Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What Do Yoga & Fast Food Have in Common?

To date, I've never eaten at Taco Bell. The first time I tasted a famed Wendy's Frosty, I was a freshman in college. As a child, my parents were more apt to allow me to keep pet chickens than habitually eat them in the form of a McNugget.

When I share details of my limited exposure to fast food, people usually assume I was raised on a commune by hippie parents who baked bread, practiced yoga, and taught me to make my own soap. Not quite. Though that kind of upbringing would explain a few things. . .

Instead, my parents are in the restaurant business, hence my brother and I were encouraged, nay, mandated to patronize small businesses rather than big, bloated chain restaurants whenever possible. Sure, they were health-conscious, but more than that, my entrepreneurial mom and pop were conscious of supporting mom-and-pop businesses, and, to be fair, no chef—from the standpoint of taste—wants to dine on mass-produced meals from a corporate kitchen, or encourage his/her children to do the same.

But, what does all this have to do with yoga, you ask? More than you think.

No doubt you've noticed that yoga is pretty popular these days. So popular that new styles of yoga seem to pop up faster than outlandish fashion statements on Lady Gaga. Increasingly, these different types of yoga are—you guessed it—being trademarked and/or franchised. Perhaps the most well-known yogi to "brand" a style of yoga is Birkram Choudhury, who went so far in 2002 to copyright his sequence of 27 postures. However, he's not the only one to trademark a style of yoga practice, train other teachers to teach and promote it, and franchise studios around the country, a pseudo “fast food” option for yoga practices. (I get a kick out of taking the metaphor one step further and imaging what I might name an actual fast food joint for yogis. Hey kids, who wants McYogis? Burger Raja . . . Breath In & Out Burger?).

Unless you've been meditating in a Himalayan cave for the past decade, you realize that yoga is not just popular, but, for some, profitable. In 2005, consumers spent $2.5 billion in yoga classes, yoga apparel and accessories, according to Yoga Journal. Last year, the figure exploded to $7.5 billion, a growth of 300%. With all this added demand for yoga and its accouterments; teachers, studios, health clubs, and retailers are continually amping up the supply, with varying levels of authenticity and success. Much has been made of the commodification of yoga in recent years, and for good reason.

One of my favorite sports writers, Bill Simmons of Sports Guy fame (who also hails from the state of Massachusetts), once put it thus, "The sound inside the cathedral is so peaceful without the clanging of the collection plate.”* He was referring to the ways in which we idealize the games we love, often failing to accept that sports teams are businesses (big ones) for which athletes perform a job, in exchange for money. We want athletes to love our hometowns, stadiums, coaches, and fans as much as we do and, for example, not feel wooed by other organizations offering higher salaries. However, let’s face it; that’s a little naïve. OK, it’s a lot naïve.

At its core, yoga is a spiritual practice, but there’s also a lot of money changing hands in the name of spiritual growth. Admittedly, this reality makes me uneasy, but I would also be naïve if I didn’t acknowledge that the yoga industry is just as susceptible to the pitfalls of being focused on profit over quality as, say, the restaurant industry. The crux is this: No matter what the industry, human beings are running it, and the human condition is vulnerable to the same triggers whether it’s selling Big Macs or yoga mats. The only safeguards we have against yoga becoming unbearably diluted as a spiritual practice is the individual attention and integrity that we show our own practices and life paths each day.

The expansion of yoga from a niche interest for the New Age set to a mainstream activity enjoyed by millions is a very good thing. More people are healthier and happier because of it. Yet, I often wonder how much flavor and finesse are lost when yogis cook up a style meant for mass-consumption.

Consider the upside and downside of yoga-related franchises . . .


Access: With more choices on the yoga menu today, a greater number of people are able to find a practice to meet their needs. This is a wonderful thing.

Expectations: People appreciate knowing what to expect when they shell out their hard-earned money for a product or service, whether it’s a Saturday morning latte or Thursday night yoga class. Like any valued franchise, branded yoga styles and franchised studios provide students with an experience with which they are fond and familiar. If you know what to look for, you’re more apt to find it.

Expansion: If you’re anything like me, you get a little lift when you can recommend your amazing hair stylist, off-the-hook massage therapist, or a delectable recipe for tofu pumpkin pie to your closest om pals. We enjoy sharing the small discoveries that make life stylish, relaxing, or delicious because, in many ways, we all pride ourselves on being connoisseurs of good taste. And, let’s face it; it’s easier to share your favorite yoga experiences if they’re easily identifiable by a trademark style.


Authenticity: I once heard some jamoke on TV describe his style of “Yoga for Regular Guys” thus, “Instead of namaste, we’re all about T and A,” referring to the, ahem, certain anatomical features of a woman’s body. Let me set the record straight here: That’s not yoga. Being creative and finding a niche audience is one thing; being a sexist buffoon is another. I’m just saying . . .

Experience: Given yoga’s recent surge in popularity, there are oodles of teachers certified in various styles all the time. Yet, newer styles sometimes omit important aspects of yoga’s tradition, and newer teachers are often certified in the first style that they try. Specializing in one style of practice is not a bad thing; however, I do believe that the best teachers have a broader repertoire.

Integrity: There’s no other way to say this: When yoga teachers or corporations engage in hypocritical behavior for the sake of shilling their goods to a greater audience, it shows. As any chef will tell you, you’re only as good as your last meal. So, while your dish can have some decorative flash (perhaps a fancy garnish or dollop of an expensive gourmet ingredient), at it’s core, it must be nourishing, wholesome, and fulfilling.

Readers, please dish your thoughts: When are yoga franchises convenient and inclusive? When are they disingenuous or diluted?

*I'm paraphrasing this quote from Simmons. I read it several years ago in one of his many memorable columns in ESPN the Magazine.


Eco Yogini said...

yep- you got it.

there was a very intense debate about this very topic over at It's all yoga baby, with Rainbeau Mars dropping by to share her thoughts.

Ultimately though, I think you were able to touch on all aspects :)

Anonymous said...

I think this topic resonates with a lot of yogis these days. It's been a challenge finding a class that's not loaded with the energy of something other than Yoga. I think whenever your ultimate goal becomes to make money above all there is a trickle down effect that impacts the quality of the practice. Be it all the politics that go on with running a studio, or the class becomes a venue for a teacher to step in to a version of themselves they don't practice within their every day lives, whatever the obstacle... The Yoga is warped into something different. This is felt. We have to remember what we are all truly there for... to be/do yoga.

Om Gal said...

Amen, Anonymous. Well said! Eco Yogini- thanks for the tidbit. It's an important conversation to have. Thank you, as always, for weighing in. Om shanti!