Posh-Asana: Do You Have To Be Rich To Do Yoga?

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So, you want to practice yoga. You'd like a nice "yoga butt," maybe a set of rock hard "yoga abs," and if you can somehow develop a calmer mind in the process, all the better. Well, get out your wallet, my friend. Maybe even mortage your house. This is going to cost you.

Yes, of course I realize that yoga originated in India and that the archetypal Indian yogi sits cross-legged in a cave, eating little, owning nothing. And the stereotypical "yoga person" in this country is not a corporate raider, but rather a bohemian type who wakes up at the crack of dawn in an East Village walk-up, grabs a well-worn mat out of the musty stairwell and bikes over to the yoga studio to do their daily bending before going to work as an artist or actress (or, if things aren't going so well, as a waitress or bartender). Someone who sports body art and piercings. Someone who shares their futon with a cat they rescued from behind a dumpster. Someone who'd sooner starve than eat or wear dead animal. Someone who might point out that "Mercury is in retrograde" as a way of explaining why they were late for a meeting.

While, granted, there are plenty of yogis out there who would seem to support "the stereotype," I know plenty more who do not.

Take myself, for instance.

I practice yoga every day of my life. And by yoga, I mean Ashtanga. Ashtanga is the same hardcore, physically demanding, legs-behind-the-head yoga system that gave Madonna those sinewy limbs and a reason to balance on her forearms in almost all of her concerts.


By virtue of its brisk flow from one pose ("asana") to the next, the progressively difficult set sequence of asanas and the style in which Ashtanga is traditionally taught ("Mysore style", which originated in Mysore, India, and in which the student is "given" the next asana in the sequence only when the teacher has determined that some level of proficiency has been attained in all of the poses already being practiced by the student), Ashtanga demands daily practice if a student wishes to progress within the system to more challenging asanas and, ideally, a quieter mind, which is what yoga is supposed to be about. Right?


So, here I am, a self-proclaimed "yoga person." I certainly don't live in a cave. And I am neither a struggling artist nor any other version of "the stereotype". Rather, I store my mat on the sun porch of a clapboard colonial in a sleepy Northern Westchester County hamlet not far from the Clintons (yeah, those Clintons, and boy, could they use a little yoga, but let's leave that for another post). I get around not via bike, but in a late model SUV, which I tell myself I need because, well, how else would I cart around my two pre-teen boys and all of their pre-teen boy gear? I have no piercings (well, not since the tummy tuck) or tats, and although I do have a rather obnoxious hound named Lewis, whom I rescued from a shelter in Harlem, I have been known to partake in the occasional sushi dinner. And in my opinion, "Mercury is in retrograde" is just another way of saying, "I have absolutely no control over my life."

It's not just me either. My "yoga friends" include a plastic surgeon, a hedge fund manager, a real estate mogul, a marketing executive, a systems analyst at a big investment bank, and too many affluent housewives to count. What we all have in common is the means to pay for our daily yoga practice at our respective "shalas," as traditional Ashtanga schools are often referred. And by "means," I'm talking about the ability to pay what in some cases runs upwards of 250 dollars per month.

That's at least double what it costs to work out at a typical health club or gym.

Granted, it's not nearly as much as it costs to board a horse, or to take up skiing, golf or tennis, as my Ashtanga buddy, S., points out to me. I should note that S is a stay-at-home mom with a child in private school and a horse in Bedford.

S. also points out that some yoga students pay for their yoga by mopping the floors at their yoga studios. Or they live in one-room apartments and exist on rice and mung beans in order to support their (yoga) habit. When they decide to ex-pat off to India for three to six months to study with their guru, (which serious students of yoga often do) they may sell off their belongings to help to defray the cost. And by cost, I don't just mean a seat in coach on Air India.

I'm talking startlingly exorbitant shala fees.

If a yoga student wishes to practice at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India, which is the premiere venue on the planet for the study of Ashtanga and the only one at which a student can obtain valid authorization to earn a living teaching the Ashtanga system, the fee for the first month is...okay, are you sitting down?

The first month's fee is 27,530 Rupees. That's roughly $650. Subsequent months cost 17,416 Rupees. At about $400 per month, that's still no bargain.

All of this would appear to be strikingly at odds with one of yoga's principle tenets: the practice of non-acquisitiveness, particularly with regard to wealth and material objects, but also with regard to non-material things such as love, life and yoga poses ("aparigraha"). And consider this: the essence of yoga is the stilling of the chaos that otherwise comprises the mind (or as it is written in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a sacred text that works as a sort of "user manual" for the practicing yogi, "yogas chitta vritti nirodiha"). When you're wondering how you're going to pay for your yoga classes and still have enough money left over to pay your rent and maintain your weight above 90 pounds, it's more than a little challenging to not allow the otherwise calm waters of the mind (ha) to become muddled with anxiety. Yogis are taught not to covet. But how not to covet a higher salary, a rich spouse or a trust fund when it costs so much just to get in the door of the yoga studio?

While you're figuring that one out, I'll be bending on my mat at the yoga shala, thanking my lucky stars (see, I really AM a yogi) that I can afford to become enlightened.