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Where's Waldo?: John Friend guides a workshop into Warrior 1 (image via nytimes.com)

The latest (and apparently longest and most detailed) New York Times article on yoga came out this week, with a special focus on John Friend and the Anusara Yoga system. The article can best be described as a loose profile of John Friend, an exposé of Anusara, and an investigation into the state of yoga in North America, and as somebody observed on Facebook, it’s “not uncritical.” John Friend’s work is introduced as:

…his global Anusara expansion (Studio Yoggy, one of the biggest yoga-school chains in Japan, will be offering Anusara yoga classes); his Anusara publishing ventures (he has commissioned a history of yoga and continues to work on his own book, albeit sporadically); and his Anusara yoga-wear business (Friend has his own line, but also works with Adidas, which is using Anusara yoga trainers in its worldwide yoga push). He is also financing historical yoga research in Nepal and Kashmir. (NYT)

Stefanie Syman, the author of ‘The Subtle Body,’ offers commentary on John Friend’s celebrity status. “He has created his own community very self-consciously. Most charismatic teachers do that. What happens is if you are successful deliberately or inadvertently, a lot of students evangelize on your behalf and spread the word.”

Mimi Swartz, the author of the article looks at “the cult of John” and lightly compares him to “Joel Osteen, the magnetic evangelical megachurch minister with the feel-good message and a book-and-television empire.” As well, Anusara Yoga is placed within the current cultural context:

Some 16 million Americans now practice yoga, a 5,000-year-old mental, physical and spiritual discipline brought to us by Indian gurus. Nowadays there aren’t just hourly classes in major American cities but also in places like Deephaven, Minn., and Hattiesburg, Miss. “Namaste,” the traditional end-of-class blessing, has become a punch line. A school in Houston even offers “jello shots” after class. If yoga began as a meditation technique for people all too familiar with physical as well as mental suffering — with poses, or asanas, devised to assist in reaching a transcendentally blissful state — it has taken on a distinctly American cast. It has become much more about doing than being. More about happiness than meaning. It’s a weight-loss technique and a stress-management tool, a gateway to an exploding market for workout clothes and equipment.

In addressing some criticism of Anusara Yoga as being too capitalist, too culty, Swartz also notes that “yoga has become embroiled in head-of-a-pin type arguments. In yoga’s case it centers on authenticity. The fight over whether it is a spiritual or a physical practice has raged virtually since its inception, but now in the United States this question has been tinted with issues of competition, status and sweat.”

The article has generated a buzz in the blogosphere, with an outpouring of commentary by senior Anusara teachers such as Christina Sell and Olga Rasmussen. Many commentors on Facebook find that John Friend and Anusara Yoga are misrepresented. One thing for certain: the article taps into the complexity of yoga in North America, and the fascinating place in which yoga currently resides. Read the rest of this entry »

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Prime advertising real estate (image via flavorwire.com)

Last week’s corporate-sponsored Yoga at the Great Lawn event in NYC has been attracting quite a bit of press. Yesterday’s NYT blog article took a look at the corporate angle of the event.  “This would have never happened without corporate support,” said Sascha Lewis, a co-founder of FlavorPill, the NYC cultural guide which organized the event.

It was advertised as a free class, and as such needed corporate sponsorship. The distributed mats (which every registered person was supposed to receive) were branded with the JetBlue logo, a small gesture which in fact positions yoga mats as desirable retail space. adidas, which didn’t appear on the official literature but had a presence, since the event’s primary teacher, Elena Brower, is an adidas yoga ambassador (and is apparently making efforts to help adidas deliver their sustainability yoga wear line ~ I thought their previous ambassador accomplished that task…)

On the one hand, it’s great that this event happened and so many people, especially first-timers, were able to experience yoga in a grand setting. However, given the scope and ambition of the event, I have to question the intention behind these corporate interests in yoga. They claim they want to bring yoga to as many people as possible, but I’m not entirely convinced that’s their main interest.

The event accomplished the feat of being the largest yoga class ever recorded, even though there wasn’t much of a class. The practice was cancelled shortly after it started, due to the rain, and the disappointed practitioners lugged “their soggy JetBlue yoga mats and their SmartWater bottles and their ChicoBags filled with a few goodies” (according to the NYT blog post) out of the park.

“The yoga community is now merrily two-stepping the American way, with corporate logos,” observed the NYT blog. It then went on to ask if this was even a bad thing. Given the culture that yoga has landed in, it certainly seems inevitable. But there are ways to cross the line. At the Yoga at the Great Lawn event, Well+GoodNYC noted, “A single row of Who’s Who yoga teachers like Sadie Nardini, Sarita Lou, and Duncan Wong sat like Adidas-branded Buddhas, all in matching white tanks.” The shiny yoga elite, dressed alike in their branded uniforms… it’s kind of a creepy picture.

I wonder, do we have to do this dance? We all know it’s a dance. You really can’t convince me that, other then sponsoring an event with a guaranteed captive audience of 10,000, do these companies embody yogic values? JetBlue would like to co-opt the openness and transparency associated with yoga by guaranteeing “no blackout dates, no seat restrictions” on its frequent-flier program. It’s nice of adidas to sponsor a high-profile yoga teacher,  offer free yoga classes around the world and develop a line of sustainable yoga wear ~ but its other business practices include endorsing the slaughter of kangaroos (an endangered species) in Australia and sweatshops in Asia. Can we separate these actions from its endorsement of yoga?

Elena Brower indicates that “the notion that capitalism and yoga are in conflict is old-think. ‘The companies are making it possible for all these thousands of people to have this experience. This is what we need,'” she said. I’m going to step forward and say that I’m pretty old-school in being skeptical of corporate motivations for sponsoring large scale yoga events, and I’d prefer to create community from a grassroots level, and introduce people to yoga without having to woo them with free branded mats and bottled water.

Okay y’all, check this out: during a Jan 18 appearance on a San Francisco television show (which I can’t seem to embed; click here to watch the full video), Rainbeau Mars demonstrated an immunity boosting yoga routine – then shamelessly plugged her Adidas Yoga strappy shoe things. It happens during the last minute, so you have to watch 6 minutes and 24 seconds of a yoga demonstration on the two television show hosts, who dangerously attempt to practice without warming up and while wearing socks. People, do not try this at home!

It’s more than a little painful to watch. After they finish up the routine and discuss an immunity boosting soup recipe, the following conversation occurs:

TV show host: Now if i wear those yoga shoes, will my yoga moves be better?
Rainbeau: … yeah, sure… they’re like little grips. I got adidas to go sustainable, so this is my signature sustainable thing.

So what do y’all think? Is it ethical for a yoga teacher to plug her products on television? Is this a service or disservice? And will the right yoga shoes improve our “yoga moves”? Let’s hear your thoughts!

800px-Rainbow-diagram-ROYGBIV.svgYou might remember that there was a secret post from Rainbeau Mars last week, which was live for a few hours then removed on Rainbeau’s request. Well, here it is, slightly edited but in all its full glory! I thought that we were pretty much done with this Rainbeau/Adidas Yoga thing, but the comments continue to trickle in and I think this conversation can continue in more directions. So check out what Rainbeau has to say… and I’d love to hear your thoughts. What role do brands play in your life? In your yoga practice? How do you choose and take responsibility for what you consume? Let’s hand it over to Rainbeau (and y’all be nice to her this time).

Hmmm – Well many of you said you need no brand to do yoga…and I agree whole heartedly – but at the same time I question the reality of life without brands as some of the yogis here seem to be requiring.  Yoga to me is the depth of going inside so far, that we come back out again and realize that it’s all one big reflection. We get feedback about ourselves from this holographic experience and vice versa.

Branding Yoga

Some thoughts about brands when it comes to our exercise routines:  Les Milles, Pilates, Bikram, Power, Gaiam, Ashtanga (Mr Jois himself) or Iyengar (after his own name), right? This was along the same line that Adidas felt there was room for a sporty variation for those die hard Adidas fans that otherwise, may have never made it into a yoga room. Their mission is to walk side by side with their athletes and give them the tools they need to do whatever they do. How cool is it that Yoga has grown enough for even these major soccer moguls, to say “You know what? Everyone seems to be hopping on the ‘fastest growing sport is yoga’ bandwagon and we recognize it as one as well and will bring it to more people, including our very own athletes.”

Do you buy no name/brand foods or do you occasionally trust what High Country Kombucha, or Guayaki Yerba Mate, H20m, Zico, Fila has to offer? Hass Avocados, Evolution juices, Celestial, Yogi teas? Do you trust Whole Foods or choose your local Coop or grow your own? Do you drive an American car or do you trust the safety of Mercedes? If you choose to bike it (props!), is there a brand you trust more? When you wear clothes which do you choose, Prana, Lululemon, Lucy, or do you make your own? Do you go to U2 Concert and buy a T-shirt?

I totally understand and respect your right to not choose Adidas Yoga, which just happened in the last few years (it’s actually ra’yoKa which is still the name I created out of my right for free expression). I also respect your choice to do whatever you are so drawn to do or not. I feel we have to ask ourselves what’s really important about any of it, and in that, we may find many of our “need to be right” thoughts that were so justified, simply may fall away… In the fact that we are all headed in the same direction, but at different times and paces – can we try to look for and find the similarities within each other and our selected choices? I hope you can respect the people that actually feel safer about trusting a certain person or even company with what they choose to spend their time or money on. Read the rest of this entry »

Image from John Philps' doc 'Yoga Inc.'

Image from John Philps' doc 'Yoga Inc.'

So, astute readers out there may have noticed that earlier today I had posted (another) response from Rainbeau Mars. But I removed it, on Rainbeau’s request, because she was concerned about the typos and coming across as “unintelligent.” It really was just a super long comment that, at the time, I felt was worthy of being a post unto itself.

But I’ve realized that I still have a lot to say about this, and the multitude of insightful and challenging comments from readers have helped inform my thoughts. It’s unfortunate that Rainbeau and her followers felt like they had to defend themselves ~ but it’s also good to have an open venue for criticism and questioning. These kinds of discussions make teachers and high-profile yogis accountable for their actions and choices. All of us regular old yogis need to stand up and ask: What are you endorsing? And who’s endorsing you?

But really, this isn’t about Rainbeau Mars and her colour-coded yoga for pretty girls. This is about the corporatization and branding of a practice that matters a lot to me. This whole conversation has reinforced my already strong anti-corporate stance. I’ve learned that I operate from a fundamental belief that multinational corporations exist to sell things, and they are really only concerned with their products and image. If yoga can help them do this, then they will get behind the practice (and design some sexy products). Read the rest of this entry »

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