Tag Archives: yoga

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.

Post on Veganism for Yoga District’s Blog

My post on veganism

“Eat socially. And I don’t mean eat with other people necessarily, but rather eat with other people in mind. When we make decision as to what to eat, it impacts a lot of people. And of course the environment, which impacts us all. If we choose to eat food that has taken less land, water, and fossil fuel to create, and produces less C02e, it will be better for us all. So plants. Eat plants.”–Brendan Brazier

If every American dropped one serving of chicken per week from their diet, it would save the same amount of CO2 emissions as taking 500,000 cars off the road.

Chickens, turkeys, pigs and cows are collectively the largest producer of methane in the U.S.

It takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce one pound of meat.

1 pound of wheat takes 25 gallons.

Raising animals for food uses 30 per cent of the Earth’s land mass… that’s about the same size as Asia!

Source: Infographics by The Mindful Word

The statistics go on and on, but really…let’s talk about being a vegan. Let’s *really* talk about it! The prevailing view people have of vegans is that we are are proselytizing lot, perching on some sort of a moral high ground of sanctimoniousness and telling everyone who will listen of our impossible-to-please palates. Or that we are sitting there constantly wondering what we *can* eat…because there is nothing for us to eat.

They might even call us vegangelicals! (ha, here I go with the puns again). The truth is that’s one really broken stereotype. So is that the one that you can’t take us out to dinner anywhere. Don’t worry–we play surprisingly well with others (although, don’t show up at said dinner in a fur coat. We will have problems!)

Let me share a little bit about my gastronomical journey. I grew up eating meat–I am Bulgarian, what did you think!? But I also grew up on a farm, where I saw what it takes to put that meat on a plate and where the animals were always treated with thoughtfulness and care. I never had any illusions about exactly what happens to an animal before he/she provides sustenance to you. One day when I was in my 20s, I decided to go vegetarian just on a whim, wanting to “minimize, downsize, and simplify.” The month I had given myself as a trial period quickly passed and eating meat was no longer something I had any desire to do. Transitioning was easy–I had always done a lot of cooking and I simply cooked all of my meals, not being concerned at all about what I could and could not find in the store. Fast forward several years–now let me preface this by saying that no, I am not so naive that I make lifestyle choices based upon the viewing of a documentary, I assure you. But watchingEarthlings, easily the most violent and grotesque movie I have ever seen (yes, it trumps Requiem For Dream in that department), made me so violently ill that I stopped eating dairy. Now, do I have an issue with this documentary? Oh, most definitely! It is exploitative, biased, and…runs like a snuff film. Yet, did it turn me away from eating dairy? Was it my Requiem For An Animal Product Diet, if you will? Sure.

There are so many reasons to transition to a vegan diet–ethical, animal right-based, environmental, health, cost-saving and you will find the people who are vegans espouse the very spectrum of these reasons. There is no “vegan” type. If there is anything that is most definitely true about it, it is that it certainly is a *mindful* way of eating, even on the most literal, basic level. But moving beyond that, I feel that rather than getting bogged down on whether your bread contains honey, veganism is about switching off your auto pilot when it comes to what you put inside your body. It’s about considering how you *can* make a difference on a global scale with your very “small” personal choices.

Veganism is not about a Draconian, impossible-to-follow lifestyle of privilege and entitlement. PETA will not come knocking on your door if you ate an egg and fell off the vegan wagon once (although, I sure hope it was a cage-free happy chicken, for your sake!)

To me, it’s a true return to our roots. Literally. For eons, our ancestors have been eating plants, nuts, and berries (Paleo diet converts, if you want to argue this, come to my workshop! I will do my best to disabuse you of our ancestors as meat eaters myth :). Finding those plants made us grow socially–it taught us to cooperate, to spend more time together, to watch out for each other. This is why veganism is often called the “kind diet.” It’s about being kind to your tummy, being kind to all of kind, not just our fellow Sapiens.

Food for thought, no?

vegan 1011 Veganism for Beveganers: Why a Plant Based Diet IS For You

If you’re interested in adopting a plant-based diet, join Toni on Saturday, April 25 at Yoga District 14th Street for our two hour Vegan for Beveganers workshop (in honor of Earth Day!).

Yoga District Blog Post: Building Skills and Community

My post for the Yoga District Blog: Building Skills and Community, the For the Teachers, By the Teachers Series

Do you know the origin of the expression “ships that pass in the night?” Neither did I, but it is apparently from a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem entitled Tales of a Wayside Inn:

Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing,
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.

Teaching yoga can be a lot like that. Teacher training is a communal experience — you bond with your cohort in lasting ways. But once you are a newly-hatched yoga teacher, still finding your wings and feet, you sort of have to look around to find the protective canopy of a momma bird’s wings. Sure, all of your teachers have their own practice and, in turn, their own teachers, but teaching can be an incredibly (and oddly so) solitary endeavor. Sometimes all you hear is your own voice . . . and that can be disorienting. Building community becomes something that requires its own investment of time — reaching out to your fellow teachers, seeking out further education.

Yoga District is the only studio I practice at that not only understands that but does something about it. No other studio where I have been is so committed to the growth of its members, student and teacher alike. And no other place understands that the teachers are still students themselves.

The “For Teachers, By Teachers” series of workshops allows us to not only meet fellow teachers, laugh and share in our general foibles, but most importantly, learn. If you are wondering how that is different from going to a traditional workshop or attending continuing education classes, my response to you would be that the teachers teaching these workshops are selflessly offering their time and knowledge just so our community can stay vibrant and tight-knit — a tough thing to find in the increasingly transaction-oriented and transitory city of Washington, DC.

These workshops are but an example of Yoga District’s general ethos of community and “yoga for the people, by the people”-ness (yes, I realize this is not a word). They are not lectures where we are being talked at — we do, we share, we discuss, we bring up questions from our experiences. That is what makes them fundamentally different from going on a retreat with a stranger/superstar yoga teacher. To me, they are like a Sunday hangout with family.

I have now had the pleasure of attending two of these workshops: the first on hands-on assisting with Ros and the second one on prenatal yoga with Brittany. Both were incredibly, incredibly helpful.

In the hands-on assisting and adjusting workshop, we learned not only the specific adjusts for each pose but also more subtle information such as how to respond to students’ responses to these adjusts and assists. How is that for meta! The laying of the hands, so to speak, is an incredibly fraught process. Understanding cues and proper way to implement hands-on work is critical to making the process beneficial and comfortable for our students.

The second workshop on prenatal yoga was equally illuminating. Brittany even brought along a little fabric pelvis and a fabric baby doll to illustrate all the changes that take place in a woman’s body and make us understand why certain poses are not optimal for pregnant ladies. For example, did you know that the hormone relaxin, which allows the uterus to expand, also softens connective tissue, putting women are risk for hyperextending through joints and causing other joint injuries (so being newly able to get into splits is not always a good thing!). From the second trimester on — when the center of gravity really starts to shift — most of the balancing poses are best done next to a wall for support so as to eliminate the risk of injury to the baby as well as the Mom. Steering clear of asanas that work on the central abdominals is also recommended.

These are just snippets of everything that was shared in these workshops. It truly is a blessing to be a part of a community that works for the betterment of both its teachers and students — and does so without much fanfare and horn-tooting.

This is also another one of my posts.

Kumare Movie Review

My review of the movie Kumare
At first glance, Kumare, a documentary that bills itself as “the true story of a false prophet,” appears take a page out of Sacha Baron Cohen’s provocative oeuvre. How pleasantly surprising that this is not the case. Not only is Vikram Gandhi, the director and protagonist, significantly bolder in riling up a veritable hornet’s nest of hot-button issues, especially the big R-eligion, but he does away with borderline-mean-spirited snark in favor of a thoughtful presentation of a very relevant and timely social experiment.
Kumare is an inquiry into the nature of faith. Jersey-born, Brooklyn film maker Vikram Gandhi sets out to find out if there is a real-deal guru out there by impersonating one. His travels through India and study of religion in college do not bring him any closer to answers and instead reaffirm the idea that the gurus he encounters are egocentric, profit-minded, interested only in “out-guruing one another,” self-aggrandizing, and downright manipulative. He recalls the peacefulness emanating from his Grandma when she prayed and wonders about the source of that feeling. Thus, Kumare is born. Growing out his hair and beard, donning orange robes and an ornate walking staff, Gandhi transforms himself into a guru, modeling his accent after his Grandma’s. As any spiritual leader worth his salt, he heads into the desert. Phoenix, Arizona, to be precise. 

Kumare refreshingly works on two levels—in one sense, it pokes fun of the power of hype in building a mythos and get followers by merely surrounding oneself with the trappings of spiritualism—namely yoga moves, vague-sounding-enough platitudes, and a publicist. At the same time, however, Gandhi has clearly done his homework. Before he invents his made-up yoga hand-wind-milling bogus poses, he ostensibly has learned the real ones. His blue light meditation seems to have some roots in visualization meditation techniques. In other words, to learn how to be fake, he has to learn what passes for real first?
What shines through most in the film is that instead of being an expose on the dark underside of America’s billion-dollar-industry quest for spirituality-in-a-box quick fixes [the yoga “industry” as one major example], it is ultimately a story about humans and our basic search for a connection. Kumare’s disciples are people one could relate to—a death penalty attorney, a single mom with an empty nest syndrome, and a former cocaine addict/real estate agent. And like everyday people, they are looking for someone “with knowledge” to be the barometer/sign post for their own life’s direction. In other words, they need someone to tell them what to do and more importantly, make them believe that he knows more than they do so they feel confident in following his advice. There is the rub—Kumare’s ultimate message, revealed on his “The Great Unveiling Day,” is that the guru is within all of us. While not particularly ground-breaking, it is nevertheless, an often forgotten mantra. Instead of focusing on the more selfish, “just do what you want,” aspect of it, however, it is more along the lines of, “nobody knows much about anything, even if he calls himself a guru. Maybe especially so.”
To Gandhi’s credit, while the movie features some chuckle-worthy moments [as in when he meets a woman who espouse the visualization technique of making your wishes come true by gluing pictures of cars and money on her “desire board”], it doesn’t feel nearly as exploitative as it could have considering its snake oil salesman premise. There are also a couple of jabs in the film at the cultural appropriation nuances that come along with the West’s fascination with India and its yogic culture—as in, Kumare is revered by virtue of his being from India alone [as opposed to an American-born Indian from Jersey].
Gandhi genuinely starts caring for his “followers,” and ends up having a positive impact on their lives. His own journey throughout the film is also very compelling. Ultimately, the phrase “fumbling toward ecstasy” rings true. His disciples really just need someone to listen to them and pay attention and as such, Kumare is a trenchant commentary on the disenfranchisement that is pervasive throughout society and the distance between people that pushes them to seek that special contact and meaning that could just as easily come from another human being or oneself from a more mystical source.