Sunday, August 7, 2011

Yoga Drama

I'll admit.  As much as I love yoga, I've skipped a class or two to watch a good, trashy, rerun of The Real Housewives (insert any city here).  And although I can easily teach a yoga class without judgment, I have analysis paralysis from harshly judging any and all participants of Reality TV or anyone that openly chooses to "put themselves out there" and then fall for their own hype.   

So when I came across some yoga drama brewing in New York City between Yoga To The People and Bikram Yoga, I clicked on the link faster than Tamra Barney can throw a drink in Jeana Keogh's face.

It started this past week when Bikram Yoga Manhattan announced their Penn Station location would close on Thursday, Aug. 11. In a letter posted to the studio's website, founder and director Raffael Pacitti specifically blamed the closing on competitor Yoga to the People, which had recently opened up three locations within walking distance of Penn Station.
Which makes this all the more dramatic is that Yoga To The People's (YTTP's) founder, Greg Gumucio, is a Bikram Choudhury trained instructor that sometimes ran Choudhury's teacher trainings in Los Angeles.

Personally, I've never taken a Bikram class.  In 2002 a Bikram studio moved into Hoboken, NJ but since I was already taking a great yoga class at the YMCA that was included with my monthly membership, it never occurred to me to pay for Bikram.  I had heard great things about the heat helping yogis avoid injury, detox and burn calories and apparently the poses, although challenging, weren't completely out of reach for someone brand new to the practice.

It was only after moving to Maryland that I heard more about this flamboyant, speedo/silk suit wearing, Bently driving, patent pending, I'll-sue-the-shit-out-of-you-if-you-dare-use-my-name-or-asana-sequencing, yogic Svengali.  After reading similar statements such as the following found on Wikipedia, it turned me off and I wasn't interested in exploring this type of yoga:
  • Bikram's car collection includes over 40 Rolls Royces and Bentleys, including cars owned by the Queen Mother and the Beatles. His collection of watches numbers in the 100s, valued in the millions. 'It's huge,' he says, 'I'm making - I don't know - millions of dollars a day, $10 million a month - who knows how much?' [2] 
  • “It is beyond medical science,” Bikram shrugs. He claims NASA scientists tested Bikram Yoga on osteoporosis patients for eight months, seeing a “100%” improvement, and has said: “They couldn’t write a thesis how this happened; I prove this every single day. 
  • Whether a president [such as Nixon, whom Bikram claims to have taught in 1972 and who then gave him an open invitation to live in the United States] or a prime minister [Indira Gandhi, whom he calls his godmother], or the Pope [Paul VI].” Bikram claims to have rejuvenated them all. “I saved years and years and years and years and years.” [5] 
  • Bikram's claim to have carried out research for NASA, although extensively repeated, has not been confirmed by that organization. His claims to have treated Nixon are similarly unverified and do not appear in Nixon biographies. In a BBC radio documentary he claimed to have treated the Beatles in 1959, even though the Beatles had not been formed at that time.[6]
To be honest, Gumucio's reasons for leaving Bikram are different than what I expected and available to read in this New York Times article.  I thought they would've been more personal, and perhaps privately they are, but publicly Gumucio claims it was about allowing the student to own his or her, no-frills yoga practice without the distractions of who's teaching, what folks are wearing and what dogma the studio is selling.  Hence, Gumucio made the very un-Bikram like decision to go against the grain and instead of creating a low volume, high cost, it's-worth-the-money-because-our-teachers-are-rock-stars yoga studio he decided to open a high volume, donation based business via word of mouth and a web site that not only doesn't feature the founder, but also keeps you in the dark about what teachers you'll be learning from each day.

And apparently it's working.  So many folks are hitting YTTP's space that Bikram's studio in the same Chelsea/Penn Station location is closing it's doors later this week. But instead of quietly transitioning all of their students to their Bikram Soho location, they posted a letter on their web site, publicly accusing YTTP and Gumucio specifically of disrespecting yogic tradition and ripping off New York Bikram yogis for financial gain.

I take no issue with someone making a great living teaching yoga in general or Bikram Yoga specifically.  Although I can't imagine myself being anything but turned off by Bikram himself, I'm sure there are amazing yoga instructors that lead his 90 minute sequence with grace. My concern is: What constitutes knowledge and who, if anyone, owns it? And secondly, If your business model aligns you with someone not willing to stand by the ethical standards that he preaches, how does that affect you? 

I figure my knowledge is in my head and what I do with it is my business. I'm a trained yoga teacher that paid to gain knowledge that I house in my brain.  But every time I take a class from another teacher, I'm adding to this knowledge.  What comes out of my mouth when I teach is the accumulation of all my yogic experiences.  My twist on this 5000 year old practice is no doubt influenced by that which I've experienced by my yoga teachers - who's own practice was affected by her teacher - who was tweaked by his teacher, and so on and so forth.  So again, I ask.  Who if anyone, owns this knowledge? I say, no one.

And how does this quest to define, own and trademark, (i.e., the western yogic business model) jive with the yamas, yoga's sacred 8-limbed path that leads toward enlightenment? And lastly, if you're going to spend all of your money, time and energy protecting your brand, how dare you get pissy when someone beats you at your own game?  Donation based yoga is no different than any other yoga brand.  In fact, Gumucio was inspired to start YTTP due to the success of Bryan Kest's donation based Power Yoga studio in Santa Monica, California that has been taking donations for years.  Yet Kest isn't bitching that Gumucio is stepping on "donation based toes".  

Bikram is huge.  So is Baron Baptiste, Shiva Rae, Shawn Corn, Rodney Yee, Patricia Waldon, Cyndi Lee, David Life, Sharon Gannon and a million other western yogis that have created a brand and make their living not only teaching yoga but also selling a yogic lifestyle.  Will they each eventually own so many bits and pieces of yoga, that the rest of us have to rename, revamp, and re-brand yoga to teach it without walking into a lawsuit?

People say the free-market always works itself out. Some believe it's the answer to everything.  If those involved in the free market are highly ethical, I believe it does work itself out.  But when you put profits before people, ideas, and concepts and give yourself permission to bend your ethical rules to make as much money as possible, it's going to bite you eventually.  

So I say, "Good for you, Yoga To The People"and good luck as you continue to buck the western yoga system as well as challenge basic western business and economic ideals. 

Is anyone else unbelievably disappointed that this wasn't filmed for a new Bravo TV show entitled, The Real Yogis of New York City?  I can just imagine Bikram all sweaty in his speedo talking into his headset about how he was friends with Elvis and has 72 hour erections, (click on this link, I can't make this shit up) while using dollar bills to fuel the fire that heats his yoga rooms to 105 degrees. Then they cut to the Gumucio's class where he's no where to be found and a bunch of yogis are simply sweating and doing their thing for 60 minutes, shoving dollar bills into a tissue box on the way out the door.  Then Gumucio gets his own spin off reality show and makes millions while Bikram drops his latest auto-tuned pop album to coincide with his stint on Dr. Drew's Celebrity Rehab trying to detox from his addiction to Western fame and fortune.  Because like all good addicts know - 15 minutes of fame and 40 Rolls Royces, will never be enough.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Per usual a great post...but I cannot believe you have not experienced "Dance Moms" makes the characters of Toddlers and Tiaras appear sane. I guess it doesn't matter the activity be it dance, yoga, pageants,etc. there will always controlling, ocd, or just plane crazy people( thank God because it makes great television) who need yoga.