here, tweaking there depending on taste but do we really think Ashtanga was what Krishnamacharya was taught by Brahmachari up in that cave. Ashtanga itself seems to be just another style, approach to practice that was a response to the times, few years later krishnamacharya would have a different approach altogether and it would be very tailored to who ever came to him. Alignment seems to be an Iyengar thing and doesn't seem to have been taught by K or Jois. It seems to have come into ashtanga late when the Iyengar guys crossed over. And of course Ashtanga doesn't tend to focus on the spiritual or philosophical aspect of the practice and pretty much avoids the other limbs.
    I don't know, more and more it seems to me that there is no Yoga, no one yoga, true yoga that can be taught. It's a personal journey, exploration and all the texts, all the teachers, all the styles just marks along the way. I really don't think it matters if you practice with someone who's been doing it twenty-five years and going to India every other week and studying with every 'guru' under the sun or somebody with a nice smile and inviting personality who knows a little 'yoga' and makes you WANT to practice to begin to turn inwards. Love my wise and experienced teacher and all he's taught me but would I have wanted to study with him four years ago? probably not. Bindy has it, just have to do your practice, everything else probably is coming....and whoever inspires somebody to do that, well we should probably appreciate them.

    All those riots in my home town, I'm of the feeling that perhaps there's not enough yoga teachers. I want to see Mr T in gold lame yoga pants in Brixton, Hell, I'd even put up with Bikram if he turned some of the looters on to practice and some self reflection.

  8. Hi Yyogini, I really enjoyed your insightful post on the yoga industry, and your views on Ashtanga.

    I think the situation with the industry may be similar in the UK, but the teachers I've experienced do have insight. The yoga teachers I know in Wales barely make a living from yoga, even if they are teaching full-time, but with big name gurus seemingly to be very rich and with celebrity status I can see why some people would go into teaching, but it's not like that for 98% of teachers! And how can people be qualified in yoga after 4 weeks? How can they have developed that insight you rightly say is needed? That can only come from years of experience and personal practice and study.

    Grimmley - as you say, Ashtanga isn't 'original' yoga, and is less than 100 years old. In fact, in Yoga Body, Mark singleton explains how we've got to this point today, with modern asana-based yoga and a yoga industry - basically all the 'weird' yoga things (tantric, kundalini, cleansing, rituals etc) was disassociated from c.100 years ago in India and with influences from European gymnastics, British physical training and an interest in Indian physical culture to make the nation strong, the asanas we know and love today were developed. As you say, K has several big name teachers all with different styles (Iyengar, Jois, Desikachar) - how is this? Because they were all with him at different times of his life when he was teaching different approaches, maybe because he body changed and so different yoga was suitable?

    In my view, yoga is a changing and evolving 'system'. We'll never really know what yoga 'looked like' in 1850, or 1650, or 1150, or 500AD, or 500BC but it was probably different from now. Doesn't make today's wrong, just different. As you say Yyogini, it's the meaning and the intention that is really important - why is this being taught?, what is this good for?, how can this be adapted for my body's physicality?, how can this be adapted or adjusted to suit different people?, what is the intention of this pose? what is the intention of this class? If we can answer those questions as teachers and practitioners we're on the right track, which ever track it is!

    Thanks for your interesting post!

  9. Hi Yyogini
    More from me! thanks for the link to the John Friend interview. Something he said was very interesting , and you touch upon it. When students progress they want to go deeper, but that often means TT courses. Well in the UK that's similar because if you want to study it deeper the main (but not only!) option is the British Wheel of Yoga TT Diploma, and although it's called Teacher Training, even if you don't want to be a teacher, you need to teach a certain number of hours and get observed whilst your teaching them to pass. Even if you just want to study for yourself. On day one of my TT course the tutor said "I hope none of you are here because you want to make a career out of it because let me tell you now, you won't." The teacher definitely needs to have a deeper reason than just 'wanting to teach', as you point out.
    thanks for the links!

  10. @Sereneflavor: Thanks!

    @Grimmly: I always love hearing from you. Sorry I definitely didn't mean that Ashtanga is the "only" original style. Even if one makes up a new yoga style where you start students off in beginner poses and then gradually take them to deeper poses is totally fine. I just feel like the popular all-level drop-in large class format can only take students so far. At some point an intermediate student would need some personal help for getting past a hurdle to get to the next level.

    @Alyson, thank you for your input :) I think I would prefer if they called these training something like "deepening yoga study" rather than "teacher training", but apparently the latter name attracts way more students (ie. more profit) than the former. I think yoga has helped to get the world economy going -- it got stingy old me to sign up for expensive workshops and purchase outrageously priced outfits! It also makes some new yoga teachers temporarily happy until they realize that it doesn't pay enough to support a family/pay for dental benefits. At that point we hope they've done enough yoga to be at peace with reality and find another source of income without getting all bitter and depressed :P

  11. Another thing to consider in all this is how we've come to define "deep practice."

    "Even if one makes up a new yoga style where you start students off in beginner poses and then gradually take them to deeper poses is totally fine. I just feel like the popular all-level drop-in large class format can only take students so far."

    The thing is that I don't think it's necessary for many folks to learning progressively more challenging asanas. I have probably learned a few hundred yoga poses over the years I've practiced. Maybe more than that. However, when I consider what I keep going back to - it's the bread and butter stuff. Trikonasana. Downdog. Warrior poses. Etc. Although it can be really wonderful to learn new, more challenging poses, there also seems to be a collector or consumer mentality behind some of that desire.

    Few want to work with the boredom that comes with doing the same old poses again and again - but that's exactly what many of us need to do. It's like sitting meditation, watching the breath going in and out. Boredom is bound to show up. And then what? Can we hang with it until it passes? Or are we gonna keep trying to find something novel to skip our attention to.

    Some of the demand for more teacher trainings is probably coming from this place. The struggle with boredom, and thinking that learning some more challenging stuff might relieve that.

  12. Hi Nathan, deeper practice certainly does not mean more poses, and I do agree with you that many people take up teacher training out of boredom with what they do on their own. When I started the primary series I could touch my forehead to my knee in forward bends and I thought that was pretty good already. Chest to leg forward folding is for freaks of nature only. My teacher would come and silently push gently on my back for at least one forward bend every class. I thought at the time that he was wasting his efforts, but I was impressed that he kept at it for months. And then one day my chest touched my legs in a forward fold without assistance. It was a heart-opening moment for me. Not only did I achieve a pose that I thought was physically impossible for my body, but that someone would dedicate so much effort to help me with anything was so heartwarming. In a large class with mostly drop-in students it would be a lot tougher for this style of yoga teaching to happen.

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