Yoga: Sell Out, Keep Out, or Branch Out

“The love and the light in me recognizes and admires the love and the light in each and every one of you,” Beth Fields says, as she does at the close of all her yoga classes.  In front of her lay seventeen yoga practitioners, breathing heavily with eyes closed and palms raised towards the ceiling in the beloved Shavasana pose.  The hum of small, Tibetan Buddhist tingsha bells that she struck together is still radiating through the stillness.  Yogis agree that this physically simple posture of lying flat on ones back and silencing the mind is the most mentally challenging because the noise of our daily lives easily intrudes.

Developed about 5,000 years ago in India, yoga was a system of techniques encompassing the mental, emotional, and spiritual realms.  Henry David Thoreau, fascinated by the Hindu religion, brought the practice of yoga and meditation to America and would spend hours, beginning at sunrise, captivated by what he described as “undisturbed solitude and stillness.”  Fields describes it as a practice of “mindful movements and discovering something new about oneself” every time.

Yoga has transformed over the centuries and for many years has held an air of exclusivity.  Stefani Syman, author of “The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America,” points out that, during World War II, it was primarily an elite group of women that took Hatha yoga in “pristine studios” and that they were “enchanted” by the mystery of yoga and exoticism of Indian culture.  Spencer Jones, a yoga instructor in Buffalo, New York, says yoga is “a wealthy white woman’s game” and that the industry caters primarily to their taste and income.  “People are aware of this and want yoga to become more diverse but it’s these suburban housewives who are paying for classes and private lessons.”  Typically making $30,000 a year, he says it’s hard for instructors to “bite the hand that feeds.”

Today, Syman says we have thoroughly “exhausted yoga’s commercial possibilities.”  She feels that there is no longer any aspect of the practice left to exploit and that it is now impossible to imagine yoga apart from profiteering.  Films such as Eat, Pray, Love and trends like eager Instagram yogis sponsored by apparel companies have led to a surge in people who consider themselves yoga practitioners.  Syman says yoga has become something “completely unrelated to the discipline” as well as “shorthand for an active American Life.”  Jones agrees that some people just “want to be seen doing yoga” for social status.

The 2016 Yoga in America Study found that 36.7 million Americans do yoga, an increase from 20.4 million in 2012.  Seventy-four percent of them are new to yoga which proves the recent trend.  The study also portrays commercialization within the practice, revealing that students spend $16 billion a year on classes, gear, and equipment.

The study also concluded that 72% of yoga practitioners are women, showing that men make up a minority often excluded from the accepted yoga community.  As a male instructor, Spencer Jones continuously feels self conscious and like an outsider because many assume he is either “a player or a sexual predator” even though he is completely professional in his work and would “never dream of hitting on a student.”  He experiences extreme disconnect from his students because he cannot offer hands-on adjustments in his classes.  He knows that one hand to the back of a student in downward-facing dog would save him a thousand words trying to explain the adjustment to them.  “I took a $500 workshop and I still don’t want to touch anyone because people look at me like I’m guilty of something.”  Jones continues that yoga in general has become overly sexualized and that people ask him inappropriate, sexually-motivated questions, assuming that men get into yoga simply for the “sex appeal.”

A new Instagram phenomenon that has signified to some both further nonattainability and sexualization is the Nude Yoga Girl.  The page has gained over 300,000 followers in just three months and features the long, thin limbed yogi entangled in different postures, never exposing her face.  Critics believe that this does not make the practice any more accessible nor does it encourage viewers to celebrate their own bodies.  Supporters praise the beauty and rawness captured in her shots and Beth Fields points out that everyone must find their niche and that social media makes this much easier to do.  Jones, on the other hand, feels that yoga should focus on the “internal practice,” and that it should essentially have nothing to do with the physical body.

Recent efforts on social media seek to challenge these ideals about the “typical yoga body type.”  Dana Falsetti, a plus-sized yoga instructor and self-proclaimed “believer in all bodies,” acknowledges that there can be an exhausting amount of judgment in the yoga world.  However, “respect is far more relevant than judgment,” she concludes.  When she first began practicing, she thought that her body would “limit her practice” but eventually found that it was her mind that imposed these restrictions.  She now advocates that yoga is for all body types and that the “physical practice is simply a manifestation of the internal change.”  The Instagram page Colors of Yoga also encourages people of all “levels, colors, and sizes.”

Beth Fields is part of the newly founded Yoga Teachers Collective (YTC), a group dedicated the “integrity and diversity of teaching yoga.”  Their goal is to make yoga accessible to everybody and also to provide a support system for teachers in a world that can be very competitive.  “It’s scary when you see teachers step on other teachers to try to get ahead,” Fields says.  YTC is made possible by each instructor donating their time and individual talents and interests to the group.  Together, they offer meditative hikes for veterans, the FDNY, the NYPD, and anyone suffering from PTSD.  The group hopes to provide yoga as an outlet and form of therapy for those suffering.  They also sponsor mother daughter classes, and starting this April, will be offering free pop-up classes at the Athelta store in Manhasset.  This encourages safe practice under guided instruction to those who may not previously have been able to afford classes or have felt intimidated and insecure by posh studios.

“We want to make yoga less confusing and more welcoming to everyone,” Fields says.  YTC seeks to challenge preconceived notions about yoga by demystifying the practice.  “It’s not people yelling Sanskrit words at each other,” Fields explains.  As far as “religious fanatics” are concerned, she says that gathering hands at the heart center is about “acknowledging only ourselves and the different energies and spirits of everyone else in the room.”  In her classes, she hopes to dispel any feelings of nitpicking as well.  Fields encourages coming into child’s pose at any points and casts no judgments.  “People hear that all day, maybe at their jobs, with their significant others.  They don’t want to come to yoga class and hear that also.”

She reiterates that “yoga goes so far beyond the physical.”  The physical practice was primarily developed to loosen up the body for meditation.  Physiologically, Fields praises the detoxifying effects of yoga on the body.  She helps students to find space in their body that they never knew existed and loves walking out of a yoga class simply “feeling taller.”  Symbolically, she says, “yoga is just a big, open space for all to explore” and she loves the creative opportunities she is granted in her teaching.

Spencer Jones sums up, “It may just be a workout. But as the practice progresses, people will inevitably turn within and start letting go of all this superficial and material manifestation.  We just work on ourselves, becoming a little less shitty every day.”


Photo courtesy of Spencer Jones