Has Yoga Lost Its Soul? Part II: Capitalism & Opportunity

Commercialization presents a mixed bag of opportunities and challenges to yoga as a discipline and cultural movement in the West. Although the benefits are substantial, the challenges present the risk of yoga becoming formulaic and commodified like so many other mature industries today.
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From the Mountain to the Resort

Gone are the days of the yogi teaching a group of disciples in a mountain ashram, unless said disciples are students with the means of paying upwards of $1,000 a pop, not including airfare, for a deluxe, international yogic experience and the mountain is part of a lush resort that hosts week-long premium yoga retreats including activities such as riding elephants and hiking volcanoes.

So what happens next in a world where yoga is being used to sell everything from yogurt, air fresheners, pain killers and cars? In other words, has yoga lost its soul?

Hardly. On the contrary, there is plenty of room for innovation and authenticity that can help retain and expand the art of the craft, even amidst the commercial reality yoga currently resides in, you just have to know where (and how) to look.

Rise of the Machine

Comprised predominantly of mom and pop studios and independent contractor teachers, the yoga movement in the West has historically been fragmented in structure, thriving without the presence of a unifying corporate platform (e.g., Amazon.com for e-commerce). But the entry of professionally-run businesses in the yoga space has signaled a changing of the times as venture capital-backed companies like YogaWorks and Pure Yoga target the service portion of the industry while companies like Lululemon, Gaiam and Yoga Journal focus on apparel and media. The entry of the corporate world into yoga has been met with mixed emotions by studio owners and teachers alike.

On the positive side, "how beautiful that business has identified yoga as profitable," says Clayton Horton of Greenpath Yoga in the Philippines. "Big business ... has the opportunity to popularize yoga and to make the base of our yoga pyramid very wide. As long as teachers and advanced practitioners keep deepening their own practice, [the yoga market] will reach skywards... and we should have a pretty [substantial] pyramid."

A major benefit of commercialization is the increased accessibility of yoga to the masses. With yoga being offered in more venues, by more teachers and in more styles than ever before, the ways that anyone can get involved increase dramatically. Accessibility can be misleading, however, because despite the ease of finding any yoga these days, it is much more challenging to find the yoga style, teacher, practice location and even community that best fit ones needs.

Commercialization also signifies substantial demand for yoga, which creates the benefit of a maturing industry that increasingly attracts more resources, particularly financial, that can then help support the livelihoods of a growing number of teachers and studios thereby keeping the practice dynamic and authentic.

Then there are the challenges of commercialization. "My opinion is that there is a big difference between having a career and having a vocation," says Rene Henley, an Ashtanga teacher since 2003 and founder of Asta Yoga in San Francisco's Mission District. "For example, tobacco can be a medicine [in certain cultures], but then the industry comes and seeks profit and harms others. If yoga is perceived as a vocation it is a powerful form of healing, or if you want to make a career out of it and sell straps and juices and pillows, you can also do that, but it can be a false prophet." Getting swept up in the purchasing of products can undermine the benefits of yoga and distract from experiencing the deeper mind and body benefits.

"True health, healing and self-realization is an inside job," shares Horton. "This mis-identification of the internal for the external ... is the classic yogic definition of suffering. Some big corporations and franchises have the ability to make yoga glamorous, external and watered down from its original potency to be easily digested by robotic, programmed consumers. This is an issue and a challenge."

Commercialization presents a mixed bag of opportunities and challenges to yoga as a discipline and cultural movement in the West. Although the benefits are substantial, the challenges present the risk of yoga becoming formulaic and commodified like so many other mature industries today, in contrast to the diversity and innovation inherent in any bubbling subculture.

Embracing the Middle Path

In terms of the yoga market's evolution, generally as an industry matures and professionalizes the number of players consolidate and decrease. The process of creating the product or service in question then becomes commodified and the majority of the financial and cultural power of the industry becomes dominated by a few top players. Take for example the U.S. banking industry, which has gone from almost 40 companies in 1990 to a handful of major players as of 2009.

This process of commodification presents a major challenge to the authenticity and value of a product or service as perceived by the general public. For example, getting people to deeply appreciate the service of yoga without simply chasing the best (read cheapest) price is difficult in this age of steep discounts from daily deal companies like Groupon and Living Social.

"The value of yoga comes back to the question of are teachers being valued," says David Nelson, an Iyengar teacher and the owner of Yoga Garden of San Francisco. "When a student recognizes they are going to a teacher to learn something [meaningful and useful] and that they are being given this great information that this person has acquired, they tend to value that more. On the other hand, if they're going to be led through a workout and it's a homogeneous workout that could be had anywhere, it's just a matter of time and place, then that doesn't have much value."

Instead of judging as "good" or "bad," however, it must be recognized that commercialization quite simply is a large part of the current reality of yoga in the West. This pattern of commercialization can be seen in many subcultures that have become popular on a mainstream level, for example technology, Hip Hop and entertainment.

Meaningful insights can be drawn from observing how pioneers in these respective fields from Steve Jobs, Jay-Z to Oprah have managed to navigate these tricky waters. They were each able to create immense, authentic value in their respective fields that is both true to the individual and relevant to the masses. They were also able to do this while operating within highly commercial realities where there are abundant opportunities to compromise one's values.

For example, Steve Jobs redefined the role of technology in our daily lives by creating elegant, effective, beautifully designed products that simply make things easier and more accessible. Coming of age in an era where the last thing computers and technology embodied was beauty and usability, Jobs had the courage, vision and perseverance to embrace the notion of empathy for customers and stayed true to his values steeped in design thinking. The result, as many experience, creates products that better serve our needs and changes lives.

Whether you are a fan of their work or not, the fact is that in the process of succeeding individually and in their own ways staying true to themselves, Steve, Jay and Oprah were each able to shift the trajectory of their respective movements to benefit the collective, if for no other (and in my count there are many) than to redefine what is humanly possible for the rest of us.

Like these leaders in their respective fields, what then becomes critical for us in the yoga movement are the authentic values that we stand for and are simply unwilling to compromise, no matter the situation or opportunity that presents itself. It is here where authenticity dwells. What really brought you to yoga in the first place? Why did you decide to teach? What keeps you coming back to the mat time and time again? Authenticity dwells in the honest answers to these questions.

We as teachers, studio owners, students, entrepreneurs and anyone else investing their precious time and energy in yoga must embrace the middle path. This means being aware of the opportunities created by commercialization, while at the same time taking on only those that support one's authentic values. In this way, yoga as a culture and a movement can thrive within the industry it has created thereby transcending conflicts that exist between the extremes of supporting either commercialization or authenticity alone.

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