celebrity teachers


Light on YogaA friend recently tried a few classes at one of Vancouver’s large, multi-branch yoga studios. While her main practice is Iyengar yoga, she was curious to see what else is out there. She found teaching quality quite variable, and she was amazed at the hordes of students.

“How big are the classes?” I asked.

“At least 30, maybe 40,” she said. “And when we exit the room, the line-up for the next class is just as long!”

I wasn’t surprised. In my own explorations, I’ve attended classes with 60+ students at large studios. Considering probable attrition rates, these studios must constantly attract scads of newbies.

Iyengar yoga, despite its worldwide influence, is comparatively slow-growing. Certainly, established Iyengar yoga teachers, especially those on the workshop circuit, can draw crowds. But most local teachers rarely see 30+ students lined up for class week after week. (I’m not advocating large classes. I’m just looking at popularity, demand, and box office.)

Why doesn’t Iyengar yoga attract the masses?

A few observations:

  • “Not a workout” One of my students commented that her friends wouldn’t choose Iyengar yoga because it’s “not a workout.” Nowadays yoga is considered exercise, the sweatier, the better. While Iyengar yoga is strenuous (10-minute headstands followed by a million variations!) and encompasses very demanding poses (see Light on Yoga), classes are not usually taught in a fast-paced, aerobic manner.
  • Conceptual learning Iyengar yoga instruction focuses on conceptual learning. Students learn “actions” that apply to the pose being studied, to other poses, and to overall posture. Home practice is somewhat assumed. In class, a student might wish to repeat a pose (“I’m not done with it yet!”) instead of moving on. But the teacher is leading the class elsewhere–and it’s up to the student to flesh out the concept independently at home.
  • Readiness I met a young woman who did Iyengar yoga six years ago and then tried a “hatha” class at her city college. Back then, she embraced the freer, less-strict approach and even completed a yoga teacher-training program at the college. Recently, however, she began to appreciate her former Iyengar yoga teacher’s words–and she’s back to studying Iyengar yoga. One must be “ready” for the discipline of this method.
  • Time commitment Iyengar yoga classes are typically 1.5 to 2 hours long. Drop-ins are allowed, but eventually commitment (to a series/session) is expected. Sessions are akin to those in school: 10 to 14 weeks long, which might seem like forever to casual students who prefer random attendance in a variety of classes.
  • Light on LifeMoney commitment Paying for a per-class series/session inevitably costs more than for a pass allowing “unlimited” classes. If attending three or more classes weekly (class = practice), it’s very economical to buy an unlimited monthly pass for $100. Such passes are atypical in Iyengar yoga.
  • Luxurious setting For some, a luxurious spa setting, including such amenities as saunas and lounges, is appealing. In contrast, I’ve seen fantastically airy, spacious Iyengar yoga studios, but nothing resembling a spa. (Note: My formative yoga experience, which I loved, took place in an unheated basketball court at the UC Berkeley rec centre. While that’s too bare-bones for me now, I might always prefer simpler spaces.)
  • Demographics I know I’m generalizing, but at large studios, most students are youngish and relatively fit. In contrast, a typical Iyengar yoga class includes a wider range of fitness levels and ages. Does the average 20-something seek the company of other 20-somethings? Do they flock to particular venues because their peers do? I know teens who once accompanied Mom to Iyengar yoga classes, but switch to hot yoga to join their friends.
  • Levels Is Iyengar yoga “hard” or “easy”? (Egads, such divergent opinions!) Actually, Iyengar yoga can go either way: Teachers can safely accommodate (and make yoga “easier” for) those with limits–and rigorously guide (and make poses “harder” for) those with agile bodies. If people understand how individualized the Iyengar approach is, there might be fewer misconceptions.
  • “Spiritual vibe” Some teachers read quotes and talk “yoga talk”–and those craving a “spiritual vibe” just lap it up! They probably won’t find such a vibe in Iyengar yoga classes, which might initially seem “technical” and not very spiritual. Especially in beginner classes, teachers generally don’t discuss the sutras or philosophy; they also don’t say things like “melt your heart” or “you are beautiful.” Students have to stick around to discover real spirituality.

For Iyengar yoga to attract the masses, must it change? Maybe. Should it?

Once, I had a student who regularly attended my classes for a year. She then thanked me, but admitted that she missed “flow” yoga. My first reaction: I could have taught her class more dynamic sequences; after all, in my own practice I do sun salutations almost daily! But I later concluded that I should never teach according to what students want. I must teach what’s best for them. In her case, occasional flowing sequences were appropriate, but she needed to work on fundamentals at least half the time.

Likewise, any change to the Iyengar method should be done because it’s effective, not because it’s a selling point.

Vancouver’s indie Book Warehouse is closing its West Broadway location (sigh). All stock is discounted 25%. I was tempted by 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die*, a 960-page reference edited by Peter Boxall, English professor, University of Sussex. But the sheer number put me off.

It’s probably impossible to read all 1,001 selections, but I crunched the numbers anyway. If I read 25 books a year, it would take 40 years. If I rack up a staggering 50 books a year, it would take 20 years. Actually, popular blogger Steve Pavlina made a compelling argument for this very goal, Read a Book a Week.

A book a month is already challenging. A book a week? What a feat!

Is that a worthy goal? My literary knowledge would be broad and varied. I could make smalltalk about virtually every notable writer. But speed reading is not my thing. I prefer to savor good fiction. Plus I need “digesting time” after finishing a book.

To read selected works by hundreds of authors also runs counter to another half-baked goal of mine: to read every work by a chosen writer. Reading one author’s entire body of work would narrow, but deepen, my knowledge. I’d become somewhat of an expert on that author. I’d have a “relationship” with that author.

So many yoga teachers, so little time

I’m reminded of a yoga friend’s recent remark about attending workshops with visiting teachers. She skipped the last workshop with senior Iyengar teacher Gabriella Giubilaro because she plans to attend other workshops this year. “They’re all good,” she said, “but how many teachers do I need to study with anyway?”

I agree that too many workshops can lead to information overload. If I need to digest a book, I likewise must assimilate lessons from a workshop. That means repeating the poses, sequences, and ideas—and that takes time.

Of course, it’s hard to resist the draw of an established teacher. Sometimes I already know that the teaching resonates with me. Other times, I’m just curious, based on the teacher’s writing or reputation. Exposure to another face/body/voice can jolt me to attention, and I enjoy the multi-day immersion.

Famous teachers have no trouble filling up their on-the-road workshops. After all, it’s become de rigueur to study with lots of big-name teachers. Teacher bios sometimes border on the absurd, as I wrote about in Naming names.

But there’s a big difference between attending 25 workshops with 25 different teachers and 25 with the same teacher. Can I truly understand a teacher’s teachings in one or two encounters? Do his or her teachings stand the test of time?

Both variety and continuity are valuable. We must experience broadly, otherwise we have no context, only tunnel vision. But eventually, delving deeply, with authors and with yoga teachers, might take us further.

All that said, I’m still eyeing 1001 Books

Image: Gingerbread yogis, Randomization (cookies and cookie cutters from Baked Ideas)

*This book is part of a 1001 Before You Die series.

Big press and little press

Fast becoming the muckraker of yoga, William Broad has written another controversial New York Times article: “Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here” (February 27, 2012) posits that it’s no surprise that yoga produces “so many philanderers”—and that “scientific” research shows heightened sexual response from hatha yoga. (See responses from it’s all yoga, babyYogaDork, and Leslie Kaminoff.)

The same day that article was published, I read a few back issues of the Iyengar Yoga Centre of Victoria newsletter that I’d recently acquired. A slim, homemade-looking pamphlet back then, the newsletter impressed me with timeless content, including exclusive interviews with BKS Iyengar and wise essays by Shirley Daventry French.

Prashant Iyengar on yogasana’s effects

The July/August 1997 issue contained a piece by Prashant Iyengar on how yogasana affects not only one’s physical state, but also one’s psychological and physiological states (and beyond). He gives an example using brahmacharya, explaining that one might avoid overindulgence but that “[i]nvoluntary desires may be tainting us from within.” If trying to follow an moral code, asana can help calm the pineal and pituitary glands, thus “quieting the physiology behind sex.”

In Iyengar yoga, poses affect our bodies and minds in particular ways. We can either rev up or tamp down our energy, including sexual energy. This differs from Broad’s generalization that yoga primarily enhances sexual desire.

Further, Broad implies that doing random yoga classes can markedly affect our physiology. Change does not come easily. It’s tough enough to loosen tight muscles, much less change the workings of inner organs. Would Viagra be a zillion-dollar industry if a round of deep breathing cured sexual dysfunction?

In contrast, Prashant states that asanas must be “done with a sensitive diligence, to experience their depth.” What an understatement!

Power of the pen

Reading Prashant’s and Broad’s articles on the same day, I was struck by the difference between a yogi’s perspective and a journalist’s. I admit that I somewhat empathize with Broad because I, too, am a journalist. On one hand, I believe that a good investigative journalist can do justice to any subject, regardless of personal expertise. On the other, it’s exasperating to read a non-yogi’s statements on yoga.

Actually Broad took up yoga in 1970 (!). But listen to this February 8 CBC radio interview, in which he admits that he sustained his first yoga injury in 2007 in an “advanced” class:

“…. There were a lot of beautiful ladies around, stretching and bending themselves into all kinds of great shapes. I had a gorgeous partner with me. And I was, you know, feeling pretty good. I was strutting. I was talking to her. I was bending way over, and—ouch!—my lower back went out….

What the—?

Don’t get me wrong. Watching his February 9 video interview with Roseanne Harvey, Broad comes across as likable enough. I’d argue against some of his conclusions, but he probably means well—and, as a journalist, he needs catchy hooks for his articles. But why is he becoming the yoga source?

The Times and other mass media have a huge footprint. The Victoria newsletter and scads of blogs, even well-trafficked ones, have a limited audience. Alas.

On choosing well

I haven’t even touched on the John Friend revelations. But my conclusion regarding mainstream yoga coverage applies to my thoughts on his behavior (and especially on the behavior of his followers):

Are you choosing well? This goes for yoga teachers and trusted allies, reading matter and beliefs, thoughts and actions.

There’s a sea of choices out there. It’s up to us to choose well.

Images: newspapers, Apartment Therapy; Vitruvian Man, Wikipedia; Pololu Valley, Hawaii, YogaSpy.

Last month I acquired a couple of Yoga Journal magazines from the late 1980s and early 1990s. What a revelation! I’m familiar with the magazine, having subscribed on and off (mostly on) since the late 1990s. But what a difference two decades can make.

So impressive were the back issues that I found limited archives online at Yoga Journal on Google Books. Here are my observations, albeit from a third-person point of view:

Personal transformation

Back then yoga was less about fitness and more about transforming one’s mindset. YJ readers were seeking a mind-blowing, life-changing experience. They wanted to uproot their whole way of being—away from convention and banality. Today, most yoga practitioners, even serious ones, aren’t trying to overhaul their lifestyles, but to reduce stress, to tone the body, to still the mind. Mainstream yoga is more popular now because it’s more approachable, less of a leap. Of course, true transformation remains as slippery as ever.

While yoga was the focus, there was ample coverage of other disciplines, including tai chi, aikido, Buddhism, Taoism, and psychology/psychiatry (particularly Jung-based exploration of the unconscious). The common thread was profound awakening. As an Iyengar practitioner, I noticed that Iyengar yoga was prominent, probably partly because BKS Iyengar was still actively teaching worldwide.

Timeless writing

Feature articles back then were satisfyingly lengthy and thorough. Reading them forced me to think. The content remains valid and fascinating. I read interviews and profiles featuring genuine scholars such as Joseph Campbell, Joan Borysenko, Charles Tart, Emilie Conrad-Da’oud, Jean Klein, and Stanislav Grof, names new to me.

The asana teachings still ring true. What a treat to read Elise Browning Miller‘s primer on her specialty, scoliosis (May/Jun 1990), or Donald Moyer‘s inimitable insights on Marichyasana I (Nov/Dec 1987) and Salabhasana (Sep/Oct 1989). Perhaps the coverage is deep because the magazine was run by people such as Stephan Bodian, an editor in chief who is an ordained Zen monk and an Advaita Vedanta scholar.

Don’t get me wrong: I regard today’s YJ (especially the writings of Sally Kempton and Roger Cole) highly enough to subscribe. But it lacks its former gravitas. In 10 years will anyone care to read the September 2011 music issue’s mini interviews with Alanis or Moby or the guys from Maroon 5? (No offense.) Further, the book reviews were actually critical. Nowadays, unless you’re dealing with the New York Times and Ms Kakutani, scoring a review generally guarantees either praise or summary. What’s the point?!

Fringe element

Yoga wasn’t trendy and ubiquitous in the 1980s and prior. Practitioners and YJ readers (judging by the letters to the editor) possessed an exploratory, eccentric bent. With the Beat Generation and the revolutionary Sixties still driving American culture, yoga had a streak of radicalism. Today, it’s more rebellious not to do yoga than to do it!

The juxtaposition between serious study and the far-out fringe element quite amused me. Magazine ads offered futuristic contraptions to alter consciousness; an article bio might read, “… is a writer, ritualist, and hypnotherapist…” I’m not particularly New Agey myself and can’t help regarding ESP, channeling, astrology, etc, with skepticism. But the kooky dimensions don’t detract from the whole—rather, they only emphasize the era’s quest for alternate, higher consciousness, whatever the means.

That said, asana was also a highlight, classily illustrated in pictorial calendars and the occasional magazine cover (see Angela Farmer‘s silhouette above). But most covers featured a portrait of a leading thinker; only in the 2000s did the lithe female “cover model” become standard.

Yogic pioneers

Reading the old YJs was rather a humbling experience. Those who did yoga before the 1990s were pioneers. While we respectfully honor the giants, such as T Krishnamacharya and his successors, we must also acknowledge prior generations of less-famous (or anonymous) yogis. I consider myself a fairly serious student, but let’s face it: I’m a yoga child of the late 1990s and 2000s, swept up with the tide. Those pioneers were the real deal, and they trod a distinct path for us to follow.

Images from top to bottom: Nov/Dec 1988, Nov/Dec 1987, Apr 1982.

The September 2011 issue of Yoga Journal is “the music issue.” It contains a home practice sequence synced with an MC Yogi playlist, interviews with musicians who do yoga, and a look at the kirtan spectacle in America. The online magazine offers Funky Love Songs, “some of the grooviest, most genre-bending forms of mantra music in the yoga world.”

Should we care what Alanis Morissette (cover model), Bonnie Raitt, Moby, Ziggy Marley, and Maroon 5 band members say about yoga? Well, I’m a willing listener of stories and opinions (on yoga, on whatever)—if someone has something to say.

I wrote about doing asana to music in The trouble with mixing yoga and music: Part I (featured in WordPress’s Freshly Pressed and by far my most-viewed post) and Part II. Nothing much to add; I said my piece then.

But I want to share a video of Maty Ezraty, interviewed by Michelle Myhre of Devil Wears Prana, on being a “good” teacher versus being a “popular” teacher. When asked about authenticity and teaching real yoga, she advised against trying to please students just to be popular. At one point (1:30 minutes in), she suggested not playing music in classes:

“… [W]hen the music is on, [the] mind identifies with the music and it doesn’t really go in. You don’t really listen to what’s going in there. It’s not very pleasant always to listen to what’s going on in there, but that’s the yoga: dealing with it, seeing it, to get free of it.”

Maty’s straightforward, clear ideas (and easy smile and laugh) impressed me.  I don’t know her but I’ve long recognized her name and face. She studied directly with Pattabhi Jois (and initially with BKS Iyengar) from her early 20s and founded original YogaWorks studio in Los Angeles, although since selling the company in 2005, it’s become the Starbucks of teacher training. She mentored many celebrity, conference-circuit teachers, including Seane Corn, Shiva Rea, Kathryn Budig, and Natasha Rizopoulos. Considering her influence, she keeps a relatively low profile in the yoga “scene” and I respect her for that. When she and her partner Chuck Miller moved to the Big Island of Hawai‘i, I was somewhat intrigued because it’s my home island and my beat for Lonely Planet.

The clip is the second of a two-part interview worth watching. In Part I, she talks about her mentors, about today’s overemphasis on asana and the physical part of yoga, and more.

When I first saw ads for the Three Minute Egg in Yoga Journal, I hardly glanced at them. I already have my favorite propsand the colorful foam “eggs” seemed gimmicky. But the ads kept appearing. One featured “signature eggs”—featuring well-known teachers Annie Carpenter, Jason Crandell, Aadil Palkhivala (who, like Cher, signed only his first name), and Joan White—which rubbed me the wrong way: I see too many yoga celebrities and yoga fans already.

I was curious nevertheless and Googled the company. I read about the indie founder, whose personal tale about the egg’s origin is quite impressive. I observed the egg’s uses as an alternate to traditional blocks (“think outside the blocks”) and now wonder if they are worth a try.

  • For standing poses such as Trikonasana, they’re less stable but might shift body weight away from the bottom arm into the legs.
  • For Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, they could raise the base of the palm,  alleviating any pain from overflexing the wrists.
  • For restorative poses, they seem to nestle into natural spinal curves, though I actually like the sharp edges of a block under my shoulder blades or sacrum.
  • For arm balances, they’d force one to balance both internally and externally. If one can balance on the eggs, balancing on solid ground would be a cinch! I’ve used this approach at the gym, doing standing balance poses on a upside-down Bosu.

But I’m just conjecturing. I won’t be trying them anytime soon. Having recently acquired a pile of new props, including cork blocks from Halfmoon and solid cedar blocks from a woodworker in Vancouver, I’m under a prop-buying moratorium.

Besides, I’m still doing my research. Have you tried the Three Minute Egg?

In my third year of law school, I took an elective called “Law and Literature,” taught by John Jay Osborne, Jr, author of The Paper Chase, a novel (and movie and TV show) about a Harvard law student and his obsession with his intimidating contracts professor.

In this offbeat course (even at Berkeley), we escaped “black letter law” to analyze Shakespeare (King Lear) and Melville (Bartleby, the Scrivener), plus films such as Rashomon and Thelma and Louise. Discussing his own story one day, he focused on a final scene: Hart (Timothy Bottoms), the law student, converses with Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman), whose presence ruled his life for a year. The professor stares blankly. “What is your name?”

Lack of reciprocity in the relationship

After all of their heated debates and encounters, Kingsfield is oblivious to Hart. Osborne summarized the theme of that scene (and their dynamic) as a “lack of reciprocity in the relationship.”

Those words captivated me. Lack of reciprocity in the relationship. It seemed the crux of all unbalanced, frustrating interactions. Rude neighbors, bad bosses, random jerks. I’d silently resurrect Osborne’s theme as a catchall for any bitter relationship.

But is it really necessary to have reciprocity in a teacher-student relationship? Does it matter whether a teacher acknowledges you? Indeed, the Wikipedia entry for The Paper Chase suggests that Kingsfield is only pretending not to recognize his students, to emphasize that it’s not the relationships formed in law school that matter, but rather the knowledge attained. Kingsfield himself says, “You teach yourselves the law. I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush, and if you survive, you’ll leave thinking like a lawyer.”

Teacher-student relationships

In yoga, I’ve always chosen a “main” teacher for regular (weekly or more) classes. Then I’d experiment with others’ teachings, through their writings and workshops. This contrasts with today’s trend: folks elevate their affiliations with far-flung, big-name teachers, whom they might meet at mega workshops and Yoga Journal conferences.

Sure, I might be influenced by teachers I know only through workshops or drop-in classes. But I’ve always found my relationships with my main teachers much more important. Only with a firsthand give-and-take (week to week, year to year) can teaching can be specialized and monitored. To be observed and adjusted by a teacher: invaluable!

Back to The Paper Chase: Kingsfield and Hart might have lacked a personal reciprocal relationship, but their exchanges suited law school (and Hart did learn). Between you and your yoga teacher, there should likewise be reciprocity, whatever that means to you.

Image: Amazon.ca

Wow. Despite the ostensible demise of traditional journalism, the Times (which in the USA can mean only The New York Times) still has clout. One day, John Friend and Anusara yoga are merrily trotting along. The next day, boom! Everyone has an opinion about him, about the growing commercialism of yoga, about worldwide mega tours, about modern yoga’s authenticity, about “feel-good” words and effective teaching.

When I wrote that I dislike “flowery” language, I essentially meant that I hate phoniness and showiness. An authentic teacher (a “deep person,” I might’ve said back in college) need not state the obvious. She need not wax poetic about her affinity for yoga. She need not call her students “lovely” or tell them to “find the beauty that’s inside you.” In fact, she might focus simply on asana alignment. But through her careful attention and touch, through her straight talk and real-life stories, the effect is far greater than any “feel-good” words. In such teachers, there is no floweriness, but there are flowers in the teaching.

If you’re clueless about what I’m talkin’ about, read a bunch of yoga-teacher bios and I guarantee you’ll find many that include the words “love” and “beautiful” (or “passion” or “grace”) in them. (Imagine a professor, a physician, or even a psychotherapist writing such a bio.) Or attend a random class at a mega studio (click here for my posts on the mega studio in my town) and you might, as I once did, hear a 20-something teacher read semi-philosophical passages from a book, rave about the “kula” (community), and then treat the crowd to a lengthy chant. Yawn.

Bear in mind, I’m not targeting Anusara yoga now (in fact, with my Iyengar bent, some Anusara teachers might well resonate with me). I’m just explaining why I dislike “flowery.” Maybe due to my background as a writer, I prefer more “show” than “tell.” A teacher needs to strike me as, well, deep. If they lack a smidgen of gravitas, it’s hard for me to listen to “feel-good” words without rolling my eyes.

Language is up my alley. The right phrase (a sentence that sings!) is delightful to me. But words are cheap, as they say. Sure, any yoga teacher can expound on the yamas and niyamas. But which ones actually exemplify those ideals?

That’s why most teachers should stick solely to teaching asana, already a major responsibility. That’s why, if a yoga method promotes “feel-good” language, it might or might not work. That’s my take, anyway.

In yesterday’s New York Times Magazine, Mimi Swartz wrote a lengthy profile on John Friend, the Houston-based founder of Anusara yoga. I’d been curious about this new (13 years old) form of yoga, based on Iyengar yoga but with a “touchy-feely” overlay.

The article made me cringe, I must admit. It wasn’t only Mr Friend’s commercial ambition, groupee following, and globetrotting to promote his brand. It was also simply his words:

  • “We are,” Friend said, beaming, “the Yoga of Yes.” (YogaSpy: Uh, okay.)
  • “There’s no differentiation between yoga philosophy and business philosophy,” he said of Anusara. “We honor spirit, based on our vision that life is good.” (YogaSpy: Huh?)
  • “Whatever you’ve got, you’ve got to rock it out fully,” he said in Los Angeles. “You’ve got to work the edge. The edge is so cool.” (YogaSpy: Hmm, maybe this sounds funny only on paper.)
  • [An ode to creativity by Mr Friend, recited while a young woman with flowing curls and a face painted to match her tiger costume danced and writhed on the floor] We ride the tiger. . . ./I taste her hunger/In the burning of my desire/There is no hotter fire. (YogaSpy: No comment.)
  • [Email message from Mr Friend to Swartz] “For me, any artistic expression that is performed and expressed with an intention of awakening to the essential nature of one’s Being (Spirit) and with the intention of glorifying the intrinsic Goodness and Shri (Divine Beauty) of that spirit is considered Yoga. Therefore, yoga can be expanded to include dance, music and other forms of Art.” (YogaSpy: I agree, but the tiger spectacle wouldn’t meet my definition of yogic “Art.”)

Of course, a profile is a distillation by the journalist. As a writer myself, I know that one can color one’s subject, even with accurate quotes. But there was something in Mr Friend’s attitude that bothered me.

I can appreciate dharma talks and philosophical lessons. I might even give a “life lesson” or two in my own teaching (to the best of my limited experience!). But flowery words (repeated use of “love” and “beautiful” are a tipoff) are a turnoff. I don’t think like that; I don’t talk like that. Maybe that’s what bothered me.

Note: I know that flowery words can work for others, perhaps depending on their state of mind. One of my current students tried Anusara yoga three years ago when she was grieving the loss of her husband. She said that the [touchy-feely] language was nice to hear at the time. Now she is drawn to Iyengar yoga, which I teach.

Anyway, those are my initial (albeit secondhand) impressions of Mr Friend. (Read Roseanne’s blog at it’s all yoga, baby for her perspective as an Anusara practitioner in Montreal.) Maybe I’ll one day meet him in person and amend this post.

Image: The New York Times

Since my last post about the biggest yoga studio in my town, I’ve attended five more classes there (12 total). I’ve seen four of their five locations so far. They’re all huge: I’d estimate that two have mat capacity for 40 to 50, one could hold 60, and the main studio might squeeze in 80.

Of course, everyday classes don’t fill to the max. But they’re still large. On Sunday night, the Vinyasa Power Flow class attracted about 40 students, while the Yin class was a hit with at about 60. (One class that I took last week numbered seven, perhaps because it was on Friday night.) Unlike university yoga programs, which have a built-in audience and low (or no) fees, this is a private studio in a competitive urban setting. So, what’s the appeal?

Low cost for frequent classgoers

Most studios charge $15 to $20 per class, if purchased as a series. Here, you can pay $26 per week for unlimited classes; if you sign up for 90 days, the rate drops to $21 per week. For those who want daily classes (yoga class = yoga), that’s a sweet deal. For once-a-week practitioners, there’s a 10-class card for $133. At $13 a pop, they still undercut most studios.

Now, for mature practitioners, unlimited classes are probably not a draw. Personally, I’d rather pay $21 for one weekly class with my chosen teacher. But I can see the appeal. If you’re new to yoga, it’s hard to shell out $200 for a whole series with a teacher you’re iffy about. The affordable fees at mega studios are incentives for non-yogis to give it a go.

Prime-time classes galore

Newcomers to yoga generally choose classes that fit into their lives. They’re not going to change their whole routine but simply choose from the available options. So, by saturating their class schedule, especially during “prime-time” mornings and evenings, this studio covers all bases. Miss one class? Catch the next.

Newbies are also attracted to variety and the chance to sample different styles of yoga. You can do a vinyasa class when you’re feeling strong and sporty, a hatha class for more detail on form, and a yin class for deep, intense stretching.

Location, location

The five studios are located in a trendy, health-conscious, looks-conscious neighborhood (once a hotbed of counterculture, now gentrified and yuppie-fied), where yoga is an easy sell. Moreover, the studios all flank commercial thoroughfares in a pedestrian-friendly city. There’s lots of passersby and drive-by traffic, lively shops and restaurants, convenient bus stops and adjacent homes. With their massive signage, it’s impossible not to notice this studio.

Big-name connections
At two locations, you can buy lululemon apparel (which is rarely sold outside actual lululemon boutiques nowadays). The studio hosts frequent “master” workshops by celebrity teachers, often those featured in Yoga Journal, those sought after by yogis of all stripes. Indeed, the studio is somehow connected with Yoga Journal, which gave me the pass, after I did a little piece for them.

By promoting such high-profile connections, the studio gains clout within the mainstream yoga audience. If its affiliated with this or that famous teacher, it’s got to be legit … right?

Is there value to bigness?

I’m not advocating following this mega studio’s approach. I’m just trying to fathom why this type of studio attracts the masses. I know great teachers who deserve at least as much attention, but who remain under the radar.

That said, would I want Iyengar yoga, much less my favorite studio, to go big and trendy? No way. I’ll still drop in on the mega studio for variety, but I favor small classes, less showiness, and teachers who focus on students as individuals.

Any studio seeking to raise its profile, however, should consider price, schedule, location, and connections.

Months ago, I received a two-week pass to the biggest yoga studio in my town. It boasts five locations, 30 to 40 teachers, and almost 150 weekly classes in various yoga styles, including Vinyasa Power Flow, Kundalini, and Hatha (a name that I still find misbegotten, as discussed here). Workshops feature celebrity teachers, such as Shiva Rea, Seane Corn, Dharma Mittra, and Mark Whitwell.

When I moved here, I tried a class or two, for personal “research” but I soon got busy with my chosen Iyengar teacher and classes. Now, during the holiday lull, I am taking advantage of my pass (unlimited classes).

In the four days since I activated it, I’ve tried one Kundalini class, one Vinyasa Power Flow, and five Hatha classes—seven classes taught by six different teachers. (Hey, they’re free!) I’d never tried Kundalini before and the repeated dynamic moves (plank to frog-like squat, or urdhva hastasana (well, kind of) to floppy, knees-bent uttanasana), over and over and over, synchronized to music, reminded me of an aerobics class. With zero emphasis on form, I sometimes wondered, “Is this yoga?” but the group energy was contagious and I bought into it (for that hour, anyway) and had fun.

I am most curious about the Hatha classes, which are most prevalent in their schedule. My attitude going in? Skeptical. But, lo and behold, I’ve actually found some decent teachers, even in a four-day sample size. I could ramble on about the positives and negatives of different teachers’ styles, but I’ll focus on a fundamental concept of teaching that’s sometimes missing.

Leading versus teaching

One teacher, a 30-something guy I’ll call Ron, made a good first impression. He’s articulate, precise in both speech and movement, and knowledgeable about body mechanics. His sequences are logical and, although vigorous, his suggested modifications make them doable for a range of levels.

But he gives no adjustments, no corrections, no one-to-one advice during the class. None. The lack of hands-on attention really jumped out at me (especially coming from an Iyengar background). He says all the right things but, if someone is doing the opposite, he doesn’t point it out. He walks around the room and is engaged and approachable, but there is no real interaction.

His classes seem to range from 16 to 24 students, which are manageable numbers. My own teacher’s classes typically exceed 35, and she nevertheless gives a personal “lesson” to every student, every class. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a regular or a first-timer; she notices you and helps you find the asana in your body.

It’s not only Iyengar teachers who give individual attention: In New York, I dropped in on a Jivamukti class numbering 40 to 50, and David Life worked the whole room; I got five adjustments (I counted) and saw him similarly helping all students.

So, while Ron says all the right things, he is only “leading” the class and not really “teaching” students the way I’d define it.

Within my sample group, I did find other teachers who do give manual adjustments and otherwise notice the students before them. They teach more like my favorite teachers do. That, to me, is real teaching.

Image: Salt-shaker yoga, 2003. Here is a salt shaker trying to balance on a grain of salt.

logoA recent post on it’s all yoga, baby quipped about an “adidas yoga” class, offered at the 2009 Yoga Journal Conference in Estes Park, Colorado. A barrage of mostly anti-corporate comments spurred spokesmodel Rainbeau Mars herself to type up an ardent defense.

What’s the big deal about yoga branding? Corporate sponsorships? Yoga spokesmodels? Yoga models?

ISSUE #1: Materialism

Some believe that a yoga practitioner who signs on to represent major corporations like adidas is “selling out.” They find it incongruous that a yogi would promote material trappings, especially expensive or unnecessary things (who needs yoga shoes, after all?).1396-460388-d

I agree that representing a brand is questionable. But I also see possible acceptable sponsorships. Maybe it’s off-putting to link yoga to a multinational giant, but what about affiliations with indie companies selling ethically produced, fairly priced goods? Exceptions might exist. Also, many indie yoga studios sell their own T-shirts and other logo-emblazoned paraphernalia. Small potatoes, perhaps. But it’s still an example of using yoga and branding for profit.

If we choose to live in the US, Canada, and other democratic, capitalistic nations, we will see yoga being “sold.” I’m opposed, but not adamant. While mass consumerism is redefining yoga in regrettable ways, real yoga continues to thrive. (It’s akin to the popularity of running shoes and handmade bikes: just because phonies and posers buy them, too, doesn’t detract from the real running and cycling that’s going on.)

ISSUE #2: The chosen few

The real issue is whether the chosen few (who become the faces and bodies of modern yoga) are deserving of such recognition. What if BKS Iyengar signed a deal with Louis Vuitton? (Sean Connery did. So did Francis Ford Coppola, Mikhail Gorbachev, Catherine Deneuve, and Keith Richards, all lifetime notables in their own spheres.) Longtime yogis would be surprised (to say the least) but no one would question his stature in yoga.

In reality, most yoga spokesmodels, such as Rainbeau Mars, are beautiful young yogis with impressive asana skills. What about other criteria?

It is hard to know who is truly evolved as a yogi. The physical aspect is immediately observable, but the mental aspect (including ethics and life philosophy) is subtle and reveals itself over time.

Yoga is often equated with sports, but in pro sports, it’s easy to pick the champions. We can judge by sheer talent and quantifiable success. In other words, LeBron James, Tiger Woods, and Roger Federer might land lucrative endorsement deals, but it’s clear why. They are remarkable and superior athletes.

Among yogis, some corporate darlings are deserving, others not. But, of course, that’s the way of the world.

… The teacher-student relationship is based on trust. As a teacher I want to build a relationship with the student that will withstand trouble over time. I must know how to hold the container within which the relationship occurs, one that protects both parties. Therefore I must not engage in so-called dual relationships with my students…

From “A Teacher’s Responsibility,” by Yvonne Rand, Zen Buddhist priest

My post “‘Cranking’ and ‘correcting’” was spurred by my fellow blogger Lauren Cahn’s HuffPost piece on the possible pitfalls of Ashtanga training and the Yoga Dork upload of that infamous Pattabhi Jois photo. In turn, my post led to Cahn’s subsequent Yoga Chickie post, “When I think about you, you touch my ass.”

Check out the comments to the string of posts regarding that touchy-feely photo. Some see Cahn (and any critic) as overreactors. Others see blatant misconduct (nevermind that it’s an old photo and one moment in a 93-year-long life). Whatever one’s opinion, it’s likely a gut reaction, based on who you are, not only as a person but as a yogi.

To me, the gaping split in opinion comes from one’s attitude about yoga. For some, it’s an occasional pastime, done as a workout, a social activity, or a stress reducer. For others, it’s a serious hobby, part of one’s daily routine and a guide to self study. For still others, it’s a deep personal endeavor, linked with commitment to a mentor and a way of life. And the list goes on.

Nowadays, yoga teachers are a dime a dozen; the majority are regular Joes and Janes with just a dash more experience (or merely the chutzpah to teach). Even the stellar teachers typically garner respect and loyalty, but not blind awe.

In any case, if a student is mature, rational, and clear on the boundaries between oneself and one’s teacher, all the controversy of teacher ethics is moot. That person would never end up in a vulnerable position (whether emotionally or upside-down, butt in air), nor would that person condone such behavior toward fellow students.

For some,  however, the teacher becomes a powerful figure. As powerful as a parent, a romantic partner, an authority figure or a religious leader.

These issues are nothing new. In fact, having followed scandals in Zen Buddhism, in yoga, in crazy cults, and in other such “paths,” I’m rather jaded on the subject.

But I hate the way critics of questionable conduct are painted as uptight vigilantes. While the vast majority of yoga students will never be even remotely harmed, there will always be the vulnerable few who, like sheep, will follow, follow, follow.

Then it behooves teachers to act wisely.

RECOMMENDED READING: In her remarkably clear-eyed piece “A Teacher’s Responsibility,” Zen Buddhist priest Yvonne Rand discusses essential elements of good teachers. Acknowledgment to Yoga Spy reader Marie Bainmarie for this recommendation.

In August, HuffPost blogger Lauren Cahn wrote a revealing post about the perils of Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga yoga. She caught a lot of hell for that one, with dozens of defensive Ashtanga yogis complaining that Cahn was generalizing and maligning the whole system. This week, Yoga Dork posted a … ahem … revealing photo of Jois manually correcting two female students.

Is all of that true about Jois? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. But one question nagged at me:

Why do students tolerate a teacher’s inappropriate behavior? (Any teacher, not Jois in particular.)

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Why do they let their bodies be “cranked” into pretzel poses beyond their capacity? Why do they allow questionable “corrections” with no outcry. Even if Jois’s fingers (in the photo) were innocent, the students probably felt awkward; if so, they should’ve had the wherewithal to tell him.

But they probably didn’t. Teachers wield much power over awestruck students. With more fame comes more power.

Much has been written about the power imbalance in certain relationships: teacher-student, doctor-patient, therapist-patient, coach-athlete, clergy-disciple. So it’s no surprise that yoga teachers, too, influence their students’ lives (more than even they might realize). See Donna Farhi’s book Teaching Yoga: Exploring the Teacher-Student Relationship and this article in the late ascent magazine for more on yoga-teacher ethics.

Examples need not be extreme cases of injury or abuse. Think about your own class participation. If your teacher directs you to ground your heels or to drop deeper into uttanasana, do you immediately comply? Or do you do a body check first?

Ultimately it behooves us to be measured in our regard. We can value brilliance without being blinded. Listen to your chosen teachers, but also to that “teacher within.”

Photo: Talkingsun

Bear with me as I follow up on my prior post, “Who the heck is Tara Stiles?” If that was my first question, my next thoughts, after my friend Michael mentioned this unfamiliar yoga personality, went like this: “Am I out of it? Should I have recognized this name?”

I’d considered myself quite up on all things yoga. Unlike the most serious, old-school yogis, I enjoy knowing yoga in all aspects: the sutras, the Indian gurus, the fashion trends, the iconic teachers around the world. While I study primarily the Iyengar method, I’ve explored Ashtanga, Bikram, and Yin yoga, and I seek out local studios wherever I travel. I know the major yoga teachers across the US, I figured.51O2f5j1U7L._SL500_AA240_

But I didn’t recognize Stiles, despite her Internet fame. Unless I were living in New York, where she teaches (and where there is a premium on knowing who’s who), I had no reason to discover her. I only selectively view YouTube videos (never would I randomly search for “yoga” there) and I’ve rarely read the Huffington Post (which features a mind-bogglingly large stable of bloggers).

Curious, I asked my friends if they knew this Tara Stiles. Pat? No. Doug? No. Nicki? Laugh. “Yes. I was thinking of doing a few YouTube videos for my students so I searched for ‘yoga’ and guess what I found.”

I would bet a million dollars that my own teachers would not recognize her name—and would not care to. Why should they? A person like Stiles has nothing to teach a senior teacher.

I don’t mean to disparage Stiles. Heck, I have nothing to teach a senior teacher. But what I find interesting is her fame as a yoga teacher. There exist parallel worlds of yoga in the USA. There is the world of Celebrity Yoga, which comprise Rock-Star Yogis (teachers who are household names, such as Rodney Yee) and Yoga-Conference Stars (teachers who are superstars in yoga circles, such as Sarah Powers, Ana Forrest, and those tapped to pose for the Yoga Journal calendar).

Then there are teachers’ teachers, those highly respected by insiders: They are generally lifelong practitioners, committed to all eight limbs of yoga (not only asana). They tend to make their regular classes and students first priority, rather than going on the road to worldwide conferences and workshops. While unknown to non-yogis and newbie yogis, they often attract staunchly loyal student followers. This latter category of teachers has little interest in celebrities and wannabe’s.

I’m a curious person. I’m curious about yoga traditions and yoga trivia. I’m curious about all yoga, the essential and the tangential. But life is short. Warn me if I veer too much toward the latter.

1202585I’d been curious about the 2008 yoga docudrama Enlighten Up! and finally saw it today.  You probably know the setup: Filmmaker and yoga fan Kate Churchill chooses a non-yogi, out-of-work journalist Nick Rosen, to immerse in yoga for six months. Her objective: to see whether he’ll undergo any transformation.

The film opens with a montage of quotes by famous yogis, including Rodney Yee, Cyndi Lee, Natasha Rizopoulos, Baron Baptiste, and Gurmukh. (With their words cut into sound bites, they all come across as idiots. Whatever you think of Yee, he appears the most likable and least la-la-land-ish.) Once Churchill chooses her “guinea pig” (she obviously chose the dude with the most star power), she throws him into New York’s yoga scene, where he sweats and struggles through classes with big-name teachers from witty human pretzel Dharma Mittra to the iconic boho power couple, David Life and Sharon Gannon.

On the road, he meets a former pro wrestler who promises him that yoga will guarantee T&A. He’s given a memorable, unquotable nugget of advice by Ashtanga yogi Norman Allen on the Big Island of Hawaii. Finally he travels to India, where interviews with the late Pattabhi Jois, a benevolently smiling dictator, and with BKS Iyengar (the “lion of Pune,” then 90 years old and magnificently formidable) made the movie worth my nine bucks.

Through it all, Churchill quizzes Rosen on his progress, like a mother pushing a wayward son to buckle down and get serious. Some criticize her presence in the film as grating and I must agree. Her obvious dismay over Rosen’s lingering rational-man skepticism is misplaced. A documentarian shouldn’t ask such leading questions or have an agenda. Can you imagine British documentary filmmaker Michael Apted  (Up Series) growing annoyed with his kiddie subjects if they strayed too far from expectations? He has the neutrality of a scientist and the subtlety of an expert interviewer, not to mention the patience to wait for real life to unfold. Enlightenment does not happen in six months, lady! (And if she wanted to make a personal documentary, why cast Rosen?)

The questions posed, however, are important:

  • Is asana practice really yoga? In the north, Rosen meets yogis who practice only bhakti yoga (devotion to God), who believe that asana practice leads only to physical improvement. But Jois advises Rosen to “practice, practice, practice” and states that all one learn is asana and pranayama (“outside” yoga), while pratyahara, dharana, and dhyana (“inside” yoga) cannot be taught or corrected. BKS Iyengar asserts that one cannot reach for spiritual enlightenment if one’s health is poor and one is struggling simply to stand up. So he, too, focuses on asana as being a necessary practice; later, one can choose to do asana for enjoyment or to reach higher levels.
  • Why do you do yoga? She interviews lots of people off the street, both in New York and in Mysore. Answers range from “God” to a stammering, groping speechlessness. Many people love yoga but can’t quite pinpoint why. But for those who do find words, spirituality (whether stated as “God” or not) is almost always mentioned. Why are Westerners so drawn to yoga as a form of spirituality. What is lacking in their own European (or other Asian) cultures that yoga fills?

Ultimately, the film concludes that yoga means different things to different people. The right practice for one person will differ from that for another person. Churchill’s film is open-ended about yoga. Is anyone surprised?

In an email exchange several months ago, I mentioned my long interest in yoga to Michael, a magazine editor friend. “The path of the yogin is a difficult (and impecunious) one,” he wrote back. “You could always do what Tara Stiles did and become a YouTube sensation.”

Tara Stiles? Who the heck is Tara Stiles?

20080125ford2I Googled her name and found her website, her HuffPost blog, her Couch Yoga video on YouTube (which has garnered almost 115,000 views to date), and hundreds more listings. Born in 1981, Stiles grew up in rural Illinois before claiming fame as a Ford model cum yoga sensation.

I watched a few of her videos, from Couch Yoga to Hotel Room Yoga to Meditation tips. Lithe and leggy, Stiles has a laidback manner and treats yoga in a matter-of-fact way. With her conspiratorial tone, body-swaying gestures, and uniform of short shorts and boy-beater tanks, she makes yoga interesting to the uninterested masses.

Comments on Stiles’s videos run the gamut (here are some G-rated examples from Hotel Room Yoga):

Yoga is 2,000 years old. What does this dum young full of @#!~$ know. Shut up! … What is this dum dum talking about? – A few too too many hotel beds…I think. LOL (acm19751; USA; age 34)

Chicks + Underwear + Stretching = hot :) (iluvebeer; Oslo, Norway; age 19)

hotness (LukeWhitaker; USA; age 26)

Most are akin to the latter two. Of course.

In addition to skimming Stiles’s videos, I read a few of her HuffPost blog posts. She displays a likable, inclusive manner (her motto: anyone can do yoga) and the knack for boiling advice down into five points (or less). As a yoga instructor, she is probably better, or at least no worse, than the hundreds of 20-somethings out there. There is no comparison between this contingent and the wise senior teachers who exist everywhere (keep your eyes peeled; they’re often under the radar)—so I won’t compare.

But Stiles’s yoga is all about sex. Don’t get me wrong: Sex is always in the picture. Walking down the street in skintight pants (or in grubby tee and shorts, no matter), it’s fair game for any onlooker to get an eyeful. You can’t control if others view you as a sex object. And, let’s face it, if you’re human, you have a stake in your own sexiness. So, in non-yoga settings, wear a bikini, go braless, go nude, whatever.

It’s another matter purposely to create yoga videos that bank on sex appeal more than on yoga itself. To me, it’s cheesy: a guaranteed attention grabber for extraneous reasons. (I’m reminded of Jerry Seinfeld’s decision not to use swearing in his standup act; he considered tossing off f-bombs too easy a way to get laughs.) The phenomenal supermodel Christy Turlington is another model-turned-yogi, but she wrote a book (Living Yoga: Creating a Life Practice, published in 2002) and is now working on a master’s degree in public health at Columbia, forgoing her own chance to make blockbuster yoga videos for YouTube.

The irony (and this is real irony, not the ironical tone favored by Stiles and her ilk): With her looks, savvy, and head start in yoga, this Tara Stiles could probably do just fine … without lolling around in bed.

Related post: “The Call of the Fame”

resize-of-copy-of-cats-kissingFlipping through an old Yoga Journal, I noticed an ad for Gaiam Yoga Club, an online yoga program taught by “world renown instructors” (Gaiam can’t afford copyeditors?) Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman. It’s a 13-week program that costs $5 per lesson, $65 total for the first package. I watched the marketing video, featuring the married couple, ever smiling, buoyantly welcoming, and unmistakably American.

Yee invites viewers to join the “this great community, the yoga community.” Here, “you can begin to share some of the most intimate and life-changing things that are going to happen,” he says. Saidman gushes that “the possibilities are endless,” if you “just take that first step.” Sharing, openness, community … with total strangers.

Traditionally, yoga was taught one-to-one. Today, most students enroll in classes, where groups range from 10 to 50+. I’d say that the average class size is 25 to 30 for an established, popular teacher. Gaiam was one of the pioneers in the yoga video business (and Rodney Yee was among their early stars).

While I have never used yoga videos, I can see their appeal as an affordable and convenient method for home practice, especially for students with some experience. (Beginners need a real teacher, while intermediate and advanced students can do their own thing.) Yoga-video fans might be familiar with individual poses but need guidance in sequencing. Sometimes it’s just a relief to “follow” a teachers’ instructions (do this, do that).

Anyway, I can’t judge the quality of this set of online lessons. But one thing jumped out at me: the obvious familiarity between Yee and Saidman. In the video, the couple is sitting side by side in half-padmasana (lotus pose). Yee constantly rests his hand on Saidman’s upper thigh. He might talk to the camera and gesture with both hands. But it keeps returning to that cozy spot, while her hand occasionally sits on his hip.

Their presentation struck me as, well, too intimate and a tad déclassé. While such interplay might be natural and affectionate, I find it too casual for yoga teachers when presenting themselves as such. Off-camera, in private life, anything goes! But shouldn’t yoga teachers maintain a degree of reserve?

Perhaps I am influenced by Judith Hanson Lasater‘s strong stance against bringing private life into the teaching space. She won’t even let her husband drop in on her classes. In her view, even if a teacher is perfectly neutral toward her husband/partner in class, just the presence of that person changes the group dynamic. It’s there. Whether viewed positively or negatively by students, it’s a distraction, however subtle, however unconscious.

Yee and Saidman are both longtime yoga practitioners. Yee ranks among the most famous of celebrity teachers. If they do offer anything worthy as yoga teachers, bring it on. All the couple-y gestures? Leave ‘em at home.

Photo: Shelter Me, Inc

IMG_0012_1-1Yoga teachers’ bios sometimes reminds me of reading the New York Times‘s wedding announcements. They can be such precious little gems, polished and padded for maximum “insider” effect.

Check out this winner (name and gender blanked out):

_____ began practicing yoga in 1989 while living in New York City. _____ spent several years exploring many different yoga traditions leading to years of study in the Iyengar yoga tradition with many of its master teachers such as Faiq Biria, Manuso Manus [sic], Ramanand Patel, Aadil Palkivala [sic], Joan White, Kevin Gardner [sic], Lisa Walford, Paul Cabanis, Marla Apt and Kofi Busia. _____ has also studied with renounwed [sic] teachers such as Judith Lasater, Donna Farhi, Dona Holleman and Rodney Yee. _____ was introduced to the Anusara tradition through workshops with John Friend and Viniyoga with Gary Kraftsow. In recent years _____ has been practicing Ashtanga yoga as taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, under the guidance of Chuck Miller and Maty Ezraty. In the Ashtanga tradition _____ has also studied with Richard Freeman and the guru of Ashtanga, Pattabhi Jois.

Someone forgot to nudge this teacher and say, “Hey, you’re nobody without Jivamukti.”

Recognizing one’s teachers is a nice way to pay homage and to give prospective students an idea of one’s teaching methods. But it’s a slippery slope to blatant marketing and name dropping. If I see someone list a dozen significant teachers (covering the panoply of yoga lineages), it verges on ADHD to me. We are all influenced by numerous teachers, by reading their books, taking their workshops, and studying regularly with those in our own town. Indeed, I have taken many workshops with different teachers, some famous, but would I call them My Teachers?

Recognizing 20 teachers covers one’s bases with … nothing. It’s like listing 20 spouses or 20 mothers or fathers.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe this person did seriously study with all 20 teachers. Okay. But spell their names right.