NYT on yoga’s “new wave”: donation-based yoga

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

  1. this story has really made the rounds of the yoga blogs! I wrote on it also, with a different twist. it’s good to read about your “real” experience with it, lady!

  2. I completely agree. I love the idea of cheaper yoga. I live in Phoenix where we have some LA-type prices and some much more affordable options, and I know that a lot of people are unable to do yoga because of the price. But rock music and rotating teachers do not make a yoga practice. They might be fun, they might be exercise, but they lack the essence, even quality asana essence, of yoga. Thanks for the post!

  3. looking at your posted photo, I would NOT want to be in such a crowded room like that…and another thought just came to me….I totally get the “yoga for the people” concept, no more yogi rock stars, etc etc…..HOWEVER!

    how many of the people going to the classes can AFFORD to pay the normal prices for yoga, $15/class, etc.? are these classes taking away from a small studio who CAN NOT AFFORD to price their classes at $8 or whatever? and if that small studio closes and yoga teachers lose their jobs because cheap yoga put them out of business, then isn’t that a bad thing? I’d honestly rather see people doing YTTP who CAN NOT AFFORD a yoga studio, then the ones who just want a deal.

    I am just thinking about my suburban area where people live in $500,000+ house, drive Hummers, etc., but who go to gyms or park districts for yoga that’s $5/class because they think they are getting a deal over a yoga studio that charges $15/class….see where I’m going with this?

    food for thought….

  4. you know, I agree with you Roseanne. I do think that it would have potential, and perhaps the spirit is in the right place… but they’re trying to change a system without really ‘changing’ it.

    If we’re going to turn this whole ‘yoga as a commodity’ on its head, than we need to approach yoga from a non-consumerist, non-capitalist perspective. By continuing to approach it from ‘how can we make profit, but with cheaper yoga’- it hasn’t left the ‘box’ of capitalism. Which results in the 900 yogis a day, sacrifice of quality for quantity.

    which is what I notice from the various yoga ‘karma’ classes here in Halifax. Gotta step out.

  5. Thanks for this post… I’ve been considering for the last year to change my very small Yoga space into a give-what-u wish format and this has giving me many things to think about. I do feel that Yoga is changing into a business of franchised yoga where the facade is all acceptance, peace, and love … but when u actually take a class there, u realize that it is just “gym” Yoga with teachers trying to make the class as hard as possible and super fit and skinny students not happy till they feel like they have gotten a “work out”. I always thought the first purpose of Yoga was to “un-do” and to help heal and connect the mind and body, not pump u up and sweat till u have to lie on the floor and feel bad or inadequate b/c u can’t hold warrior for 10 minutes.

  6. Ha, now here’s a brilliant idea. Airport yoga. How can this not be a hit with travel being such a stressful experience? Half hour/hour classes for the hurried traveler…yes, yes…built in traffic, captured audience, people with money in their pockets….wait, wait, YogaDawg’s Airport Yoga tm…(hummm, any investors out there???) Franchises now available.


  7. Plus, all that crowding will mean even more overuse of antibiotics creating super-bugs, etc.

    Oh wait…I guess that’s the factory farm model and livestock. Like you said, not much of a difference…

  8. Hi Rosie,
    Nice piece. I am making my first forray unto your comment wall…:)

    I personally am a fan of the pay-what-you-can yoga class, and any model that increases yoga’s accessibility in general. As you point out though, it is so important that such a model respect both teacher and student, as well as the ‘highest purpose of yoga’ and its potential to transform…

    On a smaller scale than YTTP perhaps, the questions of accessibility and community are being tackled together by a seemingly increasing number of studios these days. Beyond the pay-what-you-can and Karma classes, many yoga spaces are also promoting various forms of trades and energy exchanges as a means of increasing accessibility as well as building community, and a deepening practice. Ie, ” trades” are given access to unlimited classes at a studio, in return for services at reception, cleaning. Such exchanges are even built around more specialized skills in some cases. For exacmple, for artists and musicians whose income may fluctuate, some studios have welcomed contributions in the form of performances during classes, as well as donated art work. This is a creative, and affirming way to open up the doors, and also enhance regular students’ experience within the space.

    For participants in such exchanges, this alternative model allows people to get their yoga on, while simultaneously enabling them to connect with, support the growth of their own yoga community, a bonus for those looking to connect deeper even after they step off their mat.

    This kind of investment, to my mind, pays a higher dividend to both studios as well as students, as the “trades” become personally invested in the space (a plus for the studio, as it becomes cared for by an entire community!), and there is room to develop and deepen the relationship to teachers and one’s practice.

    My two cents!

    • hey gen ~ thanks for stopping by! 🙂 i’m really glad you offered your two cents. you’ve brought up many wonderful examples of alternative economic models that are being practiced by yoga spaces and communities. wouldn’t it have been great if NYT had profiled these, instead of just following the easy route of a semi-chain studio in the city?

      in terms of an entirely donation-based studio model, i think that vancouver’s Yoga for the People (not connected to Yoga To the People – note the different preposition) offers a more hopeful example. their mission includes social awareness and community development, while nurturing the student/teacher relationship and offering many different styles of yoga. i’m not sure how they’re doing financially, but i’m very intrigued by what they do. http://www.yogaforthepeople.ca/

  9. more questions than answers….http://lindasyoga.blogspot.com/2010/04/more-questions-than-answers.html

    a little link love, lady!

  10. I’m not sure how I feel about this.

    In theory, I like ‘community classes’ and I do teach a handful, run by the recreation department of my city. The locations are not fancy (school gyms, libraries, etc), but the students get a senior teacher and quality instruction in a medium-sized class (15-20 students). The price for these classes is around $10/class.

    I hesitate to be too critical of the studios. It’s expensive to carry the overhead of rent/electricity/administration and supplies. The studios charge what they do because they need to pay for these expenses and still compensate their teachers fairly. Even the pricey ’boutique’ studios seem to offer ‘Karma Classes’ and some are quite good.

    I doubt anyone (short of the Big Name Teachers) is ‘getting rich’ off of teaching yoga. And I know few yoga teachers who would view that as a ‘goal’. Most of us are teaching because we love it and we want to share yoga. Most full-time teachers are just getting by – happily, and with great love, but this career choice isn’t a gold mine by any means.

  11. girlwarrior – YogaDawg is always lurking and ready to bark, pounce and bite on the yoga scene. Ha ha, love seeing you stir it up so I can relax, do some paintings and get to have a good yogic laugh by reading your blog. Always my best to you, friend…

  12. I definitely agree! I feel like more people are doing yoga nowadays because it is “trendy” to do so, or people just want to shed some extra pounds around their tummies. Doctors have also started prescribing patients with chronic injuries to practice some simple yoga poses daily for therapeutic effects. While yoga does have lots of beneficial aspects for the body, I feel like alot of people are just taking yoga as part of their exercise regime–they’re completely missing the whole spiritual, mind, body, & soul part of it!

    That being said, I think too many people think they can teach yoga just after a few classes. I’ve also heard in one case that one instructor did ONE session of a yoga DVD and started teaching yoga at a local gym. They must understand that yoga is an art and science–misusing it can lead to injuries!

  13. I enjoyed reading your response to last week’s NYTimes article. When I read the original story last week, I had a similar response. While I celebrate both the pay-as-you-wish concept and the shedding of the high-end, celebrity focus that has obscured what yoga is about, I was not sure that a collection of studios that pack in students and offer a teacher grab bag is the remedy. And as much as I respect Led Zeppelin, the idea of rock music intruding on savasana made me sad.

    As a teacher who has spent more than half my life studying and practicing yoga and meditation, the commodification of yoga over the last 10 years has been disappointing. Like Elaine in the above comment, I feel that there are a whole lot of teachers out there with good intentions and very little training. A six-month course–not to mention a weekend course–barely scratches the surface. I’ve been teaching 24 years and I’m continually reminded of how much there is to learn.

    Traditionally, yoga was taught one-on-one. This is because humans do not fit neatly into any formula. We all come to our yoga practice with an infinite variety of acquired physical and psychological patterns and genetic predispositions. Teachers originally taught the whole system, not just asana, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. When you pack 50-100 people into a classroom and teach a set flow series, while it might be a valuable workout, I’m not sure if it serves the spirit of Yoga, which I understand to be not just about your body can or can’t do, but about living your life gracefully.

  14. Wow,Charlotte- what an amazing response. 🙂 And fantastic discussion!

    Roseanne, I hope you don’t mind, but I love the points you’ve brought up and the discussion so much I’ve been spreading your response to my little facebook and twitter yoga world!:)

    • agreed! charlotte’s response is lovely!

      and i don’t mind at all that you’ve been spreading this post around! thanks for the linking love!

      • Thanks so much for bringing up this discussion. If it’s okay, I’d like to send this all out to my FB friends list and yoga list. This was my first time on your blog. Thanks for creating this forum.

      • please do, charlotte! the more the merrier! 🙂

  15. I can tell you that my husband started a Charity/Community based yoga class in September of 2002, and it still continues today. He started this yoga class as a way of turning people on to yoga by making it affordable and giving back to various inner city charites in our city of Calgary, Alberta, CANADA. Everyone pays only $2.00 to attend. We call this class Twoonie Yoga, due to our $2.00 Canadian Twoonie coin. He and other yoga instructor’s volunteer their time to teach this class. To date this class has raised well over $40,000.00, and the energy in charity classes is like no other, people feel good about doing what they can to support charities in their city. The motto is “Get Flexible and Support a Charity” and that’s a good thing!

  16. Yoga to the People experience, in my opinion, is not run off the mill, ‘work out’ you have described in your response to the NYTimes article. Which of their three studios did you ‘work out'(lol) in when you took your single class? I have been an ardent Yoga practioner for the last 5 years, and have tried lots of different Yoga studios in Manhattan, I like variety, and I can honestly say that 85% or so of the instructors I have had class with at the sweaty and sometimes dirty YTTP studios, are devouted Yogis with love for the art and what they do. Sure the 15% are relatively new, inexperienced instructors, but, you gotta start somewhere, and YTTP is a great pilot program for inspiring Yoga instructors. The studios cater to all levels of Yoga experience, so for someone who has been practicing a long time the classes might seem uninspired in comparison to the $20 per session air conditioned, incense burning premium studios. This is not saying the donation classes at YTTP are lacking the Yogic spirit, or the breath work which separates Yoga from a gemnastics/cardio work out. You can’t run a donation based studio without making some sacrifices, and those sacrifices come in terms of cleanliness, Yoga style variety, and sometimes, very rarely, in the quality of instruction. For what the studio inspires to do, it does a good job, 900 poor searching souls per day.

    • thanks for your perspective, alex! i’m glad to hear that you have had a positive experience at YTTP. my single experience was at the 27th street location. as i said in the post, i commend YTTP for their efforts to make yoga accessible and affordable.

      to me, the studio had a “discount yoga” feeling. and i’m just concerned that the YTTP model isn’t the best model to promote donation-based yoga, and it disappoints me that sacrifices have to be made.

  17. I practice at YTTP in San Francisco, and while the instruction is not terribly personalized, I’ve generally felt nurtured there. There is great emphasis on inward focus and breathing. I’ve also been to small classes with personal instruction, and while YTTP is certainly not that, it’s also not generic gym yoga. As for the concerns about Led Zeppelin, while I’ve heard some 60s-style rock, it hasn’t been distracting or too loud. Of course, we mellow San Franciscans hear stories about the NY studios…

    Bottom line, it works for me and gets me to practice a couple of times per week. I don’t have to worry about tailoring my schedule to a particular teacher’s class, and if I miss one class, a similar one will be available to me the next day, or in the next 90 minutes, whatever I need. And there is value in that for me.

  18. In Miami our studio, Synergy Yoga South Beach, is doing all classes by donation now. If you are in Miami next time, come practice with us. Here’s our website http://www.synergyyoga.org for more info.

    As the oldest Yoga studio in Miami Beach with a history of 15 years in yoga and healing arts we are now the first Donation Based Yoga studio in Florida.

    Our mission is to make Yoga, wellness and inner peace available, accessible and affordable to all.

    Offering over 50 scheduled classes per week of Yoga, Meditation and the Movement Arts, we are sure you will find a teacher and style that is suitable and enjoyable for you.

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