The Tyranny of the Yoga Industry. ~ Ruth Fowler


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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.”


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Ruth Fowler

Ruth Fowler is a British writer based in Venice Beach, CA. It doesn’t matter how long she’s been practicing yoga, nor how good she is, nor how many teacher training qualifications she has, what retreats she’s attended, or which teachers she’s studied under. It just matters that she enjoys it.


26 Responses to “The Tyranny of the Yoga Industry. ~ Ruth Fowler”

  1. Nice says:

    I enjoyed your perspective very much. I don't find it negative or critical, just something that had to be said. Keep on truckin'.

  2. Hi Ruth, I really appreciate you writing this–I guess it makes me feel all the more grateful for having found the teachers I have, the ones who focus on actual healing. I went to see Wolf of Wall Street the other day and nearly had to run out of the theater to throw up. I haven't had that strong of a reaction since seeing Taxi to the Dark Side about torture in Guantanamo. That Wall St world–which is so close to the one that dominates our society–is one where women are nothing more than a piece of meat and greed is all that drives people. It's disgusting, and yet so real. I did leave the movie early to go to yoga, hunching as I walked through the parking lot. As I listened to my teacher talk about our bodies and chatted with new yoginis next to me, I felt myself transform, the way we do when go to class, when we have a great teacher, and I left that class with my chest open again. And so, I'm writing this long comment to say mostly that yes, we can be cynics and you make solid points and they are so important and I'm thankful for them, but today especially, I'm so grateful for the proliferation of a community whose values are…good. I'm so happy there's somewhere to go when we walk out of the movie theater or the super market or even the gas station, thinking, wow, is this what our society has become? With all of its flaws, I still pick this side, you know?

    • Tatiana says:

      Had the same reaction to that film (Wolf of WS). It's toxic. Sick. Hated it. Especially because it makes the guy look glamorous and funny, rather than the disgusting person he is. Glad to hear your experience, I thought I was the only one!!!
      Taxi to the Dark Side, on the other hand, is depressing but in a different kind of way – its a serious and important film.

  3. Joe Sparks says:

    In my perspective yoga is an invitation, to try to notice your connection to yourself, whether you are teaching it or practicing it. Unfortunately, it will not make you a better person. Your humanness insures your inherent goodness, you cannot get any better than the day you were born. But, coming to yoga can make you better at yoga, awesome if you can notice the two, and enjoy it. Also, fantastic if you can notice and not feel great, that is good to. It should be a space to feel whatever, but you need to get rid of patterns that tell you that your are better than others or beat yourself up. Both are nonsense. Bottom line if you can come to yoga class you are having a " dam good life." We are so privledged in this country. Just that we exist is marvelous. Enjoy your life thoroughly, no matter what you do.

  4. Jenny says:

    Ruth, your article was very harsh and SPOT ON. Brava!
    The only thing is, the title is a little misleading, since you focus well-deserved criticism on shallow yoga teachers, but not on the rapacious industry that feeds them and feeds on them and feeds on us.
    ~ Jenny

  5. Kat says:

    Love your writing! I’m also a yoga teacher in LA and understand your point of view 100%. Love your bio as well!

  6. Linda says:

    I Love this article. Yoga is a wonderful thing but its not the cure all nm

  7. Wow! Articles like these point up to the fact that the backlash against commercialized yoga is WELL UNDERWAY!!

    Kudos to you for helping me to feel a little less lonely in my crusadership against commercialized yoga.

    May it die the death it deserves. Not mimicking it in savasana. But I'm talking actual six feet under stuff.

  8. foolishsage42 says:

    SO GLAD to have found many yoga teachers who admit to being flawed. I don't think it's quite as bad up here in northern Cali!

  9. Jacqueline says:

    It seems there is a lot of so called yoga in the USA that is nothing more than physical jerks and ways to flog yoga clothes – but I believe it isn't all like that. I am a newly qualified yoga teacher – I'm not an ex dancer, model or actor – I am a 50 year old who came to yoga via meditation. I am far from my perfect but I am trying to be my own guru, no-one else's and trying to listen to my divine teacher within.

    Thank you for your insights into an artificial world – and showing people in the USA and around the world that it can be different


    • Lenora says:

      Me, too, J. I got certified at 55 years old and I'm in another teacher training now at 56. No dance, acting, etc. Just real people.

    • Valerie says:

      I came to yoga at 42, and graduated as a yoga instructor at 50. I'm now 62, still teaching and thoroughly enjoying it. I'm totally flawed physically and otherwise. My students know this, and it helps them be more at peace with their own limitations.

  10. Gotham Chopra says:

    You def don't need to become a fancy yogi to meet deepak chopra. I know people.

  11. Angelant says:

    Well said sister! You are inside my mind.

  12. Marielle says:

    Today I feel LIKE SHIT!

    … and I'm off to go teach a class… Word of the day… SHITTY…

    … not really… perhaps next week.

    Thanks Ruth!

  13. @kath_devi says:

    Venice Beach is a hotbed of yoga celebrities, for better and mostly for worse. I hope you understand that you're in the middle of the scene you describe, and that its radius extends out maybe 100 miles. Yoga in America is arguably problematic in general, but to lesser extremes than you describe here. Yoga in LA takes everything to the far, far, farthest extremes possible. It's not a healthy culture.

    • Candice Garrett says:

      As someone who grew up in LA, it's easy to forget that LA is not the center of the universe.

    • New York City, and northern New Jersey (and suburban environs) are both too much in-flux and too classically oriented (as well as too influenced by old money) to have that same scene, but is very much the acro-yoga-in-Central-Park take on those extremes you talk about … so close to what you talk about; and yet so far from both the West Coast version (and from THIS NYC resident!)

  14. Gerry Ellen says:

    Excellent and truthful piece. Wow!

  15. Channelled Movement Yoga says:

    Thank you … thank you …. thank you …
    I'm not sure which sentence or paragraph in this article I love the MOST …
    every single one lifts us up and liberates us FROM THE LIE …
    Blessed Be to you! Thank you … thank you …. thank you ….
    and Pranams

  16. dragonfly says:

    Wow – it does sound like where you are, Ruth, is much different than the yoga community found in most of Vermont. I know there are bits and pieces of what you describe here, and I agree that the commercialization has gotten way out of hand in much of the Western world. However, I just completed a yoga-teacher training at Laughing River in Burlington and was thoroughly impressed by the teachers. Their focus was so much on the spiritual aspect; on helping us use yoga as a tool to ground ourselves, to be aware of our patterns of thinking and our emotions, and to use our breath and awareness to more skillfully choose our response to situations that arise in our lives. They were not at all what you describe in your article. To me, yoga is about being present – to the dark and light within ourselves and in the world around us. Thank you for making me think and to feel even more grateful to have entered this path with good teachers and fellow students.

    • When comparing notes with all those Middle Americans, as well (those from the heartland and the hinterland–not just the downeasters) … they do NOT know what I am talking about–they have caring yoga communities, lack of "competitive" focus, lack of Type-A behavior … and even the spiritual aspects/philosophical aspects are treated in a more easy going fashion …

      Not so sure about the Rocky Mountain region circa Denver-Boulder, though … Will the last person to leave the land of the yoga tearoom please remember to take the kettle?

  17. Bowvalleysattva says:

    Hi Ruth, thanks for sharing your perspective. Upon a second (and third) reading, at the root of this article, I'm not sure you are actually talking about the yoga presented in America; I believe you're talking more about 'the American dream' or on an even deeper level, just plain old maya. And of course, in the west, because this is the filter of perception that most folks operate at, yoga gets put through the filter of 'The American Dream' and gets cast as truth, and then people become angry when their quest for happiness becomes bashed and distorted and touted by shinier and (and consequently emptier) images. But I think it's the same as any other tradition really; you have the real, authentic teachings, and then, according to gets a hold of them, they get distorted so that the initial meaning and depth is completely washed away, ie; religion throughout the ages. Just because the maya has influenced it, should not discredit authentic and original teachings. I am happy to say that in Alberta Canada, I have an authentic teacher, and I believe I do my my to also present and authentic representation of Yoga to my students, and I know plenty of others that do the same. But I also think its super important for students (AND teachers) not to fall into this trap, which can be a pretty slippery slope at times.

  18. Rita says:

    True Yoga is actually THE meditation not the tool for meditation. Just because this society’s interpretation and culture comprehends/markets yoga in this way In No Way Does It Change What Yoga Really Is. The individual souls search for the over soul and eventual attainment. Keep searching, keep trying. Yogas chitta vritti nirodaha.

    Ps yoga has 100% made me better in every single way

  19. Alice says:

    Ah !!! What a refreshing and beautifully written peice of rate honesty.

    Bring it on !!!

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