10 Editor's Pick
March 30, 2021

Capitalism hijacked Yoga, then Wellness, but they can’t have Me (Or, Why I don’t teach Yoga anymore).


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Editor’s note: There’s a failure of integrity in the yoga community, as in all communities, and Elephant is here to bring light and meaningful conversation around that. Thanks to Lizz.

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I’m sitting outside of yet another yoga training in my dinged-up, old-as-bones white Hyundai.

The sun is beaming through my front windshield as I suck down a non-menthol Newport 100.

My eyes dart left to right, watching for the women and yoga mats, strapped around their shoulders like swords, walking into the building. One sees me, waves, and grins.

I hide my cigarette and wave back.

When I walk in, I notice all but two students look like me…

meaning, white

…though far fewer resemble me in terms of body type. One of them who is not white is here on scholarship.

Each morning, we all walk around and hug one another for a few long minutes. We ask, “How are you,” and laugh, and avoid eye contact. The exercise is said to promote connection and unity, but it isolates me like a buoy in a sea of strangers. The compliancy twists my stomach like Bird of Paradise Pose; the discomfort in the room is palpable. But I’m told to trust the process.

The yoga teacher training I’ve participated in began with a discussion on the confidentiality of the container. We all agree explicitly that nothing said within the walls can be repeated outside of them, and students are further assured that anything shared will not be discussed or repeated, at lunch breaks, for example, to protect us from unwanted conversation about our vulnerabilities. We are safe there.

It’s important to note that there are no strict guidelines on the execution of yoga teacher training.

There are a few flexible stipulations, like hours dedicated to certain curriculum, in order for training to be certified under the elusive “Yoga Alliance,” a nonprofit association said to represent the yoga community in the West. But otherwise, it’s entirely up to the studio or organization to design the program. It’s also important to note that the magnitude of yoga teacher training across the nation prevents this Yoga Alliance from real awareness of what’s happening in them. I know this because I have taken them, assisted them, and taught them.

One would imagine days of learning the poses, philosophy, and sequencing—and sure, there is some of that eventually. But in the training that I’ve experienced, “empowerment work” comes first. To teach yoga, we are told it’s essential to work on voice and personal power.

I can’t say I disagree with this.

Of course, learning how to be in front of a room is a crucial component of teaching; it often requires a tough look at any fears in the way of being seen. At teacher training, this process begins together, in a tight circle within this safe container, by sharing our “stories”—typically something from childhood that continues to hold us back in the present.

Those coming to yoga, especially those so devoted that they’re willing to invest thousands in teacher training, have often been through something, or many things, in which yoga has helped them heal.

So, as you can imagine, this part of training is intense. Trauma and tissues fly, and this often goes on for hours and days at a time. Students with nothing to share or with an unwillingness to bare it all to strangers are pushed to “pop,” told to stand alone in the front of the room or suffocate in giant group hugs where they’re confronted with question after question about their past. And though the eight limbs of yoga, the Yamas, and the Niyamas—the practice’s spiritual philosophy—lay a path before us to empower ourselves and incite incredible personal change, training often use pre-packaged personal development forums that rest on a sort-of group therapy model—without the assistance of real, trained therapists.

“Did I cry enough to make my bosses happy? Did I share a bad enough secret?”

I was shocked when I heard a former teacher from Yoga to the People in New York City say this on The Cut episode, “Do You Actually Miss The Yoga Studio?”

The studio had an uncannily similar model to the one that I’d had the most experience with: packed donation-based classes, a training that shuffled new teachers into the studio’s apprenticeship program, and little to no pay. For the first time, I understood that this was something much greater than just my own experience. I was not alone; across the country, there were others in tiny, sweaty rooms ripping open their wounds in front of strangers on a timed schedule to receive a teaching certificate.

Inhale, Lift Up

In 2015, I was the ideal client for a yoga studio. Recovering from alcoholism and excessive trauma, I was willing to try just about anything if I thought it would provide me relief. And honestly, yoga did.

It worked so well I found myself practicing every single day, and by 2017, I was signed up for teacher training. When I look back now, I’m fully aware of my desperation for answers and for belonging—the sort of longing that turns us to gluttonous gurus with heavy baggage and hidden agendas. I can admit that I was wrought with the sort of vulnerability that wellness seeks—a desire to be told what to do and how many times to do if it meant I could feel this good all the time.

Yet, I loved teaching yoga; I couldn’t get enough of it.

In fact, I loved it so much that I taught for as little as $15 a class in some spaces (even though students were paying more than this each), often providing my own equipment, clientele, and marketing, as well as cleaning up before and after. By 2019, I assisted an entire 200-hour yoga teacher training for free, putting aside all my other personal income streams to commit to an experience meant to eventually give me paid opportunities. One did come months later, another dangling carrot, the chance to teach a small portion of the following training. And then everything shut down.

As a month of being locked inside due to COVID-19 came and went, I noticed that I didn’t miss the yoga studio at all, but this was hard to admit to myself. Perhaps, the space at home gave me the quiet I needed to recognize that something had long felt off for me. Still, I loved my community, I loved my students, and by this point, so much of my identity rested on teaching yoga and leading workshops. The more my discomfort grew, the more I wondered why I hadn’t spoken up before. It’s not like me to keep quiet. But deep down, I knew that when I told the truth about what I didn’t agree with, it wouldn’t go over well.

It was when we were asked to teach free virtual classes to keep the studio afloat, while hundreds of dollars in donations were made to the studio per week, that I couldn’t keep quiet anymore. Students often stated the donations were for the teachers, but we never saw them. Hours were spent in Zoom meetings coming up with ideas to keep the community engaged, with lengthy monologues pushing us to stick together as a “tribe” and continue to create workshops and content (with a cut still expected for teaching workshops through a computer screen).

I understood, of course, that the business, like all businesses, was hurting—as I and so many of my close friends, many working in the studio, were also bootstrapping our income. When I finally mustered the courage to express my concern, I was coached on my entitlement, my money issues, and my “story” about not wanting to belong to the “tribe.” Admittedly, I took the bait after two hours of fighting, believing that it was my tendency toward individualism (a “story” uncovered in the confidential container of my teacher training years before) that was the problem. So, when the percentage of profit teachers received from workshops was increased to 20 after the conversation, I left it at that.

Of course, this still wasn’t enough to sustain me as one of my main sources of income. I watched yoga teachers, friends, and others all over the world beginning to teach private, donation-based Zoom classes where they received all the profit, sometimes up to $100 a class, easy. So, in addition to continuing to teach classes and workshops under the studio’s umbrella, I decided to initiate classes on my own Instagram and Zoom where I could collect payment. Within days of launching my first free workshop via Instagram live, I received a phone call from the studio asking me not to use my personal Instagram to teach. I was told that I was stepping on the toes of the other teachers—”selfish and willing to do anything to get to the top”—despite hundreds of yoga classes being taught on IG Live an hour, despite other teachers in the studio holding their own private Zoom classes with no repercussions, all of which I mentioned.

It took six hours of phone calls, so many tears amidst tumultuous indecision, and some serious courage before I quit. The decision to stop teaching at a studio that I’d practically grown up in was devastating for me; I can’t express that enough. I spent hundreds of hours teaching there—workshops, classes, and training. I loved my students and the other teachers so much that I contemplated staying despite the slandering of my character, gaslighting, and manipulation I experienced as I asked, again and again, why I wasn’t supported in growing my career. The only solid answer I ever received was, “It’s okay when other people teach outside of the studio, but when you do it, it’s different.”

Even after everything, even after being told that all the teachers (as well as others around my hometown) agreed with the claims about my “way of being,” I was asked to stay. I was told I was loved. I heard, over and over, we can work this out. But there was no going back for me. It was out of my integrity to stand in a studio I no longer believed in.

The veil had been lifted…

Yoga’s Swan Dive Into Capitalism

The origins of yoga are explained succinctly in the podcast episode mentioned above, but I’ll give you a brief timeline here. The only people teaching yoga in the early 20th century were not Indians from India, the place yoga originated; they were white Western colonizers. When yoga settled into the West, the hippies of the 60s and 70s grabbed ahold of it for its peaceful, meditative qualities. And by the time group fitness blew up in the 80s, the more slow, contemplative qualities of yoga were sped up and packaged into what would sell.

With this succession, we’re shown a perfect example of capitalism and cultural appropriation of yoga becoming a business like everything else. And what became more and more apparent for me, from both my experience on the inside and where I stand now, is an industry built upon Instagram trends and students’ vulnerabilities. I see many well-meaning, well-intentioned, but white-washed and watered-down leaders. A lot of fixing instead of loving, or meeting people where they’re at. A lot of $3333 answers and dusty Hindu Gods being used as carpets.

No one is innocent, including me.

At some point, we have all preserved the insidious patriarchal values passed down the yoga chain; we are all raised in the game of capitalism. That is a much grander conversation than I have room for here. For this, I can often find forgiveness in the teachers who have perpetuated this privileged bullsh*t, for the leaders claiming feminism and woman’s empowerment, yet still stuck within the patriarchal leadership model that they, too, were victims of. By this understanding, I can cultivate compassion for the studios still maintaining a hierarchical system that claims to love and value you—if you stick with them and their agenda. But even with that forgiveness, I see these places for what they are: pyramid schemes emblazoned with “love and light” in neon signs.

This is trauma bonding on a massive, multi-million dollar scale.

I write this from my own naïve, precious, and imperfect experience, as I clearly have drunk all the Koolaid—in multiple flavors. In fact, I have distributed most of them. In full transparency, I’m still working through a lot of shame and embarrassment about the ways that my spirituality began to become a business, too. The ways that my mess dripped down the sides of a perfectly crafted, rose-covered candlestick. The ways my personal work, my connection with God and Spirit, fell to the wayside as I tried to show others how to seek. Good intentions falling short aren’t enough.

There is a famous Yogi Bhajan saying: “Follow the teachings, not the teacher.”

If you’ve never heard of him, Bhajan is the cult leader of Western Kundalini yoga, a man who has been accused of endless criminal scandal and mental and physical abuse to his female students. So of course, this was his mantra. I have noticed whispers of this repeated in my own yoga communities, in their own way: excuses to disregard the true practice, the spiritual aspects of yoga which are far beyond the physical asana (and entirely skipped over in training I’ve assisted), such as Ahimsa (non-violence) and Satya (truth).

But if there’s one reliable lesson I’ve learned from my yoga teachers, it’s that they are human just like me. I find it fascinating how shocked we become to discover that those we honored and revered are just as flawed as we are. Or perhaps, the blow of truth just comes down harder because we’d expected them not to be flawed at all. Because we’d so deeply trusted them and the safe place they promised.

I can see how our expectations of our leaders are unfair in their own way. We should be allowed to make mistakes, leader or not. Right? I do agree to some extent; no pedestals for humans. But I also believe we have an added and necessary responsibility that we choose when we become a yoga teacher, studio owner, training facilitator, leader of any kind. We claim, at the least, a responsibility to continue to heal ourselves, so as not to project our issues onto our students, people who are coming to us with wide-open hearts.

So how long will we stand behind sayings like Bhajan’s to excuse the behavior of people with power in the name of our own personal goals and agendas?

How long will we stand behind these teachers with a shifty-eyed justification for f*cked up behavior, because we love the practice we’ve been sold, because we love our jobs, because the teachings are somehow still pure—even though they’ve been chewed up and regurgitated, whispered down some twisted-ass game of “Broken Telephone?” Even though the chain of misuse, abuse, and toxicity is becoming increasingly more apparent?

I won’t, anymore.

I cannot stand with them. I cannot work with them. I cannot practice their yoga.

Anjali Mudra: Truth as Prayer

It has taken me almost a year to write this, in the same way it took me years to speak up about what I disagreed with as I continued to teach class after class. I’ve finally stopped feeling shame for that. I now understand that a blindness can set in when you’re part of an enmeshed community (much like a toxic relationship, or a cult). An absurd loyalty casts itself around you that can be increasingly difficult to peel off. In fact, this loyalty has remained so ingrained that even after the personal backlash and ostracization I received, I’ve still stayed quiet. I still protected others over myself. I still claimed a watered-down version of the truth, “disagreement” or “wanting to do my own thing,” when asked why I don’t teach at my former studio anymore.

My silence has been partly out of fear, partly out of guilt for my previous complacency, and partly out of just trying to “be the better person.” But it’s imperative to my own healing, my own growth, and the debt I feel to my former students, to tell the truth.  I’ve spent many days since I quit in deep grief over the friends and the amazing students I no longer see or teach—and many more in debilitating guilt for any harm I may have caused in my participation in a system that I no longer agree with.

I want to be clear here that I’m not knocking every aspect of yoga, spirituality, or wellness. IF want to be clear that this is my truth, my experience, and my current conclusions which, though it should go without saying, are subject to further understanding, conversation, knowledge, and change. And I also want to be clear that I believe Western yoga is an empire built on power, period. There is endless work to do to dismantle that.

My yoga training, above all else, unlocked my voice. I will never forget the first yoga class I taught: the energy behind the call of the opening, “Inhale, reach up.” The awe as I watched a sea of bodies move and breath in succession at my command. The adrenaline rush of the music, the Spirit in the room, the flow. It was an absolute high like I’d never experienced before. Power tends to be.

Yet, nothing has been more powerful than the betrayal that I’ve experienced in the yoga world—the way it has strengthened my courage, my integrity, and my voice. This has been my initiation from victim, from needing to be saved and to belong somewhere, to leader. The solid strength I’ve accessed, rooted in my personal truth and my belonging to myself, to God, to Divinity. And to a deep commitment to my mission: to liberate others and create a safe space for anyone who has ever felt like they don’t belong. To live my life this way—not just make a slogan out of it.

I have the absolute blessing to still know the love and friendship of so many incredible yoga teachers and healers of different modalities, who are full of integrity and the kind of love that heals. I’m continuing to stand with them and find my own translation of all that I’ve learned, to root my knowledge and experience within my personal integrity, and to practice self-sovereignty.

It’s time that we begin to discover the difference between inspired by and instructed by. The difference between being gassed up and gaslighted. The knowing of who has our best interest in mind, and who’s just running a business.

Arms By Your Side, Shoulders Rolled Back, Heart Open

What does it mean to be self-sovereign?

It’s much trickier than handing the reigns and rules over to someone else. Believe me; I’ve tried. What it doesn’t mean is that we leave ourselves off the hook.

Self-sovereignty means being present to both our longings and our shortcomings, the ways we love ourselves, and the ways we’d love to improve ourselves. It means learning to be extremely self-discerning. Honest and ruthless with yourself and your truth. Wellness bottles up self-love and sells it on shelves, but the most real form of self-love? Holding yourself accountable.

To be as clear as I can be on the intent of this essay, I’ll put it explicitly here: we need to be more f*cking discerning. It is essential that we notice where we’re giving our power away to others, to objects, and to answers—and take it back. That doesn’t mean you should adopt my truth and position without a second thought; it means you should spend time discerning your own personal beliefs, values, and integrity.

If the crystals in your pockets change your life, I’m in full support, sis. I just want you to decide for yourself.

I’ve felt so achingly alone that I’ve paid thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of my life to teachers who told me if I listened and did what they said, they would make it all better.

I’ve told my secrets to strangers who promised they could hold them, who promised a tribe for life, and then spit them back in my face when it suited them.

I’ve stayed in places that felt uncomfortable because I tuned too far into what others told me was true, right, and important—battling the underbelly of my being that wanted to scream and thrash and run the other way.

And I’m better for it.

I’ve found trust in myself, deeply now, even and especially when others are telling me I’m not ready to. I belong to myself again, not to anyone or anything else. And I’m better for it because I know what it means to be a leader, a teacher. To listen to the call of my truth, its cry like a second heartbeat inside of me—sometimes a steady thud, sometimes a soft whisper, always a voice that sounds an awful lot like come home.

[I also want to eternally express my gratitude for every person that has come to me since I stopped teaching and shared their own misgivings, discomfort, or uncertainty around yoga classes, studios, or training. It has helped me heal; it has helped me feel less alone. It has made my grief worth it.

And finally, again, I want to extend my deepest, most sincere apology for the ways that I, too, have further maintained these insidious values, the ways my own practice and teachings forgot the truth of yoga (and more importantly, my personal truth) out of ease and comfort. This piece is my commitment and my accountability to a new way.]

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author: Lizz Dawson

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