Money. That's the elephant in the room. Most of us yoga teachers wish we never had to think about it, and yet we sometimes spend entire classes worrying about it. We teach to fulfill a calling deep within us and then we go home and scroll through our bank balance wondering if we need to get a real job. Those of us struggling to make ends meet often feel exploited, while those of us who make a comfortable living teaching often have to, quite literally, sell ourselves. We sell our bodies to apparel companies, we sell our gifts and years of experience to corporate studios, and we force ourselves to swallow the discomfort of calling our students "clients." All of this adds up to a transactional yoga culture that deadens our souls instead of uplifting them, and it's time to flip the script.
It's time for all of us to dig deep and remember why we practice yoga in the first place, and why we felt called to teach. I practice because yoga is the most effective tool I've found for inner transformation. I teach because it's the most authentic way that I can be of service. Being of service is a catalyst for continued inner transformation, and vice versa. Practicing and teaching in Los Angeles, some would say the yoga capital of the world, I've grown a bit disheartened at the lack of these two ideals in our "industry." I'm disheartened that the word "industry" seems more apropos in describing our world than the word "community." When yoga apparel companies are trying to sell us their latest $150 pants, teacher trainings are luring in students with the illusion of thriving careers, and all we see on social media are hashtagged pictures of fancy postures in exotic locales, it's hard to see the yoga in it at all.
We've taken a practice that teaches abundance and contentment, and funneled it into a capitalist structure that breeds scarcity and competition. What's our capital? Money, students, and clicks. When we're not making enough money to make ends meet and our class numbers are low, likes, shares, pins, and retweets become the measure of our self-worth. I've started to wonder- are we promoting introspection or consumption? Are we inflating our own egos or surrendering to to the greater good?
We've all felt this tension, within ourselves and among our peers, and many of us have simply chosen to ignore it because we feel there's nothing we can do. This is how the system is and it's how it's going to stay. I'm more optimistic. I see a change brewing. There is a way for us to transition from transaction to trust and foster the essence of yoga practice. Teachers, studio owners, and other leaders in the space are in the privileged position of being able to create structures that challenge conventions. There's brilliant work happening already -- Green Tree Yoga and Meditation offers donation-based classes to the South LA community, Yoga Gives Back mobilizes the global yoga community to help alleviate poverty in India, and Piedmont Yoga in Oakland recently decentralized their classes, shifting away from the the studio model so that they could maintain their integrity in the face of rising costs.
When the time came to start my own ashtanga yoga shala, I knew that the conventional capitalist model wasn't going to cut it. Like these organizations and many others, I wanted to shake things up. I decided to embark on an experiment of trust, inviting students to make monthly contributions on a sliding scale. For new students, the first two weeks of practice are offered as a gift that we encourage them to pay forward by performing an act of kindness or donating to their favorite non-profit. In this way, not only are all dedicated students able to practice regardless of financial barriers; they're also given the opportunity to be part of an interdependent community -- one that honors each member's contribution, whatever that may be.
What happens when we shift from a transactional system to a trusting one? Quite simply, we're allowed to return to our natural state -- one of kindness, compassion, and generosity. Contrary to popular belief about Darwin's theories, he prized sympathy and collaboration as the best markers for the success of a species. When we acknowledge our dependence on others and see ourselves as one small part of a large web of connections, we automatically become grateful. David Brooks recently wrote an article about gratitude in the New York Times in which he said:
"We live in a capitalist meritocracy that encourages individualism and utilitarianism, ambition and pride. But this society would fall apart if not for another economy, one in which gifts surpass expectations, in which insufficiency is acknowledged and dependence celebrated."
When we celebrate our interdependence, we revel in gratitude and devote our efforts to the greater good. That's the essence of "isvarapranidhana," an essential part of the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga.
As teachers and leaders, we're uniquely positioned to be able to make this shift. We teach a method of living that instills the importance of self-inquiry and ethical action. We have a responsibility to structure our systems in a way that honors that method. We need to ask ourselves the hard questions: Am I teaching and sharing yoga with a spirit of service? Has the commodification of yoga tainted my intentions? How can my relationship with money come into alignment with the core principles of this practice? More specifically: As a studio owner, how can I set up ethical compensation structures for teachers I work with? How do I diversify the student pool and extend the reach of yoga to students who may otherwise be priced out? As a teacher, how do I promote the practice and what I have to offer in a content-driven way rather an image-driven one? How can we support each other instead of competing against one another?
I realize that there are a lot of question marks here, and I don't have all the answers. I do know that it's imperative that we live these questions instead of questions of how we can gain more followers and attract corporate sponsors. We all have the power to transform contemporary yoga culture. We have the power to take one small step toward a more authentic approach. And when we do, money becomes not the elephant in the room, but a tool that serves as an expression of our ideals. A way for us to commune with each other. An offering that allows the teachings of yoga to flourish.
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