Blog Post on the Business of Yoga

My blog post for Elephant Journal

Much ink has been spilled on the commercialization of yoga, and rightly so, but I want to talk about one aspect of the “consumerization” of yoga that is fairly controversial: the impact of the overly-solicitous orientation of studios toward their students as clients.

I will start with something we can all agree on: a yoga class should offer a safe, supportive environment in which to perform physiological and sometimes psychological exercises. The yoga teacher’s job is to make sure the student is not practicing in an injurious way. The teacher’s job is to also be professional, in the very widely-accepted use of the term (on time, ready to work, courteous and interested in the well-being of the student) and to be knowledgeable about alignment and sequencing principles.

The teacher’s job, I argue, is not to ascertain we have a “good time.”

Why not? Well, because a “good time” is subjective and not quantifiable.

Let me offer you some analogies. You go to the movies; the film you see is really disappointing. You don’t go to the box office and request a refund, right? You go to a Cross Fit class. You don’t complain that the class is too “easy,” even if it is, do you? You are in a restaurant and find the music obnoxious; you don’t actually demand the restaurant stop playing the music altogether, right?

So why is it that we would complain about any variations on those themes in an yoga class?

Last Thanksgiving, a studio I go to offered a number of extended, 2-hour long classes for free to the community. There was a student in the class who, throughout the entire practice, did not do what the teacher cued up once. Instead, she was rolling her eyes in a clearly exasperated fashion and doing aggressive asanas. Where we were all lying down in child’s pose, she was doing nose-to-knee with her leg fully extended in front of her. When the class ended, the student turned to her neighbor and asked, “Is this class always this easy!?”

The question that every yoga teacher has heard in each of its permutations: “Is this class always this…?”

Easy, difficult, sucky music, awesome music, too hot, too cold, too vinyasa-y, too restorative, too many adjusts, too little adjusts. But too whatever is subjective. And because instructors are human, their classes also vary week-to-week and class-to class.

Studios listen intently to student feedback. That survey we fill out at the end of class? Our teachers are hearing about it, rest assured; and they often have to account for things. I am not saying this to place blame with anyone, but I am saying that what could have been a student having a bad day can very quickly escalate into a teacher and a teacher’s boss having a bad day. A lot of emails will be exchanged and a lot of conversations will be had.

Why, then, do we pay lip service to an attitude of non-judgment (and we actually mean it; we don’t just pay lip service to it); yet, by encouraging a “the customer is always right” mentality, we foster judgment, hierarchy and close-mindedness.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not advocating suffering through insufferable classes. I am simply suggesting that yoga, being an ideally egalitarian culture, lends itself particularly well to the ol’ adage about “voting with your feet.”

Class annoys us? Teacher annoys us? Vote with our feet. Complain about it? That’s certainly our prerogative. Ask for a refund? Sure; this is a business, after all. But maybe let’s save ourselves some teeth gnashing and vote with our (eight) limbs of and on yoga. Find the right path for you. But don’t assume your teacher or anyone else is a human jukebox version of instant fun, gratification or enlightenment.