Work alone is your privilege, never the fruits thereof. Never let the fruits of action be your motive; and never cease to work. Work in the name of the Lord, abandoning selfish desires. Be not affected by success or failure. This equipoise is called Yoga. – The Bhagvad Gita
The practice of yoga in America has become a pretentious feat. It is a luxury for the wealthy and a rung on the ladder of social privilege.
Yoga classes are relatively expensive – anywhere from $10 to $25 per class on average. Monthly packages usually cost more than a gym membership, starting at around $100 per month.
And let’s not forget the gear.
Those really cool-looking brand name pants can run $100. I’ve seen mats, towels, and props start at $50.
How did this happen? When did yoga become a money-making machine? And when did it become a social barrier dividing the haves and have-nots?
Perhaps yoga has always created barriers among people (pretty much everything can). Regardless if this is so, I propose that we denounce any exclusiveness and regain focus on the essence of yoga.
In this article, we address some of the societal issues resulting from a large-scale misconception and misuse of yoga in America.
(For simplicity’s sake and to avoid any unintentional pretentiousness, the word “yoga” is lowercase throughout this article. Please, let’s not get our leggings in a bunch over this. )
Yoga for the poor
Put yourself in this situation:
You’re so hungry – like haven’t-eaten-in-days-because-you’re-homeless hungry. You have no home, no food, no shoes.
Do you ever think about taking up a spiritual practice in order to get more in touch with your inner being?
Probably not. You’re probably passed out on a park bench, begging on a street corner, or scavenging for food.
How about this situation:
You’re a parent of four children living in a shambled house infested with black mold.
You work two minimum wage jobs and got tricked into a variable rate mortgage a few years back. Your spouse is an addict and steals your hard-earned cash to buy drugs. You’ll likely lose the house next year and your children will have to go to the other school where kids smoke meth and steal from gas stations.
Just before bed, are you pondering whether a home yoga practice can help you drop those pesky 10 pounds before the bank forecloses your home?
Duh. No. You’re freaking out about how you’re going to afford your mortgage or move to a cheaper place without putting your kids at risk.
The point is: It highly unlikely that people lacking their basic needs are taking it upon themselves to practice sun salutations and ujjaya breath to reveal their transcendental Selves.
Yoga for the wealthy
People who have their basic needs met can afford the time and energy to devote their thinking to things other than their basic needs.
That means there’s time to sit and meditate and contemplate the meaning of life. There’s time to work on the body and improve overall wellness.
And there’s time to develop a solid yoga practice.
There’s also money to pay for studios, instructors, clothing, mats, and props. That money is reliable enough to expand the studios and inspire instructors and designers to get in on all the action.
There is no question that people with money have forged the path for yoga in America. And for that we should be grateful.
If it weren’t for people with money, yoga would never be as popular as it is today.
The spiritual side of yoga is far too radical for a predominantly Christian society to adopt. But, those that discover the extensive benefits of the physical side of yoga readily accept instruction on the asanas (postures).
As the asana trend continues to spread, more people are eager to incorporate yoga in their daily lives.
But of course, since people with money continue to forge the way, yoga continues to be expensive.
Why is yoga expensive?
Yoga classes have to cost what they do in order for the instructors to make ends meet.
Yoga teacher training costs a lot of money. Teaching certification, which isn’t legally required by the way, starts at $1,500. So, instructors dish out a pretty penny to share their knowledge and practice with us.
Plus, studios require rent and have overhead. Instructors that don’t use studios buy mats and other supplies for their students.
It’s tough to make it as a yoga teacher. But most aren’t in it for the money.
Most instructors know that they’re not going to get rich quick with their business. But they believe in it so much that they are willing to stick their necks out to provide guidance for their students. (By the way, please excuse all the stretching puns throughout this article.)
The people making bank off yoga are the ones training teachers and selling products like $100 leggings and $50 towels.
Now, the supply of instructors is increasing, so according to the principles of microeconomics, we should see a drop in price in the future. However, this is no good for the instructors. By increasing the supply of instructors, we decrease the price of instruction, which means the instructors will have to start skipping meals to pay rent unless the demand for instructors increases.
And so we find ourselves dancing along supply and demand curves, wanting high quality yoga instruction without paying high prices and wanting to make a living teaching yoga without losing its spiritual purpose.
At the end of the day, money dissolves the essence of yoga and contorts it into a mere commodity. An expensive commodity at that, which creates a huge social barrier whether we want to admit it or not.
Speaking of social barriers, let’s call a spade a spade, shall we?
Yoga isn’t just for skinny white girls
Go to any yoga studio in America and you may find that a majority of the clientele are skinny white girls. I myself am a skinny white girl.
This isn’t a bad thing – skinny white girls are allowed to practice yoga. However, there’s a stereotype associated with this group that is very intimidating to anyone who doesn’t fit the physical profile.
The media and advertisements don’t help either. Most of the images we see are of skinny white girls in super trendy expensive pants and sports bras. I don’t often see non-photoshopped images of average-sized people with varying complexions practicing yoga in off-brand clothing.
The whole media conundrum is evidence of how skewed the American perception of yoga is (in general) and how self-perpetuating it is. Not everyone has a skewed perception, but it’s certainly tempting to just fall-in-line and chalk it up to “this is just the way we do yoga in America.”
Which brings up another social barrier…
There’s no such thing as “western yoga”
All yoga is yoga. And if it’s not yoga, then it’s not yoga. Simple.
At its core, yoga is a mental and spiritual practice with a purpose to reveal the true Self. I’ll spare you the psychospiritual details (for now).
The postures and movements are just a part of the overall yoga philosophy, yet they dominate instructional classes. This is not a bad thing, but it can lead to a misuse of the yoga philosophy, which can have negative effects. It’s like Frodo trying to use the One Ring to do good. It just doesn’t work like that.
Attempting yoga without an appreciation for the history and underlying purpose leads to severe butchering of a beautiful philosophy and turns yoga into a commodity. If we keep this up, aspiring yogis will be bending over backwards to find good instructors and will have to pay an arm and a leg for classes. (That one was really bad…)
It’s evident that the eastern world’s underlying philosophies and way of thinking evolved in somewhat of a contrast to that of the western world. However, when you really dig deep into the history of yoga, you find that the core principles are no different from the principles that my favorite scientist, Albert Einstein, conjured up not too long ago (e.g., everything in the universe is energy).
Considering this, the line between east and west becomes blurred and we realize that we are more alike than different. In fact we are all the exact same.
Yoga for the people
Yoga is for everyone.
High quality yoga instruction should be made available to anyone who seeks it. It takes a certain caliber of discipline and maturity to develop a meaningful yoga practice, but the instruction should be present when the students are ready.
There is an increasing amount of resources that provide affordable means to learn the asanas (postures). The hope is that the philosophy of yoga continues to spread along with the asanas. Whether or not this happens depends on the instructors.
Here at The Be Well Place, we are developing a series that gives you the resources necessary to develop your own yoga practice. The idea is to keep the costs low enough so that lots of people can afford it, while providing a means to support the continued production of the series. There will also be plenty of free resources to get you going.
Please stay tuned as we develop the series. If you haven’t done so already, enter your email below to receive updates specific to the yoga practice series.