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Three flavours of yoga teachers – which would you choose?

The New York Times has once again fixed its gaze on yoga culture, this time with a short profile of Forrest Yoga, the method created by Ana Forrest. While I was reading the article, I couldn’t help but think back to a couple of other recent yoga teacher/style articles in the NYT: last summer’s seminal John Friend feature and the Tara Stiles profile from earlier this year.

The articles vary in depth, focus and length, but after a close reading of all three, I noticed some common themes. Here’s a handy dandy compare and contrast guide to the NYT’s approach to three very different, yet similar, teachers. All text is directly quoted from the NYT articles and everything in italics is my commentary.

Type of yoga teacher
Ana Forrest (AF): itinerant, fierce
John Friend (JF): rock star yogi
Tara Stiles (TS): former model with skyscraper limbs and a goofball sensibility

Name and origin of style
AF: Forrest Yoga – her last name, apparently
JF: Anusara – Sanskrit for “flowing with grace”
TS: Strala – a word she said she and her husband made up, but it turns out to be Swedish for “radiates light”

Description of style
AF: intense
JF: touchy-feely
TS: nondenominational Read the rest of this entry »

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Good yoga journalism always includes a photo of an advanced pose in nature. (image via nytimes.com)

Last week, an obscene number of articles about yoga appeared in The New York Times (three in one day, in the Sunday, July 25 paper). Even people outside of the yoga blogging community seemed to notice it. “Why is the New York Times so obsessed – and confused – about yoga?” asked Paul Raeburn on the Knight Science Journalism Tracker (he followed up with another post tracking the NYT obsession). Good question! He astutely observed that “the Times, whenever it encounters yoga, seems ready to pounce on the entrepreneur-charlatan, or the spiritually inclined numbskull, or the 20-something fashion victim.” This prompted a summary – although no response or retort – on The Atlantic Wire.

Here’s a list of the articles that appeared in the paper in the past weeks (dates refer to online publication):

While the NY Times’ yoga coverage seemed to have reached some cosmic climax last week, it was only slightly more obsessive than usual. A quick glance at the NY Times Topics page for the subject of Yoga reveals 224 articles published since the beginning of time – or at least since the mid-90s, which is when the NY Times and the rest of the world really started paying attention to yoga.

Since the beginning of 2010 alone, the NY Times has covered donation-based yoga, “entertainment” yoga in hotels and resorts, and the ethics of yoga practice and food (especially meat, wine and chocolate). Last year, the paper was preoccupied with yoga competitions, Lululemon (repeatedly), the yoga regulation debate, and doga. The paper is especially fascinated by the marketing and commodification of the practice.

“The irony is that yoga, and spiritual ideals for which it stands, have become the ultimate commodity,” the paper quoted Mark Singleton, the author of Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, as saying in the April 23 article on donation-based yoga. “Spirituality is a style, and the ‘rock star’ yoga teachers are the style gurus.” And in a gesture of even greater irony, the article itself appeared in the Fashion & Style section of the paper. Read the rest of this entry »

At the Village Anusara at Wanderlust (image via Twitpic)

This week, the yoga universe was ablaze with talk about last week’s NY Times article about John Friend. Unless you were living in a cave, meditating on a mountain top or camping in the bush, you’ve most likely heard and read about it. But the barrage of information can be a bit overwhelming, and you may be confused by all the responses and responses to responses and reactions.

So I’ve gathered up the cream of the crop, the most reliable information out there, and present them here in chronological order. Enjoy!

My Immediate Reaction to the NYT Article on Anusara and John Friend: Amy Ippoloti ~ as reported in my post on the article, there was “subsequent bloggage” from John Friend’s students. This immediate reaction was particularly impassioned and honest.

John Friend Responds to ‘Yoga Mogul’ Status: YogaDork ~ everyone’s favourite yoga gossip girl (also profiled by the NYT this week) broke the news that John Friend tweeted that he will respond to the article. So much drama that the post required *two* updates, and garnered a long comment from senior Anusara teacher, Elena Brower.

John Friend Responds to the New York Times article: John Friend’s blog ~ which he hasn’t updated since August 2009. John Friend sent a very gracious and clear letter from Europe, addressing “significant falsehoods in the article.” More bloggage ensued, I couldn’t even keep up with it.

Exclusive Interview With John Friend: elephant journal ~ Waylon Lewis shares an email exchange between him and John Friend just days after “what is probably the most popular, prominent article re: yoga in recent history.” It is honest and full of integrity.

And finally A response to John Friend’s response to the NYT magazine feature article: elephant journal ~ Jimmy Gleacher writes a brilliant retort to the whole fiasco, pitting the John Friend article up against another “entrepreneurial guru” the paper was following this week: Snooki, from “Jersey Shore.” He compares their recent Tweets and discovers their similarities. Very accurate and laugh out loud funny.

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 »

A relaxing apres ski yoga sesh (photo: NY Times)

It seems to be yoga week at the NY Times. They’ve sure been devoting a lot of space to yoga lately. The latest, an article in the Feb 7 edition (in a feat of time travel magic!) looks at the increase of yoga classes in hotels and resorts.

Long popular at spas and retreat centers, yoga classes have been spreading to mainstream hotels, resorts and tour operators over the last several years. As the ancient stretching and meditation practice gained popularity, the travel industry began seeing dollar signs in sun salutations. Soon, yoga classes were showing up on the on-demand channels in Hyatts and Marriotts, and at the Kimpton hotel chain mats and straps were available to guests who asked. Spas and resorts began to tweak their yoga programs by hosting weeklong retreats with yoga masters like Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman, who attracted a cultlike following.

Now, with yoga becoming so mainstream, properties from chain hotels to bed-and-breakfasts are looking for new ways to incorporate it into their programs to pique guests’ interest and reach their wallets.

When I read this, my first thought was: jobs. It’s great that these hotels can provide work opportunities for the hoards of YTT graduates. This is one of the undeniably positive aspects of the mainstreaming of yoga: more work for more teachers. I would definitely take an opportunity to teach yoga in a resort setting for a season, and spend my free time snowboarding and hanging out in hot tubs. While I’m aware that most of the clientele may be looking for an apres ski stretch, rather than personal or spiritual growth, teaching them would still be a service.

But as I continued reading the article, I began to feel a little icked out. The article discusses how the travel industry likes to combine yoga with things like wine, skiing and whales (aka, “combo yoga”) to make packages more appealing (and lucrative). Says Kristen Ulmer, of Ski to Live, a retreat focused on the mind-body connection of snow sports:  “We’re a short-attention-span society. Just the yoga isn’t enough to keep us entertained or maybe not even enough of a draw in and of itself.”

Interesting. From spiritual practice to lifestyle to fitness activity… to entertainment? Is this the natural (de)evolution of yoga in the West? What do y’all think?

And for some more NY Times yoga lovin’ check out today’s “Answers from a Yoga Instructor” in the City Room blog. NYC yoga teacher Bryn Chrisman responds to a handful of questions posted by readers earlier this week (which is itself a very revealing indication of the popular perception of yoga… and what people expect from the practice).

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