Commenting on the Biggest Yoga Stories of 2012

Is it premature to talk about the biggest yoga stories of 2012 on January 13th?  Yes.  Yes, it is.  Anyone care to stop me?

It’s just that yoga is having a moment in mainstream media, and if I don’t comment on it, I fear my inbox might stage a walkout.  So, just to be clear: YES, I have seen the article in the New York Times about “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.”  Ditto the video of fellow Equinox yoga teacher Briohny Smyth doing an impressive asana sequence in her underwear, by a bed, in which her presumptive sweetheart slumbers peacefully– along with two other big stories about two of yoga’s biggest brands: Bikram yoga and lululemon respectively. Thank you, all, for sending.  [Note to self: To encourage link-sharing among readers and a surge in YouTube views, immediately shoot a yoga video in my underwear].

Equinox’s Yoga Video Featuring Briohny Smyth 

There’s just one problem: I’m not interested in shooting a yoga video in my underwear.  It’s not that I have a problem with being in my underwear.  Quite the contrary.  I simply choose to share yoga differently, and this personal approach attempts not to sexualize it as much as some of my contemporaries. I think it sends a weird message about yoga if the images people see don’t vary much from the sexed up images they see everywhere else.  It also says something about how we’re shaping yoga as a living tradition.  ”The Contortionist” video and many other images like it, in videos, magazines, TV, and more, are mostly tasteful and contain plenty of substance beyond their skin-baring.  They’re fun, and we should enjoy them.  But, we each make our own contributions and practice yoga in our own way.  I’m a tad old-school, having started practicing yoga at the age of 16–when yoga was anything but sexy. On the contrary, it was hairy and wore Birkenstocks.  This attitude comes at a cost to me, I assure you. Would you like to take a guess at which one of my posts in the past four years has garnered some of the most pageviews?  Bingo: the only one in a bikini.

If I was smart I’d strip down and stretch out more often.  Heck, I watch teachers Tara Stiles do whole yoga routines in a bikini or Kathryn Budig get naked for ToeSox, and I wonder if I have it wrong.  Their profiles are higher, paths more lucrative, and opportunities, perhaps, more abundant. The bottom line is that it doesn’t feel quite right for me–as a yogi or entrepreneur.  I respect the choices of other yogis because that’s their path, and I am happy they feel inspired by and inspire others with it.  There’s also an important distinction between yoga practice and yoga industry.  As teachers, we need to be successful at both, and this presents many challenges.  So, yes, I’ve seen the video.  It’s beautiful.  Moving on…

Yoga Can Wreck Your Body, According to the New York Times 

We’ve established that yoga can give you a great body, but it can also give you a stroke, apparently.  If you haven’t read the New York Times article about the dangers of doing yoga, you should.  It’s well-researched, relevant, and a good reminder for all yogis to be more mindful on the mat, but it’s also very alarmist.  I think I have to quote my insightful intern, Giuliana, who sums up the whole thing by saying, “Try to stop doing stupid shit and hurting yourself all the time.”  For more of G’s wit and wisdom, you can follow her on Twitter. Moreover, yoga extends far beyond the physical practice– a key point, which is often overlooked in the West. If nothing else, these are important stories because they make modern yogis consider what exactly yoga is and how to practice it mindfully and authentically for themselves.  That’s my hope at least.

Yoga stories intersect: Not in my underwear, not wrecking my body, not doing Bikram yoga, at Equinox, wearing lululemon. [Photo: M. Severin]

Here are two more big stories to ponder…

Bikram Choudhury Sues Yoga for the People

Bikram Choudhury is no stranger to the press, both positive and negative.  Last year, he famously told Details magazine of his female students, “If they say to me, ‘Boss, you must fuck me or I will kill myself,’ then I do it! Think if I don’t! The karma!” The article was entitled, “Overheated, Oversexed Cult of Bikram Choudhury.” However, sexual indiscretions aren’t the reason Choudhury is currently making news.  Instead, he’s suing donation-based NYC yoga studio Yoga for the People for copyright infringement.  It’s not shocking, as Choudhury has trademarked his sequence of 26 poses and sued people for teaching his style of yoga without permission before.  It’s another example of what happens when yoga practice and business collide, and it will be interesting to see what kind of precedent this case sets as a result.

Murder at Lululemon

Finally, there’s the walloping and woeful story of the grisly murder of one lululemon employee by another. It’s tragic and despicable and sad, and while a guilty verdict was reached for Brittany Norwood in early November of last year, the sentencing doesn’t occur until January 27.  Moreover, the case is far from closed for yogis to whom it represented the final straw for the yoga apparel giant’s sullied reputation.  For years, yogis have wrestled with lululemon’s uber profitable approach to the business of yoga, but an article in the Huffington Post, “Murder at Lululemon: Yoga’s Heart of Darkness” reveals greater controversy than creating a formerly sacred tradition’s first luxe clothing brand or running cheeky ads (two common complaints over the years).  As many of you know, I’m an ambassador for lululemon and have worked closely with the company for years.  I’ve met both founder Chip Wilson and CEO Christine O’Day.  Many of my friends have worked or currently work for the company.  I, too, have my criticisms for how the company conducts business on a corporate level, including its close ties to the Landmark Forum. However, I maintain a distinction: it’s a business–a multi-billion-dollar, publicly traded one.  This point seems to get lost.

To clarify, a public company has one sole purpose: to create value for shareholders (people who own stock).  It does this primarily in the following way: growth.  Lululemon is not the small, grassroots, quirky company it once was.  Let’s stop being shocked by this.  It makes a great product, and it employs some wonderful people.  I continue to be grateful for the company’s support, especially on the local level in Boston, where they understood and encouraged this blog before yoga blogs existed.  They, too, feel the heft and hurt of a murder in one of its stores, the HuffPo article, and the conflicted dialogue surrounding both.  For these people and the effort they put into their work, we should show compassion.  For my friends, I continue to show support.  In response to the company’s corporate missteps, consumers can choose to shop elsewhere.

That’s the beautiful part about the yoga industry and the news it generates: YOU choose how to spend your money, where to unroll your mat and spend your time, and on what you direct your attention and spend your energy.  This is also part of the practice of yoga.

Those are my comments on the biggest yoga stories of the year so far.  What are yours?

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  • caitlin

    Love this post. I also wanted to share The Hairpin’s response to the NYT article, which I enjoyed, pretty humorous : http://www.theawl.com/2012/01/six-reasons-to-ignore-the-new-york-times-yoga-article#more

  • Annie

    “On the contrary, it was hairy and wore Birkenstocks.”

    You crack me up, Rebecca! :-D

  • MJ

    YogaJournal’s Feb issue has a completely different take on the book from which I believe the “wreck your body” NYT piece was excerpted. They seemed to think well of the book and the author (who practices himself, for many years). The review ends “this is a well-researched book that belongs in the library of every yogi”. (I think they also foresaw a bit that what people would focus on was some of the more “sensational” or negative aspects, which apparently are only a small part of the book. Note that the NYT piece says at the bottom that it was adapted from the book.

    Today they link to some responses in the virtual world http://blogs.yogajournal.com/yogabuzz/2012/01/yogis-weigh-in-on-nyts-article.html
    but I’m disappointed that they don’t mention their own positive review!

  • http://www.tarrayoga.com TarraYoga

    Well written Rebecca – very balanced and thoughtful.

  • Grace

    I love your beautiful writing, Rebecca, and I first watched “The Contortionist” as a result of this blog post. You inspire me with your support for more modest yogis like myself. That being said, this is a really beautiful interview in case you haven’t seen it yet… http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kathryn-budig/yoga-briohny-kate-smyth_b_1202653.html?ref=tw

  • http://www.healthandwellnesswarrior.com Sylvia Alakusheva

    ‘YOU choose how to spend your money, where to unroll your mat and spend your time, and on what you direct your attention and spend your energy. This is also part of the practice of yoga.’

    Thank you for sharing Rebecca! This is very timely. In recent years, Yoga has become so widespread in the West that many people are naturally finding ways to cash in on its popularity. We live in a capitalist society and practicing Yoga has become the latest trend.
    The beautiful thing is that there are now many different places to practice, many different styles and teachers one can follow. Find one that speaks to you. Yoga is a self-study (Svadhyaya) and we have the freedom to express who we are on and off the mat, the freedom to find the path we want to travel. Yoga is not just about the way we move our body, but also about the way we choose to live our life.

  • Naveen Gote

    The article is really fantastic and presented nicely about Yoga. It has given good knowledge about the Yoga and it really helped me a lot to maintain energized body