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The great commercialization conversation is moving out of the yoga blogosphere and into… the yoga studio. This weekend marks the grand opening celebration of Down Under Yoga in Newtonville, Massachusetts and the festivities include sample classes, nibbles and a summit entitled “Balancing Acts: Poses, Products, and the Future of Yoga in America.’’

Studio founder Justine Wiltshire Cohen has invited leading Boston-area teachers, including Natash Rizopoulos and Patricia Walden, to the summit, which will be focused on the commercialization of yoga. “Everyone is afraid to talk about the white elephant in the yoga room,” Justine said in an article in The Boston Globe (she obviously doesn’t hang out in the yoga blogosphere, where nobody is afraid of any white, pink or blue elephant).

The article notes that the Down Under “website makes it clear where [Justine] stands on the question. ‘We believe that yoga studios should act in ways that are consistent with the teachings of yoga,’ it says. ‘We will never sell plastic water bottles that go into landfills [because ahimsa means ‘do no harm’]. We will never sell $150 yoga pants [because aparigraha means ‘identifying greed’]. We will never accept offers from companies to promote their gear in exchange for free publicity or products (because satya means “truthfulness’’). We will never brand, trademark, or pretend we’ve made up a new style of yoga.'”

It will be interesting to see what comes out of this conversation. I wish I could be there, to hear these respected and knowledgable teachers discuss this in an open forum. It’s a rare opportunity to hear these issues discussed by experienced teachers, without being filtered by the media (or bloggers).

And speaking of the media, The Boston Globe article contains some interesting tidbits, including a quote from Yoga Journal editor-in-chief in regards to Judith Hanson Lasater’s infamous letter: “We also need to run a commercial venture… We are Americans and one thing Americans do is shop and like nice things. And one of the ways we identify ourselves is having a certain look. The yoga industry does support our desire to create self-identity through what we wear or what we purchase.’’

As well, the journalist takes a low blow at Anusara Yoga, singling it out as a “particularly irksome” brand of yoga and referencing the recent NYT profile of John Friend. It’s unclear if this was a paraphrasing of a comment by the Down Under Yoga founder, or if it was the only example of branded yoga that the journalist could find.

What direction will the future of yoga take? And are we willing to follow the trajectory, or take the next exit?

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As promised, the Toronto yoga community gathered together last week to discuss the unwieldy and far-ranging topic of yoga teacher standards, regulations and expectations (see my earlier post). The Yocoto (Yoga Community Toronto) organizers graciously recorded the conversation and posted the audio on YouTube. Click on the above link for the introduction, and then hop over to either the Yocoto website (for a nice flowing playlist) or YouTube to listen to the 11 part conversation in its entirety. It’s about 2.5 hours long, so make a pot of tea, sit in a comfortable chair and get out your notebook.

Many senior teachers, studio owners and teacher trainers, along with newly minted teachers, had something to say about the integrity of teaching yoga. They spoke with passion and intelligence, and truly from their hearts. There were many threads in the conversation, and it seems like more questions were raised than answered. What does it mean to be a yoga teacher? What are we standardizing? And if we’re going to have standards, what are they based on? Another thread that emerged was the realization that as professionals, if yoga teachers don’t self-regulate, they run the risk of being regulated by external forces.

This conversation was really just the seed, rather than a solution. The closest thing to a conclusion was that dialogue, discussion and community are first and foremost, before standards and certification. Also, it’s important to have this discussion while respecting different lineages and traditions. Read the rest of this entry »

So it looks like the Wall Street Journal has also become obsessed with yoga, following on the heels of the NY Times’ yoga blitz last month. After last week’s lululemon story, another article about yoga turned up on their Speakeasy blog yesterday – Stefanie Syman, author of The Subtle Body, with an analysis and history lesson on the commercialization of  yoga.

Like “Star Wars” or Matisse, the merchandising, advertising, and profiteering of yoga has run the full gamut, from action figures to deluxe vacations to how-to-books that apply yoga to almost every human endeavor…

Now, there’s nothing left to exploit. But before you condemn any number of culprits (shareholders, American materialism, craven gurus, cynical marketers), you better understand that this process took some time — a century in fact — and yoga’s most committed followers have hurried it along. (via WSJ Speakeasy blog)

She notes that the early American practitioners were from families with money and that the first time yoga was used to sell something non-yoga-related was a 1963 7-Up ad in Life Magazine. Basically, what I hear her saying in this post is “yoga in the west has always been commercialized, what’s the big deal?” Like much of Stefanie’s writing and yoga commentary, I find this piece to be complacent (she also told Well+GoodNYC, “What I find more surprising is how much Sturm und Drang ads like ToeSox and Girls in Yoga Pants stir up. Isn’t it pretty obvious that a sustained yoga practice has nothing to do with either of these cultural instances, that women’s sexuality will long be exploited to move merchandise, and that the best thing to do is to ignore them?”).

However, this article did make me pause to reflect on my stance against the commercialization of yoga, and why I feel compelled to monitor and write about it. I realized that my anti-commercialization views aren’t fueled by nostalgia (believing that yoga used to be much less commercialized or market driven) or a desire for purity (I don’t consider myself a yoga purist at all ~ mainly because I don’t believe that there is such a thing as a “pure yoga”).

I realized that I resist the commercialization of yoga because I resist the commercialization of everything. I don’t believe that yoga deserves special treatment; I believe that the commercialization of everything, from food to sex to art, is unhealthy for people and our world.

Read the rest of this entry »

A yoga class in a Washington DC lulu store (via washingtontimes.com)

According to a Wall Street Journal article, yoga-inspired clothing manufacturer lululemon is employing unconventional and inexpensive marketing strategies. While other fitness-wear lines (especially multinational sports shoe brands) pay crazy money for big name celebrities to push their lines, lululemon appoints community ambassadors and doesn’t pay for them, instead giving them $1000 worth of product and inviting them to teach for free in their stores. This is, apparently, a very radical thing to do in the fitness apparel industry.

Analysts say they are particularly impressed that Lululemon eschews the traditional marketing strategy of hiring high-priced sports celebrities to model its outfits. Lululemon spends almost nothing on advertising beyond occasional print ads in yoga and running magazines.

Instead, it recruits the type of athlete who tends to influence active women: fitness instructors who lead yoga, spinning, Pilates and running classes. The cost of this stealth strategy—Lululemon declines to call it marketing campaign—is minimal.

Lululemon provides apparel stipends of varying amounts to local fitness stars who model the apparel not only in their regular classes but also in sessions held inside Lululemon stores. [via wsj.com]

It seems to be working and lululemon is cashing in on the $15 billion market for women’s fitness clothing. The article gave us some stats, which I don’t understand, as proof: “Lululemon posted second-quarter earnings of 30 cents per share, far above the 24-cents-a-share mean estimate of analysts and more than double the 13 cents a share posted in last year’s quarter. The earnings gain came on a 56% rise in revenue, and a 31% boost in sales at stores open more than a year.”

News to me: lululemon only runs “occasional” print ads in a handful of yoga and running magazines. Basically, they have eschewed traditional advertising strategies in favour of getting into the local community and marketing through word of mouth and local influencers.

What I find interesting about this is that while lululemon is basically operating on a grassroots model, the rest of the yoga industry is operating on the big sports brands model (think: Seane Corn for Lucy, a number of teachers for Manduka/Jade yoga mats, everything that YAMA promises, the list goes on…). I don’t know how much a high-priced yoga celebrity would cost, but I assume it’s much more than the $1000 stipend that lululemon gives its community ambassadors.

Image via howtobecomeayogainstructor.com ~ yes, seriously.

If you want to become a yoga teacher, there are no shortage of training programs offering certification. Most urban studios offer a 200-hour Yoga Alliance registered training. You can get a generic YogaFit® training in no particular tradition. You can do a convenient online training program with Sadie Nardini, via streaming video/audio, newletters and downloadable PDFs. Or, if you’re in New York City, you can train with Tara Stiles to become a Strala Yoga-certified teacher in one month ~ 20 hours of workshop time for $2,500.

But the standards and quality of certification are inconsistent – and out of line with how yoga has been historically taught (“chest to chest,” through the relationship between teacher and student, and by personal, intimate experience). The yoga community in Toronto is getting together on September 30 to discuss the political and ethical issues around yoga training and standards. Some of the questions they will be asking: What does it take to become a teacher of yoga? What does the typical Yoga Teacher Training currently qualify one to do? Has business and profit taken over our tradition of passing on yoga and training teachers? What are the pitfalls of trying to regulate teacher training across lineages and traditions? Can we actually come up with regulations in a tradition with so many different points of view?

This is a conversation that reaches beyond Toronto and is relevant to yoga communities around North America. And based on what I saw at Geoffrey Wiebe’s Yoga Festival Toronto talk (which sparked the impetus for this event), it strikes a nerve in teachers and potential teachers. I asked Yoga Community Toronto mobilizers Matthew Remski and Scott Petrie to tell me a little more about their intention for this community conversation. Here’s what they had to say:

YTT has become an industry before our very eyes.  The number of programs and ubiquity of graduates would make it seem as though we were collectively training an army for some new and brighter tomorrow.  But really, there’s little cultural cohesion within the project of transmitting yogic knowledge.  And that’s because studios and lineages are doing their trainings based on business rather than communal models.  Business models by nature are limited in heritage and scope and sustainability.  But how else could it work here?  We’re not surprised, but wonder if there’s something better.  We would prefer that yoga not be used to polish the madding crowds of consumer culture. Read the rest of this entry »

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