Once heralded and esteemed, yoga conferences have lost much of their appeal as livelier yoga festivals have come into emergence and birthed new forms of yoga events. Large-scale gatherings and demonstrations, happening under the auspices of group yoga practice, are setting new precedents and are emblematic of ever expanding roles yoga is playing in our culture.
There was a time when I coveted the opportunity to teach at a Yoga Journal conference. It was considered the big show. Now, not so much. In fact, now that I have been making my living as a yoga teacher for the last 20 years, I can see how it’s not that great of a gig. Those conference rooms at the hotel with the carpeting, and the inherently “sampler” nature of a teacher presenting to a room of 60+ people, does not necessarily amount to the deepest of learning experiences or any kind of sustainable income. Maybe some inspiration and fun, and good promotion for sure, but certainly not the real nitty gritty of what teachers do and teach.
Yoga festivals are another story entirely. The scholarly or trade industry convention of conferencing has been swapped out for the arena rock model. It’s like in the the eighties when I used to go to Reggae festivals or to see a gigantic band like The Who and feel the rush and exhilaration of all those people together with shared purpose. And, more and more, the festivals are expanding into mini versions of Burning Man, where it’s not just yoga and music but all kinds of stuff wrapped up into one mind-expanding peak experience.
With both conferences and festivals, funding and marketing have always played a role.
Creating events like conferences and festivals have proven to be a sure fire way to generate a lot of publicity, income and awareness about the people and sponsors behind them. Even grassroots political demonstrations are finding greater success with group yoga practice than staging a sit-in or other forms of protest. The government of India itself decided to throw a global yoga event. News outlets just seem to love images of people doing yoga practice in large groups.
The appeal of mass yoga outings has not gone unnoticed by companies looking for innovative ways to market their products. We recently saw 10,000 people in Central Park, all dressed in white and carefully arranged on yellow yoga mats, practicing in the name of peace and the Lolë clothing line. The coverage of the event was a mix of condemnation among those who saw the entire thing as a corporate shill and marveling at the spectacle of so many people participating in a shared experience with positive intention.
My usual response to large-scale, corporate-sponsored, yoga events is to scoff. I'm highly distrustful of corporations in general. When a profit motive is not sufficiently tempered by a human being with a personal stake beyond just business, the trade-offs seem to suck all the soul right out of the thing. But if I take a moment to step away from my initial knee-jerk reaction, I can see how it’s not that cut and dry. Very often there is a lot of good happening right along with the crap.
The question is whether or not the corporate underwriting of yoga events and humanitarian causes sullies the outcome to a degree that it renders a net negative.
I’m sure that, for many, going to central park on a Saturday afternoon and practicing yoga with 10,000 other people must have been a truly amazing experience. I have felt the power of a group practicing together when it’s only ten people. I can only imagine what happens when you multiply that by a thousand. Does it matter that it also benefited a corporation? If it’s still a positive experience for those people, regardless of who may reap financial reward, who am I to take that away from anyone?
These questions aside, the thing that really messes me up about it is that if someone were to call me tomorrow and offer me a chunk of money to teach a yoga class to 10,000 people in central park, would I turn that down? Would I really say no to that opportunity because I consider it selling out to the man? I don’t think I could. It would be too unbelievable an experience to pass up, even if it was to a corporation's advantage. Of course, I suppose it depends on the corporation and what atrocities it might be responsible for, but I would probably take the gig and do it with as much integrity as possible given the circumstances. And I’m sure a lot of people would accuse me of selling out and I would have to take that heat.
Honestly, I don’t know what I’ll do if that call ever comes. But I do know that a large-scale event is not conducive to what I teach. Because for me, I don’t want my practice ritual to be so huge. I always remember having a hollow feeling the day after attending those Reggae festivals and rock shows. When you have such a peak experience, mundane life seems to become more pale in comparison. So, in a sense, I want my practice to be boring and uneventful. Much less exciting than the miracle of my daily existence. Spectacle can be a useful novelty but it’s not much to bank a life on.