Entitled to Our Yoga?

by Jen Whinnen

Several months ago New York Magazine published an article that opened with a seasoned teacher that had lost her studio and now works in retail. The reason for her loss was the commercialization of yoga. The glut of corporate yoga studios and teacher trainings churning out poorly trained teachers, combined with the trend towards turning yoga into an entertainment industry, pushed her out of a job. Then, another article popped up on my feed just last month decrying much the same thing; that modern yoga has become a wasteland, a glut of teacher trainings pooping out poorly trained teachers and a relatively worthless credentialing system to govern the lot of them.

Every time I read an article like this I bristle. One, because, as the director and owner of a yoga teacher training school, I am the accused and the accursed. It’s irresponsible people like me that are creating the glut in the market. And two, because, while I think this is an attempt to shed light on how yoga is being taught and passed on to the next generation, it’s actually a commentary on the changing economics of pedaling yoga. The commerce of yoga is not the same thing as the study of yoga. And lumping the two together is, and always has been, the problem. 

Both the teachers showcased in these articles were “successful” yoga teachers. Meaning, they made good money. They had their own studios, they were given products, featured in magazines, etc. Then the waves of economy shifted, there was a ground swell, and they got swept up. When something like this happens there is questioning and inevitably that questioning is answered with a lot of finger pointing, shaming and recrimination. Such is the way of the world.

But here’s the thing; when you create and participate in a culture that glorifies your beauty and your physical prowess, one day you aren’t going to be the prettiest girl in the room. Some day there is going to be a new, younger, prettier thing and she is going to take your place. That is how that system works. 

What happened to the economics of yoga (which again, is not the same thing as Yoga)  is something that has been in the pipeline for a long time. This “commercialization” was not an amorphic sneaky force that popped up suddenly. Putting beautiful and highly accomplished athletes on the covers of magazines and on products, offering swag to teachers and promoting them as “rock stars” has been the norm for over 20 years. And we, the generation of 40+ year old yoga teachers, are the ones who created and perpetuated it. It didn’t happen to us. It happened because of us. The mirror reflects. 

The idea that yoga teachers are entitled to a good job because we have a lot of years of experience is hubris. Since when was our education and experience a guarantee of anything? Sure it can be helpful, but it is by no means a guaranteed ticket to ride. Yoga owes us nothing. We are here to serve, to participate, to do, to be. The choice to make teaching one’s sole means of income is one’s own. If I commodify my experience I have decided that my self worth is driven by a dollar amount and I am responsible for that decision. This is not to say that we are right or wrong for doing so, but no one owes us the right to make it so because we want it. 

Allow me to provide a very different kind of “yoga career” narrative; I’ve been practicing yoga for 22 years, teaching for 18. I have thousands of training and teaching hours. I am both a skilled and qualified yoga teacher and I constantly endeavor to become better at my craft. Nevertheless, of my 18 years of teaching, only 4 of them have been spent without another job. Four. Fourteen of the 18 years of teaching I’ve supplemented my income with another, non-yoga related job. 

Teaching to me is a gift, a blessing, a chance to share something I love. Because of this, I don’t look at the commercialization of yoga as the reason I had to work a second job or why my little school has remained little. In fact, I feel the exact opposite. Yoga is more popular today than it has ever been. More and more people are discovering its benefits. The huge money machines that pump out the silly, glitzy, over priced products are creating a steady stream of curious students. People who might not have ever been exposed to yoga are interested in this topic because the corporate machine has normalized it and I think this is a good thing. 

Are there piles of bad teachers and terrible classes? Yes, of course. This is the United States of  America. Excess is our calling card. But scratch beneath the surface and we find so many people who are interested in this subject, craving connection to others, looking for a way to experience health and wellbeing. They are seeking more information. One of the teachers in the above articles spoke about how, in each of his “bad” teacher trainings, he was routinely confronted with a room full of people with little or no yoga practice. He was forced to un-train bad habits, and basically recreate the wheel. While I understand objectively how frustrating that might be, I personally find it delightful! I love sitting down with a new group of curious and eager students, helping them figure out proper alignment, to engage in meaningful discourse, to facilitate loving relationships with themselves and others. To me, a 200 hour course is, at it’s best, a primer, a first step into deeper learning. It should teach you how to study, to pique your curiosity and inspire you to keep learning. It is a platform, a learning tool. And it is in no way sacred. 

The demise or sanctity of modern yoga isn’t really an issue. Yoga will continue beyond this iteration. These teachings survive because they are Truth. And Truth is not affected by commercialism. 

It’s not yoga’s job to support me. It’s not yoga’s job to ensure that I am able to continue doing what I’m doing. That’s my job. And we are not entitled to a life just because we desire it to be so. As I’ve mentioned before, one of my favorite stanzas from the Bhagavad Gita is “You are only entitled to the action, never to its fruits. Do not let the fruits of action be your motive, but do not attach yourself to nonaction.” (2.47) So do the work. If you are successful, so be it. And if you are not successful? 

Find something else to do.