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How Much Is Yoga Worth?

The GLBL Yoga crowd-funding expedition, culminating with a hoped-for 15,000 yogis converging on Central Park in August, is on the receiving end of a lot of controversy.
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The GLBL Yoga crowd-funding expedition, culminating with a hoped-for 15,000 yogis converging on Central Park in August, is on the receiving end of a lot of controversy. Chelsea Roff's insightful article kicked off a series of commentaries about why dropping nearly $700,000 on a one-day yoga event is perhaps not the best idea. The producers' attempted damage control has been met with scorn, though supporters are in tow.

What follows are a few thoughts from someone who spends much of his life involved in yoga, as a teacher, journalist, music producer and creative director of Tadasana Festival. I am not against large-scale yoga events. I decided to work in this world after attending the 1995 HORDE Festival, which blew my mind open on a number of levels. As someone who has DJ'd Wanderlust festivals and events, I am fully in favor of the yoga/music model which, despite angry blog commentary, does not mean the producers "rake in money." It is, for the most part, a humble and extremely stressful endeavor.

There are a few specifics regarding GLBL Yoga that do not sit well with me, though. In full disclosure, I am friends with some of the people behind this event, as well as the talent on offer that day. Yet criticism can and should be helpful, as we need to be mirrors of each other in order to know what is being reflected outward every time we create something.

1. Manifest Destiny. Americans like to think that our country is the superpower, that everything we do by default must affect the rest of the world. This mindset seeps into every industry, philosophy and, as evidenced by the name GLBL (short for Global), spiritual discipline. The problem is the rest of the world does not perceive us this way. Foreign observation of America, American policies and President Obama's job have drastically nosedived. Considering that fewer than one in three Americans own a passport, it's easy to think what we do here influences the planet. It's this sort of hubris that causes other nations to consider whatever we do cautiously. While yoga is growing in popularity in other locales, it's on yoga's merits and not because a lot of Americans do it. Let's reign in those harnesses and ground our practice.

2. The Numbers. Why is gathering 15,000 people for a yoga class really important? We roughly share personal relationships, on a social level, with 150 people, the same size of a traditional tribe. (Our brains have evolved to handle this number.) In today's social media-dominated culture, we connect with many more times that, but think about what a "community" is: the ability to regularly connect with and grow alongside relatively few friends/co-workers/family members. Sure, there is a large yoga "community" in the U.S., yet how many do we really develop bonds with, beyond Facebook emails and retweets, and perhaps the occasional festival? The entire notion of the "largest yoga class ever" is troublesome. Consider Kumbh Mela, the most obvious debunker. The last edition might not be advertised as "yoga" per se, but when 70 million people gathered in Allahabad in 2007 to worship Ganesha, Shiva and Krishna, meditate, perform pujas and purify in the Ganges and Sarasvati Rivers, and chant, the parallel is evident.

3. More Is Not Always Better. In fact, the most powerful classes often involve only a handful of people. I'm all for big group classes. During Tadasana I had a wonderful time alongside 300 others in Shiva Rea's class. I'm sure a few brand-new yogis will be inspired to pursue this discipline from doing a few asanas next to thousands of people, one of the stated aims of GLBL Yoga. But the hands-on touch and attention that a newcomer deserves will be lost. Still, a gateway is a gateway, and I'm down for whatever lets you in the door. I do know from teaching 300 people at a few Bryant Park classes that beyond the first three or four rows, people seem more concerned with sitting on their mat and chatting or text messaging than practicing. I'm not sure what sort of function such (lack of) focus will serve when surrounded by 15,000 others, nor what loose definition of yoga under such circumstances will be accomplished.

4. The Mullah. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman doesn't think we're in a recession; he believes we're in a depression. It's not, according to him, insurmountable, but we are making bad social policies (cutting government worker jobs, not starting infrastructure projects) that are not helping us climb out of this mess. A lot has been written about the economics of GLBL Yoga and its single-day $675,000 budget. In the satellites of New York City and Los Angeles, this might seem to be just another event. For people throughout the country not involved in the yoga "scene," or who could really benefit from yoga but are currently unemployed and cannot afford classes, this focus on expense reduces the chance that they are going to care about the purported benefits of yoga in the first place.

5. Exclusivity. Some of my fondest memories during college, upon realizing that concerts were going to play a major role in my life, involve arriving at venues hours early to eventually stand crushed against the barrier of the front row. Central Park Summerstage, for example, rewards lunatic fans. Prospect Park's Celebrate Brooklyn!, however, rewards whoever bought a subscription for those coveted spots. Diehards have to sit six rows back looking over a sea of people who are often texting and chatting, paying little mind to the show. At GLBL Yoga, paying $2,000+ gets you onstage with the teachers, while $1,250 gets you a pair of front-row reserved spots. This pay-to-play mentality, while helpful to the bottom line, does little to instill faith in those who don't have the means to get where they want to be. They instead sit staring over a sea of faces, wondering where the promise of yoga went.

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