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While spending on yoga is growing, the student population is not. The 2008 Yoga Journal survey actually found a dip in yoga students—from 16.5 million in 2004 to 15.8 million in 2008—even while yoga spending jumped 87 percent to $5.7 billion during the same period.
Natalie Buchi operates the Mindful and Embodied Yoga, a placeless business she uses to train teachers, arrange private classes and advertise her appearances. She is one of the most well-known yoga teachers in the valley due to her appearances at so many studios, including Avenues Yoga, The Yoga Center in Holladay, 24 Hour Fitness, as well as teaching yoga classes at the University of Utah and elsewhere. Her livelihood is derived exclusively from teaching yoga—a rare feat in Salt Lake City. “Financially, it’s challenging to earn a living teaching yoga. … It’s just that you’re being paid per class … [and] if you’re only going to teach one class per day making between $20 and $30, you can’t survive on that.”
Even for the young and able-bodied, Buchi says, teaching enough classes to be paid a living wage is physically challenging and impossible for some otherwise-qualified teachers. She would be unable to make yoga her career, she says, without instructing private lessons—at higher rates than studio classes—in addition to her busy class schedule.
But local studio owners don’t seem to be making bank, either. The Shiva Centre—previously Flow Yoga—has changed ownership three times in the past year; the Yoga Centre recently came under new ownership; and Kula yoga studio in Salt Lake City, which opened two years ago, has already closed. Those are all indicators of how tough it is to make a studio work long-term, Buchi says.
Studio classes with just five or six students are quite common in Salt Lake City, Buchi says, so perhaps making yoga more of a volume business could generate living wages for teachers and lower prices for students, too. Buchi says California’s yoga communities have largely evolved to that position already, and she hopes Utah is “just a little behind.”
One Utah nonprofit organization may help spark the multitudes by introducing very young yogis to their breath.
Yael Calhoun is a founder and executive director of GreenTree Yoga, a nonprofit that takes yoga to unexpected places, like elementary school classrooms, rehab centers and jails. She’s quite comfortable with yoga’s commercial practitioners, whom she sees as perhaps odd, but useful, bedfellows.
“The billion-dollar industry has brought yoga into the mainstream. It’s like what Rachel Carson did for the environmental movement with Silent Spring; she brought it into the living room and made [environmentalism] a household word,” Calhoun says.
Calhoun, author of Yoga for Kids and Teens, says, if nothing else, the commercialization has made many people believe that yoga is not in competition with religion. Since she’s teaching yoga to Utah kids, that’s kind of a big deal for her organization. “We approached the State Office of Education to develop some materials for the schools that fit with the national PE program,” she said. “We do a good number of teacher trainings … both for PE teachers and classroom teachers, K through 12, on five-minute yoga breaks.” That wouldn’t happen, she says, if people thought yoga were religion. Watch GreenTree volunteers lead a class of elementary school kids in Salt Lake City in a five-minute yoga break:
But it’s more than just rebranding—or unbranding—yoga that will both spread its popularity while keeping it moored to its foundation, Baptiste says. What yoga really needs is some professionalization.
For example, yoga as a health science needs to be given its due respect like other traditional medical practices, she says. Why, for example, is acupuncture covered by health insurance but not yoga?
Yoga teachers, Baptiste says, should also be given the financial support of other aspiring professionals. Why are massage therapy students eligible for low-interest student loans but not yoga teachers-in-training?
Both would require legislation and legal recognition of yoga and its teachers, which the state of Utah has flirted with doing, perhaps soon. “ At this time, the State of Utah does not regulate these schools/programs or license yoga instructors as a professional license,” wrote Utah Department of Commerce spokeswoman Jennifer Bolton in an e-mail. “This is an issue that is being reviewed currently … and may have proposed changes to the Postsecondary Proprietary School Act put forth during the next legislative session in January 2011.”
Baptiste said some of her peers who are aware of the state’s growing interest in yoga, however, oppose any sort of yoga legislation on the grounds that spirituality should not be regulated. Baptiste shares the concern, but is willing to compromise. “The future of yoga—if we want there to be a future in this community and certainly in the larger U.S.—there has to be some kind of compromise. … Do I want to be legislated? No. But do I want to be recognized? Yes.”
Whether it’s compromises made by corporatizing, branding, profiting, legislating or professionalizing yoga, many teachers find solace that it’s for the greater good. “Yoga works” at making people more comfortable in their lives, Buchi says, “and we need it somehow in our culture. So by whatever means it gets here, the world is evolving, we’re evolving. However yoga makes it into someone’s life, I think it’s a blessing. … We are a very commercialized country. … The most important thing is getting yoga out there.”
Calhoun agrees: “We are a consumer society. There are about 16 million people in the country that do yoga and it is about a $6 billion industry. … This growth has allowed yoga to move from the fringes—I won’t say quite mainstream, but it’s getting there—which allows me to take Green Tree into the schools and hospitals … and find a really receptive audience. Twenty years ago, I would say that would not have been the case.”
Yoga Saved My Life
Bell, however, isn’t so sure all the compromises are worth it. In October, she wrote an article on ElephantJournal.com, a clearinghouse of high-minded yoga debate, in which she explains why she no longer necessarily believes that more people doing yoga is much of a goal to strive for. That’s a rather unusual position in a yoga world that takes evangelism for granted, as if spreading the word of yoga were a founding principle.
For 11 years, Bell wrote, she always pushed for the expansion of yoga in society on the assumption that yogis are “inherently more conscious” than others. She now sees that attitude as spiritual arrogance and she’s in less of a mood to compromise on yoga fundamentals as a result. “Yoga—including all Eight Limbs—has saved my life in more ways than I can count,” she wrote. “But I can’t know unequivocally what is best for anyone else.”
But to demonstrate the sheer pervasiveness of yoga business opportunities, even Bell has found a yoga business opportunity that suits her ideals. Beyond her classes at the Unitarian Church, she’s a representative of Hugger Mugger—a company that specializes in yoga props like blocks and mats. Providing the accoutrements of an actual yoga class, she said, is different than superficially playing on yoga’s en vogue status. “Yoga products like mats, blocks, bolsters and blankets that actually help people do poses with more integrity [are different] than ‘chakra panties.’” Those panties, which Bell finds to be shameless abuses of yoga’s cache, are sold at BePresent.com. “The colors for the line are inspired by the colors of the chakras. Need more grounding? Red is root chakra, attributed to stability and inner strength. Want to feel sexy? Orange is sacral chakra, associated with being sensual,” and so on, read the product descriptions.
Baptiste senses a shift in American yoga practice. In the early 1990s, she says, as yoga began its entry into the American mainstream, yoga entrepreneurs such as Bikram, John Friend and even her yoga-famous ex-husband were more “self-help gurus than yoga teachers.” There’s some irony to that, she says, because yoga is about real self-help; that is, the self helping the self.
It’s not that Baptiste is critical of any yoga commercial giant in particular, but their time of outsized-influence on the ancient philosophy, she says, may be ending. “The way I see it evolving, because of those yoga names bringing yoga to the masses, now we have a lot of incredible yoga teachers who are in it, quietly authentic and humble about what they’re doing,” she says. “ ‘Follow me,’ is happening less, and more teachers are saying, ‘This is really about you.’ ”
Bell wants yoga to change yogis, not the other way around. In consumerist America, however, that’s a tricky balance—perhaps a balance that only a philosophy bent on centering and balancing human bodies—and spirits—can accomplish.
“Yoga was originally meant to be against the grain,” Bell says. "It was not meant to be something where let’s pick and choose what we like out of it, and we’ll make it look like us and then we’ll be comfortable in it. Transformation doesn’t happen that way. It happens when you are challenged in your beliefs and in your world, and your way of being is challenged.”