This title may sound somewhat absurd, of course there is a yoga industry, one which was valued at 27 billion dollars in the US alone in 2013[i] and from 2015 to 2016 the US spend on classes, clothes and accessories rose dramatically from $10 billion to $16 billion.[ii] Still, there is a contradiction at the heart of the phrase ‘yoga industry’. Yoga in all its styles and traditions is a process of detaching from material concerns. An ‘industry’ is a producer of goods and services within an economy driven by capital. Therefore, yoga, by its very nature as a non-consumerist practice, is not only (as some have implied) ‘hard to balance’ with industries, advertising, branding or marketing speak but is rather an absurd pairing of opposites.[iii] So, there is a very real sense in which there cannot be a ‘yoga industry’; it is a contradiction in terms.
A contradiction occurs when two parts of a statement oppose each other and render the statement false. For example, Toni Nagy’s article on yoga and consumerism suggests ‘most’ yoga practitioners are struggling to ‘find a balance between living a life of non-attachment and finding the perfect outfit for doing Crow Pose’.[iv] Whilst Nagy is likely being sarcastic, the contradiction she mocks is one we do meet in yoga practitioners, a shopaholic talking about non-attachment. The contradictory nature of their speech (practising non-attachment) in relation to their actions (habitual purchasing) leaves what they say false and somewhat hypocritical. I am not pointing a finger here, we can all be drawn into patterns of consumerism by a marketing industry built to do exactly that and I include myself here, but to maintain our yoga practice it is something to keep in check.
The defensive practitioner will either reason that they are not excessive and justify their wants as needs or counter my point by suggesting that we don’t practice in caves anymore so this is an unreasonable request. However, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika highlights that the fact that most modern (certainly Western) yogis cannot practice in a ‘hermitage’ as suggested by ancient texts like the Tantraraja Tantra, makes it more rather than less important that we avoid the obstacles to yoga like lobha, meaning an excessive desire for possessions.[v]
In fact, most yoga texts suggest that consumerism is a terrible trap, which defeats our yoga. Consider the last but not least yama (moral code of conduct) in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, aparigraha:
Aparigraha sthairye janmakathamta sambodhah.[vi]
Sutra 2:39 tells us that it is upon a foundation of non-possessiveness that deep understanding arises. Whilst this can refer to not being possessive around experiences, it definitely suggests that true fulfillment arises when we do not hanker after material possessions. There is no world in which aparigraha and retail therapy can go hand in hand, however much we try to justify intense desires to buy what catches our eye. Whilst it is a tough decision to buck the consumerist trend and not excessively purchase, window-shop, browse products and clothing sites, or hoard, this is part of our yoga. It is not to say we need to go without, but B.K.S. Iyengar puts it well in Light on Life by proposing ‘modesty of life’.[vii] He says, ‘me, me, me by means of my, my, my…leads to a bondage…a desire through possessions to expand the ego’.[viii] Sadly, the ego – in the consumerist – is stimulated by a sense of false need; a marketing strategy devised by Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud and dubbed the father of consumerism. He advocated using advertisements to stimulate desires which consumers rationalised as real needs, but which were actually ‘false needs’.[ix] It is worth reflecting on how often our purchasing patterns are dictated by genuine needs rather than wants disguised as needs.
Most yoga magazines have become dominated by adverts, with very little real content. Likewise it is hard to look at a yoga related website, however informative, without being marketed to in the sidebars. Whilst these publications and sites need extra revenue from advertising, it also comes with the ethical issue that they too are part of the machine that would have the yoga community become a community of consumers.
None can be worse than the yoga product companies themselves however. In an Independent article in 2009 the (now ex) Chief Executive of Lululemon Athletica Christine Day stated, ‘you can call it making money or you can call it having a livelihood’.[x] Lululemon’s net revenue for the fourth quarter of 2016 was $704.3 million. Now a ‘livelihood’, as defined by OED, is ‘the means of securing the necessities of life’.[xi] Would you say this characterises a company with such a gross turnover? It does not seem to conform to the modest life Iyengar speaks of. Of course we are not all making our millions at Lululemon, but should we really support it or any other part of the ‘yoga industry’ if consumerism is detrimental to our yoga? Maybe not, when the founder Chip Wilson suggested that the reason their leggings perished quickly on the thighs and bottom was because some women just weren’t the right shape for their leggings and that they didn’t make sizes over a 12 because they needed 30% more fabric and this reduced their profits.[xii]
Of course what really causes offense is that in the case of the yoga industry, it is not happy to be outed as the corporate, consumer machine it is. Rather it is an ‘industry dressed in pseudo-spiritual robes’[xiii] making it less ethical than many of its more openly money-driven contemporaries. Whilst we have become accustomed to the language of ‘yoga industry’, ‘yoga business’, ‘yoga brands’ and ‘yoga products’, I want to join with the growing community of voices who recognise that whilst consumerism is central to all areas of neoliberal late capitalist societies like ours, the authentic practice of yoga is, by its very nature, a radical rejection of this consumerist ideology. [xiv] The yoga industry undermines yoga being a spiritual practice, based on a modest, virtuous existence at every turn.
A positive spin
Whilst it would be easy to simply bemoan the hypocrisy of those whose yoga practices and businesses have become a mere expression of consumerism rather than yoga, I prefer to turn to the positive. If yoga is a radical rejection of consumerism, it is a genuinely exciting prospect that more people than ever before are practising. I am lucky enough to know many genuine spiritual seekers and dedicated practitioners who live modest lives. Some are teachers holding spaces and offering classes to make a ‘livelihood’ and build a community in their areas. Surely as a community and as individuals we need to check ourselves and ally ourselves with community rather than industry. In so doing we reject being characterised as part of a population now almost solely imagined as consumers. Garry Cross states that consumerism is ‘the –ism that ‘won’’, whilst seemingly accurate in characterising western society generally, surely we needn’t let it win in our own personal lives.[xv]
5 Ways to practice Aparigraha and Counter the Industry’s Acquisition of Yoga
1] Commit to not buy any yoga clothing or yoga ‘stuff’ for a year (to start with). Remember, originally there were no yoga mats, just rugs and very few clothes were worn for yoga. Maybe it is time to get back to basics:
If you struggle here are suggestions that help me:
- a]Buy the still tagged yoga clothes in charity shops or arrange clothes swaps with friends.
- b] Wear clothes for yoga that were not designed for it (they are not so different).
- c] Practise in your pants or naked at home to form a new connection with your bandhas through gazing upon nabi chakra (your navel) unhindered by a veil of lycra.
2] Beware tokenism: It seems more and more important these days to note when the language of ethics is merely marketing rather than a sign of a truly principled company. I have found it worthwhile to do a little research. Likewise, we need to beware our own tokenism when addressing our consumerist patterns.
3] Abundance Meditation: Instead of getting stuck in justifying our wants as needs, we could meditate on feelings of abundance and fullness – not to get rich, but to recognise what we already have. I have found counting my blessings (quite literally sometimes) a profoundly uplifting and satisfying practice that leaves me feeling I want for nothing more in this world.
4] Remind Yourself Yoga is Free: Whilst we all love a class, I think it is important to practice privately. I have always found it to be the most humble, honest practice I have. Doing this or practising with friends also reminds us that the most special yoga practices can come completely free.
5] Boycott: Boycott yoga products companies and massive corporate studios. I try to support local community yoga studios and teachers who are genuinely practising their yoga. I will not go into the ethics of yoga and visual culture here, but I invite you to consider with me the conflict between aparigraha and Instagram for example.
[i] Anon, ‘By The Numbers: The Growth of Yoga’, Channel Signal (2017), https://channelsignal.com/blog/by-the-numbers-the-growth-of-yoga/ [accessed 22nd April 2017].
[ii]Anon (2), ‘2016 Yoga In America Study Conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance Reveals Growth and Benefits of the Practice’, PRNews Wire (2016), < http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/2016-yoga-in-america-study-conducted-by-yoga-journal-and-yoga-alliance-reveals-growth-and-benefits-of-the-practice-300203418.html> [accessed 20to April 2017].
[iii] Toni Nagy, ‘Yoga and the Culture of Consumerism’, Do You Yoga (2015), https://www.doyouyoga.com/yoga-and-the-culture-of-consumerism/ [accessed 19th April 2017].
[v] Swami Muktibodhananda (1993), Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Bihar School: Bihar, India, pp. 252-253.
[vi] Patanjali (2012), Swami Satchidananda transl., The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Yoga Publications Trust: Bihar, pp. 132-133.
[vii] B.K.S. Iyengar, (2005), Light on Life: The Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace and Ultimate Freedom, (Rodale: London), p.254.
[ix] Yannis Stavrakakis (2006), ‘Objects of Consumption, Causes of Desire: Consumerism and advertising in societies of commanded enjoyment’, <http://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/35077651/stavrakakis-gramma.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAIWOWYYGZ2Y53UL3A&Expires=1493205933&Signature=pKW2uhBFhvLPDiF6pSkPXMH%2BJsw%3D&response-content disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3DObjects_of_Consumption_Causes_of_Desire.pdf> [accessed 19th April 2017].
[x]Susie Mesure (2009), ‘Yoga Inc. The Phenomenal Popularity of Yoga’, The Independent Newspaper, http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/yoga-inc-the-phenomenal-popularity-of-yoga-1772832.html [accessed 20th April 2017].
[xi] OED online, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/livelihood [accessed 1st May 2017].
[xii] Hollie Shaw (2013), ‘Lululemon Founder Chip Wilson’s Five most Controversial Quotes’, http://business.financialpost.com/news/retail-marketing/lululemon-athletica-chip-wilson-controversy [accessed 18th April 2017].
[xiii] Jonathan Philp (2009), Yoga Inc. : A Journey Through the Big Business of Yoga, Viking Press: New York.
[xiv]Waylon Lewis and his team at Elephant Journal do write critically about the industry regularly. See, for example, https://www.elephantjournal.com/2015/06/the-yoga-industry-is-not-yoga/.
[xv] Gary Cross (2002), An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America, Columbia University Press: New York.