January 10, 2014

The Tyranny of the Yoga Industry. ~ Ruth Fowler

Warning: naughty language ahead.

I learned yoga in India, from Indian teachers.

I’m stating this not to give the impression that this somehow makes me more spiritual, or a better yoga practitioner than any of you.

On the contrary, I’m stating this because I believe my experiences as a 22-year-old, wandering cluelessly and broke around India, being conned out of too much money for classes by guys who just wanted to grab my boobs, made me aware right from the start that yoga wasn’t going to make me a better person and it wasn’t going to cure all of society’s ills. I’d never be able to support myself by convincing naive westerners that it would do any of those things.

Yoga was simply a set of fun, challenging physical exercises and postures (asanas) that brought my body more into alignment, strength and balance, and made it easier to sit in stillness and meditation for a little while afterwards.

That was it.

It could have been surfing, or pilates, or running, or the gym, but what worked for me was yoga. I liked it. It made me happy and as a blunt, bordering-on-the-Aspergers-spectrum cynic, it made me a little easier to be around.

Fast forward 14 years, and I live in Venice Beach, California, surrounded by a yoga ‘industry’ which is at once competitive, judgmental, egotistical, consumerist and self-important. It’s an industry which is saturated with teachers continually pushing themselves to gain a cult following with gorgeously saturated selfies of themselves, or pictures by Robert Sturman, in more and more challenging inversions and arm balances.

Everything is for sale in a yoga teacher’s life.

Their life is a commodity, and what they’re selling is false perfection, an illusion of happiness. Success is based on how much a yoga teacher can convince their students that they, too, can have what the yoga teacher has—for a price. The price is that inversion workshop, because once you can do a handstand, no one else can ever turn your world upside down. The price is that Lululemon top which wicks away sweat in seconds, truly transforming your practice from the mundane to the spectacular because of its uniquely layered boob support system.

The price is that retreat to Indonesia where you chant bogus sanskrit and perform bootleg pujas led by a white woman dressed in flowing organic cotton, blithely unaware that her cultural appropriation of another continent’s major religion is found by many practitioners of that religion to be absurd and offensive.

The price is that teacher training, because you too can earn the big bucks and be sponsored by Yogitoes and Raw Coconut Juice and produce online videos watched by thousands, and meet Deepak Chopra and be a Nike global ambassador and get a free trip to Thailand to teach over there, and wake up warm and glowing every day because what you’re doing in life really matters.

Because the people who can afford it, really need this shit.

Yoga teachers are, mainly, former dancers and models and actors from the entertainment industry. They grew up performing, selling an image of unsustainable perfection. Many of them tell you that they left the entertainment industry because it was shallow, because it was degrading, because it wasn’t fulfilling, because their self esteem suffered, their body image took a blow.

Yet they left it for an industry which is becoming just as shallow, which is geared towards skinny people looking perfect in tight, expensive clothes paying twenty dollars plus for a class; an industry which urges people to think ridiculous, egotistical thoughts like “If everyone in the world practiced yoga, the world would be a better place.”

“If only everyone in the world chanted sanskrit, the world would be peaceful”.

“If only everyone in the world meditated, there’d be no wars.”

“If everyone could do a handstand, no one would be arguing”

If everyone in the world practiced yoga, the world would be unable to cope with the amount of instagrammed selfies floating through the internet, nor the amount of pseudo—quackery positing as fact which skinny young yoga teachers, buoyed by the level of adoration they solicit and receive on the internet selling their ‘lifestyle brand,’ see fit to share with the world.

With their well-thumbed Rumi in their Wholefoods Fairtrade bag made by small oppressed children in Malawi, the yoga teachers of America are an unholy hybrid of false spirituality and relentless Capitalism. As if they’ve just swallowed ‘The Secret’, most parrot unthinkingly phrases such as ‘manifestation’ and ‘positive thinking’.

Only this morning, I woke up to an able-bodied, privileged female yoga teacher declaring thoughtlessly on her Facebook page that “not forgiving people can cause cancer”. When I responded with, “Hallelujah! Let me email my friend with breast cancer and let her know that if she just changes her shitty attitude, she’ll get better!” I received a distinctly unpleasant personal message in response.

Usually slim, attractive, privileged with good health and access to travel, yoga and other exercise classes, these yoga teachers blithely tell the world that it’s okay not to be perfect, and then share stories of their former eating disorders, accompanied by pictures of themselves looking ‘imperfect’ in Pinca Mayurasana—completely unaware that the miniscule wrinkle in their abdomen, the shadowy ripple of cellulite in their thigh—is, to women who don’t get to attend classes five times a week plus, perfection.

Then these same perfect women with their flaw exposed to the world, as evidence that they’re not egotistical at all, bash others for being shallow enough to wear make up, watch TV, eat meat, indulge in processed food, not make a difference in the world, not live their dream!

Because the Yoga Teacher can do it, you can too.

But only if you are as spiritual, devoted and dedicated as them. Only if you have the right attitude. Only if you manifest everything that you want – and then only if you sell it afterwards. I’ve done yoga for twelve years, through homelessness, bankruptcy, alcoholism, success, failure, illness, in love, broken-hearted, as a smoker, as a non-smoker. I know that yoga, like the universe, will not provide, nor will it get me through those hard times.

That is why there are eighteen thousand homeless people on Skid Row, and families all across America losing their illegally foreclosed upon homes to the Banks. It is not that these victims of misfortune didn’t do yoga, or manifest enough positive energy, or open their hearts to love, or practice forgiveness, or choose to make lemonade out of lemons, or see the glass as half-full, or stop consuming the cortisol of animals by going vegan.

However, if you believe the relentless onslaught of yoga marketing, the unfailing cheerfulness of the yoga teacher, everything is within your grasp. Which stands to reason, if you don’t have everything you want, it’s your fault. Yogic thinking is often a dictatorship posing as a meritocracy.

It ignores that we are not all born equal, and that privilege exists. That some of us are born white, rich and with access to education and healthcare. That some of us are born brown or black in a country which is still wracked with racism.

It doesn’t account for the fact that some of us are born with mental and physical disabilities which means happiness may be difficult and physical prowess may be challenging, or that some of us will find happiness and contentment far more easily than others, for a myriad of different reasons.

We can all strive, to the best of our ability, with the knowledge that we have, to be healthy and happy, but ill-health, and misfortune, and unhappiness, and poverty, when it comes to us, is not because of our personal failings—but in many cases, simply an unfortunate, and often terrifying, part of our unique reality.

My point is, don’t buy into the bullshit.

Find a teacher who admits to being flawed—whether that means acknowledging that they are sometimes unhappy, pissed off and frustrated, or that their life is not just ‘not perfect’—but sometimes, like everyone’s life, it really, really sucks. Your teacher should not want to be your guru. They shouldn’t see you only as a potential check, or a pair of pants, or as some sucker they can con into thinking your life isn’t as good as theirs.

Don’t train to be a yoga teacher because you want your face plastered all over Equinox and the ability to patronize people who can’t do a handstand press and will never fit into Lululemon.

Surround yourself with yogic practitioners who ask how you are, and who listen when you say, “I feel like shit”.

Maybe they’ll even respond: “That’s okay. We all feel like that sometimes. Let’s do some yoga and if it makes you feel better—great. If it doesn’t, go grab a cocktail, smoke a cigarette and watch a crappy TV show instead—whatever makes you happy.”


Love elephant and want to go steady?

Sign up for our (curated) daily and weekly newsletters!


Assistant Editor: Claire Weber/ Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo Via: Pixoto


Read 26 Comments and Reply

Read 26 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Ruth Fowler