There is a convenient irony to the way the yoga-related industry effectively exploits the weaknesses in people that yoga purports to address. As teachers come clean with themselves on what they are actually doing, and make choices truer to their evolving understanding of yoga, they often find their class sizes begin to wane. Fostering the beneficial purpose of yoga teachings in our society will require us to better navigate the uncomfortable trade-offs between successful business promotion and the false expectations it perpetuates.
In the past, I used my physical prowess with yoga postures to impress people and garner professional opportunities. When you’re young and looking for acknowledgement and respect, you will take advantage of whatever resources you have at your disposal. Being able to do things with my body that other people could not was one of the only things I had to hang my hat on. And it worked. When students see a teacher who can do things with their body that seem incredible, and beyond their own ability, there is often an automatic sense of respect or awe granted, which also creates a dynamic of aspiration towards the witnessed feat that keeps people coming back. But, ultimately, those big flashy poses that entice larger attendance numbers did not end up serving my health so I stopped practicing and teaching them.
Dangling carrots to get folks in the door is counterproductive to teaching them yoga.
More people than not view yoga as primarily a form of physical fitness, perhaps with some additional perks. And, generally speaking, people are willing to pay more for something they think will help them look better in a bathing suit than they will for an inquiry into the enigmatic nature of their being. Even among earnest practitioners and teachers, the line between fitness and contemplative practice is blurry. To a large majority of yoga-class attendees, the main draw is the combined prospect of both a toned body and the benefits of alternative wellness or spiritual awakening. The expectation is that yoga can help a person lose weight, heal injuries and trauma, learn how to be mindful, and maybe even become enlightened all in one shot.
The irony is that, in many regards, a practice of yoga could very well provide a vehicle for addressing these multi-dimensional expectations that people are coming to yoga with, but the idea that all of this might be neatly encapsulated into a one hour power-vinyasa flow is pure fallacy. A healthy debate can be had as to what yoga is and whether or not it involves sweating but, these parsings aside, the assertions that are readily made to students in class, and used to sell yoga retreats and videos online, simply do not pass muster. Too often, yoga teachers are unwittingly adopting language that effectively sways people by pushing buttons that cause us to act out of our reptilian brains rather than language fostering the discernment that any credible yoga practice would encourage.
Maybe fewer students is better, for both yoga and business.
The growth models that create wealth for corporations and corporate-like entities, be they not-for-profit or individuals, have not served yoga well. Not only has the over-commodification undermined the kind of inquiry that fosters deeper understanding, but it has led to an environment where people feel there is no other option but to comply with mores that compromise our best efforts. Until we are able to break free of the kinds of commercial practices that force us to diminish teaching and learning in favor of maximizing volume and profits, we will continue to be playing a shell game designed to capitalize on the credulity of people hoping for relief and guidance.
Even from a business standpoint, there is a case to be made that smaller numbers of people who are genuinely interested and connected to a teacher or center in more interpersonal vs transactional ways, is a far healthier and more sustainable situation in the long term. You may have one million followers on Instagram who like your pics but that doesn’t mean they are actually going to come to class. And if it’s images of yourself doing poses that has attracted the people who do come then you will likely become hostage to teaching those poses regardless of whether they serve you or the students who take the bait. Real relationships based in mutual aid and community buy-in is a more secure bet than banking on the fickle whims of a crumbling system.
Changing the way we do business means changing the way we see the world.
I don’t really know how we are going to get out of this growth trap that preys upon human frailty and turns earnest yoga teachers into disingenuous marketers. Nor do I think that a few courageous yoga teachers taking a stand is enough to bring down the entrenched power structures that keep us at bay. But acquiescing to the shoddy game that has been handed to us is not doing anyone any good. The question is: can we change our conception of success and find out-of-the-box ways of exchanging value and taking care of each other? Can we create a new economics around community and shared purpose?
Granted, there is little indication that the winds of change are moving in a progressive direction. Until yoga teachers are able to survive without needing more people in every class, we will continue to fall prey to a culture of coercion. But sometimes the best moment to aim for the seemingly impossible is precisely when the odds are entirely against us -- and yoga uniquely holds forth the power of infinite possibility. Breaking from conventions only becomes an imperative worth risking if we can color the lens of our perception with the courage required.