yoga as entertainment?

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).

  1. yeah, and the second time this week they quoted that yoga and food guy. he is so psyched for press…

  2. Thanks for the interesting links.

    Bob

  3. I actually find myself disagreeing with you on this one Roseanne. I finished reading that article thinking…sign me up! Why wouldn’t I want to take a vacation that involved yoga, whale watching and kayaking? Personally I think like an activity that would bring together a group of potentially interesting people with whom I would like to connect. It’s the same reason I might attend a yoga and knitting workshop. Or a yoga retreat for Moms. As much as I would like to say it would ONLY be about the yoga, it’s also about the experience and the connection with a community of more likely than not, like minded people.

    For as long as I have practiced yoga Yoga Journal (even when it was more of a journal and less of a super market check-out rack magazine) has filled its ad space with information about yoga retreats and teacher trainings in lovely, exotic tropical locations. Because you can more easily access the true meaning of yoga on a white sandy beach with palm trees around? No, because as a whole the event is an experience. I don’t see many of those same flashy ads for yoga retreats here in Iowa. Not because we couldn’t offer a “true” yogic experience, but because really…who’s gonna pay for that?

    Just because the name behind the class is “Marriott” or “Ramada” or because afterwards students shower up and hit the golf course doesn’t mean the classes being offered are any less “yoga” to the people who attend. I think making a judgment about those offerings without some personal experience is like saying there are only a select few TRUE yogis and that the majority of people who would go to a spa yoga class at a resort don’t “get it”. We are all at different places with our yoga journey and I’m inclined to think anyone who has attended more than just a few classes gets some part of “it” because they keep returning to the mat. And I’m inclined to think regardless of why they return, the world is a better place when people take that time to slow down and connect with a softer, gentler side of themselves.

    I think before we’re critical about offerings like this we have to look at ourselves and ask: How have I used my practice to enhance my experience of a day’s activities? I think many of us would say that actually happens pretty often…even if we are not paying a tour guide or a resort center to create that experience for us.

    • hi jenn, thanks for comment… though i have to say that you may have read too much criticism into my post. if you take another look, you’ll see that i’m not judging people who may want to sign up for a “yoga and whale-watching” retreat. i even admit that i would happily teach yoga in a swanky resort hotel, without any expectations from students to be spiritual seekers. and i wouldn’t be surprised if many of these chain hotels have better rates of pay, benefits and working conditions than some yoga studios.

      what turns me off is the blatant commercial interests of some of these “yoga and…” endeavors. it presents yoga as this novelty thing ~ even the person who i quoted said that “yoga isn’t enough to keep us entertained.” is that the purpose of yoga? to entertain people?

      i find it disheartening to see an industry capitalizing on people’s desire to do yoga. and i find it disheartening that there is a belief that yoga needs to be combined with other things to be appealing and “marketable.” that is what i am critical of ~ not the people who are looking for an enriching experience, or the teachers who offer them.

  4. Thanks for the interesting post. there is a lot of discussion around here re: the “mainstreaming of yoga”. We reposted to the prAna Facebook page for you at http://www.facebook.com/prana

    🙂

  5. I know what you mean – it kind of hurts the feelings of my yogini self to think that some people consider yoga to be not worth their time unless coupled with something else. I think anytime you believe in something passionately, you are hypersensitive to anything that might be perceived a a “slight” to it.

    I am an avid reader, and I have a similar uneasy feeling when I think about all of the people who prefer graphic novels/ereaders/audiobooks over print books. To me, print books are the best approach, but then again, I’m just happy people are reading!

    Does that make sense?

  6. I see both Jennifer and Roseanne’s points, and I believe that both come into play. It’s a fine line, and would be very difficult to distinguish the “yoga as entertainment” and “yoga with activities for likeminded people”. It wouldn’t surprise me if many teachers and people are struggling with this (whether consciously on not) around the world.

    What I found interesting about your links was the whole question answer. some of the answers were SCARY (like suggesting to someone with diagnosed back injuries to “try yoga”…. maybe consult a physiotherapist? i would have been happier had she have made the back-yoga specialist comment first…). Also, it was interesting the question of: “how do I deepen my study without becoming a teacher?”
    I think THAT is the crux of the teacher training influx problem. So many individuals want to deepen their practice, do not want to be a teacher, but are recommended the teacher training program as a viable and “good” resource. As a result, they are able to teach… so they do. when they never should have been “teachers” in the first place.

    very interesting links Roseanne!

    • Yes, eco, it’s too bad there isn’t some exciting and clearly defined “Advance Yoga” curriculum for those who want to go further but don’t want to teach.

      Now that I think about it, such a curriculum could be very different from teacher training, because so much of teacher training is taken up with how to instruct.

      Bob Weisenberg
      http://YogaDemystified.com

      • some systems and schools of yoga do actually have advanced studies ~ it can take a little research. anusara has a really good “immersion” curriculum, which is a pre-requisite for teacher training. it’s 108 hours, and usually spread over several months. i did the immersion last year and it was amazing. it was just practice and theory and discussion ~ we met once a month for a whole year! at the conclusion, there is the option of continuing on to TT, or just carrying on with your personal practice.

        i think the best way to deepen one’s practice is to find a teacher/system and stick with it… and to practice regularly, of course. to read, think, discuss. and blog!

        yeah, the Q&A was a little misguided, non? unfortunately, the response to any kind of question about injury should not be “try yoga.” especially back injuries!

  7. I have practiced yoga here and there and recently started going again through my gym that offers power yoga. I am with Jennifer in the sense where I would LOVE to be on vacation and have a few things set up and have yoga maybe start or end my day. Yoga I feel is about every type of person and can be for anyone. Yoga does so good to the body why wouldn’t yoga want to expand itself into other lives who maybe never thought it would be something for them… and why wouldn’t the Marriott, Ritz, etc want to make extra money trying to provide a service that a lot of people are starting to take apart of. I mean, a yoga studio wants to be there to offer what yoga gives but it also wants to make money cause if they didn’t, yoga studio’s wouldn’t be as expensive as they are. And, yoga studio’s are very expensive. I’m yet to find one with prices that would allow a low-middle income home go as many times as they wanted w/out spending over $100 a month for that, especially when the average gym is $30-50 and usually offers a yoga class.

    Everyone is different and everyone’s needs are different. Some people who practive yoga, especially moms can even go to a studio because the class is so long. So, why do we really care how we get this practive to people but the fact that they are practicing, whether at home, on their TV, or simply in the hotel rooms.

    I also think that marketing yoga with other activities is ingenious. Maybe someone who practices would rather take a day where they are getting the yoga practive in while the day still has whale watching, etc involved or maybe the person who has always wanted to try it wants to really go whale watching and signs up because whale watching and yoga are combine. To me, it seems that some yoga folks say that if you do yoga that is all you can do and if you combine anything else, shame on you, you are disgracing yoga, when I don’t agree at all. This upcoming Saturday my gym is offering 1.5 hours of calisthenics with power yoga. That sounds like a good time to me!

  8. …maybe we should just think of “yoga plus” retreats as a gateway drug to the harder stuff. Hopefully.

  9. The more I learn about anusara the more i am interested. I just practiced tonight on yogaglo…. and it was very interesting!! sigh, that one year program sounds beautiful….

    btw, thank you very much for your community suggestion- i’m meeting with a local (anusara!) teacher on Monday to discuss my ideas, and i agree with you- meeting outside of a studio will really encourage the whole, student for student theme 🙂

    • yay! yes, i would believe that an anusara teacher would be into discussing ideas for community building! have fun, and i really do hope you’ll keep us posted on how your idea develops.

  10. just came across this non-yoga blog post on the subject. it offers a refreshing angle: http://www.blackbookmag.com/article/not-without-my-yoga/15807

    • that was an interesting perspective roseanne. it’s true, how many yogis here would actually forget their yoga mat when they travel? I brought mine with me in my suitcase (replacing precious clothing) when I flew from BC to Nova Scotia. If I were more brave I would have brought it with me carry on to practice in the airports while I waited.

      I don’t think I’d need a sketchy ‘hotel’ yoga mat. or pay for yoga tv….

  11. Kinda reminds me of reading the Kripalu catalogue, with all kinds of programs like “yoga and cross country skiing,” “yoga and tennis,” which, on the one hand, seems cheesy to me, but, on the other hand…I’m about to go on a yoga retreat which could be called “yoga and hanging out on the beach,” “or yoga and traveling Central America”…and the last time I went to Kripalu, it could’ve been called “yoga and walking around in the woods,” and, for that matter, my usual yoga practice is, more often than not “yoga and biking” (since I don’t just see the bike as my form of transportation, but an enjoyable and meaningful activity in itself), or “yoga, biking, and going out to lunch” or whatever. It’s not that yoga by itself isn’t enough…it’s that I see no reason for yoga to be some isolated activity.

    • Good thoughts, YogaforCynics.

      • yeah, thanks for the thoughts, YfC! you’re going to do yoga and traveling in central america? that’s awesome.

        see, i don’t have issue with “yoga vacations” or “yoga and [insert sport, hobby, outdoor activity here]” in and of themselves. and i agree that yoga doesn’t need to be an isolated activity ~ it enhances one’s experience of the subtleties of life, as well as things like eating, drinking wine and watching whales.

        what i see here is this being exploited, as an industry has identified the financial draw of yoga and now sees ways to capitalize on it. it’s marketing, with no apparent desire to “spread the word of yoga” or introduce people to the practice. i’m sure there are some “yoga and ski” retreats that are run by yogis who love skiing, or skiers who love yoga ~ and that’s awesome.

        let’s hope that people choose to support these offerings, rather than the packaged tour deals or chain hotel programming.

  12. Such wonderful comments. I guess the good thing I take from it is making yoga more accessible. I teach at a local college and am continually amazed at the number of people who’ve never tried the yoga before – ever. Even if the practice begins because of a person wishing to gain more physical activity, it often morphs into so much more as individuals see the power through their own practice.

    Also, as far as advanced training but NOT TT, are there any others out there besides Anusara? I’d be interested to know.

  13. I don’t like being a right angle in a round conversation but I am appalled by a lot of this, especially the food guy in the New York Times.

    It feels like a marketing technique and the energy around it doesn’t seem to invite conversation—it seems to be more about picking sides. Old school verses new school. And shock value. Almost like I’m here to wake you up—but what is he waking people up to? What is he really offering? It feels like a technique to me. (Im talking about the food guy in the NY Times).

    What concerns me is so much of Yoga has become about the Asanas with no regard for the Niyamas or the Yamas—the internal and the external. As Westerners we tend to only address the exercise aspect, which is this tiny slice that we have grabbed onto and ran with because this society is obsessed with fitness, exercise and the external and what is marketable. Its like opening a novel in the center pointing to a passage and saying this is what the entire book is about without reading the rest of it. The asanas are being separated out and given so much focus and they are such a small aspect of what Yoga is. The Yoga sutras only mention a few poses.

    I can only speak for my self, but I believe it is very important to understand the culture and the history of the practices you are borrowing from—I don’t agree with dismissing them. That is not to say that I don’t believe they can be adapted to modern western times. But I am not in agreement with picking through another culture and adapting it without understanding or at least looking at the long trail of breadcrumbs. How can you dismiss something if you haven’t explored it? Without doing so the path can remain external. For me, it is about balancing the internal with the external—that’s what the asanas are for. It is to become in touch with your body—to tune into it so that we go further—not to achieve just a physical goal but so that we can be more flexible in our personal lives—mentally as well as physically.

    With that being said I also realize that people are at all different levels and that these sorts of classes could trigger a person to want to go deeper but I don’t know if you could call all of it Yoga. I guess the question is what is Yoga? When does it become just exercise? Where are those boundaries? When does it become about community or a place to meet like-minded people? Is that the purpose of Yoga? Is it beneficial? I don’t know.

    But for me I do know it is about union with the self –and all aspects of my life. Yoga is my path. There is never a moment where I am not doing Yoga. Yoga is life. Personally I wouldn’t find it necessary to take a class at a Hotel. If I wanted to deepen my practice I would find someone that knew more than I did and I would study with them. I think a teacher needs to know how to teach and they need to understand Yoga—its history—and all the limbs.

    Personally I’m not comfortable with Yoga clubs and Yoga as entertainment.
    Kripalu is a little different as their ashram is all about Yoga. Yoga is the common ground and everything else is tied into that. They know Yoga and they have teachers that can take you deep into the practices. Not sure that is the case with some of these places.

  14. Its a little weird replying to myself but what I wanted to say after my long winded
    post is-it’s complicated–lots of factors involved. I am struggling with how Yoga is being marketed and used for entertainment purposes. But I think these discussions need to happen and that there is room for many points of view.

    • hi mahita – thank you so much for your thoughtful and thought-provoking responses. you’re so right: it IS complicated. there is no clear answer. i also struggle with the marketing and presentation of yoga in north american culture, and it saddens me to see it presented as merely entertainment.

      these discussions do need to happen, and that is the purpose of this blog. i hope you’ll continue to be engaged. i’m looking forward to your further thoughts on these subjects.

  15. Mahita, Thanks for your thoughts.

    Just in case you missed it, we had a sprawling rip-roaring debate on this topic a few months ago, culminating in my ultimate solution:

    “First There Was Yobo, Now It’s Ratra (Radical Traditional) Yoga”
    http://bit.ly/3JZeWY

    If you follow all the link from “the debate raging” in the first sentence, you’ll see most of the discussion, which ranged across several blog sites, but especially right here on “It’s All Yoga, Baby”.

    Even though I’m a Ratra, I embrace Yoga in all its forms and think it’s all good.

    Glad you’re here.

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

    • oh yeah, there’s nothing we love more than a good raging debate around here!

      i think this is a debate that will keep surfacing ~ and so it should. bob, i always admire your openmindedness about everything. i embrace yoga in *almost* all its forms ~ i just can’t accept those which are commercialized, marketed, product-oriented, self-promotional, trendy and insincere. i can’t help but question and criticize those efforts. and it sure makes for good blogging!

      • Yes it does! I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.

        Why do people do all those silly poses, anyway? That’s not what Yoga is about. (Just kidding.)

        Thanks for being such a catalyst to so many great conversations.

        Bob Weisenberg
        http://YogaDemystified.com

  16. All of us “combine” yoga with other aspects of our lives. So “yoga and tennis” or “yoga adventure in Hawaii” are being done, individually, all the time. Nothing wrong with that.

    But I dislike the mass marketing of it. It’s just too pat. It cheapens the deeper meanings of yoga.

    Bear in mind, I am also not a big fan of social retreats. I wrote about this here: http://yogaspy.wordpress.com/2009/11/10/the-meaning-of-retreat/. To me, yoga is internal, while sightseeing or wine touring is external. For me, combining them reduces the experience of both. (Of course, if I’m on a fun family vacation, I still practice yoga; but I accept that it’s not front and center; friends or family come first in those cases.)

    This travel-industry yoga issue applies mainly to novices. After all, intermediate-to-advanced practitioners (those with established personal practices, those who are committed to a teacher) probably choose yoga retreats/workshops only by certain teachers, not any ol’ hotel offering. What’s sad is that they’re probably not getting the best teaching. And, as beginners, they (even more than experienced yoga practitioners) need good teachers.

  17. Ok, I’m coming a bit late to the discussion, but all of this has inspired me to launch a brand new type of Yoga package vacations:

    “Yoga and Scuba Diving”

    Stay tuned for my new website: “Go Deeper into Yoga – and the Sea” and apply now to get a 10% discount on our luxury beginner’s cruise (“The Yoga of Bubble-Blowing”), as well as our specialty courses: “Yoga with Hammerhead Sharks: An insight into fight-or-flight”, “Just Breathe: Pranayama at 100 feet” and “Balance Poses are Better in Low-Gravity Anyway”.

    Join us on a no-impact journey of discovery! Learn the value of speechless communication and taste the Transcendental Experience of Nitrogen Narcosis. Take home the waterproof card “Yoga Asanas: 101 underwater handsignals” and the T-shirt: “Namas-Turtle to You, Too!”.

    Ahhhh…. does anyone else miss YogaDawg right about now? 😉

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