Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Is there a yoga version of the American Dream?

[Image taken from here]

I suppose for most seasoned yogis, the immediate response to this question would probably be, "Gosh, no! Yoga is a journey of attaining greater self-realization in each moment. It has nothing to do with arriving at any end-state, let alone arriving at any kind of Dream state!"

Fair enough. I agree. But recent developments in the American yoga scene have made me wonder if many contemporary yoga practitioners might not actually have a conception of an ideal yoga lifestyle that is defined at least partly in material terms. The interesting thing is that they might harbor such a conception even if they are not fully conscious of doing so.

What do I mean? Well, let's just begin with the clothes that we wear when we practice. I believe that it is uncontroversially true that one does not need to wear any particular kind of clothing in order to do yoga well, or even to look good doing it. Any kind of clothing which (1) one is comfortable sweating in, and (2) that allows one to stretch comfortably, and (3) that does not hang out in awkward places in certain postures (for example, that baggy T-shirt I wore to my very first yoga class years ago, which hung out and covered my face in downward dog) would do. As a matter of fact, I personally believe that the less clothes one wears during practice, the better: I normally do my practice in my underwear (which is why I have yet to post any videos of me practicing ;-)). But of course, if most yoga practitioners were like me, yoga clothing companies like Lululemon would be out of business.

Speaking of Lululemon... to be quite honest, Lululemon mystifies me. As I understand it, the general message that they are conveying is: There are certain clothes that you will feel and look good doing yoga in. We sell these clothes. Therefore, you should buy and wear them if you want to feel and look good while doing yoga.

Hmm... would I feel and look good practicing in these clothes?
 [Image taken from here]

Well, I suppose Lululemon might have a point here. After all, we can't expect people to just practice in their underwear in yoga studios, can we? But that aside, I am not convinced that wearing Lululemon is the only way to satisfy (1), (2) and (3): Something that you can buy from Target for one-third of the price would probably work just as well. 

Before I go on, I should make a little disclaimer here: This post is not an attack on Lululemon; neither is it my intention to single out wearers of Lululemon for any special attention. So if you happen to wear Lululemon (in particular, if you are wearing Lululemon at this particular moment while reading this post), please do not start posting angry comments ;-) I am only using this Lululemon phenomenon to make a more general point, which is this: Whenever a particular activity acquires a large enough following among the masses, an industry inevitably grows up around it, advertising and selling particular goods that embody a vision of a particular lifestyle to adherents of said activity, whether or not the goods in question are actually needed to do said activity. This is almost an iron-clad law of capitalism, and yoga (or, more precisely, the yoga industry) is not immune to it. And since yogis are also consumers living in such a capitalistic society, it is inevitable that at least some yogis will partake of this capitalistic practice.

The really interesting thing, though, is that the yoga industry does not seem to be content to just stop at selling clothes or selling a particular image. It wants to go further, and sell a particular yoga version of the American Dream; the American Yoga Dream, if you will. The way I see it, the American Yoga Dream has two tracks:

(1) The Yoga Rock Star track: This is one way to attain the American Yoga Dream. Basically, the adherent of this track seeks to get into a position where he or she can attract a lot of positive attention by looking good doing yoga in some kind of public media, say, by getting on the cover of Yoga Journal. It used to be that only famous teachers can get on this track. But in recent years, with the advent of YouTube and other sites where one can upload videos showcasing one's asana prowess, such a track has become more and more widely available to many aspiring yoga rock stars. In fact, at least a few yogis have become celebrities in recent years through such avenues. It also helps that mainstream print media like Yoga Journal have also made efforts to make this avenue more available to the "amateur yogi", by hosting such events as the Yoga Journal/Athleta Talent Competition, for example (speaking of which, check out the winner of this competition here).

(2) The Self-made Guru/Mega-Studio-Owner track: This is another way to attain the American Yoga Dream. One gets on this track by opening a yoga studio, attracting a large following of students, and/or creating a new yoga style that purports to cure the numerous ailments of life in our contemporary, samskara-ridden existence. Many such self-made gurus are also rock stars in their own right. They have posted numerous videos on the web, have had their pictures and/or writings published in such illustrious venues as Yoga Journal, and have flocks of groupies... I mean, students who won't even blink at the idea of spending hundreds, possibly thousands of dollars for the opportunity to attend a weekend workshop with their guru. 

These two tracks are not mutually exclusive. As I already mentioned, many self-made gurus are also rock stars, and many rock stars eventually become self-made gurus. It may even be argued that one track serves as the entry-point to the other. I should also make it clear that my purpose in talking about these two tracks to the American Yoga Dream is not to pass any kind of judgment on individuals who choose to follow these tracks. After all, when all is said and done, we do live in a material world, a world in which one does need material things in order to survive physically. If one can successfully and fruitfully pursue the American Yoga Dream without sacrificing one's yoga practice and all that is good about the yoga path, then more power to the American Yoga Dream!               


  1. Interesting post! I'd say that there's even a third track: the Celebrity Athlete Track. This would be the yoga teacher who has big sports brand sponsorship, does a little modeling (for said sportswear, and other brands, as an "ambassador") and endorses products such as supplements or sports water (and occasionally perfume).

    These days, however, I'm more interested in seeing teachers who don't follow these tracks. It's pretty clear that to make a living as a yoga teacher, one needs to diversify their skillset: you can rely on teaching weekly classes alone. Offering teacher trainings, being a brand ambassador, self-publishing books ~ this is all part of piecing together a living.

    What I'd like to see is a new model, especially for teachers who aren't interested in... modeling. Or doing the rock star circuit, or having to create their own style. I'd also like to see high profile teachers be ambassadors for things other than sportscompanies and yoga charities.

    I had a great conversation with one of my favourite teachers, Frank Jude Boccio about this: http://itsallyogababy.com/2011/07/18/feature-conversation-frank-jude-boccio-part-2/ He rejected the rock star/corporate model and chose a life based on simplicity, family and community. As he said, he may not be as rich or as famous, but he's happy.

    These are the teachers I'd like to see profiled, the lifestyles (as opposed to lifestyle brands) that I'd like to see celebrated. There are more than these two tracks, it just takes creativity and a revision of the American Dream.

  2. I mean "you CAN'T rely on teaching alone." oy!

  3. You bring up many insightful points here, roseanne. How should I begin to respond to them? Well, let me just start with what you point out as the third track: The Celebrity Athlete Track. I think this is definitely such a track, although I am personally inclined to subsume this under the Yoga Rock Star track: This might be a generalization, but in my opinion, many people who are ambassadors for sportswear or sportsdrink companies do so in large part because they believe that being such ambassadors or doing such endorsements will enhance their visibility in the community, and thereby increase their following. Nothing wrong with this: It is what it is :-)

    As for your statement, "You can't rely on teaching alone", I would like to respectfully disagree with you here. I actually know a few individuals who make a living solely by teaching weekly group and private classes. They don't make a lot of money, and it's very hard work, but they get by, and seem happy.

    I saw your two-part interview with Frank Jude Boccio, and I think it's really well done: I really enjoyed it :-) What he says about needing to make a conscious choice (whether you choose to do the rock star circuit or whether you choose to lead a smaller studio/community) really resonates with me.

    Honestly, I am a little unsettled by the fact that making a living as a yoga teacher in this country seems to have evolved (devolved?) into a kind of rat race, in which many individuals seem to be scrambling for the next big sponsorship/deal/whatever. In this regard, I agree with you that having a new model that does not fit into these established tracks is a good thing. Having said this, however, I also believe that it is possible to embrace the rock star track and still live and teach with integrity. One of my favorite teachers, Kino MacGregor, is an example of somebody who seems to me to have successfully balanced the tension between the demands of the rock star track, on the one hand, and maintaining the integrity of one's message and teaching, on the other.

  4. I totally wanted to be a yoga rock star but I look at the ones in our town and realized I'm nowhere nearly as cool as these former dancers/professional singers/actors. I do really enjoy their classes though (as entertainment). The way to be a mega-studio owner is to get rich doing some other business so you can afford opening up your own glam yoga studio complete with its own juice bar and spa sessions. I've thought it all through and I'm too plain to realize either track.. such is life.

  5. Thanks for honestly sharing your feelings, Yyogini. I'm also nowhere as cool as these individuals that you mentioned, which is why I don't teach ;-) But maybe you shouldn't write yourself off just yet: As with everything in life, it takes a while to find your voice and discover that unique thing that you have to offer to the world. When you discover that thing, it really won't matter whether you are "cool" or not; or maybe you would become cool without even knowing it :-)