By Annie Belcher
I’ve been away from Melbourne for the past month. Having a break from yoga and teaching has provided me space to think through and distill some thoughts I’ve been having about yoga – it’s downfalls and some parts I think we (those in the yoga industry in the Western World) could be doing better.
There are many aspects of yoga which I think need further thought and interrogation; issues of cultural appropriation, yoga’s limited engagement with structural issues, yoga’s focus on the individual. In this instance however, I’m speaking to the implications of commodification. Exploring what happens when yoga is simultaneously “health and wellness” and a commodified product.
I’m concerned that there’s no regulatory body that actively intervenes to ensure the consumers of yoga aren’t mistreated. Whether that’s through marketing yoga, in classes or in conversations.
There are many reasons why I love yoga and there is a reason why I have spent a lot of time learning about it, practicing it and teaching it. However, despite the many aspects of yoga I enjoy, I often question why I teach it. I question why so many of the associations that come with yoga make me cringe? Why I feel deeply uncomfortable in places that are bustling with yoga tourism? Why, in social situations I often omit the fact that I teach yoga? Why when I see images of bikini-clad women and oiled up men doing “yoga” I feel a desire to distance myself from the industry?
I think the problem doesn’t actually lie with yoga, but with processes of commodification and how this has made people in the yoga industry behave. I’m concerned with the messages that are communicated to consumers when there is a need for yoga to create a monetary return.
I wonder why there are so many people doing yoga. Why there are 35 people wanting to “Balance their Chakras” on a Saturday afternoon. Why the amount of people doing yoga teacher trainings continues to rise. If it’s because people enjoy doing yoga then great, but I’m worried the amount of people doing yoga is because of a very clever marketing campaign rather than yoga itself. Because I don’t think what a lot of us gain from yoga is exclusive to yoga.
There are other platforms to inquire about the human experience: Buddhism, western science, Taoism, indigenous knowledge, being in nature, reading a book. We could move in other ways other than asana. Yoga can make you feel strong and calm, it can provide a sense of ease, connection and freedom, so I understand why so many people enjoy it.
I think yoga can be very beneficial for people but I do not think it is necessary. I also don’t think it is necessarily the best way to ‘help’ people. I believe thinking we need to ‘help’ people is problematic in itself. Let alone helping them by selling them yoga. Maybe I’m just being cynical and the way to solve the world’s problems is for everyone to become a yoga teacher and do yoga. I’m just not that optimistic though. I’m worried the yoga industry has created a market; similar to how the beauty industry has created a market.
The beauty industry could be harmless – people using products to express themselves and to make themselves feel good. But the beauty industry has also created its own market by constantly telling people they aren’t thin enough, hairless enough, that their skin isn’t smooth enough. Because, to sell beauty products we need to work from the premise that people aren’t already beautiful as they are.
Let me be clear, I don’t think make-up is necessarily bad. In fact it can be great. But when people are told they need it just so the company can increase profits it gets ugly. The marketing that accompanies yoga, like the beauty industry, often works from the premise that people as they are aren’t enough. There’s a big flaw inherent in selling health and wellness. To sell someone health and wellness one needs to work from the premise that they don’t already have it. That people aren’t well enough, healthy enough, flexible enough, spiritual enough, strong enough, self aware enough, eating well enough, following self-care rituals enough, that people just aren’t enough as they are. And yoga is the perfect commodity to sell. You need to buy it many times a week to maintain the benefits. You can stop buying it when you reach the elusive and esoteric ‘enlightenment’ (so most of us are in it for a lifetime I imagine).
Phrases such as “Discover your best self” and “Fulfill possibility” can be said harmlessly, benevolently in fact. But what these phrases infer is that one isn’t already their best self, one hasn’t already fulfilled their potential unless they come to your yoga class, your workshop or your retreat. I think a lot about social impact and while yoga can be great for people, I think culturally and socially, the yoga industry can also be harmful.
My concern is that there is no (active) regulatory body that has the consumers’ best interests first and foremost. Yoga is not held to the same standards that other health and wellness providers are. As Bessel Van De Kolk articulated so well “you don’t know you’re being negligent until you know”. By telling people what they do and don’t need to feel good are we accidently being negligent? Can we abuse our power as “teacher”? Matthew Remski thinks so, highlighting the damage yoga instructors can do on participants’ bodies because of what the teacher believes is “right”, is “necessary” to get “better” at yoga.
I look at people selling things (for example supplements) whole heartedly believing the consumer needs them, telling them to spend a lot of money because they believe it will work. But is their belief enough? Or is it an abuse of their position of power? Are good intentions enough?
If yoga is going to continue to be commodified, it should at the very least be subject to market protections and regulations. I’m worried we easily lose sight of our initial reasons for teaching yoga when creating a monetary return also becomes a goal. I feel uncomfortable having to make money from yoga, I feel uncomfortable competing for business and I’m uncomfortable telling people they need yoga even if I do that implicitly by simply communicating what I’m selling.
It’s not yoga itself, it’s the commodification of yoga and what that has done to yoga and therefore, has made people teaching/selling yoga have to do and the effect that is having on consumers. It’s the message of advertising of not being good enough without yoga and that to be happy one must do yoga. Yogic philosophy poses an inherent contradiction to a market centered on need and insufficiency; that practitioners are told they are enough at the same time that they exist as consumers being told that they need more yoga. So if it makes you feel good, keep doing yoga, I’m going to. But can we use yoga to challenge ideas of insufficiency, scarcity, competition, and spread ideas of sufficiency and abundance? And if no one else is going to hold us to account, can those of us teaching/selling yoga hold ourselves accountable for our intended and unintended impacts on society?