yoga journal hearts hyatt: notes on a yoga conference model that avoids head-slapping irony, by matthew remski

Baron Baptiste leads an asana class at Yoga Journal SF 2013 (photo by Double Secret Media, via Facebook)

Baron Baptiste leads an asana class at Yoga Journal SF 2013 (photo by Double Secret Media, via Facebook)

Toronto-based yoga teacher and writer Matthew Remski has been watching the Yoga Journal San Francisco conference/Hyatt boycott story unfold over the past week and felt compelled to share some thoughts on community organizing and human economies of scale. The author of Threads of Yoga also reveals somewhat confidential information about my community work here in Montreal. I resisted (it made me feel a little Waylon Lewis), but Remski resisted right back. And since he’s “the most dangerous man in yoga,” I let him get away with it. But that doesn’t mean I’m not blushing a little.

It’s time to pull back the curtain on that Roseanne Harvey, just a wee little bit. Who is this burlesquer-yogini drumming up enough public pressure over the last year to now provoke asana protests on the streets of San Francisco, and declarations of labour solidarity from Shiva Rea and Sean Corne?

What most folks beyond the Montreal yoga scene don’t know is that Roseanne has more than gumshoe mojo driving her excellent reporting on the Yoga Journal-Hyatt head-slapper. She’s also one of the founding directors of Yoga Community Montreal (YOCOMO), which will be hosting their second annual yoga festival this June. Yoga Festival Montreal will look nothing like what’s going on at the San Francisco Hyatt Regency.

It will fly on a shoestring budget in a non-corporate space, featuring all local teachers who will be all paid the same wage, workshops on yoga and social activism, no corporate sponsorship or import vendors, with all advertising materials printed in soy ink on 100% recycled papers, and, probably, no profit beyond seed money for 2014, and – maybe perhaps maybe, but probably not – a $500 honoraria to each of the five directors for their gazillion hours of effort.

A genius idea, you say? Well… pulling back the curtain of time a little further reveals Roseanne circa 2010, press credentials pinned to her mat bag, notepad in one hand and voice recorder in the other, poking around the National Ballet School in Toronto at the Yoga Festival Toronto, hosted by Yoga Community Toronto, founded  in 2008 by yours truly, yours truly’s ex, and the best-dressed yoga philosophy teacher in Toronto, Scott Petrie. And what do you know? We also paid all presenters great and small the same $108 per hour, ran the gig with a small army of volunteers, recruited and coordinated Toronto yoga studios as our core support, hosted a comedy cabaret fundraiser for local charities (“Just Yokin’”), found vendors who actually made their stuff in Toronto, and hired Deepa Mehta’s caterer for the community curry lunches. We kept the full 3-day tuition (7am to 9pm) cost to under $300, and offered scholarships and discounts to way more folks than we should have. Each year, we hovered at around 250 attendees, 50K revenue, and 40K in expenses, only 10K of which went to the venue, which rented us all eight of their gorgeous ballet studios, which one of our staffers decorated with flowers from her mother’s garden. The ex-Iyengar teachers creamed themselves making up stuff on those ballet bars.

For faculty, we brought out the micro-brewed: teachers who have been doing their thing quietly in town for more than a decade. And also a few imports to spice things up, on the condition that we carbon-offset their flights. We got Mark Whitwell in year one, Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad in year two, and Mark Singleton, David Frawley with Yogini Shambhavi in year four. They were all happy with the union wage and potluck dinners.

The three of us started the festival after going to Toronto’s A-list-convention-centre YJ-type event and coming home bloated, depressed, and convinced we could produce something that better reflected community values. There was something nauseating about the economy of scale, the eco-footprint, yoga-themed sunglasses in the yoga mall, the saccharine bigness of the whole shebang. Why does this feel so different, we wondered, from the quietude of our worn mats at home, from the small and intense classes in which we had learned so much, from teachers who nobody knew? Where was the gravitas of sutras and the silent dawn? Where was the simple breath?

In the larger scheme it was nothing new: we’re plugged into an hallucinatory economy and we really want yoga and art and everything we love to be the red pill. But in this instance, the friction between the real and ideal really chapped our asses, and we decided to run a soothing experiment: something familial and potlatch-y that both honoured the economic means of those we knew and retained a piece of yoga’s mentorship tradition, in which commerce is malleable, and transformation trumps transaction.

We also wanted to do a better job of fostering community rooted in local concerns and resources. As I’ve argued elsewhere about Anusara and the Desikachar scandal, there is a structural problem with charismatic, corporate, transnational marketing movements that cloak themselves in the language of togetherness. They necessitate too much travel, too much hype, too much vata. They depend for their coherence upon the chimera-like relationships proffered by celebrity. What sustainable good did it really do, we wondered, to offer a few hours in a weekend with teachers we would only see again for a few hours the following year? Is that a learning relationship? Is it digestible? Is there the potential for follow-up? How did an imported conference roster impact the local studio economy for the month? Did the parachuting teacher speak to local conditions? Could they? In the first year, I moderated a Town Hall meeting as the Friday night infotainment, and we looked at the question of yoga and cultural colonialism. I asked the panel of presenters: Here we are in Toronto, still chanting prayers to the Ganges. Who are the gods of the Humber River? Of Lake Ontario? I regret not having had any First Nations yogis on the panel: they could have told us for sure.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that any of this was easy. We had to find skilled organizers. And mentors who were willing to step out of their studio cultures to address the broader Toronto community. We had to create diversity in programming, inclusive marketing, fundraising strategies that didn’t involve yoga pants, budgetary fallback positions, a narrative of the next several years. And we had to do all of this with our yogi friends. We thought herding cats was hard. But we had the best time.

It was tiring, cash-strapped, and fragile. It doesn’t take much for a grass-roots initiative to lose traction. The project is so embedded in real lives that real life will shake it. After the fourth year, one of our key staffers was killed on her bicycle, another left for England, and then my ex and I became exes. It feels like the last real YFT meeting we had before the house was sold was Jenna’s funeral. I wrote a eulogy, rolled ladoos, lit 108 candles throughout the house, and felt something end.

Or did it? The last festival we ran featured Roseanne as one of the presenters, and she brought with her some Montreal peeps to check out the gig. They camped out on our studio floor for the weekend and then went home and set a date for their own locally-grown festival. In a way, it feels like our efforts simply rolled east along the 401 in the hands of others.

When the Babarazzi contends that “Yoga Journal is just a vessel for commercialism”, and that it somehow never had anything to do with personal yoga practice, and so we shouldn’t be surprised when its conference division turns a blind eye to labour injustice, we should appreciate the concision, but be wary of a little cultural amnesia. The magazine is 37 years old (!), and has really only melded with the exclusivist genre of “lifestyle publications” since its 2006 buyout by Active Interest Media.  Look at these crunchy old covers. The YJ story is the story of globalization in general, and those of us who watch it happen and want to fight back are not tilting at windwills. When the Babarazzi asks “Who gives a fuck if commercialism takes over yoga culture?” The answer is: a lot of us do. I don’t know how many, but we’re here. And when the Babarazzi declares: “Yoga culture ain’t anything worth saving, as yoga culture is just a form of commercialism”, s/he’s performing a most brave and worthy role as hyperbolic provocateur, but we should remember that the technique depends upon as much reductionism as marketing memes do.

Here’s what our grass-rootsiness mostly avoided, and what YOCOMO will continue to resist: high tuition, seductively charismatic but fleeting encounters with mentors, conspicuous consumption, the sad spectacle of unconscious class and race privilege, the unironic merging of yoga aphorisms with marketing memes, and the sugar-highs and sugar-crashes of any large event. For the most part, we sidestepped the absurd impersonalism and dissociation of late capitalism, which generates the kind of mess we see unfolding in San Francisco this past weekend, where yoga aspirations, yoga privilege, and yoga ethics are colliding at a picket line staffed by middle-aged women with repetitive stress injuries from years of wiping up the fecal smears of people far wealthier than themselves.

Call me an idealist: I lean towards believing that the intentions of those organizing, attending and presenting at the YJ conference are wholesome and in alignment with basic yoga ethics. I imagine that the YJ Board discussed the meaning of the Unite Here boycott thoroughly (as they report themselves), and made what it felt was a difficult decision to proceed anyway. (Again. After several years of the same issue.) I’m sure that those presenters and attendees who are even aware of the issue wish for nothing less than workplace fairness and safety for everyone, and were looking at their plane tickets and conference passes with a range of emotions from confusion to anger. It’s too easy to caricature them as yogilebrity sellouts or soulless consumers, as if we are not each one of us enmeshed in complex neoliberal alienations. There are presenters on that list who are tireless community organizers and fundraisers for charity, along with teachers of low-sex-appeal subjects such as the history of yoga philosophy, and many attendees who don’t have “crystal encrusted yoga purses”, but are there on scholarship or work exchange, or because they’re in their early 20s and unemployed and looking for direction and a family member chipped in for a pass.

I’m also sure that most outside observers mean well, and that Eric Walrabenstein’s post urging progressives to not “drag yoga into our war against God’s perfection” is a hopefully isolated incident of spiritual bypassing doublespeak cray-cray. Please, let it be.

Thankfully, Be Scofield will use his new Decolonizing Yoga FB page and activists like Sri Louise will use social media carpet-bombing to remind us that good intentions are not enough to shift ignorance with regard to hierarchies of money and race privilege: education and resistance is required as well. That’s the long-ball game we all need to play: it’s like yoga or any process of inquiry that intends lasting change in power relations and self-identity. Taking a stand on boycotting the event next year if the labour injustice continues is a good start. Extending the boycott pressure to YJ advertisers and sponsors might be effective as well. But in the short term, assuming we’re all more or less on the same social justice page, and that we aren’t going to change the effects of historical injustice overnight, and that we’re unqualified to psychoanalyze each other’s intentions, what is the simplest forward progress we can make?

As a grass-roots organizer, I think a lot can be accomplished through a revisioning of scale. Revisioning scale automatically shifts priorities. We can refuse the project-management abstraction that comes with grandiosity and covers over the real textures of life while you hammer out dozens of contracts in form emails, marshaling a scattered faculty and student base with limited knowledge of local issues, and generally limiting the left hand’s power to know what the right is doing. Scale is at the heart of both the Hyatt and YJ Conference for-profit models: the adolescent consumerist impulse to believe that big is good and mega is better. It’s an impulse that allows our events to mirror the woo-woo of our fuzziest yoga platitudes. It’s an impulse that makes the YJ press release statement of “no other hotel in the city can accommodate the large number of attendees on or around the scheduled conference dates” seem reasonable, instead of a rear-guard rationalization for choices towards bigness made years ago that are now forgotten, but invisibly woven into the project software.

Years ago I remember reading somewhere that when a Shaker village grew to over 100 or so members, their bylaws required them to separate into two new groups, because they knew that either the intimacy of their prayer meetings would begin to deteriorate, or that they would soon require restrictive rules and dogmatic language to enforce social coherence. This led me to the beauty of Dunbar’s number, which calculates the functionality of social group sizes according to how many people and relationships we are able to know and negotiate cognitively, based on neocortical complexity. If the scale remains human, we have to look each other in the eyes, and it becomes a lot harder to witness the arthritis of middle-aged hotel workers on food stamps and enjoy your yoga retreat at the same time.

Back in 2008, on the night before the first YFT opened, I sat with my ex rolling ladoos for the faculty and volunteer dinner meet-and-greet. One hundred and eight of them. It took us about an hour and a half. (Plus two hours prep time beforehand: I had to bloody well grind the roasted mung beans by hand!) We talked excitedly about our community, and the wonderful people we’d met so far, and we knew we wouldn’t sleep that night. I remember thinking: This feels about right. As many sweets as I can make with my hands in a single evening, sitting with my friend, is about as many folks as I can connect with in a meaningful way. (YOCOMO can have all our festival secrets, but the ladoo recipe stays with me, Roseanne Harvey.)

The conference arm of Yoga Journal has a magnificent infrastructure that can be retooled to not only avoid ethical confusions, but to actually promote the values of locality, small business, equality, fair pay, inclusivity, and intimacy. Venue, accommodation, travel and programming are key areas of concern.

Less expensive, non-commercial venues are available in nearly every major city in North America. They are often attached to public universities: this can lend an air of civic space to gatherings. Most cities have networks of bed-and-breakfast places where attendees can find shuteye that supports family businesses. Yoga Journal’s considerable web power could also host a billeting connections service, matching out-of-towners with local yogis who have extra futons. And a rideshare bulletin board, where users would be given tuition discounts. In the programming department, they could take a page from Broadcasting Act of Canada, which mandates that 40% of content on Canadian radio and television be home-grown. (In the YOCOTO days, we shot for 80%, but this really limited our community appeal, and income, which in turn increased our exhaustion-factor.) This fosters closer relationship between the national event and its local network of practitioners. I’m no actuary, but I’m willing to bet that these adjustments in scale and focus wouldn’t substantially change the profitability of the Conference arm, given the likely decreases in overhead.

And wouldn’t this just feel better, all around? I can’t imagine that everyone involved – workers, presenters, attendees, organizers, and protestors – wouldn’t prefer a smaller scale that fosters by its very nature more equitable and intimate connections. I wonder what will happen. We’ll be watching you, Roseanne, to see what comes next!

  1. – Loved reading this, Matthew.

    – VERY inspiring to know more about Roseanne’s work as well as that of the Toronto yoga festival.

    – Cheers to Sri Louise. A little SM carpet bombing keeps us awake.

    Thank you for your work. May all this keep us a little closer to the razor’s edge.

  2. I hear ya re: scale and community. As a yoga teacher, I serve a small group of people in a community of just 900. Classes are donations-based, and I often ask class participants to share their experiences—in a way, we’re all teaching one another. And it’s amazing.

    I appreciate the important and refreshing questions you’ve asked. History hasn’t been so kind to truth tellers, even when they’ve spoken out with all their love. So, I hope more yoga teachers can start digging into the fear of calling a spade a spade. Humanity is desperate for genuine honesty.

  3. If you’re concerned with labor rights, why sell on Amazon?

    • hi frank. thanks for letting me know. i’ll be researching whether the warehouse conditions at the Pennsylvania shipping plant have improved since the 2011 story I just found.

  4. This is such a brilliant and thought-provoking commentary. I really appreciate the work that you’re both doing in the world. And I’d teach at any conference you sponsored!

    “Progressives… war against God’s perfection” — what?!!!!

    If yoga is not about standing up for what is right and against what is wrong, then what are the yamas and the niyamas about? It seems pretty clear that it is not UNTIL we are actively practicing being our best selves and working to bring our highest values into the reality of our lives, with these foundational concepts as guidelines, that we can truly sit in peaceful “contemplation of god’s beauty” and strive toward attaining a higher spiritual awareness. Doing so on the backs of other people’s suffering is… an unthinkable contradiction.

  5. “drag yoga into our war against God’s perfection”…honestly, I’d like to go into an in-depth discussion of how stupid that is, but don’t know where to start, could probably write a lengthy essay on the ludicrous misuse of each word…. Maybe I just need to go to bed.

  6. This is the yoga culture I want to be a part of. Well done!

  7. Yes, yes and yes. Agreed with Kelly, this is the yoga culture I want to be a part of! Thank-you for another thought provoking and honest look at the choices that are made around our yoga culture and offering some important ideas and alternatives.

    Large scale events such as yoga conferences, retailers like Lululemon and celebrity yoga teachers leave a bad taste in my mouth. And part of that bad taste is that it seems like the majority of people don’t even question things and accept that this is what yoga is.

    Your grounded and thoughtful perspectives offer tangible solutions and avenues for our community to grow and evolve in more realistic and meaningful ways. Keep up the good work!

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