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Bad Karma: Can Yoga and Capitalism Get Along?

The philosophical rift plaguing the practice of yoga in the United States: Is it a life path, or a business model?

John Friend has always been an unconventional yoga teacher: A plump, pale 53-year-old Texan in a landscape of sculpted physiques, Friend was a financial analyst before becoming a full-time yogi in 1986. Now, he rakes in around $100,000 a year—a windfall in the yoga world—thanks to Anusara, the type of yoga he founded. Anusara employs flowery language about “divine human nature” to foster a feel-good experience that has attracted hundreds of thousands of followers and spawned a multimillion dollar empire. In 2010, The New York Times Magazine heralded Friend as “the yoga mogul” for his ability to grow a loyal following while extending his reach into salable goods like DVDs and branded yoga mats.

Last month, Friend was exposed as an even more unconventional spiritual leader when yoga bloggers aired anonymous allegations that Friend purportedly cheated on his girlfriends with married students, dealt pot, and secretly froze employee pensions. The scandal points to a deeper philosophical rift plaguing the practice of yoga in the United States: Is it a life path, or a business model?

When the allegations against Friend spread through the yoga community, they sparked a mass exodus of Anusara teachers. Within weeks, Friend had announced his leave of absence from his leadership and teaching duties “for self-reflection, therapy, and personal retreat in order to take care of myself, and consider the next best step for myself and Anusara.” He appointed a new CEO, vowing to turn Anusara into a nonprofit organization run by a board of directors. Teachers remain skeptical.

Friend isn’t the first big businessman to fall short of claims of human divinity, but his downfall does signal a crisis point for American yoga. Since yoga first rose to prominence in the U.S, the ancient Indian philosophy has made an awkward fit with the mammoth capitalist enterprise it has spawned. When yoga emerged in India thousands of years ago, it was a variety of austerely uncomfortable methods for reaching enlightenment. But within a century of yoga’s introduction stateside, as Stefanie Syman notes in her 2010 history The Subtle Body, yoga had transitioned from a rigorous discipline—a hard sell to Western audiences—to a signifier of luxury and cosmopolitanism.

U.S. practitioners like Friend reframed yoga as user-friendly, primarily by focusing on the physical poses, or asanas, which make up a tiny part of yoga’s overall philosophical framework. (In the yoga I practice, called ashtanga, asana is just one of eight components that comprise the path to enlightenment.) In American gyms, yoga is just another group workout on the white board, like spinning or pilates, one that some 16 million Americans enjoy. Enthusiasts preach the virtues of “yoga butts—not quite the quest for oneness with the universe yoga traditionally espouses—and craft Internet memes around the idea that yoga chicks are hot. A recent ad by gym chain Equinox neatly combined this imagery with an aspirational sales pitch: A gorgeous woman performs advanced poses in lingerie while her lucky man sleeps in the background.

This take is not traditional, but it’s lucrative. For the most devoted practitioner, there are classes to pay for, videos to watch, pants to wear, clothing to layer on top when traveling to and from the studio, and jewelry to pair with it. There are yoga mats, and bags and cleaners for your yoga mats. There are blocks, straps, and bolster pillows. A memoir subgenre of yoga awakenings, led by Eat, Pray, Love, allows enterprising authors to earn royalties from their spiritual quests. I don’t have much extra cash, but in the four years I’ve been doing yoga, I’ve still managed to collect a week’s worth of yoga pants and capris, two yoga blocks, a strap, four or five mats and a shelf of ashtanga books.

This fall, an ad campaign by “yoga lifestyle” retailer Lululemon advanced the capitalist yoga trend: Lululemon emblazoned the phrase “Who is John Galt?” on its reusable shopping bags, directly linking yoga with Ayn Rand’s libertarian idea that the most important goal is individual happiness. Yoga practitioners had been gladly snapping up Lululemon’s moisture-wicking and butt-shaping yoga pants for a cool $100 for years, but drawing an explicit connection between yoga and Atlas Shrugged was a step too far. Yogis told one reporter that the phrase was “completely contrary to the teachings of yoga.” Many vowed to seek yoga clothes elsewhere. The unrest led founding CEO Chip Wilson, the Randian behind the tag line, to step down early this year. Lululemon still reported a 31 percent increase in revenue in the most recent quarter.

The enterprise built around American yoga doesn’t just threaten to degrade the practice’s spiritual aspects—a January New York Times Magazine story adapted from reporter William J. Broad’s new book The Science of Yoga claimed that American yogis are often incompetent with yoga’s physical side, too. Yoga can be dangerous when teachers don’t focus on pose alignment and students either don’t know or disregard when something can hurt them. Of course, yoga isn’t dangerous if you’re doing it mindfully. But as Eddie Stern, a teacher of mine, recently weighed in, many practitioners are increasingly mindful of only the bottom line. “When there is a great potential for making money, quality is usually the first thing to be sacrificed,” Stern wrote. “Yoga has been McDona-fied. It has been reduced from a practice that traditionally demanded dedication, discipline, sacrifice, humility, surrender, love, devotion, and self-investigation—and yes, suffering through rigorous practice—to something that one can now learn to teach in a weekend. Nowadays, Stern noted, “in a mere 200 hours, you can become a bona fide, registered yoga instructor. 200 hours is spit. It is a joke.”

But as John Friend knows, aspiring teachers pay thousands for those 200 hours. They then teach the little bit that they know, which is just a small part of the broader conception of yoga. “Yoga isn’t one thing. It’s a whole spectrum of things,” Broad admitted in a recent interview. Purists can argue that workouts with downward dog poses should not be called yoga, but that won’t stop gym rats seeking lean muscle from amassing. And even the most ascetic literalist still needs to invest in a yoga mat. The best thing to do, if I can channel my inner yoga chick for a moment, is to view all of it through a yogic lens. We can’t control what’s around us, the tradition says, just how we react to it. When faced with Friend’s shenanigans or Broad’s takedown, acknowledge the thought, then let it go. Do this, and yoga will persist in America, one moment at a time.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas

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