A packed room at Yoga to the People (image: nytimes.com)

A recent  NY Times article profiles a new movement in yoga ~ donation-based classes. They profiled Yoga to the People, which is apparently at the forefront of this movement. Here’s what they had to say:

Yoga is definitely big business these days. A 2008 poll, commissioned by Yoga Journal, concluded that the number of people doing yoga had declined from 16.5 million in 2004 to 15.8 million almost four years later. But the poll also estimated that the actual spending on yoga classes and products had almost doubled in that same period, from $2.95 billion to $5.7 billion.

“The irony is that yoga, and spiritual ideals for which it stands, have become the ultimate commodity,” Mark Singleton, the author of “Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice,” wrote in an e-mail message this week. “Spirituality is a style, and the ‘rock star’ yoga teachers are the style gurus.”

Well, maybe it is the recession, but some yogis are now saying “Peace out” to all that. There’s a brewing resistance to the expense, the cult of personality, the membership fees. At the forefront of the movement is Yoga to the People, which opened its first studio in 2006 in the East Village on St. Marks Place, with a contribution-only, pay-what-you-can fee structure. The manifesto is on the opening page of its Web site, yogatothepeople.com: “There will be no correct clothes, There will be no proper payment, There will be no right answers … No ego no script no pedestals.”

One more thing: There are no “glorified” teachers or star yogis. You can’t even find out who is teaching which class when, or reserve a spot with a specific instructor. [Yoga’s New Wave, NY Times]

As most of you know, I am a big fan of donation-based – or “pay-what-you-can,” “contribution-based,” or as I prefer, “pay-what-you-wish” – yoga (read just how subversive and awesome I think it is here). I am all for dismantling the dominant hegemony of rock star teachers, expensive class fees and designer clothes/accessories/products. However, I’m not convinced that YTTP (which, with studios in NYC, Berkeley and San Francisco, is evolving into a bit of a franchise),  offers a better model.

Their “manifesto” sounds good in theory ~ but my understanding of it changed when I actually experienced one of their classes in NYC last month. As I noted, the final effect was “discount” yoga, complete with fluorescent lighting and classic rock radio, rather than the DIY proletariat experience I had expected. After reading this article, I now know where the problem lies:

High volume is the key to [YTTP founder Greg Gumucio’s] business model — he says up to 900 people may go to a Yoga to the People studio in a single day, with perhaps half of them paying at least something in the form of a donation — as well as an important part of his overall philosophy. “I truly believe if more people were doing yoga, the world would be a better place,” he said.

Sure, more people doing yoga is a good thing, but herding hundreds of them through a rotation of anonymous teachers in crowded studio classes… how does that improve the world? Especially when the spirituality, teacher-student relationship and, in my experience, quality are sacrificed in the name of economy.

I believe in the power and potential of accessible yoga, making it affordable, welcoming and available to anybody. I also believe in resisting the rock star teachers and lifestyle spirituality. I’m just not convinced that Yoga to the People – with their factory farm business model, franchising and general banality – offers a viable antidote. My feeling is that if donation-based yoga is to become a real movement, a real force that will subvert the dominant economic model, it needs to start at the grassroots, with skilled, qualified and committed teachers, who nurture community and communicate the whole story of yoga. A Bikram-esque hot yoga workout in a crowded studio isn’t going to cut it – no matter how inexpensive the classes are.

See also: Otherground NY: The People’s Yoga