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.

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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?


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