There’s an old word for the experience of disconnect between your life force and your daily work. The disconnect can be big for yoga teachers, but we don’t look at it directly, don’t bond together over it like we could. So we may not see that (1) people share the same troubles and (2) there’s another way.
The name of the disconnect is alienation. I’m going to sharpen this tool for five minutes right now. After that, I talk liberation tactics.
Marx said alienation denatures the “sensuous human activity” of your bodily work: the immediacy, the creative power, the art. Your action – your work – fully experienced is your life force. Your daily work should express and add to who you are, not exploit you and suck you dry.
But in the yoga industry/star system, the energetic loops of exchange are hardwired against all but the large owners, experts, and token celebrities. So after a few years of the daily grind in this context, the pulse of right action does not limn your circuits. There’s not much juice. Instead there are good days and bad days, and behind them something sinister.
Yoga is skillful action – highly conscious, vibrantly alive, and confidently in relationship. If there is alienation – if life force and daily work are disjointed- the yoga’s on the line.
Alienation has two sides: subjective and structural. Inside/outside. (*If that bothers you, see the cryptohegelian footnote below.)
FIRST, on the inside, it’s a gut event. It’s the bile in your belly when you hate the job you want to love. It’s disappointing your better self when you make compromises because “that’s what it takes in this business.” It a mind full of craving (for popularity, headcounts, workshop invites, or for whatever other empty “rewards” are on offer), instead of a mind nourished by timeless ideals. It’s the “I am not what I do” reflex. It is pervasive anxiety and concern for the future, and it is fantasies about the perfect teacher or employer who will fix everything. It is a loneliness for someone who shares the values of your heart.
Behavioral symptoms: creative malaise, inability to make decisions that stick, splitting into multiple personalities (only expressing that which is marketable), simulating productivity by feeding the feeds, escapes to a “happy place,” substituting spiritual practices for productive work. And, on the best days, thoughts of revolution.
Proximate Causes: feeling pressure to objectify yourself against your wishes; non- clarity about your sources/inspiration/path; seeing how your work is more about staying ahead than about serving others; any day when the work you did was “for the money” and did not add to your personal skill and insight; feeling you must entertain rather than educate (because the commodity your boss is selling is a time-block, not knowledge); making a passive income from yoga (once-exploited teachers who start studios and thence exploit new teachers are alienated if and only if they retain a conscience). Above all, alienation’s cause is having others accumulate passive income/power/status/energy off your labor.
I personally taste alienation: when I forget WHY I teach (to do service that subverts my ego, to express creative energy and play, to end suffering, and because this is what my teachers told me to do); when I feel entitled to something I’m not getting (a comfortable physical practice, students who value the practice, respect); when I feel my work is misunderstood in the world; when I fail to connect with colleagues and students and teachers on a human level; when my response to the normally satisfying experience of working really hard is to get overwhelmed and stop expressing myself. These are the times the life force drains straight out of my work, not because I’m being exploited (and as I once was), but because at times it bums me out to work at the edges of this troubled profession.
People do not have to experience alienation if: they buy in. Buying in = trusting that the current set-up truly rewards a deserving minority, and that the commodities/experiences for sale are of good value. Buying in is seeing yoga as a thing, and rating its teachers according to beauty, entertainment value, athletic performance, or capacity to create spa-like experiences or temporary relief from low self-esteem, because these are the most shiny things at the market. Buying in is consent to a consumption-centered definition of yoga that doesn’t put ethical action, relationships, spirituality and the environment front and center. Nobody reading this buys in, but still we practice in a context in which these ideas line the path of least resistance.
—————>The hopeful thing here is that after decades of yoga teachers’ public service drawing attention to the perineum, the yoga proletariat (sorry: yoletariat) is getting rather good at knowing when the gut ain’t right. Such discomfort can inspire change. Thanks to you who have done years of god’s special work: teaching anus awareness to the unsuspecting.
SECOND: alienation is not just a personal but a collective arrangement. We inherited this. It is the extraction of life force from the working majority, to the benefit of a privileged few. Is someone making a passive income off your efforts? Originally, this was called being an appendage of the machine. Think The Matrix.
Sound cartoonish? Yes, the industry hopes so. The Yoga Alliance, the Yoga Journal, YogaWorks, and every studio’s workshop program, and every teacher training by whatever name, and every advertiser on every website, are feeding us content that pushes us in the opposite direction of this exact awareness. Yoga commodification is an extremely forceful line of energy, largely built by a workforce of part-time teacher/ consumers shopping at the company stores.
Rather than take 20 pages to lay out the relations of production and the varied strategies for energy extraction from the most vulnerable, here’s a vignette that captures the industry in action. This is one of those key relational moments when young yoga teachers learn to conceptualize the work of teaching yoga. This scene is embarrassing to write because the first time I got this call, at 29, I didn’t hang up. Actually, for a minute I was flattered. But behind this script shows a clear agenda for using youthful energy and disposable space that the industry already “owns.” This generates new profit for a studio while isolating and inculcating young workers. So… the call comes in one day in your late 20s. It’s the machine, sidling up with a hypodermic, but because it’s your first bid, maybe it feels like an opportunity. The manager of the local/corporate yoga studio can’t fill classes between 6-9am on week days, so he wants to put in a Mysore program. He has heard you identify as an Ashtanga person and are a devoted practitioner of internet handstands (yes, that was me), so your (unpaid) social media skills and enthusiasm for big postures (key commodities) could generate enthusiasm for the time slot. So much the better if this draws the people with the awesome practices to the studio, because this adds to the community for the ongoing workshop schedule and the teacher training. For you, we can give you a special key and teach you to take the money (office seva), and will even give you $60 per class rather than the usual $40. It’s true the class is a 3 hour teaching shift, but you don’t really have to work as hard as a regular class and you can use your devices any time. Acually, please do take pictures of your students; it would be fun to share those on social media to create community. We’d like to get to a headcount of 30 within the first 2 months. Also, to support your personal practice, you can stay after teaching and take our vinyasa classes for free. (Key ideological words: free, give, community, awesome, devoted, special.) Sorry for that scene, everyone. I know looking directly at this stuff can be excruciating.
In this industrial setting, Yogalebrities play a key role, giving consumers things to aspire to and reasons to believe this is an arrangement in which (as Yogaworks’ TT has claimed explicitly) “the cream rises to the top.” The Babarazzi has covered this.
Moreover, pundits/experts in every field work hard to legitimate exploitative social arrangements, drawing us off the scent of inequality, while they ease through workshop circuits and write guest columns. Western yoga experts do not want us to develop tools/language to rebalance the energy exchange. They want us to spend down our awareness on matters like cultural appropriation and proper alignment for a headstand, and by the way sign up for their next internet workshop… while the physical, emotional labor of the daily yoga grind is carried out by alienated teachers whose employment situation is precarious.
… alienated teachers who, knowing their jobs are precarious, are not fully confident in their role.
…alienated teachers who will continue to shop at the company store as long as nobody raises the specter of a grassroots yoga culture.
—————>The hopeful thing here is that “structural inequality” just stopped being a fringe idea. The sociologists tell me it happened 5 years ago with some combination of Occupy + Gen Y, but at this point even if you’re (somehow) not moved by the tide of racial, sexual, citizenship and economic justice movements in the west, you do know they exist… and that the sharp tool they share is consciousness of inherited inequality. Consciousness that we are all in this together; consciousness with voices; consciousness willing to bleed.
So here is the thing. If we can see clearly the conditions of our alienation, then we can see THROUGH it. Then we can take creative control, and with it we can take care of each other.
We can teach to serve, in a way that doesn’t undermine our self-respect or the ground under our feet. We can teach in our own voices in a way that continues the deep line of yoga – which has ALWAYS had a gritty, inter-personal grassroots element. We can serve practitioners, and the practice, without giving any energy at all to the matrix.
How? Opt out. JUMP out.
I can see two ways to take back your life force immediately. First, opt out of a professional culture based on imitation. See where you can work however you choose, and make your own way. Second, take this same originality to a new definition of the market. Your practice has packed you with life force, now go out and generate an organic energy economy at the gritty grass roots. Perhaps even an energy economy free of the racial, sexual, economic, citizenship-based, ageist, ableist, sizeist, looksist hierarchies that organize inequality in capitalist culture. There are twenty more strategies beyond that, but for once I am not trying to lose you here, so I’ll keep this short.
These strategies work if: you’re an expert practitioner, yoga is your day job, you have deep lifetime backup from your mentors, and you’ve already been living out a commitment to service for years. By contrast, if your practice is an eclectic mix of studio classes; if your route to teaching was a TT for with no barriers to entry (except cash), which nobody could fail (because of said cash), it is precisely your adorable enthusiasm to do any work you can get (while your bosses take yet more cash, this time from your students) that allows the industry to exploit teachers. There are more workers than there is work. If this is you, your first yoga class was sometime in the last 5 years, and the yoga machine already has a needle in your vein. The gradual, not-so-harmless suck of your life force has already begun. But you can change course. Find a grassroots community where people own their practices. Find a teacher who isn’t looking for students (because he is not an energy-harvester), but will go to the trouble to share his priceless knowledge with you if you prove persistent. Stop shopping at the yoga store and gradually grow your own. But experienced teachers? You’re your own center of gravity and as long as you keep your energy strong, you can work however you want. The industry wants you, but you don’t need it. So it may be more a source of limitations than of good ideas.
1. Ways for experienced teachers to stop imitating the industry.
Have a MISSION. Could be anything.With the yoga teaching, mine is (1) supporting a sincere community of practice at home, and (2) supporting a tiny number of Ashtanga teachers around the world who I ask to bring the best out of me and become better teachers than me in the long run. Anything the industry throws out that is not on mission – the answer is no. This keeps the life force of my work consolidated in two interwoven loops, and short-circuits my massive Shiny Objects Problem. The thing about dharma is: it doesn’t “find you.” You don’t even “find it.” You create it. SO GIVE YOURSELF TO IT. Otherwise a mission is not a container, but just a to-do list.
SET SOME TERMS for teaching relationships. For example, under what conditions will you work with a new student? (I require students to be invested in their own practice, so that I feel that they are a good investment of my energy. Their attention is the currency.) Under what conditions will you do an outside event? (My conditions are that outside events can’t impinge on my mission, and can’t set up a situation in which I see myself exploiting the hosts in any way. And, due to my own random personality limitations, I don’t want to be bored. If an event feels scripted or doesn’t force me to really engage with people, I’ll feel bad about it later.)
DON’T WORK FOR MONEY. Exploited people work for money. What if you work for yoga; you work for your own education; you work for the sake of taking skillful action? What if you never consent to do work that fails to increase your skill and insight? In this case, you probably still work a lot, but you interpret every experience as learning opportunity, and as a result your chops are always getting sharper. Money is an occasional (not necessary) by-product of action the same way postures are a by-product of practice. Your desperation melts away.
Here’s the thing: if your work is embedded in sadhana – if teaching is understood as teaching practice – then it is very difficult for anything to disconnect you from your life force.
Caveat: taking this orientation too far has led me to condone parasitic dynamics at times. Because I saw every challenge as grist for the practice mill, I failed to share my awareness of industry dynamics with the people who were unconsciously exploiting me. They were just doing their thing; I was being unskillful. I got what I wanted – experience doing good work and maintaining self-respect in twisted conditions –but two times out of three my employer ended up embarrassed. Because if your heart is true it actually feels awful when you realize you’re short-circuiting someone whose work you respect. As my clarity on this matter increased, so did my courage, and so did my ability to build a better business model.
INTEND that anyone who works for you will experience abundance. Hire only the absolute best, and pay them what they are worth. Compensate them more than they expect. Not because you’re generous – because you’re clear about their value. See what happens to the relationship of life force to creative work for everyone this abundant collaboration touches.
Don’t give it up for EXPOSURE. As an expert teacher, you have the precious ability to generate original content. This is something you only have because for years you dug a very deep well, looking for nothing but yourself. But industry platforms (blogs, podcasts, events) are empty shelves. They need YOUR content to make the magic happen. Yet they tend ask you for your precious labor as if they are doing you a favor. In return, you are offered “exposure.” Maker culture already has a strong critique of exposure as compensation – check it out if you are tempted to say yes to a lot of interview requests. Personally, my idea is to keep the content in house and keep the well fresh, unless once a year or so there is a VERY GOOD PROJECT it feels great to support.
REVOLUTIONIZE relationships with SPACE: Biggest way the superrich make a passive income off the majority: RENT. There are so many other ways to build a yoga school. Let’s invent them. Here is where I started. (P.S. Millenials: you will teach the world to make sacred space in a flash and on a dime. Either that, or we all die. We are waiting for you to move out of your parents’ place and get to work on this. Letting your elders work harder than you do is not cool. Now is the time to invent crazy new things. Be brave.)
Get crystal clear on WHAT IT IS YOU OFFER. Is your expertise Bakasana B, or is it working with individual bodies and nervous systems over time? Is it conscious relationship? Is it engaging directly with, and helping train, a student’s awareness? Is it transmitting a rarified-radiant energy or state of consciousness within which students become more of who they are? These skills can’t be learned from amateurs or books or videos. It takes an artisan.
The clearer you get about what your art is, and the better you get at giving it away (because you are always practicing teaching), and thus the more you do to further the evolution of consciousness. And, accidentally, the more this goes on, the more work comes your way. Because you are very, freaking conscious. And very, freaking, good. Yeah, friends who I love, you know that I am talking to you. A subtle, graceful self-respect makes you useful in the world.
2. Understanding (deciding) how markets work.
The economists had to take one from the sociologists when they started being able to model the social relations that really give rise to energy exchanges. A healthy student market isn’t the one you take from your so-called “competitors.” It’s not even the “niche” between two other segments of some population. Rather, your market is your network, and it is your narrative.
Forget, forget, forget about teaching someone else’s yoga students. You don’t want them. Their foundations are elsewhere. You are an expert, and do best to forge your own foundations. It’s just not useful to the world for experts to try to serve where they aren’t entirely needed. Go to a new end of the Earth instead.
What picture comes to mind when you think of a yoga practitioner? See the ways our shared unconscious notion of “yoga practitioner” derives from the industry’s definition of the perfect consumer? Do you actually want to teach consumers? People you can teach easy backbends, whose eyes glaze over with crazy projection when they speak of you, or who will subserviently follow everything you do without finding their own way? How boring.
Let’s take the Yoga Journal cover model, bless her (that’s what I look like if I’m not careful) and change their gender expression, age, body size, their race, their economic status, their hair, their education, their personality type and talents, their sexual status, their work, their politics, their citizenship, their interest, their heart, their faith, their health, their breath, their energy. Everything. So now, maybe it’s the person picking out apples at the farmers market, or the receptionist at the dentist’s office, or the paint guy at Home Depot (all true stories here). Whatever. For me, I intend to connect with those who do what they say they will do. Those who want to practice – who want to organize their energy in this way, who don’t need a cheerleader but do need (for a while) a wellspring of good information. Those who will support and not harm my other students. Those I trust, and who have the weird ability to draw the best out of me – even if the way they sometimes do that is by being honest about who they are at their worst.
Marketing something this golden isn’t even a matter of strategy. The spark of the energy you’re carrying because of your practice is going to be visible to certain random humans. You just figure out where to go, and how to resonate, when to be invisible, and how to look at the world in a way that lets your work find you. Denying the industry the energy it gets when we believe in it frees up almost too much possibility. So then the work is to navigate that freedom. Then the work is whatever yoga you’re making happen right now.
Other posts in this series:
1. The Yoga Bio.
2. Safe Space.
3. Notes to a Young Teacher.
*Nerdy footnote. Marx would disagree that subjective alienation is a thing. He thought your life situation determined your consciousness. He also was a dialectical materialist, and invented the hopeless labor theory of value; I’m not going to spend our time treading this metaphysical bathwater. Meantime, much of yoga says the opposite: consciousness determines life situation! I dunno: from here, life-situation/ consciousness looks suspiciously like a two-way street. Pretty sure the owl of Minerva agrees.