The days of meeting friends at your favorite yoga studio and grabbing a smoothie are now just a distant memory of the before times. But thanks to Zoom and Instagram live, the ability to practice yoga has been easily transferred over into our very own homes. It might actually be more convenient to savasana nowadays, seeing as we don’t even need to leave our bedrooms to do so. So how many of us are actually still making it to yoga class? In this week’s episode, host Avery Trufelman explores the evolution of yoga, and how the practice gave rise to a capitalist enterprise. Avery first sits down with Brooklyn-based yoga instructor Amanda Gloria Valdez to discuss how the transition to Zoom has affected her career.
AMANDA: A lot of us are teaching a lot less. I know I am. In order to really make it — in terms of all the things that I have to pay for — I had to really stock my schedule.
Not every yoga instructor is struggling in the same way. Ben Simon, co-founder of the app Down Dog, has actually experienced an increase in usage since the start of the pandemic. That success might be due to the fact that each user can customize their class to be the exact length and level of difficulty they desire.
BEN: There are over 30,000 possible combinations. We can have a lot of users, especially by making it more accessible and introducing people to yoga who wouldn’t have tried it otherwise because of the high [entry] barriers. I think in the end, that should mean even higher attendance at yoga studios [later] because they do provide something that we can’t. And so if we can widen the funnel of people who might eventually go to yoga studios, we’re not as much like true competition with each other as it might seem.
Apps and online yoga classes are the obvious answers for those looking to practice these days; however, New York Magazine editor-at-large Stella Bugbee is joined by her mother, who explains that she found her love for the craft thanks to a book.
SHARMAN: I went to the library and there was a book on yoga. I can’t remember if it was a library or maybe some kind of a book-giveaway-sale thing. But there was a book on yoga. And I picked it up.
STELLA: You just picked it up — why? Was it popular?
SHARMAN: No, it wasn’t popular at all! It was completely unknown to me.
STELLA: No one you knew did yoga?
SHARMAN: No! It just intrigued me and, I enjoyed it tremendously. So I started doing it.
The simple joy Sharman got from her book seems to have become lost on some in today’s world of ’grammable studios and trendy athleisure. In response, New York–based studio Yoga to the People (YTTP) rose in popularity largely because it appeared to offer a stripped-back version of the practice. Unfortunately, it was too good to be true, as Madeleine Aggeler reported for the Cut, and scandal erupted around their teaching methods. Nikki trained under the problematic YTTP program.
MADELEINE: People described it to me as a ten-week long job interview.
AVERY: Although, it was a pretty messed up job interview. There was this one day where all teachers-in-training were led into a studio, and we were told to sit on the floor and follow the teacher in the front. And then this teacher lifted her arms high above her head.
NIKKI: Before I even really understood what’s happened … it’s just like, Ok, my arms are here [up in the air] now. What the fuck is happening?
AVERY: Everyone [the instructors in training] started to raise their arms above their head. They kept their arms in the air for one whole hour, wailing and shaking in pain.
NIKKI: Also, all the other senior teachers and managers are in the room watching and supporting you. So you’re basically freaking out in front of the people who are gonna be your bosses later.
Shocking as that particular anecdote is, exploitation of the practice has long been a theme in Western yoga. Due to discriminatory immigration laws and social hierarchies, white westernizers were ultimately deemed the masters of yoga in America. Yoga scholars Tejal Patel and Jesal Parikh host a podcast where they further explore the politics and history of the craft.
TEJAL: The only people offering yoga [in the early 20th century] were not really Indians. So that lasted for about 40 years, and then we got into hippies.
AVERY: And so for most of the ’60s and ’70s, American yoga was only found in small hippie enclaves in San Francisco. Otherwise, you learned it from library books. Until the ’80s.
JESAL: Group classes, group fitness classes and aerobics classes, became the hot new thing. And so this becomes the model for yoga.
Around 1997, there was a backlash against this modernization of the ancient practice. The Yoga Alliance formed to standardized the practice, and in doing so, created the 200-hour teacher training minimum that exists today. The alliance is still exists today and run by CEO, Shannon Roche.
SHANNON: We represent both the people who are often the workers — the teachers — and also the people who are often the employers. Because teacher training programs often live within studios. And so we are looking to try and figure out how to play a role again in sort of thinking about the role of workers versus the role of employers …. We now have what we’ve called our accountability department. We’ve built a department to take those incoming reports, complaints, et cetera.
Despite Yoga Alliance’s efforts, it seems they haven’t been effective.
TEJAL: As a teacher, there’s been no benefit of me being accredited through the Yoga Alliance.
AMANDA: I’ve never interacted with Yoga Alliance. I don’t really know who Yoga Alliance is or who runs it.
JESAL: In terms of the benefits I receive? I don’t really see them.
One good thing to come out of this pandemic for the yoga world is a new alliance of instructors who previously worked at YTTP, now known as the People’s Yoga Collective, or PYC. This group is dedicated to creating a more equal and fair yoga community for their members online.
TEJAL: Yoga is up against a lot. But, what I think we can just go back to is how we think that people are actually moving into a more positive direction with what’s being offered because things are online.
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