the future of yoga: boston-based teachers launch new studio with a summit

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?

  1. “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.’’

    I found that comment by the YJ editor to be particularly telling — and incredibly sad. And if she realized how sad her statement really is, I wonder if she would still say it.

    Yes, it’s true this is a consumer culture. Yes, it’s true we all have our “look” (actually mine is a holdover from the ’60s albeit updated…;)) And I like nice things and want to look good as much as the next person. But where does attachment end and wisdom begin?

    The point of yoga or any spiritual practice is to eventually distinguish needs v. wants, attachment & aversion, and to allow those exterior things that we believe give us our identity to drop away.

    “desire to create self-identity through what we wear or what we purchase.’’

    my yoga mat does not define me or give me my identity…one of the age old questions is “who am I?” and if my identity comes from what I wear or what I purchase, then I need to do a hell of a lot more work on my mat. and I don’t mean asana.

  2. Ha – was fired up to jump on the same comment – “The yoga industry does support our desire to create self-identity through what we wear or what we purchase” – and found that Linda beat me to it! Great minds think alike, right? 🙂

    But, honestly, such a complete – and conscious – capitulation to creating identity through consumption by the editor of Yoga Journal, no less, is . . . ironic? funny? horrifying? tragic? all of the above? Like Linda, I have to wonder if she really thought into the full implications of that comment – I have to assume not – but then – I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse!

  3. This sounds like a great effort on the part of these wonderful teachers. If anything will keep traditional Yoga values strong it will be articles and initiatives like this.

    Like you I was startled by the comment, Everyone is afraid to talk about the white elephant in the yoga room”. I have been told that these venerable teachers don’t pay much attention to the new social media like blogging. I guess that’s true.

    I hope they will overcome this hesitation if they want to have a significant impact in preserving traditional Yoga. What if all these venerable teachers committed to writing about their views wherever they can find a strong Yoga audience? That would be a great thing for everyone and help balance the scales in favor of the traditional values they espouse.

    Perhaps you can invite them to do guest articles on your blog.

    Bob Weisenberg

  4. “As long as we associate happiness with getting what we want, we’ve associated it with exactly the opposite thing that makes us happy. Getting what we want doesn’t make us happy, not wanting makes us happy.” — Adyashanti

    I guess the YJ editor needs to do a bit more reading and introspection.

  5. when I read the article in the Boston Globe, I was a bit disappointed. The article makes it out to sound as if this summit will be movement altering, or an essential moment in modern yoga history. Perhaps I interpreted too much in the importance of how they portrayed this summit, but i was quite disappointed that this conversation would occur between a handful of yoga instructors.
    I understand that these aren’t fresh, just been practicing for two years yogi(ni)s, but since when is an entire movement’s future discussed by half a dozen individuals? (who obviously are missing an entire aspect of down in the trenches yoga, or should i say down in the blogosphere).

    I would have been much more impressed if the Toronto Yoga conversation, which appeared much more open and inclusive, had received the same amount of media and brouhaha. Or, if Justine wanted to start conversations about the future of yoga, perhaps create a more inclusive, open event that would encompass a more broad representation of yoga in North America.

    but then- i’m not a yoga instructor…. 🙂

  6. I believe the teachers of Down Under Yoga intend to use this discussion to hone their perspectives, set the tone for their new studio venture, and help bind the local yoga community together with discussion. Yoga is definitely becoming a lifestyle in this country – and as such, I think serious studios everywhere should recognize that what they project becomes more than a business or a reflection of the owners. It becomes a sort of congregation.

    The Boston Globe article makes it sound as though this discussion will be monumental, but I hypothesize that has been cooked up by the paper’s journalists and editors, not the yoga studio. The Down Under Yoga website does not mention this discussion with any greater gusto than any of its other grand opening events.

    Somebody else in the blogosphere commented that these competing forms of yoga may be a sort of generational gap – presumably the hippies and Krishnamacharya junkies are fading out as young, hip, and impressionable consumer yogis become a substantial part of the US population. Perhaps this is the overall trend. But at age 23, I have tried a wide assortment of yoga classes, and I always return to the classical old-school Iyengar and Ashtanga studios. Why? Because despite my inclusion in the younger cohort, I have the same visceral feelings these teachers express. When I go to a franchised or trendy studio, I feel the same sense of distortion I experience in shopping malls or while watching television. The practice is packaged. The experience is not depthless and free-flowing – it comes in three handy levels and a manufacturer’s assortment of staid and predictably vague yogic themes. And though the people are usually genuine and very nice – they’re just doing what works for them – I love yoga because it has the potential to pull me out of a realm that frets over expensive material accessories and doesn’t encourage deep (often terrifying!) shifts in understanding.

    I believe that the structure of our society is ultimately unsatisfying for the vast majority of its members. At the same time, most of these dissatisfied people will remain uninspired to radically change their circumstances. So yes, yoga’s complete integration into the fabric of American life will mean a lot of yoga-lite with swirls of cash and corporate chunks. But there will also always be individuals of all ages who seek out an approach that takes them out of their American lives, into someplace without those external advertisement-plastered walls.

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