The Questionable Commoditization of Ashtanga Yoga. ~ Anurag Lohia

Via on Mar 21, 2012

Where do we draw the line between growth and commercialism?

A recent article in Vanity Fair, Whose Yoga Is It, Anyway?, profiles Sonia Jones, the wealthy yogini wife of a hedge fund billionaire in New York City, who has teamed with the family of legendary yoga teacher Patthabi Jois (thought of in the West as the father of Ashtanga Yoga) to open a sleek line of high-end yoga studios. With locations (which they call “shalas”) so far located in the Florida Keys, Encinitas CA, and Bondi Beach Australia, the Jois Yoga brand is poised to take over the Ashtanga world,  with the support of the Jois family itself.

A philanthropist who has used her family’s money to support the Jois family and the Ashtanga community for decades, Jones is alternately considered a hero and a villain for her role in the evolution of Ashtanga yoga in the West. Despite her tireless support of Patthabi Jois and his mission up until (and after) his death in 2009, she is accused by her detractors of exploiting the Ashtanga brand and commercializing the Jois name.

In truth, her company is called Jois Yoga, and includes not just upscale urban Ashtanga studios but a line of yoga clothes that was debuted not long after Gurugi’s death. This—along with the blatant commoditization of the Jois  family name—left a bad taste in the mouths of some of Ashtanga’s devotees, among them Tim Miller, who was the first Ashtanga teacher to be certified to teach this style of yoga in the West, and whose grassroots studio in Encinitas was for decades considered to be the Western heart of the Ashtanga community. But now, a Jois Yoga studio exists right up the street.

At the heart of this article is the question about the Americanization of yoga, which is a theme that is close to my heart, as an Indian-born yogi running a yoga company (Divine Wellness) that caters to yoga-savvy Westerners. It’s so easy to denounce the modernization of yoga as a commercially exploitative affront to an ancient tradition. But the reality is that we live in a capitalist world, and for yoga to thrive and spread to the masses, it must play by the rules, at least to some extent. And yoga has long been a transformative practice that is itself constantly undergoing transformation. As the Vanity Fair article says:

“Most people who practice Ashtanga think they’re doing something ancient and Eastern. But the provenance of the sequences is murky. The official story is that Krishnamacharya developed the physical postures after finding the remains of a 2,000-year-old manuscript in Calcutta’s library. He believed it to contain postures referenced by the sage Patanjali in a centuries-old text called the Yoga Sutras. Part of the appeal of Ashtanga is its authenticity; to uphold that, there isn’t supposed to be any modifying of the series. But the remains of the Calcutta manuscript no longer exist, and recently work by a scholar named Mark Singleton has cast some doubt on how important physical postures were in ancient yoga. The Yoga Sutras are more about achieving detachment from your measly existence than about contorting your body into impossible positions…”

Indeed, yoga is a practice undergoing transition and constant translation, and being flexible of mind is just as important as being flexible of body. So in the end, I believe that any efforts to spread the pure intentions of the yoga practice—regardless of which style of lineage we are talking about—can only be a good thing. However, I have my personal preference for yoga practice, and it does not include expensive, brand-name yoga outfits or impeccably-designed yoga “shalas” to practice in. In fact, I believe that one should be able to practice in the comfort and privacy of one’s own home with little fanfare and the only accessory a good, knowledgeable teacher.

And so, a quote I particularly love from Sharath Rangaswamy, Pattahbi Jois’s grandson and the current successor of the Ashtanga lineage:

“In the West, you make things very fancy. Yoga is not fancy.”

 

Anurag Lohia is the founder and chief promoter of Divine Wellness,  the latest unique initiative of the Lohia Group, a well-known business conglomerate headquartered in North India. Coming from one of India’s premier business families, Anurag’s entrepreneurial vision and penchant for modern technology is evident in all his endeavors. His current initiative, Divine Wellness, offers the world’s first live, interactive, one-on-one private yoga classes and Ayurvedic consulting via internet webcam.

A staunch believer in Hindu scriptures, Anurag started practicing yoga at the age of 15 and has spent two months at the Nalanda Yoga Centre near Hrishikesh in India, where he learned about the true power of India’s ancient health sciences. He has also published a translation of Sri Adi Sankaracharya’s Sanskrit commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. Anurag blogs about health, wellness, medicine, reforms in healthcare, yoga, Ayurveda and related topics. He can be reached at mailto:anurag.lohia@lohiagroup.com.

 

~

Editor: Kate Bartolotta.

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6 Responses to “The Questionable Commoditization of Ashtanga Yoga. ~ Anurag Lohia”

  1. Tanya Lee Markul Tanya Lee Markul says:

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  2. Vision_Quest2 says:

    "Indeed, yoga is a practice undergoing transition and constant translation, and being flexible of mind is just as important as being flexible of body. So in the end, I believe that any efforts to spread the pure intentions of the yoga practice—regardless of which style of lineage we are talking about—can only be a good thing. However, I have my personal preference for yoga practice, and it does not include expensive, brand-name yoga outfits or impeccably-designed yoga “shalas” to practice in. In fact, I believe that one should be able to practice in the comfort and privacy of one’s own home with little fanfare and the only accessory a good, knowledgeable teacher."

    The yoga clothes, the yoga teacher as accessories—IF those.
    Or, more accurately, not-so-frequently–

    I practice my own self-sequenced style, many times in a month, as well as dancing and doing pilates. I'd taken live studio classes over the years and—and not all that frequently. I don't miss the live classes. I also have laughable online transmission speed because I live in a big city/high internet traffic area, and no desire to upgrade it.

    That being said, I do belong to two online yoga video instruction sites (one of them is free). They have comprehensive wellness programs and articles on the other limbs of yoga—this is not just asana instruction—and the asana instruction is not only the latest rock-star offerings, which I am in hardly any condition to physically do, never mind the jarring, youth-oriented aesthetics. I would many times be lost without purchasing downloads of my favorites—some audio, some video.

  3. Sonyata says:

    I think that this is a step in the right direction for Ashtanga Yoga. Ashtanga means eight limbs or branches. It is eight directions or steps in order to come to enlightenment. In that, I think it is good to distinguish between Ashtanga style and Jois style.

    The six series defined by Jois were put together to reflect a six day per week practice, in my opinion. Though I am certified as an Ashtanga instructor, I learned that it is necessary to distinguish between Ashtanga and Primary Series, as well as between led and Mysore style classes. When some people read "Ashtanga" they expect "Jois".

    I have attended seminars, both Tim Miller (first certified in primary series) and David Williams (who found Pattabi Jois originally). Both hold the utmost respect for Pattabi Jois, the Yoga Sutras, the Yoga Mala, and the Yoga Korunta. I admire both of these men, enjoyed their seminars, and respect their reverence for their Guruji.

    Williams seemed to look at the primary series as some magical formula whose benefits could only be found by practicing the exact sequence of poses specified by Jois. I was certified by Larry Schultz (It's Yoga founder) whose departure from the Primary Series was considered to be taboo at the time. But still, the It's Yoga Rocket sequence closely approximates the Primary Series, including its redundant jump backs and jump throughs. Schultz dropped some of them and threw in a few gee-whiz poses in his sequence.

    Miller taught the Yoga Sutra like some Christian ministers teach the Bible. Spending five minutes on each word of a single sutra (verse) and breaking down its entomology to reveal its hidden meanings. While I find this interesting, he hung on each word like it was the "Word of God" or something. I find that when a verse of a text is presented in this light, it is possible to make it say or mean nearly anything. I would prefer to read it in a paragraph format, rather than word by word or sutra by sutra. Otherwise, one misses the point of the text and gets lost in awe. It turns into some magical incantation.

    I do not intend to disrespect Jois, Miller, Willams, or Schultz. As for the Jois studios, I think this is the right move for the Jois style yoga. Honestly, I prefer some of the other approaches to the Yoga Sutra and asana practice, such as those written by Desikachar, Krishnamacharya's son, and taught by Mark Whitwell, a student of Desikachar's for many years. They downplay the significance of the primary series in favor of a more personalized approach, one designed for each individual body.

    I recall a comment from another teacher who said he attended a Jois class. When it came Savasana time, many quickly rolled up their mats to get in line to kiss the feet of the Guru, Jois. And many of these seem to hold that they are one of the chosen ones who received the master's blessing. Whatever.

    I have found so much interesting information by reading, practicing, and studying other styles of yoga that I am not concerned with any of the above. The truth is – if the shoe fits, wear it. If not, try on another pair. Eventually you'll find a style that works, and accommodates one's own mind and body. And that is the goal of it anyway.

    Imho.

  4. I think what most people are missing is the ability or even fact of distinguishing between Jois yoga and Ashtanga yoga. Most people as you say see Ashtanga and think Jois. It is like thinking Ashtanga and Hatha are different…..when in fact Ashtanga is a style/format/system of Hatha-yoga….It is actually interesting how people club Ashtanga in one corner and Hatha-yoga (and often for the less physically inclined) in another.

    It is all good…and the world moves forward not backward….this is a good time for Jois Yoga to expand..and they found the means to do so. How it remains traditional, etc….will be a very big question…for the most part I think it is is terribly naive to think that the yoga today is traditional since we practice in a very different context than the East.

    That said, it is like students who think that because their teacher teachings in a particular way/method that it is the same for everyone….and including the teacher themselves…..Like Krishnamacharya said, we should teach what applies to the student and not from what applies to only ourselves. ..

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