Here we go.
Vanity Fair takes a fairly in-depth look behind the scenes of Ashtanga Yoga, a powerful yoga style developed by the late Pattabhi Jois with hardcore devotees all over the world, its current growing pains and how new changes in leadership, teaching regulations and commercial expansion have the community and teachers divided. Oy, it seems these days, no style is safe from a rocky road of money, biz politics and power in the land of capitalism. But is this a bad thing?
Backed by her husband’s multi-billion-dollar hedge fund empire (hubs Paul Tudor Jones’s net worth at $3.2 billion) Sonia Jones, a devoted Ashtangi with an enterprising spirit has the money and the connections to bring Ashtanga to new heights on a global scale with Jois Yoga, a new studio chain taking the teachings of Pattabhi Jois and stepping away from the typical “stinky incense and smelly” environment to one with “space, light, and a stylish boutique.” There are already Jois Yoga outposts in Islamorada, FL, Encinitas, CA and Sydney, Australia with a fourth ready to open in Greenwich, CT. (NY is on hold for now.)
Sonia, who has been criticized for favoritism in the past, was so enthusiastic about the practice she made friends with the Jois family years ago and ended up as a benefactor of sorts for several of Guruji’s voyages to the US, his 90th birthday party and even visits to the doctor when he became ill. We think VF went a tad overboard with the “trophy wife” moniker, but Sonia is certainly wealthy with money and time to spend.
Jones is also a noted philanthropist, the founder of the Robin Hood Foundation, the oh-so-stylish charity for the hedge-fund set. The Joneses live in Greenwich. This will be his wife’s fourth Jois studio, or “shala” in yoga lingo, and that’s only part of her far-flung project. In partnership with Pattabhi Jois’s daughter and grandson and a friend, San Diego-based entrepreneur Salima Ruffin, she’s also launched a Jois line of yoga clothes, and she is setting up charities to bring yoga to everyone, from charter schools in Florida to villages in Africa. Ruffin likes to say that Sonia is the “Mother Teresa of yoga.”
Jois Yoga, however, is viewed as a combination of Lululemon and Yogaworks (CA-based chain of yoga studios) with the glaze of “no expense spared” that some critics say came on too fast and too strong with commercial appeal.
“I believe it’s about power, and I don’t want to be part of it,” says Lino Miele, a senior teacher, about the Jois Yoga project.
There’s also resentment:
“A lot of old-school teachers resent Sonia because they perceive that she’s getting in the way of their special relationship with the Jois family,” says Russell Case, a teacher who is now working for Jois Yoga. And there’s also a feeling that Jois Yoga founders haven’t always acted in a very respectful way.
This enterprise also has big name Ashtanga teachers like Tim Miller, Chuck Miller and Eddie Stern on edge. Tim Miller, who has his own studio in Encinitas was asked to join the teaching staff at the new Jois Yoga just down the road that opened in Summer 2010, but eventually bowed out after being treated like an “employee at a 24-hour fitness center.”
And the exaggerated Bikram-esque approach has many questioning the intention and the integrity. Although Sharath (Pattabhi Jois’s grandson and new man in charge) and the Jois family have the final say, it’s Sonia’s money, or her husband’s rather, that is ultimately funding the change.
But with a reputation for attracting type-A “tattooed downtown hipsters, actors, and other assorted gorgeous people” and celebs like Madonna, Willem Dafoe and Gwyneth Paltrow, the popularity of Ashtanga was too much for some even in the 90s when the method really took hold in the US:
“As the Western mind began populating the room, it changed the room,” says Chuck Miller, one of Jois’s early students and one of the most advanced practitioners in the world. Miller stopped at the fifth series and, in 1996, ceased going to Mysore. “It was too much of a party for me,” he says.
We don’t have to tell you Ashtangis are hardcore, and many adhere to the rigorous 6-day-a-week crack of dawn recommended practice, plenty of whom may never get past the primary series let alone attempt series six in this lifetime. But what of those sticklers anyway? VF points to the somewhat murky history of Ashtanga and the tracing back to Krishnamacharya, Pattabhi Jois’s (and also BKS Iyengar’s) teacher, who developed his asana series from a 2,000-year-old manuscript he found in a Calcutta library that he believed portrayed postures pertaining to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
Since Pattabhi Jois passed, Sharath has taken the lead and explains that they are simply “trying to keep the tradition alive” in order to protect the teachings from being mutated in the West (cough*power yoga*cough). But the truth is, yoga, and Ashtanga are indeed evolving. Even Tim Miller has traditionally no-no props in his studio. “I’m interested in what works, what is effective,” he says. “I’m not stuck in some model that says, You can’t do that, that’s against the rules.” And in light of much hoopla and some legitinate concern over the safety of some yoga poses, evolution of the practice seems inevitable and in some cases necessary. Are we too hung up on authenticity? Scholar Mark Singleton thinks so.
Singleton posits that the postures we know as Ashtanga may have grown out of a “synthesis” during Krishnamacharya’s time in Mysore of Western and Indian “gymnastic forms.” In his view, authenticity is the wrong way to think about yoga, because yoga is an ongoing evolution, not something static.
So how do we preserve teachings and grow at the same time? We’re not sure. And is this really so different from Iyengar-branding? These questions and more will continue to arise.
There’s no word on whether Jois Yoga will go the trademark/copyrighting route a la Bikram lawsuitfest. Time will tell.
Sonia maintains, “I wouldn’t be doing this, trust me, if he hadn’t said, ‘Will you open schools for me all over the world?’ ” She and her business partner Salima say they don’t expect to make money on the new slew of studios. According to the VF article, the Encinitas studio cost $1 million to build and rent is $11,000 a month.
‘Should money plus dedication get you more yoga than dedication alone?’ asks Bethany McLean, author of the VF piece.
Maybe. It will get you to be the owner and patron saint of Ashtanga Yoga at least.
“I don’t think it’s proper for others to say how this is wrong or this is right,” says Sharath. “Everyone has their own rights to share the knowledge with others. Nobody owns this.”
We’ll give you five breaths to mull that over. Perhaps we should just keep practicing, practicing, practicing…?
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