According to Roar Magazine, 2013 was “another year in a deepening cycle of crisis and revolt …a year that gave both reason to hope and reason to despair.” On a global scale, the world saw uprisings and protests, political upheaval and extreme weather.
The yoga world, to some extent, reflected what happened in the culture at large. The North American yoga community experienced its own uprisings, upheaval and changing climates. Some, like the growing yoga service movement and increased dialogue about anti-oppression and social engagement, give us reason to hope; other things, such as sex scandals, increased commercialization and neoliberal co-option, are cause for despair.
Just before the dawn of 2013, Yoga Journal released a study stating that 20 million Americans practice yoga – a 29 percent increase since the previous study, published in 2008. With this increase in practitioners came an increase in consumption as well: Americans spent $10.3 billion a year on yoga classes and products, including equipment, clothing, vacations and media – almost double the $5.7 million per year in 2008.
As we launched into this bold new year, it was clear that yoga was bigger and badder than ever.
2013 was just barely out of the gate when John Friend, less than a year after allegations of sexual and physical misconduct against him, announced his new style of yoga, Shri Daiva. Another fallen yoga angel, Kausthub Desikachar took advantage of the “new year, new you” thing to break his own four-month silence after women laid charges against him for psychological, physical and sexual abuse. He went on to rebrand and relaunch his teaching career in April.
Yoga, business and ethics collided in January when the online yoga community learned that Yoga Journal had ignored an international boycott of Hyatt hotels in order to hold their San Francisco conference. For the first time in the history of yoga in North America, yoga practitioners demonstrated in solidarity with hotel workers and met with labour organizers.
IAYB proudly broke this story, which caught the attention of YJ conference presenters like Seane Corn and Shiva Rea. Both A-list teachers and self-described activists declared that they wouldn’t teach at the 2014 conference if it was held at the Hyatt. The story was covered by Intent.com, elephant journal, and local SF media, and brought to a head the yoga and politics conversation that had been bubbling for the previous few years.
The Hyatt Boycott ended in July 2013 when the company and the union worked out a new contract. Practitioners can attend the 2014 conference in peace. I hold the small hope that yogis who attend any yoga (or other) conference in high-end hotels have an increased awareness of the working conditions of the people who clean their rooms.
The dramatic response to the story signaled an awakening of social justice concerns in the yoga community. The Hyatt story lead to the launch of Decolonizing Yoga, a virtual meeting place of social justice and spirituality that highlights “the voices of queer people, people of color, disability activists and more in relationship to yoga and countering oppression in general.”
So far, the Decolonizing Yoga community is an active Facebook page (over 10,000 fans, updated daily with articles and macros), but there is much potential here for a valuable educational resource.
2013 also saw other voices of diversity rise up and speak out. SAAPYA (South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America) challenged the white dominant hegemony of mainstream yoga in North America and has some big plans to raise the profile of South Asians in the yoga community. The grassroots organization hosted a couple of successful panels and intend to broaden their work with “led cultural awareness workshops, trainings, and panels to increase best practices around integration of South Asian cultural production and theology in yoga studios, yoga publications, and yoga accreditation bodies.”
Lululemon dominated the yoga headlines once again this year. An early spring see-through pants scandal, which caught the attention of every major media outlet, was the beginning of a rough year for the brand. Lululemon took no responsibility for the flub, instead inciting a “black yoga pants shortage” scare and blaming the factory that made the pants for the low quality. This scandal cost Lululemon a decline in sales and a class action law suit from shareholders.
The bad press continued when the Huffington Post interviewed former employees and revealed how fat-shaming is a key part of Lululemon’s marketing strategy. Of course, these transgressions follow years of unethical and shady behaviour from the brand which has, unfortunately, become synonymous with yoga in North America. Lululemon has repeatedly been caught lying to customers and cutting corners.
But the real tipping point took place towards the end of the year, when founder Chip Wilson told a TV news reporter that women’s bodies were to blame for the clothing line’s poor performance. While the child labour, dishonest marketing and Ayn Rand-infused company culture did little to wake Lulu consumers out of their slumber, a comment about women’s thighs got everyone riled up, leading to ambassador resignations, a Change.org online petition, and Wilson’s resignation from the position of chairman of the board (whatever that means – he really hasn’t been in a position of power for a while, and definitely won’t be allowed to talk to the media on behalf of the company; but he will always be the founder, nobody can take away that title).
In the midst of this PR mess, a new CEO stepped into power, replacing Christine Day. Laurent Potdevin, former president of TOMS shoes, and time will only tell what this change in leadership will hold for the company.
Chip Wilson’s comments and the aforementioned allegations against both John Friend and Kausthub Desikachar point to a climate of misogyny in modern yoga culture. In 2013, revelations emerged against another powerful man in North American yoga: Bikram Choudhury was was sued for harassment and sexual discrimination by a former student. No stranger to the legal system, or yoga scandals, Choudhury is better known for suing people rather than being sued. But with this lawsuit, other women came forward with stories of harassment and inappropriate actions.
On the heels of these public accusations and abuses of power, one man spoke out in favour of yoga teachers having the right to sleep with their students. Cameron Shayne, the founder of a yoga/martial arts hybrid, Budokon, confessed to having “engaged in deep and meaningful intimate relationships” with his female students in a rambling blog post on Rebelle Society. He asked, “Should we as yoga teachers, and others as yoga students be restricted or limited regarding our sexual partnerships in order to accommodate the beliefs of others?”
At the heart of his argument was that consenting adults have an equal amount of choice and power, and therefore, if they feel attracted to each other, should have the right to act on it. He put forward his own vision of power relations and oppression, boldly proclaiming that any “rules” prohibiting teacher-student relationships are morally oppressive. He advocated for yoga teachers to “establish their own code of ethics, rather than obeying social law and/or policy.”
Unintentionally, Shayne articulated a shadow in yoga culture that enables predatory behaviour and disregard of social mores by leading teachers. Not surprisingly, his post unleashed a huge conversation that had been boiling under the surface of modern yoga, with many more people speaking out in favour of his revision than against it.
Okay, ooof, enough scandal and controversy! There were other things going on this year that deserve attention. In no particular order, here are some things in the world of yoga that inspire hope in this little blogger:
Yoga a bright light in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing: YogaHOPE responded to the trauma in the city with yoga classes, mobilizing and displaying the value of trauma-sensitive yoga for everyone.
The consent conversation went mainstream: after Kula Annex in Toronto launched specially designed “yes” or “no” cards in their studio, a wide-ranging discussion sparked about appropriate touch in yoga classes. With all these pervy dudes teaching yoga, this conversation is more important than ever.
Yoga publishing weathered changes: as a former yoga magazine editor, I love keeping track of what’s happening in the tiny yoga publishing scene. Yoga Journal coasted along without an editor-in-chief for most of the year, after Kaitlin Quistgaard stepped down in the spring, and finally hired a former senior editor of SELF to step into the chief leadership role. The magazine also quietly made a move from San Francisco to Boulder, likely for economic reasons (less expensive, home of parent company AIM Media), but also denoting, perhaps, that the west coast is no longer the epicentre of yoga in North America. In other yoga media news, Yoga International cut their print edition and launched a dynamic online platform (while getting slapped with a patent lawsuit from YogaGlo) and Origin boldly launched a glossy shiny print publication, Mantra, even though the print industry has been going through tumultuous changes for years (but hey, those 20 million yoga practitioners gotta read something, right?).
The Smithsonian opened a groundbreaking exhibition, Yoga: The Art of Transformation: not only did the museum bring historical pieces of significant yoga art to North America, but it was paid for in part by a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign. 2013, where ancient art and practices meet modern forms of communication/funding.
Yoga selfies took over the Internet: the Oxford Dictionary proclaimed “selfie” as the word of the year. However, yoga instagram stars were all over that before it became a thing. Quite possible that selfies were made for ambitious yoga internet stars, who garnered coverage in the NY Times Magazine. While the direction of yoga in North America appears to be going in a more holistic, engaged, aware and anti-oppressive direction, lest we forget that there is a solid bedrock of narcissism and individualism in Western incarnations of the practice, to keep us doing what we’re doing.
As we stand perched on the edge of 2014, we wonder if yoga will be a solace from increasing crisis and revolt, and how practitioners can balance hope and despair in themselves, their practice, and the world around them. We can only see what this fresh, new year has in store for us all.