Illustrations by Chris Delorenzo
As I attempt a graceful flow from a standard downward dog position into a more restful child’s pose, a classic R&B jam from the ’90s guides me through the motions:
If you’re horny, let’s do it
Ride it, my pony
My saddle’s waiting
Come and jump on it
It’s noon on a lazy Friday afternoon at Hip Hop Yoga, a trademarked class offered at Sweat and Soul Yoga, a smaller studio on Comm Ave in the heart of BU college culture. Half a dozen twenty-somethings sprawl out on the wooden floors of the second-story space. A warm breeze blows through open windows. Between the weather, yoga, and slow jams, the vibe is chill, even relaxing.
The teacher is young, peppy, and well-spoken. As I come out of child’s pose, she skips over to the speaker system, fiddles with her iPod, and flips to some contemporary hip-hop. “This is my favorite song on the radio right now,” she says, though I can’t identify the track. The instructor is conversational, friendly, like a stranger in a nail salon, talking about everything from Miley Cyrus to healthy living and what some might dub pop yoga philosophy.
I find a similar scene a week later at Black Light Hip-Hop Yoga, a Saturday evening routine at Sweat and Soul’s sister studio: Back Bay Yoga. The class has a yoga-meets-pregame feeling to it; there’s a nightlife-y buzz in the air. It’s less relaxing than my ordinary hip-hop yoga outing; every time I hear the word “bitch,” or an N-bomb, in one of the rap songs, the ironic juxtaposition startles me. So does the conceptual matrimony of yoga and nightlife, two seemingly opposite pastimes.
The class ends, and the music is turned off. We’re told to lay in shavasana, a traditional resting pose. The teacher, presumably not getting the same let’s-all-go-downtown-and-party feeling I have, leaves us with some words to savor about mind, body, and heart being “one.”
THE GLOBAL FRONT
In 2014, Yoga Journal seems as likely to plaster its cover with skinny photoshopped white girls as is Victoria’s Secret. At the same time, yoga, once a relatively underground holistic health trend phenomenon, has had its share of front-page controversies, from the gruesome murder of an employee at a Lululemon store in Bethesda, Maryland, to rampant accusations of sexual misconduct against top yogi Bikram Choudhury, to charges that some studios are cults. Many of these debates have played out in Boston, as has the perpetual discussion over whether yoga is an elitist form of cultural appropriation that has recklessly steered away from ancient Hindu practices in becoming a billion-dollar American industry.
While yoga in its purest form—using one’s breath and sensations as a tool for self-realization—dates back to at least 2000 BC, it has also become an icon in Western culture at large. Yoga has entered studio spaces in the states, as well as everywhere from office parks to hospitals and even prisons. Major corporations pair yoga poses with products to lure customers with promises of lower stress and balance. The influx of yoga fashion, exemplified by the high-end label Lululemon, has taken yoga, or at least some materialistic modern form of it, out of the studio and into public view.
Naturally, the fact that yoga has become such a ubiquitous social force has sparked controversies, namely among those who reject commercial variations. While pop yoga, with its heavy emphasis on the physical aspects of the practice, tends to be associated with a typical American lifestyle and culture—the “change your butt, change your life” mentality, if you will—purist yoga is often viewed as more of a mind, body, and spirit exercise. Roberto Lim, a Boston-based Prana Vinyasa yoga teacher at several different schools in the area, tells DigBoston, “It’s like yoga for weight loss versus yoga for enlightenment.”
The yoga wars run more than skin deep. Bound up in the contention is not just a fight for the perfect body, but a culture spat as well. As Lucia Egbert Pearson, an independent yoga instructor who has taught around Greater Boston, points out: “Yoga is exclusive. It fits the image of a young, fit, white female ideal. I don’t think it’s inclusive and diverse. It’s about money and access … not all this yoga stuff is accessible to all.”
THE BOSTON FRONT
In the global yoga wars, the Hub plays a significant role in the political theater. Yoga was prominent among fringe scenesters around Boston and Cambridge as far back as the ’60s, and on top of that counter-culture foundation came what many call a “yoga boom” over the following decades.
Boston is also the home base of some major players in the yoga world. Baptiste Power Vinyasa Yoga, a leader in its hardcore niche and arguably one of America’s most popular styles of yoga, started out as a seedling here in the late ’90s. Proprietor Baron Baptiste, whose father opened his first yoga studio in San Francisco in 1935, is the driving force behind what’s commonly called power yoga, with his particular brand used everywhere from the training rooms of NFL teams to inner-city youth programs.
Jon Kabatt Zinn, the founder of an internationally recognized and practiced yoga and meditation program called MBSR (short for Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction), got his start in Boston as an overworked MIT PhD student in the ’70s. The program now boasts 200 MBSR centers worldwide, and this year was reported by Time to be a $4 million dollar business.
Then there’s Western Massachusetts, with all its meditative beauty and transcendentalism. The Berkshires in particular are favorite stomping grounds for yogis, starting with the Kripalu Center, one of the region’s largest and most popular retreats for teacher trainings and holistic getaways. Closer to the New Hampshire border, Dhamma Dharā serves as one of 120 free centers worldwide for Vipassana, a style of meditation that leverages the breath and body as tools for healing. The space draws more than 2,000 students every year.
Aside from noted contributions by individuals and dedicated institutions, the culture of Boston at large also makes for a yoga magnet. With more than 40 colleges, the Hub attracts thinkers prone to practicing. Michael Munson of Dahn Yoga in Jamaica Plain notes the effect this has on his demographic: “Yoga speaks to the qualities of Boston. It’s of course an intellectual city … where people tend to be a lot in their head. Yoga is a really accessible way for intellectuals to get out of their heads and into their bodies.”
Finally, Boston is a health-conscious city, a metropolis of cycling and fitness, the branded Walking City, and therefore a yoga-friendly environment. Leigh, a manager at one of two Lululemon stores downtown, says that at the least, Bostonians are adding yoga into their fitness regimens. “It’s not necessarily taking over,” she says, having spoken with countless customers about their routines. “For many, it’s become an addition.”
Even on the simple topic of why yoga is so popular in Boston, however, there’s little agreement among locals.
“There’s a lot of yoga here for the same reason why there’s a lot of churches and synagogues,” notes Linda Wells, an independent yoga teacher in Boston. “Everyone is seeking something here. People go into ministry because they think they’ve been blessed with something, and they want other people to get it. Yoga offers the same thing—the opportunity to tap into your center and share those gifts, because there’s nothing outside of yourself that’s gonna make it happen.”
Ana Mares Guia, a yoga therapist and teacher in the area who also goes by Divya Jioti, says, “Boston is a big city—highly competitive intellectually, socially, and financially, so it’s very easy to find oneself lost and lonely … Yoga can be a balm, a serving practice for finding balance amidst all this stimuli.”
“I think that yoga helps a person get to know themselves, and what their natural tendencies are, and to gravitate toward things they like in the world, and say no to things they don’t like,” says Natalia Rosenbaum, a licensed mental health counselor who uses yoga in her therapy notes. “That’s pretty important.”
THE BODY FRONT
On the other side of the spectrum from the calm-seekers are those trying to lose weight through yoga, as well as those striving to get ripped. Purists tend to criticize forms that they feel attend too much to physical or material aspects. Indeed, that so much yoga has become more about a workout than holistic healing is a centerpiece of the Yoga Wars. From the purist perspective, this emphasis is a distraction.
“Looking sincerely at oneself is the very hardest thing one can do,” explains Mares Guia. Pop yoga components such as music, fashion, and especially a quest to attain the “perfect yoga body,” she says, can “put something in between that seeing.”
Furthermore, purists claim the overall emphasis on fitness has yielded negative consequences on individuals and cultures alike. According to Lim, who says he falls more on the purist side of the continuum, says, “People who view yoga [solely] as fitness—or who seek immediate results—can only go so far with the practice.”
Another yogi who falls more on the purist side, Billie Joe Joyce of Art & Soul Yoga in Cambridge, notes: “The physical practice of yoga is one piece, but [in the US] we’ve extracted that piece and blown it way out of proportion…. We like tangible, material things, including our bodies, and that is our gateway in. The danger in our culture is when the spiritual aspect is being removed and an emphasis on the body instead becomes a stopping point—an obsession point.”
Concerns are growing in this area, along with the number of cases of a new classification of eating disorder. In 2007, journalist Rachel Shabi termed a phenomenon called “yogarexia” in The Guardian, reporting that women are using yoga as a tool for starvation or purging. She determined that, in many ways, yoga is the perfect cover-up for an eating disorder, quoting Laura McCreddie of Yoga Magazine as saying, “If you are offered something that fits nicely under the umbrella term of ‘spirituality,’ you have then absolved yourself of looking as if you’re in it just to get the perfect bottom.”
As a point of contention, purists have also criticized the prominent Yoga Journal for showcasing predominantly thin, white women in photoshopped yoga poses. In doing so, the magazine draws ire for both overemphasizing the physical aspects of yoga (and thus hijacking the roots of the practice), and also perpetuating an elitist image. A veritable royal flush of offenses.
“The last thing women in this culture need is another perfect standard, and that is a big problem—a big problem in the [yoga] media,” says Joyce of Art & Soul Yoga. “All of these photographs of these perfect bodies, probably photoshopped, and young, ultra flexible models—it’s all become a yoga standard. Shame on us, if that’s where we let yoga go.”
This feud plays out in Boston more than some may realize. Given that we are a young and relatively fit community, there’s fertile ground for physical aspects to be magnified, and some purists believe military-training-style power yoga is privileged. “As a culture we are driven by beating our last record,” says Wells, the independent instructor. “I think that power yoga feeds that.”
“If you have a city predominated by young people it makes sense [that power yoga would be privileged],” notes Michael Munson of Dahn Yoga. “But if instructors don’t honor the responsibility to give people the opportunity to expand their limits and connect [with other parts of themselves], then you run into the danger of turning a spiritual practice into aerobics.”
Finding that balance, some say, is the key. “If you sat people down and explained the philosophy of yoga [to students in this country], no one would have interest in it,” says Terri McGrath Haller, owner and teacher at Blissful Monkey Yoga in Jamaica Plain. “Americans are physical people. You think people are doing hip-hop yoga in India? No way! But if we can introduce people to yoga from a physical standpoint and then that gets them into the deeper aspects, then you can start to work on yourself.”
THE ELITIST FRONT
The yoga wars are not solely fought over bodies (and in particular women’s bodies), but are debates over race and class, appropriation and cultural hijacking. These are among the observations of practitioners including Obehi Janice , a Massachusetts-raised actress and comedian with Nigerian roots who recently released a satirical video called “Black Girl Yoga,” in which she riffs off her experiences from yoga class in Boston.
“When I went to the class I was wearing a satin scarf over my hair, because I didn’t want my hair on the mat,” Janice tells the Dig. “My teacher came over to me asked me and if I was Muslim. I thought it was so weird, you know … that question wouldn’t have been asked if I was among more black women or if my teacher was a black female … so I went home and wrote a rap about it. Yoga just felt associated with skinny white women and I wasn’t feeling the racial makeup … It just felt weird and unapproachable.”
In some cases, yogis have attempted to use yoga to challenge elitism. Leslie Salmon Jones, the creator and primary teacher of Afro Flow Yoga at the Dance Complex in Cambridge, is one of them, her classes combining yoga with moves from the African diaspora. “We’re very aware of celebrating diversity,” Salmon Jones says. “We’ve had some people be like, ‘Is this a black thing or a white thing?’ They are not quite sure … We are like, ‘Yes! This is for everybody.’”
Among other progressives in the yoga world, Salmon Jones feels yoga can help foster “alternative communities.” “The power of diversity and community [in a space like Afro Flow],” she says, “breaks down fear.” “When you are moving in a place of fear you are paralyzed, you cannot move forward, versus when you’re in a space of faith, of truly feeling confident, you know who you are regardless of who comes into your environment.”
Wells, the independent wellness coach, says her experience at Afro Flow exposed her to new possibilities: “Leslie’s class opened this whole new world up to me that I didn’t know existed—where there are black yoga teachers, black female yoga teachers, live music. I connected with that. She was talking about ‘your vision, letting go, dropping everything, leave it on the floor, planting your seeds’ … [I have] never heard anyone talk like this. It blew my mind.”
THE FASHION FRONT
On the very surface of the yoga wars is a fight over fashion. Dominating the pop side of the spectrum is Lululemon, which started in Vancouver, Canada, in 1998, and has since expanded worldwide to include two prime Hub locations: one in the Prudential Center, and another in Back Bay on Newbury Street. The store offers high-end yoga clothes and is perhaps most famous for its pricey “ass pants.” Intentionally, the clothing is designed to be appropriate for both the studio and the street, and has thus helped to propel yoga into a fashion statement all its own.
The company also landed in the national spotlight after an employee was viciously stabbed to death by a colleague in a company storage room in 2011. This while Lululemon’s now-former CEO Chip Wilson has been a favorite target among lefties for his blatant racist and sexist remarks. When confronted about a “pilling” problem with Lululemon pants—the term is used to describe where material gets worn from the pressure of thighs rubbing together—Wilson replied, “Frankly, some women’s bodies just don’t actually work for it [our clothing].” In another comment, he claimed that it’s too expensive for his company to make any pants larger than a size 12.
Despite such negative press, Lululemon often casts itself as a company with strong community ties. Stores often work closely with local studios and teachers, and they market an “organic and grassroots” “ambassador program” to support up-and-coming teachers with networking opportunities, online resources, and in-store events. Teachers also get a free photo shoot, as well as their pictures displayed in windows alongside mannequins.
Some local yogis claim to have no feelings at all about Lululemon, though they acknowledge the company’s ubiquitous influence as trendsetters and gatekeepers. “[Lululemon is] a name to have behind you,” says Terry of Blissful Monkey in JP. “If you get them behind your studio, you’re gonna get students to come in.” She continues, “Honestly, it’s not my scene … I’d be happy wearing pants from Marshalls.”
At the same time, while some praise Lululemon for “getting involved and activating the local yoga community,” others speak harshly of them. As one local teacher says, “Materialism is not yoga,” while Justine Wiltshire Cohen of Down Under School of Yoga argues Lululemon sends a “mixed message” and clashes with central yogic principles of “non-attachment and non-hoarding.”
“Lululemon is one of many big companies whose sole aim is profit, and proliferation of merchandise,” says Cohen. “They have a brilliant marketing team. Through the ambassador program they gain instant credibility with a target audience—it’s one of most devious and brilliant marketing plans ever invented.”
Cohen continues: “To put teachers in their window doing yoga—I consider that the ultimate humiliation. You’re a yogi teaching a tradition about mindfulness and Lululemon has put you in a window like a mannequin—no wonder yoga teachers are burning out all over the place. I’m not criticizing the teachers themselves, but I deeply criticize a private company that deliberately seeks to use teachers behind an ancient practice to drive out their bottom line. They do a grave disservice to the integrity of the practice.”
THE FEMALE FRONT
If there’s one item that comes up routinely in critical discussions about yoga, in Boston and anyplace else, it’s sex. Specifically, sexuality as it impacts women in the yoga world. There is a line of thought suggesting that the psychologically taxing culture of Lululemon may have effectively created a pressure cooker environment that contributed to the murder of an employee. Others wonder if hyper-commercialized yoga culture in general has fueled the epidemic of rape and abuse among students and teachers that seems to be happening with increased frequency (or is at least being reported more often).
In addition to heinous allegations against Bikram Choudhury, one of the founding teachers at the Kripalu Center in Western Mass confessed to sleeping with several students. Despite such sexual relationships being off-limits in the yoga world in order to maintain healthy relationships, promiscuity is common in the sweaty world of yoga.
“When it all came out, he got banished from [Kripalu],” says one local teacher who asked to not be named. “But they don’t like to talk about it because it’s not something they are proud of.”
Many purists also express concern regarding the fact that many teachers nowadays—and especially in Boston given the collegiate orientation—tend to be young women. In order to get certified to teach, rookies must have 200 hours of training, a standard set by a nonprofit organization called The Yoga Alliance that one veteran yogi equates to a “bachelor degree [in] yoga.” Many say that’s not enough; while most sports or comparable forms take years to learn, new yoga teachers can complete their coursework in a year.
“While there is more and more interest in yoga and yoga studios are opening up at an unprecedented pace, there is still a lack of truly experienced teachers in Boston,” says Joyce of Art & Soul. I’m often horrified to see what’s being taught, but I know how to take care of myself, so I try not to worry.”
Joyce of Art & Soul mentions yet another concern: “If anything,” she says, “there is not enough attention to student safety in these classes being taught by under-qualified teachers.” On that note, there’s the combined worry of under-qualified teachers causing physical harm and emotional injury.
“When people start to do yoga, it tends to bring up some material from past trauma—or any emotional material at all,” says Natalia Rosenbaum, the licensed mental health counselor. “Often what I’ve found is that a person doesn’t know what to do with that, so they turn to their yoga teacher, and their yoga teacher isn’t trained as a professional to work with that sort of stuff.”
As the yoga wars rage on, there have been democratic moments. Some traditionalists, for example, are open to new ideas that spring from invention. “All this [pop yoga] stuff isn’t entirely bad,” says independent instructor Egbert, who now works as a nurse. “I don’t think it’s black and white at all. Some of it may seem a bit annoying or fake, but it’s all relative … And, some yoga is better than no yoga.”
Others recognize that despite disputes over music, fashion, or teacher certifications, both pop and purist yogis are striving for parallel goals, and attempting to respect tradition while evolving. “There’s a tricky balance between mainstreaming and finding a common-sense language and not diluting, watering the practice down,” notes Michael Munson of Dahn Yoga. “I think there’s a way to do both.”
Along these same lines, select parties maintain that everyone can benefit from yoga, regardless of motive. “People are going to go to yoga because they don’t have a community or they want a firmer butt or they don’t know why and they will discover what’s in it,” Rosenbaum says. “People interpret yoga in different ways. As long as people are benefiting we should be praising it.”
Perhaps most fitting, some cope on a meta level.
“When [I saw that] things were becoming commercialized [in yoga], I found that it was a good practice in non-judgment,” says Salmon Jones of Afro Flow. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to use the actual practice of yoga to dispel and diffuse behaviors that create resistance and separation.”
Micaela is a Boston-based journalist and sociologist who covers dance, culture, and immigration for DigBoston, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and other outlets.