LGBTQ Yoga

 

This autumn I began teaching a free LGBTQ yoga class at Santosa Yoga Studio in Edinburgh. I have long felt that some groups are underrepresented in mainstream yoga studios. With the growth of the ‘yoga industry’ (an oxymoron if ever I heard one), yoga has become increasingly popular primarily amongst middle class people who can afford the gear and the sometimes prohibitive class prices. Likewise, the focus on the external body beautiful and fitness fashion (gone are the suggestions of loose clothing) can deter people who cannot, or preferably choose not, to see themselves in this way. Combine this with them being increasingly gender normative spaces with gendered changing, clothing and postural descriptions and we may have some reasons for the limited demographic. Certainly over 20 years of practice, I have seen the community change a lot and whilst more people are doing yoga, not all yoga classes and spaces feel inclusive.

 

On the flip side of this organisations like Edinburgh Community Yoga (ECY) and studios like Santosa are making a real rather than token effort to keep yoga accessible. ECY bring yoga to all sorts of groups and whilst many LGBTQ folk access non-LGBTQ classes, it felt important to me, and many of the LGBTQ people I spoke to, to offer a safe and supportive space to bring our community together and provide another valuable LGBTQ Health and Wellbeing community group for folk who have accessed this support service. Janis and her staff at Santosa have made us very welcome, they have a gender neutral changing area and welcome students to use the café to socialise pre class. They also offer the space for free and I am exceedingly grateful as we could not run it as it is without their generosity.

 

I had originally thought to run a trans and gender non—binary class as my partner Tom is trans and he found yoga invaluable during his transition, a time when he felt a more intense version of what many of us struggle with in terms of learning to love and accept our bodies and find a quiet mind. This feeling about the therapeutic benefits of yoga and meditation for gender queer folk is reiterated time and again in online forums and communities for Trans and LGBTQ community. Regularly, over my 13 years of teaching I have seen yoga’s potential to change people’s relationships with themselves and their bodies in truly transformative ways. LGBT Health and Wellbeing suggested we open it up to the broader LGBTQ community suggesting that all might benefit.

We recently completed the proposed eight week pilot and have decided to continue, as the uptake has been incredible. We have had over thirty people in attendance over the eight weeks it has run, with a crew of steady regulars too. Many have already spoken of the physical, mental and spiritual benefits and interestingly some suggested they felt nervous of going to other classes.

The class is gentle, with traditional asanas conducted in a mindful way with attention to the breath so that the focus is not just on strength and flexibility but also on relaxation and mental quiet.  Students also regularly comment on the energy and atmosphere of the studio at Santosa, which is very special. Janis the owner suggested that it was a little piece of Nepal and I think she might be right – there is a steady spiritual quiet there that supports our practice.

 

 

Why the Yoga Industry and Consumerists Practising Yoga are Contradictions in Terms

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.

 

 References

[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].

[iv] Ibid.

[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.

[viii] Ibid.

[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.

Atha Yoga

Atha Yoga means Now Yoga, inspired by the first sutra in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the foundational text of modern yoga. Sutra 1.1. has different translations or rather interpretations. It states ‘Now the practice of yoga begins’. I write ‘practice’ here instead of ‘instruction’ or ‘exposition’, because Patanjali’s is not a dry philosophy. In this practical guide, Patanjali seems to support Pattabhi Jois’ claim that yoga is ‘99% practice and 1% theory’. For me the key is the immediacy of the word Atha. Yoga, at its best, is immersive. Not only does yoga (translated as yoking or union) suggest that through detaching from Prakriti (the material world), we unite with Perusha (our Divine Consciousness); it also suggests that through yoga the chitta vritti (distracted mind) is yoked firmly in the present moment. Now.

The ethics and economics of yoga teaching

 

I read this excellent article (below) recently by Shanna Small. It refers to the issues around how many teachers are being churned out of very expensive and rushed one month teacher trainings with little knowledge of yoga history, philosophy or the eight limbs. Whilst the desire to teach gym yoga (though it can barely be called yoga at all) is problematic, they can hardly be blamed as they are not being taught by teacher trainers what yoga really is. Such teachers have every hope of setting up businesses but struggle in such a saturated market. New teachers have also often been sold a lifestyle dream, which is not true for most teachers – it is hard work. Even worse than their failure arguably, is the success of some of these young business minded teachers who seem less interested in the roots of the practice, when other older, more learned teachers are sometimes being forced out. Sadly, with more asana focused trainings, the spiritual dimension of the practice is not being taught and it is our duty as a yoga community to consider what this means for the future.

About the economics (and ethics) of being a yoga teacher

The comment below is from the article by Shanna Small:

You can no longer just be a great teacher. You have to be a celebrity. People are not buying into yoga, they are buying into a lifestyle brand. They are not looking for the happiness of the Sutras but the type of happiness sold in magazine ads and commercials. This creates an environment where all you need is enough knowledge on yoga to teach a decent class and you can make up the rest with popularity and marketing. Instead of a teacher focusing on living yoga, they focus on staying in the cult of celebrity.

Teachers that have a lot of knowledge, but are not cute enough or charismatic enough to be a celebrity, are lost. When these great teachers are lost, their knowledge is lost. When their knowledge is lost and we throw out texts like the Yoga Sutras because we can’t fill a room teaching it, because it makes some people uncomfortable, or because we don’t or won’t take the time to understand it, where does that leave yoga?

Starting a home practice

Starting a home practice is something many of my students find onerous. They feel they are not confident with sequences, that they get distracted and that just finding time will be an issue. Of course, we have all battled these at some point in our journey with yoga, so here are a few simple tips and ideas:

When and Where?

1. Create a space at home where you can leave your mat out, preferably a light, clean space that is quiet and not used for anything else.

2. Use the same mat, shawl, props, incense every time as your sense memory will help to quieter your mind ‘ah meditation is what I do when I smell, see, hear, feel these things.

3. If you can, rise a little earlier and practice in the morning so that your mind is clear of thoughts from your day, others in your house are not awake or moving around and there are no excuses.

4. Do not eat before you practice, but allowing myself a little sweet tea helps me to rise at six.

5. Practising with others is wonderful to get you on your mat, if you can, get others to practice with you by forming a self practice group at someone’s house or by getting someone to come to you.

6. Keep going to classes and workshops, you always go deeper when you break your own home habits and routines.

What?

1. Start with the rule to get on your mat at home every day, even if you don’t do much when you get there, this forms the routine.

2. In the same vein, touching your toes with a deep inhale as you rise and a long slow exhale as you bow in is a Vinyasa practice and three of these every day will change how you feel. Start small.

3. Use online lessons and videos to find sequences sometimes if you need them. Yogaglo offers excellent quality classes and the Ashtanga sequence is on this blog.

4. If it helps to quiet your mind play music without lyrics, but your attention should still be on your breath.

5. Honour your own daily needs by opening with a period of checking in, where you see what the body needs that day – maybe it is a restorative practice rather than a strong Vinyasa flow.

6. Always have a period of extended sitting and or a long Shivasana. If you are like me, these are sometimes the most challenging areas of your practice to settle into, but you lose a lot of the benefits if you do not let the body absorb the benefits of the practice at the end.

Why?

1. Your home practice is where you consolidate what you learn, where you listen to your own body and where you discipline yourself to make time. This makes it very valuable not just in itself but for what it can teach you about other aspects of life.

2. It is humbling. You are not performing for anyone. This practice is truly just for you.

3. It is free! You do not need to pay teachers or get fancy gear. You do not need to do as you are told. This is hugely beneficial and it is all yours for free.

4. All great teachers allow themselves to become redundant in the end. Students need to have their own journey.

Some useful sites:

http://www.yogajournal.com/category/poses/types/

http://www.yogaglo.com/

 

Enjoy your home practice!

 

 

Ashtanga Primary Series with John Scott – video

Here is an excellent version of the primary series led by John Scott. It is a great tool to use for home practice. The sound of the breath in the background here is particularly useful to help your focus and there is a really clear count and instructions on drishti (gaze). Enjoy.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWgYTAO09QQ

Ashtanga Primary Series led by Pattabhi Jois – video

For those of you interested in practising the Ashtanga primary series at home, this is an excellent resource. Guruji’s count is particularly fast and this video is only 1 hour 20 minutes (shorter than most). It will help you to learn the count, drishti (gaze) and sequence of poses.

I often use this if I am struggling with my focus on my own in my self practice. Enjoy: