Can Commercialized Yoga be Authentic?

Photo Credit: AnaGrillo

John Friend is not stranger to the spotlight.  The founder and force behind Anusara yoga has been drawing crowds all across the globe as he teaches and promotes his own style of yoga.  In an article in New York Times Magazine last week, his unique approach was brought to task, and he and his community have responded in kind. The article has sparked the question in the yoga world: Can commercialized yoga be authentic?

The yoga rock star, as he is affectionately known, was highlighted more as a branding guru in the article and less as a yoga teacher.  In the article, he was compared to an evangelical minister preaching benevolence and banking on the feel good feelings that ensue.  The writer of the piece said herself that after taking a workshop with Friend a decade ago, she left feeling better “physically, mentally, and emotionally,” but went on to view Anusara yoga as a successful business venture as much as an approach to Yoga.

My question is, why does there have to be a difference?  Do yogis have to live lives of renunciation and asceticism to be “true” to the practice, or can real yogis be both successful and authentic? As the author of the article points out,

“Like many other small-stakes subcultures — the world of poetry, or academia, say — yoga has become embroiled in head-of-a-pin type arguments. In yoga’s case it centers on authenticity. The fight over whether it is a spiritual or a physical practice has raged virtually since its inception…For a yoga teacher, these debates spell opportunity: anyone whose technique takes off — or promises some sort of transformation, spiritual, physical or both — can become a star, supplementing the average yoga teacher’s meager $35,000 annual income with cash generated from workshops, lectures, books, clothing, DVDs.”

Where once the conversations about the authenticity of yoga centered on the physical versus spiritual, it is now shifting to the commercialism of the practice.  Judith Hanson Lasater, who teaches mainly restorative yoga and has studied primarily with B.K.S. Iyengar, the teacher from whom friend split in the mid-90s, observed the commercialization of yoga as the antithesis to the practice, “We need introspection, and this yoga” — commercialized yoga — “is not about introspection…We have a whole country full of restive people who are not contemplative. The idea of the asana is to calm you to prepare you to move at a human pace, not the pace of electrons on the computer.” Lasater is also the author of at least eight books on yoga and a regular contributor to popular yoga publications.

“The Yoga of Yes,” as Friend was quoted describing Anusara is a style that is working to change this perception of yoga in the world.  As Friend sees it, and many of his contemporaries as well, Yoga is a practice of having your cake, eating it, fully enjoying the flavor of every bite, and sharing it with anyone who wants a taste.  In the Tantric path of yoga, which is the philosophical foundation of Anusara and a handful of other contemporary yoga styles, there is no separation between the successful and the spiritual, between the grind of our everyday lives and the grace of the divine. But, without a basic understanding this ancient philosophy, this would be a hard concept to understand.

Many of the most ancient precepts of yoga are no longer applicable in contemporary times.  Yogis no longer teach just one student at a time and they are no longer sustained by wealthy or royal benefactors, but they continue to study and be committed to the practice while juggling the lives of professionals, householders, and a committed students.  Yogis of today are explorers, adventurers, and the terrain that we are discovering is within, all the while working to sustain and create success in our lives in the external world.  Anusara Yoga might be one of the first styles to effectively express the intention of combining the successful with the spiritual.  But it could just as easily be missing the mark.  Truly that is a question only the students of the practice can answer.

What do you think?


Comments 6

  1. The only criticism that I could see in the NYT’s article was around what John Friend is spending the money on: laser light shows, flaming hula-hoop dancers, and a hugemongous yoga center.

    And I’m curious where the claim of Anusara yoga being inauthentic is coming from. The NYT’s author did not use that word in her article, so is this from someone else’s reaction to the article? The author seems to actually put down the whole inauthentic issue by calling it a “head-of-a-pin type” argument.

    I’m really curious as to what other’s reactions are to the NYT article – please post your thoughts below!

  2. Hmmm, dualism (it’s either this or it’s that) pops up again. Whether yoga is meeting the needs of the individual as a purely physical practice or as more, who cares? My own path began more than 30 years ago, and I had zero interest in anything spiritual. Only over time (and under the intermittent guidance of a guru) have the richness of the spiritual and esoteric traditions unfolded for me. So, why squabble? Live and let live (and live and live and live).

  3. Years ago, I was part of the evangelical Christian movement and worked at a Christian bookstore. I could not believe how much and what people bought in the name of the spirituality. A lot of junk got sold and a lot of people made money off of what appeared at the time to me as superficial spiritual sweets. In retrospect, I am less judgmental. People need to find their own ways and as long as they are working at finding their way, I am OK with a little bit of commercialism.

    On the other hand, I have never been able to find forgiveness or tolerance for preachers who get rich, or who argue that God wants us to get rich. Sacrifice is considered to be virtuous for a reason, practically every major religion agrees on that. It disciplines the soul and allows us to find clarity about our motives.

    But that does not seem to be what is happening here in the yoga world. Friend is not getting rich. He seems to be apealing to some people that find yoga inaccessible in other ways. That is good; the more people in the yoga tent, the better.

    And, besides, what is appropriate for a senior yogi is probably not appropriate to novices. Maybe we need to ask, “Are those being drawn in staying? Are they growing?” If the answers are yes, then Anusara might be right for a lot of people.

  4. PS – And as someone who goes to an Iyengar studio regularly (and have visited a few others), I can attest that it is NOT for everyone. What a guy like Friend was doing with the Iyengar world puzzles me.

  5. Oh Boy! I could go on and on forever on this one, but I’ll try to restrain myself … [Actually, my comment was WAY too long, had to cut it.]

    First, more power to people like John Friend. He is truly operating in the greatest American Tradition, creating a unique system that appeals to a number of people that reward him for giving them what they need & want.

    Given that up until recently, very few people in India, the supposed home of yoga, actually practiced it, I think Friend should be congratulated, and emulated for his so-called *commercialization* of yoga. More people in India do yoga now because Americans do it!!!

    Of course, so many people have a negative view of commerce that it is no surprise they have no idea what commerce is (or could) really about, nor how much benefit it has provided to so many millions of people over the centuries. It can truly be said that few, if any, processes have done so much for so many people, than has commerce, or *commercialization.* But few people have ever sat down & actually studied the history of commerce nor what it has achieved for so many people. And it was never taught to them in school. So how would they even know?

    The very essence of so-called *commercialism* and free-markets is to discover what will most satisfy the most people’s needs & wants. Someone might not like what the marketplace decides, but they are free to market their own ideas to The People and explain/ demonstrate why there might be a better way. But so many yogis, like so many other people, cannot be bothered with marketing & commerce. They just try & discredit their *competition.*

    Anyway, I find it amazing how many people are so attached to yoga being a particular thing, or done in a particular way, as if yoga was a static process. We often read how yoga IS this, or IS that, according to the personal preferences of whoever is speaking/ writing as to what yoga IS, or is not. But of course, those ISs often differ quite a lot. Maybe Bill Clinton was right? Maybe we DO need a better definition of what IS is?

    But why break other people down because you disagree? Just state your case and find a way to get your words and ideas out to The People (that’s what marketing is), then let The People decide for themselves. If you are answering their ambitions and fears in life, you’ll be rewarded. Yes, most people will decide on something different than others will, which breeds the rich diversity that emerges when 6+ billion people get creative.

    So we bake LOTS of very different yogic pies, rather than trying to convince everyone there is only one true yogic pie. But a LOT of people want to control the conversation, and many yogis are trying – consciously or not — to do that.

    This attitude is developing among the yoga community, and why I terminated my membership with Yoga Alliance. Too many people who think THEY are the one’s to determine what yoga IS, and who should be allowed to teach it. And that I should subscribe to the Yamas & Niyamas, while I MUCH prefer the 10 Commandments and the Bill of Rights.

    I will, however, in the American tradition of the open & free marketplace and commerce, present my own ideas and allow other people to experiment & choose whether they think what I am saying makes sense or not; whether it contributes to their life or not.

    So I say let a billion forms of yoga bloom. And if you can make a million dollars by being rewarded for giving people what they need & want, more power to you.

  6. I have had to ‘dumb down’ many spiritual truths to make Yoga more accessible to the general public. I don’t see the problem if it gets people breathing and meditating.

    There are many different curries in an Indian restaurant and they have been adapted to suit western tastes. When culture comes to the west it gets westernised. That’s what happens.

    My web site has gone through many changes to try and attracted people to my classes. I use words like Divine, light or energy instead of God and use language most people can understand. This way I am more accessible to people. Take a look:

    Yoga and meditation classes in Southampton

    Love and blessings – Vamadev

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