a pile of newspapers

Newspapers and new ideas

Over the past couple of months, there’s been an interesting series of pieces in the mainstream press about yoga. I’m sure many of you have read at least one of them, but possibly not the whole thread of responses. In fact, if you’re like me, you only skim the headlines of most mainstream media ‘articles’ on yoga, which almost always come under the ‘lifestyle’ heading, and have more of the tone of a puff piece in a magazine than actual journalism. You know the sort of thing: ‘try this new yoga fad that helps you trim your waistline with the aid of this gimmick, all your favourite celebs are doing it’.

So to have the Daily Mail (of all places) include a news piece on the reality of a lot of studio-based yoga teaching – low pay, high stress, and cliquey with a side order of cultural appropriation and body-shaming – is quite the surprise.

Puravi Josh, a South Asian woman, describes a journey of disillusionment that will be familiar to many in the profession. She says she was ‘clueless’ when picking her month-long teacher training course in Costa Rica, assumed starting classes full-time would be ‘straightforward’ (in this economy??), and then she is shocked that some studios would only let you teach there if you trained with them, and that the pay is barely minimum wage when you get it.

Many yoga teachers of colour will recognise her account of being ‘the only Indian person in the room’, and many more will recognise the toxic working environment epitomised by auditions that judge your aesthetic and your social media following more than your talent at teaching. As she says: “I’m used to a cut-throat attitude at work, but I didn’t expect this from an industry that is supposed to prioritise people’s wellbeing.” Her conclusion warms your heart:

“It has made me even more determined to help make the yoga industry what it should be: inclusive and supportive, while honouring where yoga really comes from.”

This story is so familiar to most of us, it’s tiring to read the story of yet another yoga teacher starting out with high hopes and expectations. But the fact such an account has reached the mainstream is fairly new, and it is a sign that the issues are coming to mainstream attention. That can only be good.

Next, Anita Chaudhuri wrote a short but equally important response to that article in the Guardian, with the tag line: “The practice’s modern iterations – including pricey paraphernalia and cultural appropriation – have left me cold, and I’ve had enough”.

It is barely 300 words long, and speaks from the perspective of a yoga student, but it is an unremitting account of an industry post-pandemic and in a cost-of-living crisis. She writes that the only studios that haven’t gone bankrupt are full of “gimmicks such as disco yoga, gin and yin yoga”. Including Yin Yoga in the list does that tradition a disservice, but then she writes that even more ‘serious’ classes “are teeming with competitive handstanding and unsolicited lessons in Hinduism 101.”

Again, this piece is in the comment section rather than serious news, but that’s the point. These are the places where you usually find the light-hearted pieces on wellbeing, the ones on yoga for ageing backs and yoga holidays that your students cut out and bring to class to show you. And it’s worth noting that both pieces are by British women with South Asian heritage, in stark contrast to most of the writing on yoga that you might read in the same pages.

Finally, Anita’s short article gave the opportunity for a number of other people to respond, this time in the Letters section of the Guardian, which published extracts by four people in a mini article of its own. Helen Stenson points out that village hall yoga is still offering much of what has been lost in high pressure, supposedly ‘elite’ urban yoga studios. Jasmine Brown practices yoga at home with an old textbook. My dear friend Davy Jones writes about the role of community yoga for marginalised populations. And Ann Linich writes all the way from Australia about taking her yoga practices online.

It’s great to see more exposure for the kind of yoga that I – and you – love. I’m all for people practicing at home and in more prosaic spaces. I taught both ‘village hall’ yoga and specialist yoga with vulnerable people for years and will still go back to it when the stars align in some way.

I am concerned however that in three short jumps, from article to article, we’ve lost sight of the original issue: the struggles not of yoga students, but of yoga teachers. I have little concern that yoga, in its many forms, will disappear as a cultural practice. People will find ways to move and stretch and serve and sing and sit quietly in village halls and ashrams and their own homes, as they always have. But having a good, experienced teacher, at least now and then, is important to that process of coming home to oneself.

Of course, this problem is part of a much bigger issue. Caring and creative professions – anything we could describe as a vocation – are becoming increasingly squeezed far beyond the point of crisis. We’re told that the life work of writers, artists and even actors should be uploaded into AI databases so that no-one needs to bother with paying for originality any more, only pastiche. We’re told that there’s no money to pay teachers and lecturers and nurses and social workers a living wage. And if you’re foolish enough to choose one of these professions regardless, you’ll have to pay for your own training and education, as the UK government announces a ‘crack down’ on degree programmes that don’t directly lead to big salaries.

The result is an endemic recruitment crisis in most of these professions, and a health crisis in those that remain. Meanwhile, a quick search in the academic literature reveals no end of well-meaning research into the positive effects of using yoga to ‘manage’ work-based stress, including the stress of being a university lecturer.

It also reveals a recent study into the barriers to prescribing yoga on the part of health professionals.

It concludes that “information about how patients can access appropriate and affordable yoga instruction would facilitate referral.” It would help if someone, somewhere, would pay for it. Aren’t we all a bit tired of trying to live life on the cheap? If we want art and music and inspiration and real, human care and comfort and lifelong education, we have to support them. If the economy in its current formulation cannot do that, it’s time for a real and significant change.

The real issue is chokepoint capitalism.

And the real answer might be a revolution in how we think about work, and pay, and money.

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