I feel I must apologize for not posting this by Friday as stated in my previous post. I was ready to publish Thursday, but I wanted to let my thoughts sit another day and go through another round of editing before posting Friday evening. Then Friday morning, I received news that actually affected my post, so I’ve spent Sunday and today trying to work in those changes. Please accept my apology. I will also admit this is not really the kind of post I expect you to like or dislike. I expect this post to make you think, and I hope it does that. If you actually like it, even better.
Having watched the film Ashtanga, NY somewhere around two months into my practice, I was mostly encouraged to challenge myself physically by learning to coordinate my breath with the poses. This has been helpful in making my practice not only more physical, but simultaneously psychologically relaxing. Now, it carries me through taking more difficult classes. As long as I can breathe deeply, I can do some pretty awesome things (on and off the mat).
I was also confronted with an intense spiritual devotion in the film. Reminded of my experiences growing up in a charismatic, Pentecostal Christian church, as soon as I saw glimpses of glossy, moon-eyed looks, I got a little nauseous. In that moment, I knew I would never embrace this part of yoga. I have nothing against devotion; but, when we worship people, our faith tends to fall apart when they deviate from our expectations. Although I may not fully appreciate the devotional aspect portrayed in the film, the combination of Eastern and Western yoga elements certainly piqued my interest. I do appreciate the fine thread linking my current blink of time to a time and place so far away.
In studying bits and pieces about the history of yoga, I’ve discovered a healthy debate between the Eastern and Western yoga communities. Though I can’t speak for Eastern yogis, my experience taking classes in the West has been a positively transforming one. To delve a little deeper into this transformation, last Sunday, I started reading Yoga Beneath the Surface by Srivatsa Ramaswami and David Hurwitz because it is a dialogue between a traditional Eastern teacher and a Western student. In the process, I’ve learned that Eastern yoga is more philosophically based. Vedic Scriptures are referenced…a lot. Just as with any “scripture,” some of it is way out there. However, some of it is beautiful and insightful, too. Conversely, Western yoga is pretty much a physical work-out. I’m confident some yoga teachers get into the healing/chakra/energy part of yoga, but I doubt many teachers include philosophy in an asana class.
I’m would never question my teachers’ abilities to teach more philosophy, but I do question their ability to stay in business if they did. Most students here come to class either to sweat through an intense strength training workout or recover/cross-train from some other physical activity they do regularly. I originally came as an alternative to physical therapy, so it applies to me too. Sure, the psychological benefit of breathing, slowing down, and creating deeper body awareness is nice, but I doubt you’d find many students who’d be willing to come to class with pen and paper to discuss the philosophical implications of the Bhagavad Gita or the Yoga Sutras. I am one of those students, though.
In addition to studying, lately I’ve been branching out in my yoga practice, taking new classes. This inevitably means I’ve been spending more time at the yoga studio instead of practicing mostly at home alone. But, the increase in studio time paired with studying the differences between Eastern and Western yoga has created some internal conflict for me. Because everything here in the West has a monetary value assigned to it, I started questioning exactly what type of exchange takes place in the Western yoga studio.
Is the Western yoga studio a business first? Is it a spiritual community center? Are the teachers no different from aerobics teachers or personal trainers? Are they spiritually connected to an ancient practice, or are they pandering a brand of New Age puff-ball narcissistic optimism á la Oprah? How can a spiritual journey or a life transformation have a price tag? Does any of it matter anyway? Are these questions just another way for me to be judgmental, distant, and resistant?
When I go to church, I have the choice to put money in the offering plate. Though church offering can easily deteriorate into a legalistic ritual, I think it mostly lends itself to an expression of gratitude or obligation for the connection to the community. Similarly, because of the connection and fulfillment I have with my yoga practice, I feel a deep sense of gratitude, but not obligation. Is that because I pay to learn?
Because of my enthusiasm after a class a couple of months ago, a yoga teacher trainee who was assisting recommended the teacher training program to me. The program consists of a 230-hour Yoga Alliance certification over eight weekends all conveniently located here in my own city. Though I doubted whether I would sign up for the next series of teacher training starting this September, I thought maybe I could take some classes with the teachers to see if I’d want to make such a commitment under their guidance. And though paying $2,300 for teacher training is no small investment for me, it is unbelievably reasonable in comparison with other programs. Thinking I may sign up for it when it comes around next year, I decided to ask my teacher more about the program. When he told me I’d have to pay for the workshops, I told him I thought it was a double whammy, and I asked what the $2,300 actually covered. I was initially under the impression that the cost covered the classes. I expected to pay for books or materials, but not for the actual workshops. Though he explained that it was for necessities like rent, electricity, and travel for the teachers/workshop leaders, I still thought to myself, Well, isn’t that what the workshop fee covers, too? Because of this discussion of the real cost of yoga teacher training, I began thinking of the payment particulars of classes also, and I began to see my first signs of cynicism toward the entire business of yoga. Learning about teachers like Bikram wasn’t helpful either.
Now, looking back over the new classes I’ve added, I notice that they mostly seem to be karma (donation based) classes. I think it says a lot about a teacher that they’re willing to offer their service by donation, especially considering my current perspective on the business of yoga. Karma classes definitely extend yoga to people who may not be able to afford it, and if I’d known such things were possible five or six years ago, my life may look different today. Though it may just be a business ploy to create a new client base for budding yoga teachers, I have found that the karma teachers feel different. If it is a ploy, I’m definitely sold because I’m particularly drawn to their classes. It never mattered to me before how much I donated because I always paid with my pre-paid class card, and I still do. I just never thought of the particulars until recently.
The timing of this suspicion and self interrogation coincides with rather unfortunate news that Aravinda Yoga and Healing Arts Center will be closing at the end of May. This news makes the business of yoga seem even more primarily important. Without the business, I wouldn’t have access to these services at all. Because of Aravinda’s closing, I see now how paying for a service has meaning for both the service provider and the community. Before, when I was commended for “investing” into my practice with every class card (or a $90 yoga mat) purchase, I always felt the smoke being blown up my ass. Of course you’re going to commend me on spending money at your business. That’s no different from a “thank you for shopping with us” note on your grocery bag. But now, I see my payment as a small, albeit somewhat impersonal, act of devotion to the people who have taken part in changing my life. It is an investment in my practice as well as the yoga community. Now, I wish I could support them more.
To the yoga students here in Knoxville, donation based classes are awesome, but they’re not free. Show your gratitude as you are able. Using class card punches for karma classes is not a wasted punch at all. For the Knoxville teachers who will be displaced as a result of Aravinda’s closing, I know West Knoxville is a great location, but Clinton Highway or Emory Road sure could use a studio, too, and rent might be cheaper.
Thank you for reading!
01/24/12 1:40pm edit:
Upon receiving an email from my teacher further clarifying the teacher training expenses, I feel it is necessary to provide corrected information so as to not misrepresent the program in any way. The cost of training does include the weekend workshops. It does not include the the cost of other classes that are required to meet the certification requirements. But, I’d probably meet that requirement anyway since I’m already regularly taking 2-3 studio classes a week. His clarification definitely curtails some of my cynicism regarding the business of it all, and I’m grateful to my teacher for reading my post and for correcting me.