Go to any major intersection in America and you are likely to find a drug store on each corner. Whether CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid or other major drugstore chains, they sell an identical inventory of personal care, health and beauty products, snacks, magazines, cosmetics and prescription pharmaceuticals.
For decades, franchising has been one of the most successful business models. It’s worked for coffee houses, booksellers, fast food chains, office supply stores and electronics centers.
Increasingly, it is happening to yoga. As a recent report in Inc.com puts it: Yoga is getting the Starbucks treatment.
Once the bastion of rustic, independently owned studios redolent of incense and sweaty mats, national brand name yoga studios aim to offer a consistent and uniformed product and experience to those seeking a rigorous workout and a sculpted physique.
At first glance this could be call for celebration. Yoga is becoming readily available to the masses, with studios often located in strip malls next to cinemaplexes and dollar discount stores. But does this foreshadow further erosion of classic yoga as bequeathed to the West by the lineage of wise masters from the East?
Consider what these studios offer.
Without a doubt, most offer jaw-dropping amenities: Climate controlled, state-of-the-art studios with classes that adhere rigidly to time slots (for the busy clientele) and, even more rigidly, to class descriptions. Many offer corporate packages, towel services, pristine locker rooms, day care, parking, brand name clothing and deep discounts in bundle price schedules.
They deliver a consistent product and customer satisfaction. Hence the growing foothold across the yoga landscape of chains such as CorePower Yoga, YogaWorks, Pure Yoga, Yogafit and Exhale. No matter how successful their business model, though, these yoga ventures are not franchising yoga. They are franchising the distribution of yoga.
Walk into the respective studios and you recognize the logo, the color scheme, tone of their business model, possibly the playlists. They have, after all, capital, lots of it, and investors interested in a fail-proof formula.
Corporate yoga studios may supply the demand out there, but it’s the small studio owner who, although limited in what he can offer, is more likely to ignite the spark for an authentic yoga practice in the hearts of aspiring yogis.
The indie studio owner may only be able to offer a limited number of classes a day, limited parking (if any), a unisex toilet and locker room partitioned by second-hand curtains. But his walk-up studio offers something the Starbucks of yoga can’t begin to franchise: sangha.
Sangha, which in Buddhist circles means association or assembly, can arguably only be achieved in a studio setting if that studio fosters a community with a common goal and vision. More precisely, sangha means “holy space,” or a place where seekers gather in company with the common goal of achieving (at the very least striving toward) self-realization, enlightenment.
Even if the franchise is selling yoga, the corporate model is unlikely to lead the seeker down that path. These studios are not founded on traditional yogic philosophies like the Yoga Sutras or other sacred scriptures, and are not likely to have teachers leading chanting or meditations in class. These are not the studios where students will gather after class for a cup of tea together—let alone expound on higher Consciousness or the power of grace.
We should proceed with discriminating attention to ascertain whether what is being offered in these cookie-cutter yoga studios is yoga—or if it’s a packaged fusion of gymnastics, calisthenics and showmanship. Not that this doesn’t have a place in our culture, it most certainly does.
It’s called a health club.
Where do practice yoga? Why?