yoga & capitalism: BFFs?

Prime advertising real estate (image via flavorwire.com)

Last week’s corporate-sponsored Yoga at the Great Lawn event in NYC has been attracting quite a bit of press. Yesterday’s NYT blog article took a look at the corporate angle of the event.  “This would have never happened without corporate support,” said Sascha Lewis, a co-founder of FlavorPill, the NYC cultural guide which organized the event.

It was advertised as a free class, and as such needed corporate sponsorship. The distributed mats (which every registered person was supposed to receive) were branded with the JetBlue logo, a small gesture which in fact positions yoga mats as desirable retail space. adidas, which didn’t appear on the official literature but had a presence, since the event’s primary teacher, Elena Brower, is an adidas yoga ambassador (and is apparently making efforts to help adidas deliver their sustainability yoga wear line ~ I thought their previous ambassador accomplished that task…)

On the one hand, it’s great that this event happened and so many people, especially first-timers, were able to experience yoga in a grand setting. However, given the scope and ambition of the event, I have to question the intention behind these corporate interests in yoga. They claim they want to bring yoga to as many people as possible, but I’m not entirely convinced that’s their main interest.

The event accomplished the feat of being the largest yoga class ever recorded, even though there wasn’t much of a class. The practice was cancelled shortly after it started, due to the rain, and the disappointed practitioners lugged “their soggy JetBlue yoga mats and their SmartWater bottles and their ChicoBags filled with a few goodies” (according to the NYT blog post) out of the park.

“The yoga community is now merrily two-stepping the American way, with corporate logos,” observed the NYT blog. It then went on to ask if this was even a bad thing. Given the culture that yoga has landed in, it certainly seems inevitable. But there are ways to cross the line. At the Yoga at the Great Lawn event, Well+GoodNYC noted, “A single row of Who’s Who yoga teachers like Sadie Nardini, Sarita Lou, and Duncan Wong sat like Adidas-branded Buddhas, all in matching white tanks.” The shiny yoga elite, dressed alike in their branded uniforms… it’s kind of a creepy picture.

I wonder, do we have to do this dance? We all know it’s a dance. You really can’t convince me that, other then sponsoring an event with a guaranteed captive audience of 10,000, do these companies embody yogic values? JetBlue would like to co-opt the openness and transparency associated with yoga by guaranteeing “no blackout dates, no seat restrictions” on its frequent-flier program. It’s nice of adidas to sponsor a high-profile yoga teacher,  offer free yoga classes around the world and develop a line of sustainable yoga wear ~ but its other business practices include endorsing the slaughter of kangaroos (an endangered species) in Australia and sweatshops in Asia. Can we separate these actions from its endorsement of yoga?

Elena Brower indicates that “the notion that capitalism and yoga are in conflict is old-think. ‘The companies are making it possible for all these thousands of people to have this experience. This is what we need,'” she said. I’m going to step forward and say that I’m pretty old-school in being skeptical of corporate motivations for sponsoring large scale yoga events, and I’d prefer to create community from a grassroots level, and introduce people to yoga without having to woo them with free branded mats and bottled water.

  1. I am so with you, lady. can someone please tell me how helping adidas “deliver their sustainability yoga wear line” and kangaroo slaughter go together? and why is it OK to ignore that little detail all because it’s free yoga? that’s like supporting WalMart, one of the 10 worst companies on the planet based on their overall social and environment records (see betterworldshopper.org) just because they sell organic whatever. FAIL!

    “Elena Brower indicates that “the notion that capitalism and yoga are in conflict is old-think. ‘The companies are making it possible for all these thousands of people to have this experience.”

    so tired of that same old song and dance, that corporate sponsored yoga is “good” because it falls under the guise of “yoga for the people.”

    why don’t we just get BP to put their logo on yoga mats — after all, PVC is a petroleum product. can you imagine that? hundreds of people doing free yoga right now at a BP sponsored yoga event at an aquarium? oh wait…somehow that would be a “good” thing because in Brower’s words, BP would be “making it possible for all these thousands of people to have this experience.” if it’s so good, then lets just exchange one corporate partner for another, shall we?

    say something is “good” long enough and people start to believe it.

    thanks, roseanne, for having the guts and authenticity to speak out against the corporatization of yoga.

  2. I wrote a blog that talked about this sort of thing once called “Western Yoga (A brief history of yoga’s modern day journey).” Nothing in the United States seems it can escape from capitalism. People will take advantage of the popularity of yoga for their own selfish gains. But I hope that others will look beyond the messengers and get to the message. Yoga is a great thing.

  3. I agree 100% with you Roseanne.
    And we actually DID practice in the rain on Saturday. It was beautiful- a little rain when you’re in yoga gear shouldn’t stop anyone. (we’re all sweating anyways while practicing right? )

    Anyhoo- I also have been pondering about why we can’t offer yoga without money coming into the equation. Why couldn’t local studios donate mats- wait a minute- why did they HAVE To have mats? And bottled water? ick- the majority of people have their own water bottles now anyways.

    I don’t think free-yoga or “karma” yoga needs to have corporate sponsorship.

  4. i’ll practice on cement before i get onto a mat that had advertising on it. a brand name is one thing, but an airline that probably contributes more to pollution than the whole city i live in?

    R– you are right on. this shit is wack.

  5. Thanks for linking Roseanne!
    It *does* strike me as off that in order to build community we think it’s acceptable to add the capitalistic aspect. Like we can’t just get out of that box….

    also- loved your nod to a certain other adidas rep….

    I was a bit put off by Elena’s comment- perhaps she meant to explain more? But to me, just because a topic has been “done” does not necessarily mean that it should be brushed off as “old think” (which sounds pretty darn condescending…).

    Feminism has been discussed ad noseum, doesn’t mean it’s not relevant anymore.
    The Environmental movement could be applid similarly.

    Capitalism and Yoga may be “old news” to Elena, but that doesn’t mean it should be accepted as “ok” and not questioned. I just can’t “get with the times” and accept corporate sponsorshop of Yoga. Sorry.

  6. from the NYT blog:

    “The yoga community is now merrily two-stepping the American way, with corporate logos….while on a billboard overhead a fashion model arched in a cobra pose, shilling yoga clothes for Calvin Klein.”

    yup. am beginning to understand why India is started to get pissed off about Americanized yoga (as in yogadork’s posts on the subject.)

    “….Adidas-branded Buddhas, all in matching white tanks….The shiny yoga elite, dressed alike in their branded uniforms…”

    becoming way too Orwellian for my old-school tastes….

  7. Speaking of Old-Think–isn’t the “by any means necessary” argument so last year? or the year before? I’m still thrilling on your thoughts about yoga in public spaces as a political or artistic statement…rather than an advertising opportunity.

    Perhaps the rained-out element was a comment from the heavens about the whole endeavor–the gods are crying (or pissing)…

    • you’re right, brenda – it’s so 2009! 😉

      this what i had to say on brenda’s blog (http://groundingthruthesitbones.blogspot.com/2010/06/pardon-me-your-yoga-is-showing.html):

      “lately, i’ve been really interested in yoga in public spaces (art galleries, parking lots) ~ not so much as a place to establish a practice, but as a way to reclaim public spaces and push notions of how to use space. in this case, i see yoga as a tool rather than a personal practice.

      there’s a group called yogahappening in toronto (we’re starting a montreal chapter soon) which holds spontaneous public yoga classes as a way to build community. today, they’re dedicating their practice as a protest to the G20 summit in toronto. i think this kind of public display of yoga is amazing!”

  8. Thanks, Roseanne, for the post, and thanks everybody for your comments. I’m going to back up a bit and perhaps bum some people out by questioning whether a yoga event with 10,000 people is in itself an actual yoga experience, or a corporate publicity stunt to begin with. Of course, we can argue that had it not been rained out, perhaps many of the people there may have left the event feeling that peaceful post-yoga glow, but the amount of hype this event has gotten, despite the fact that the actual practice lasted only a short time, is disproportionate to the amount of good that’s being done every day in small, intimate classes with non-celebrity teachers.

  9. what Max Strom (who I really respect, have done a few of his workshops) had to say about it on his FB page:

    “It is exciting that 9000 people gathered in Central Park to practice yoga and I have been waiting for an event like this for some time. But it my opinion the event was sadly squandered. All the media was there, CNN, the NY Times, everybody – the cameras were pointing. For the first time in history the world put the …microphone at the mouth of the larger yoga community in America. But what was the message given? We are celebrating the Solstice. We want more people to practice yoga. That’s it? We have nothing more to say to the world but that in 2010? With the oil gusher reminding us all that solar power is desperately needed, 9000 people doing salutations to the sun could have brought the world an unforgettable visual and call to invest in a nonpolluting technology. And with hurricane season kicking up in the Gulf, we could have bought attention back to the people of Haiti. Let us come together again in mass. Soon. But next time let’s show what we stand for. And yes we can do it without corporate sponsors. Martin Luther King did. “

    • wow! yes wow!

    • So true. It seems that the yoga community is just as fearful as the political community is of bumming people out by bringing up real issues. You are right. The event could have been a great forum for raising awareness and the importance of being a part of the solution. Instead it looked more like a publicity stunt, with the goal being to set a record. Thanks, Linda.

  10. The fact of the matter is that we live in a capitalist society, and corporations will capitalize on anything and everything to get their message across and boost the bottom line. It happened to organized sports, it happened to running, and of course it was bound to happen to yoga. No one should be surprised by this.

    The upside is that we have the choice of accepting or dismissing these practices – we don’t have to attend a JetBlue yoga event, we don’t have to go to a studio chain to practice, and we don’t have to shop at Lululemon.

    My wife and I attended a class held on a Toronto public beach this past weekend, led by a local instructor. Cost was $5 for an hour’s practice and no commercial message (not even a plug for her studio). It felt good, and it felt right. The yogahappening movement is also cool.

  11. Oh yes! aha, yes, … and definitely! I even have trouble with the local yoga studio where I live and their yoga water, expensive yoga gear etc. I’m weaning myself away from them using other ways to continue learning.

  12. The company I work for often tries to encourage people to be whole, happy people, mind body and soul- and this includes encouraging yoga. Which my company, being completely capitalist, exploits as fully as it can. Is this bad? Sometimes I look at my company and think that there is something wrong with corporatism. But I am glad that they are encouraging yoga- among other things. There is a side of my company that is magic and wonderful… and then there’s the side concerned about numbers and whether or not you’re doing your job right. And that side does bother me and make me feel eh about going to work.

  13. Well at least it was free. How does this image of yoga stir your chakras…:)

    http://bikramyogasummerlin.files.wordpress.com/2009/08/bikram-hilton.jpg

  14. i’m personally very sorry. sorry the lines were so long, the entrance so disorganized, the wait so interminably frustrating. next time we are going to create many more entrances and have learned so much about the timing and organization of the class.

    the corporate part: here’s the rub. to pull this one off, we needed that sponsorship to pay for the production aspects. already for the second go, we’re getting help beyond corporate money, but we needed it, plain and simple. i wish we didn’t, but it absolutely made the whole class possible.

    here’s the thing. i don’t know if i’m doing the “right” thing by aligning myself in this way. what i DO know is that it felt like something wonderful happened in gathering everyone together, that we can do this again to raise money for charities (which is the plan for next time). and yes, for sure i love the whole guerrilla yoga idea, just popping up and offering a class in honor of something, with no fancy production, and i’m going to do that. and i cannot wait. and thank you for that idea.

    i see how all of this can be construed as a marketing masterplan; if i stand and look from that vantage point, it’s a genius one at that. but if i take the vantage point of abundance and look at it as a wonder that so many people came together in the name of yoga at all… that feels like we’ve come a long way. i wanted to communicate so many messages, about the spill, about the lack of awareness about Haiti, about women in war-torn countries, so many issues. we were really there to offer some good practice, but our timing was off and we offered too much “pre-yoga” and not enough yoga, and that was our fault. next time it won’t be like that.

    Charlotte’s comment: “the amount of hype this event has gotten, despite the fact that the actual practice lasted only a short time, is disproportionate to the amount of good that’s being done every day in small, intimate classes with non-celebrity teachers” – i couldn’t agree more. and i only hope that maybe the conversation around the event might bring more folks to those intimate classes.

    please know that i can stand in anyone’s shoes and and see from there, so i appreciate and honor every stance entirely. we learned so much, and our only intent was to bring more yoga more broadly.

    respect.
    elena

    • e- i really appreciate your response on this, and can see the good intentions behind it. would you be able to respond at all to r’s comments that if, in fact, we need the corporate sponsorship we might choose more globally conscious corps? without sweatshops, etc.?

    • I appreciate your comments and your intentions, Elena. Having helped produce a few large (music, not yoga) events, I understand the need for sponsorship. There are very real expenses that people don’t think about—permits, insurance, security, etc. I do get this, and it’s nice that there were sponsors willing to offset these expenses. Perhaps if the advertising is not so obvious next time, fewer feathers would be ruffled. And I love the idea of using the event as a way to bring public attention and raise funds for worthy causes.

      After three decades of dedicated yoga practice (not just asana, but to the best of my ability, all eight limbs), I sometimes feel sad that this small piece of it, asana, has been severed from the system and taken out of context, marketed and in my opinion, watered down in the service of “getting as many people into yoga classes as possible.”

      I like to think that if people truly understood yoga’s potential, it wouldn’t need to be marketed as a trendy, semi-mystical way of staying fit. I feel that the way yoga has been marketed not only squanders its potential, but also doesn’t give potential yogis credit for being intelligent and discerning individuals.

      All this is to say that I sometimes get disappointed when I perceive that the truth of yoga is being lost in a whole lot of distractions such as celebrity, huge classes and media hype. I own this, and this is likely behind my hesitancy to be completely on board with the idea of a class of 10,000 people. That said, if we can take Yoga on the Great Lawn at face value—as an event, and not as an expression of or substitute for dedicated daily practice—it has potential to be a positive gathering of souls that might shift a few minds and hearts in a new direction.

  15. Elena–thanks for your eloquent, thoughtful response. I appreciate you considering the various viewpoints offered above. I also appreciate your honesty about the choices you’re making as you try to reach a larger audience (what an interesting conversation that would be–using the system to create awareness, without getting used…).

    And thanks, Roseanne, for getting us all talking (as usual)!

  16. Emma: Couldn’t agree more on the CONSCIOUS companies (i’m on it).

    Charlotte: Yes. Always we strived to make it an “event” and not a “substitute” – we really intended it to be a fun intro to yoga for more folks. My thought is that once more people are tuned into themSELVES, their HIGHEST selves, through yoga (and perhaps this event brought them a step closer to a practice), they can choose their cause, their service, and bring it to the world. So YES. And thank you.

    Brenda: Thank you too.

    The sweetness that came from the initial hard edged comments above (at the top) is exactly the healing we all need. With so much respect and gratitude for the conversation, all you wise women.
    e

    • thanks for taking the time to get involved, elena! and for being so gracious and cool. your contributions to the conversation have opened things up.

      (ps: i’m still skeptical and uneasy the pairing of yoga and corporate branding, and will continue to be. 😉 )

  17. yo yo yogadawg.”at least it was free” is the TRUTH and it made me laugh. just so you know. 😉

  18. That’s my baby!
    The purity of Elena’s intention makes the world a better place.
    Be well – be happy.
    Arnold
    (Elena’s dad)

  19. This is a great discussion. I can see and appreciate both sides, and that’s what I love about this sort of forum.

    I must say, though, that the idea of all those mats being manufactured and handed out to thousands of people who may or may not ever use them again — it makes my stomach hurt. There’s got to be a better way. Maybe Bring Your Own Mat/Towel/Blanket? I always caution my beginner students not to buy their own mat until they’ve practiced enough to know they will use it (our studio rents mats). Obviously I want more than anything for those students to practice regularly for the rest of their lives; but, if it’s not for them, why waste those resources?

  20. Great post. I blogged on the same topic a few days after the event too. I’m so glad there are others who are on the same page as us, and speaking about it. What that week of outdoor yoga events showed me was the split occurring in the yoga community between the corporatized style of yoga (instruction, marketing, or simply presence) and a more traditional, quieter style.

    here is my blog post: http://medianoche.wordpress.com/2010/06/23/yoga-on-the-great-lawn-rained-out-for-a-brief-moment-turns-into-soggy-yoga/

  21. What great discussion. As a studio “runner” I think of this often, even on a smaller scale. There’s such a fine line between building community and identity together and creating click/elite cult.

    Also, I struggle with the idea of “however you can get yoga out to more people” — of course that’s wonderful… the more people doing yoga, the better. However, depending on the introduction, that person may associate yoga with cute pants, being in the hip trend, or a certain style that didn’t work for them. I meet lots of folks who’ve taken one class in any certain style and now know that they “don’t like yoga.” These people in NYC got a taste of a “yoga” that (I feel) is 99% misrepresented.

    Thank you for such a thorough post with links to follow for more info. Loved it!

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