The Yoga Bio • 1 May 2015

12471_528152297300248_1626187012_n

This post is the first in a series on the yoga industry. The topics here are inspired by questions from practitioners who have learned yoga as a strictly person-to-person oral transmission in a grassroots setting (the shala where I teach) and only later encounter the modern asana climate beyond our shala. The ideas are further shaped by 3 years in the non-profit world, 6 years of waiting tables, and by 7 years of graduate study in historical and economic sociology at UCLA. My graduate mentors were the late Peter Kollock and by other professors who would not prefer to be cited on a yoga blog. More questions for this series are welcome.

There is a script for the self who teaches yoga. Your industry bio requires the following elements.

(1) A description of how you found yoga, or how yoga found you.

(2) The symbols printed on your receipt (RYT- 200, 500, etc.)

(3) A list of people whose workshops you have taken (“studied with.”)

(4) Some unique adjectives for the flavor of your class.

(5) A quirky-wise-individualistic sentence on what yoga means to you.

Capitalism is smart. This is an example. In the space of a text box in the MINDBODY Online ™ software, you (the yoga teacher) and yoga have been cast as commodities. The text box bio denotes the class for sale, and also represents a success story in the consumption of the larger-sized yoga units (workshops and trainings) that one can also buy from the studio. The teacher’s work has been characterized as a kind of hobby (exactly the kind of work that should be part time and contingent), and his consumption of TTs and workshop has been legitimated as the mode of expertise-accumulation for teachers.

One of the commodities generated by this definition of the yoga teacher is relatively cheap (the teacher’s labor). And one is not (the good/service called yoga, available in 90-minute, weekend-long, and 200-hour sized packages). As long as teachers agree to these definitions of the situation, the loop of yoga production and consumption will spin without resistance.

So, what’s the problem? No problem.

First, teaching asana classes for one’s community is a good hobby. A person who does it for 3 hours per week does well to take weekend workshops to sharpen up her alignment skills and place the practice of asana in historical context. If she is using asana teaching an outlet for service, then there is no reason to approach the work with a professional mindset or to put a ton of energy into examining the relationship between capital-Y-Yoga and group classes on posture. The hobbyist resume is a good model in this case.

Second, the yoga bio is just commodification doing what commodification does. It’s natural. Turning experience into things that can then be traded for money is capitalism’s job, and if you go with the flow consciously sometimes you can direct this process to the greater good. Commodification isn’t bad. It is not art; it does not (cannot) treat learning as an end in itself; it does not support the notion of pricelessness. Still, commodification just happens. It can be a value neutral process. Studios that commodify yoga and teachers’ labor are actually not evil. They are effectively speaking the common tongue.

BUT. Well, two big things.

If you are still reading, probably you have far different standards than a profit-driven studio for (1) what constitutes a yoga teacher, and for (2) what is yoga. So it’s appropriate to use different language entirely to describe the work and the subject matter.

It may even be possible to use language as a tool to resist the alienation process that commodification promotes – a process in which workers become detached from the deep value of their work, or the work itself gets detached from the essential creative energy it once contained. (On which: look up “sensuous human activity.” Work that expresses the life force is in essence erotic. Marx said that, not me.)

This post magnifies the yoga bio as a tiny common moment of yoga commodification, so that devotional practitioners might see different options. They might change the symbolic terms of engagement. Why bother? Because: does the yoga studio logic make sense for devotional, lineage-based practice? Is yoga about uncritically reproducing mass culture? Is yoga socially transformative? Is yoga punk rock? Is teaching an art? Are relationships a service rendered for a fee, or something outside of the market? Let’s talk options.

Item 1 (how you found yoga) above puts yoga in the category of “after work hobby.” Contingent, part-time, contractual workers have hobbies. Not professionals. People who have a day job find their hobbies by happy accident. QED.

Item 2 (reference to a TT for legitimacy) eclipses merit-based selection of teachers, and merit-based blessings to teach. Receiving a call, and receiving a blessing, based on merit, is essential to parampara. An RYT designation, by contrast, indicates a service that was paid for, and that anyone else can purchase too. That’s capitalism. Money is its own standard.

Item 3 (workshop list) defines student-teacher relationship as short term and non-exclusive.

With many teachers come many lines of action. And no necessary follow-up from either party. There is not a shared project between teacher and student. By contrast, the long-term, semi-exclusive relationships of devotional practitioners are characterized by mutual accountability.

Item 4 (description of what makes your class special) implies that yoga needs to be branded. Make it creative. Put your spin on it.

Item 5, (what yoga means to you) like item 1, is unprofessional. Does the sociologist conclude her bio with a statement on what society means to her? Or the psychologist tell you what the psyche means to him? From a professional standpoint, devotional practitioners understand that there is a difference between Yoga, and the particular personal questions we trying to resolve through practice at this time. “What yoga means to me” is transitory, because we are life-long students. That changing interpretation may condition how we pass on the methods we have been given, but it doesn’t define the student experience. Students are invited to engage with a Yoga that is bigger than the teacher.

More regarding item 3. Using workshops (rather than enduring relationships) as the mode of continuing education gives studios another thing to sell. The illusion of relationship is created (and commodified) with photos of momentary interactions. This process effectively alienates the workshop teacher from his labor, which in a devotional setting would rightly be found in the form of grounded, long-term, mutually accountable relationships. But what about workshop teachers who don’t care about such things at all, because they aren’t actually grounded in a lineage?

This is where the yoga bio gets fishy. If traveling experts give a bio in the hobbyist format, all we truly know about how well is how well he might entertain us. We don’t know if the person claiming expertise has an unbroken history of practice, or if he has passed any benchmarks with teachers or institutions that provide merit-based review and long-term accountability (and the possibility of losing one’s license). We don’t know if the traveling expert has an ability to choose good teachers of his own and nurture healthy relationships with them over decades. Most importantly, because traveling experts are from elsewhere, one doesn’t get the chance to evaluate who they really are as everyday people, or learn about them from the family and colleagues who know them best. But going to the trouble to get into the bona fides of this sort does not necessarily serve the commodification of yoga. What serves the commodification of yoga is experts who are charismatic and entertaining.

Ok. So you are not a hobbyist. Your personal daily practice comes first, and you have chains of accountability to both teachers and students. Teaching is something you have been called to do, and blessed to do. You teach because your teacher told you do to so, and because you deeply need an outlet for service. What language and class models do justice to this?

I don’t know, but where I started was by looking at how the hippies did it. Did that that first generation of western yoga teachers who studied in India think critically about capitalism? Maybe they were just genius keeping the yoga close to the ground, no matter the circumstances. Maybe their transmission was clear simple because they experienced the yoga as priceless, or because cultivating a bit of inner freedom from materialism and greed was one of the achievements of their particular zeitgeist. Whatever it was, the shalas the first generation started were no frills. Not a lot of bling in the brick and mortar, but all kinds of continuity in the habit of practice and realness in the relationships between people.

A few of this generation even pioneered the workshop model without commodifying yoga. Take a look at what Nancy Gilgoff and Peter Sanson have been doing without fanfare for 30 years. In the rare cases that they teach away from their own schools (which is where you really go if you want to absorb what it is they are living and transmitting), they travel to communities where they have a long-term relationship with the director. They decline requests from people they don’t know. Instead of looking for new markets (the imperative of capitalism is constant expansion into new consumers and new products), they just keep returning to the places they have been before. Because they take responsibility for following up on the instructions they have given in the past. And they have a long trajectory of fellowship with given individuals and groups. They’re not tossing their seeds haphazardly; they are cultivating ground they understand to be fertile. Karl Marx would be proud: they have created and shared their work without becoming alienated from it. Talking with one of the long-term attendees of this kind of workshop reminds of talking with Burners. They may not have made the greatest sacrifices or taken the craziest pilgrimages in search of the self, but they have been repeatedly, indelibly marked by an experience in a way that is too much a part of them to put in to words. They haven’t taken those workshops to get a piece of said teacher; rather that experience has become a piece of them.

Back to items 1-5 above. A devotional teacher does not have 200 hours of training; she has thousands of hours. You teach because your teacher trained you to do so, and gave you a blessing that entails both rights and duties. You invest a majority of your energy in personal practice and study. You have been practicing daily for a decade and more. You go to great lengths to be with your teacher – not for thematic sessions, but for the sake of hanging out in the same context where he carries on his daily life. You do this for months at a time, with nothing to be gained in the career realm. You’ve made so many weird life choices that you’ve lost the concept of “sacrifice” – practice is just the organizing principle of your life, in a way people of the mainstream find weird, sometimes offensive, and definitely punk rock. This makes you an outlier among yoga teachers, you know. Why not let the devotional flag fly?

How? Sadly, using the word “devoted” in your bio doesn’t help. The word is everywhere in yoga bios and is used to signify an emotion the teacher feels, not actions she caries out daily. Generally, adjectives won’t help. But facts… your facts can talk.

Here is everything I want to know about a teacher.

(1) When did she start practicing?

(2) How long has he had a daily practice without a break?

(3) Who have all her teachers been – not just the famous or convenient ones.

(4) Who is his teacher? That is, who trained and blessed him to teach, and whom do I go to if he screws up?

(5) How exactly does she make herself a student? What are her plans for time with her teachers in the future?

There’s a bio, right there. Just the bona fides.

_____________________________________________________________

P.S. Insideowl sends a short monthly newsletter, insideout.

P.P.S.The image above is the creation of emprints, who gives her blessing for its use here.

11 Comments

  • Natalie
    Posted 1 May 2015 at 8:47 pm | #

    How do you define identity as a yoga practitioner? Assuming not everyone practices lineage-based yoga.

    I’m not sure whether my question fits with your trains of thought. I have enjoyed your blog for years, but remained puzzled how your perspective relates to the body. Your writing seems highly aware of many social issues, and you write about the body as a vehicle for various states, but I read little here about the body on a more mundane level. Dis/ability, pain, injury, the kinds of things that might get in the way of a daily physical practice. Or at least a practice undertaken as a devotional ritual, as opposed to a physical practice that changes over time based on the body’s needs. Of course this is a false dichotomy, but I’m not sure how else to suggest that your yoga bio critique/definition is somewhat a function of physical ability, considering there are reasons other than lack of devotion to stop practicing (or at least not daily) a particular style or tradition.

    I’m not sure why I’m posting today rather than any of the numerous other times I’ve had a similar question after reading your blog, since I still don’t really know how to articulate my question, and I’m still worried that trying to ask a question will sound disrespectful, and I also feel like an outsider who should not be asking anything because I’m not in the club. This may be entirely off, but I have an image of you (or ashtangis generally?) as a very physically gifted person, skilled but also capable of grinding through a lot, because that’s what’s dictated by the method/ system/ teacher.

    To speak to my original question, personally I’m confused about whether/ why I identify as a yoga practitioner. The reasons I’ve come up with are mainly community and acceptability/ support for a kind of spirituality in which metaphor and embodied experience are valid and intertwined. In terms of physical practice, although I tend toward rather ritualistic and repetitive physical movements, often I discover physical reasons to change what I’m doing in favor of moderation and variety for health reasons. Further, while I like the “high” I can sometimes find to varying extents through what I call my yoga practice, and probably I have been searching for years for some of the highs I remember, I’m critical of this as yoga. It sounds oddly like physical dependency. Lately I notice that despite my efforts to be healthy and prudent, I have various aches and pains and stiffness and it’s slightly questionable whether I do yoga to heal or manage these issues versus creating them. I have noticed a similar dynamic in long time teachers who extol the healing virtues of yoga. Are we simply searching through our yoga fix to deal with physical and/or emotional issues which might be perpetuated or ignored by our so-called yoga practice?

    I guess I’m writing this because I remain bewildered about how you deal with the mundane realities of the body, beyond using the body as a vessel for devotional activity or social resistance or almost a blank canvas for mystical experience. Sorry if these descriptions are so far from your reality as to sound offensive. Maybe the questions I’m trying to raise are what you would prefer to bracket or delete from yoga bios as unprofessional, personal life story topics that should be left out of the yoga story line. Thanks for stimulating some critical thoughts on my yoga identity questions, even my questions are not coherent and only tangentially related to your blog content.

    • (OvO)
      Posted 3 May 2015 at 8:13 pm | #

      Natalie, thank you for this.

      I made a decision 8 years ago not to write about the physical practice on this blog. The reason: I didn’t want to contribute to the false expectations set up by talking about the body in words online, where the body is not present. It seemed to me at that time that most ashtanga imagery on the internet had a subtle undertow of fitspiration and striving associated with it. I just didn’t know if I could write about the physical practice without contributing to that energy. So I have not tried. (I have not kept up with the rising tide of ashtanga imagery – literally I have only been to instagram once, to look at a friend’s picture of a puppy, and I don’t watch asana vids… I just don’t want to feel responsible for keeping up with these things, and know that if I looked at some of this material I’d feel some sort of need to canvass the whole field and keep up with it. That’s just how my mind works, for better and for worse, and in this case it’s personally just easier not to get started.)

      If you are curious about this particular practice, especially for healing and self-compassion, go to someone senior and learn from them about practicing in whatever body you have on whatever particular day. Practice is just a daily habit of clearing out everything else and grounding the awareness in tristhana for 5-120 minutes. That’s it. Anyone can do it. Foot behind the head is like an incidental by-product of that in very rare bodies, on some occasions. It doesn’t matter. At all. The more senior teachers who are still with it have been through a lot in their own bodies, and often have a lot of experience with ashtanga as a healing practice. There will be less emphasis there on the gifted bodies that you mention.

      • Natalie
        Posted 20 July 2015 at 3:09 am | #

        Thank you for your reply. Interesting how you have chosen to relate to the yoga interwebs, with conscious boundaries.

        Upon reflection, in my original post I was somewhat associating the discipline of Ashtanga practice (following a set sequence) with work or activities where there is obligation to use the body in particular ways. Examples: computer-based work, manual labor, or how some people approach athletic endeavors such as marathon training – set the race date and plan training, then just push through it. Whereas in Ashtanga there’s relatively more freedom (assuming it’s not about striving), even though there’s more structure than most other styles of yoga.

        I appreciate your equanimity toward asana in your reply to AG. Today a story (http://carolhortonphd.com/pain-and-yoga/) reminded me of your blog. I really like how Carol articulates the value she finds in challenging asana practice. Helps me see that potential of yoga more clearly. Before, I sort of got that and sort of didn’t. Why not just do breathing exercises, or do whatever movement you prefer in a meditative or mindful way? That’s not exactly what I believe, but it can be easy to fall into a rather circular dichotomy (either the practice is physical and should be physically logical/therapeutic, or it’s meditative, thus the physical aspect might as well be therapeutic) or internal debate/ confusion.

        I think a lot about the physical body (biomechanics, health, sociocultural aspects) which is one reason I tend to think about the physical sensibility or accessibility of movement practices. However I would argue that it requires a certain physical and emotional foundation (which might come and go) to use rigorous asana as a tool, not to mention a trustworthy teacher. I guess it’s hard for me to imagine people going to mysore unless they are at least willing/able to do sun saluations, which I think are actually pretty challenging to do with structural integrity. That said, writing down this train of thought reminds me why you are emphasizing teacher qualifications.

  • Posted 2 May 2015 at 6:58 pm | #

    Dear Angela, love you and miss you. Hope to see you in Mysore in january. Great piece. Gracias.

    • (OvO)
      Posted 3 May 2015 at 7:51 pm | #

      De nada, mi amor. XO

  • Stephan
    Posted 3 May 2015 at 5:24 am | #

    Hi Angela,

    This is Stephan. I agree nearly 100% with what you wrote. However, in my experience, and yours will most certainly differ, only a minority of students (customers) seek the kind of yoga teacher that you (and I) value and that perhaps you’ve already become. Most people don’t want that kind of experience. Parampara? Blessings to teach? These kinds of qualifications are not understood and importantly most students don’t want to understand them. .

    We can focus on the for-profit yoga studio, where the studio owner seeks an easy life through passive income (which may not be a bad thing, in another industry). But we can also look at the development of the Ashtanga Vinyasa lineage itself with a critical eye. Has the development of the Ashtanga lineage reinforced its legitimacy to produce teachers such as you describe? For example, Nancy Gilgoff and those of her generation studied under much different conditions than the hundreds who flock to Mysore today. One could argue – and many do – that Sharath has diluted the idea of parmpara and “blessings” to teach by adopting the very same model we criticize and that you describe in this article because he will provide authorization to those who fulfill his requirements and pay for it. He even said so during his conference the past season in Mysore. I’ll try to find my transcript of the notes and send them to you.

    So, it seems to me that people want the commodification of yoga. They want to be able to buy the rights to legitimacy, especially in the Ashtanga community because of special and cherished it was in the past.. That legitimacy is also weakened becaue many of the certified teachers I’ve talked to (but not all) don’t acknowledge Sharath. Many offer their own trainings. Gone are the days of blessings. And even during Guruji’s days, the certification was stamped with authenticity of the Indian government. A symbol of completion and achievement.

    Honestly, I’m sad. The practice, the culture, the community is way different then when I first started practicing 14 years ago. There is so much hypocrisy within the community. Yet, the future can always be better than we ever imagined. Perhaps, like aerobics, yoga will lose its cool factor, and only the truly devoted will remain, form whom it was never something bought or sold in the first place.

    (Please forgive typos and grammatical mistakes. I’m typing this on my phone. I tried to catch them, but my eyesite isn’t what it used to be).

    Thanks for a great article.

    Stephan.

    • (OvO)
      Posted 3 May 2015 at 8:24 pm | #

      Stephan! Hello old friend.

      On an emotional/ego level, leaving Los Angeles was the hardest thing I have done in my adult life. That may sound superficial, but LA was my life – the university, the ashtanga community, the free-form dance community, the light, my love of the city itself. It took a couple of years for me to understand that the headspace there is unique. Really, I agree with what you are saying about what people want, but I think it’s specific to a small sub-community that I was embedded in when I lived in LA. Now I just meet future ashtangis in the grocery store, or they are my neighbors, or they are friends of university friends. Whole different world of motives for practice, and an entirely different set of ideas of what yoga might be.

      Like it does in the rest of the culture, Los Angeles has a certain power to define the images and values of the rest of the world. i still love LA and may retire there. But I wonder if we as yoga practitioners might be step away from its zeitgeist and see other options inside of ourselves for the motives and values of our cultural moment.

  • Posted 4 May 2015 at 1:23 pm | #

    I speak as an ex-ashtangi (13 years continuos practice) who is currently off the mat:
    Once an Ashtangi, Always an Ashtangi.
    It doesn’t matter how much you do on the mat, after a while.

    • (OvO)
      Posted 4 May 2015 at 2:25 pm | #

      Thank you so much for saying this, Annie.

      I feel like the asana programs (1st, 2nd, 3rd…) are there to teach me how to practice. And they have done that… organized my life and my energy in certain ways, drawn me into deep concentration, given me a field in which to observe and integrate the mind-body. I NEVER would have found these and other more essential techniques without a certain level of (not saying this is healthy) obsession with the asana practice.

      From my standpoint now, the sequences themselves are incidental to the practice. The emphasis on daily practice has to do with cultivating (systematically) a disposition of sanity and grounding, a willingness to totally “go there” when discomfort is present, a discipline to carve out time to genuinely be with these “practices” every day. So, not saying “my blogging is my yoga,” or “my teaching is my yoga,” but actually having a formal practice where all I’m doing is some form of concentration and being in the body and the spirit together in some way. For me that still manifests as what looks like the ashtanga series (unless I am injured, and then I’ll do as little as just sit on my mat and breathe for 90 minutes), but that is because I seem to have a particular hang-up in the area of asana practice. Not in a bad way, but not in a good way either. Asana is just how I spend the formal yoga practice time. It would still be practice if I were moving more slowly, making different shapes, sitting down, whatever.

      I don’t feel it’s sustainable to take a rigid definition of what practice is, if one is going to take seriously the notion of sa tu dirga kala….

  • Posted 6 May 2015 at 8:07 pm | #

    Another excellent, though-provoking and well articulated piece, Angela. Always a pleasure to read your work.
    Having run a yoga shala for twelve years and taught a traditional Mysore program, I understand exactly where you’re coming from.
    However, for those of us who choose parampara as the basis of our teaching, all the guru’s blessings doesn’t change how awful a business model running a traditional yoga shala is. We all face a perpetual uphill battle trying to pay the rent, keep our students who are prey to the prevailing studio model of workshops, trainings and all the other add-ons that business demands, while hoping to have something left over off which we can live.
    As teachers who don’t want to sell out, and who sacrifice much to teach (it’s hard to maintain friendships, etc. keeping the hours we keep), how do share the method and respect the requests of our teacher without taking a vow of poverty?

  • Nina
    Posted 9 June 2015 at 6:33 am | #

    Thank you, Angela. Always meaningful…always reminding to stay on track.

Post a Comment

Your email is kept private. Required fields are marked *