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Yoga Students’ Bill of Rights

in YD News, YogOpinions

by J. Brown

Exposure to and understanding of yoga are often being shaped by business interests and market forces. When someone who holds yoga dear sees yoga being portrayed with dubious purpose or in a less than sacred light, it’s easy to feel disheartened.

I have often derided the “yoga industry” or “commercial yoga” as though it were a boogie man that is out to get us. The emergence of new anti-establishment voices in the yoga blogosphere has spurned even harsher scrutiny of “yoga culture.” Expansion of the internet and social media has led to more of a real dialogue about yoga than at any other time since it became my life pursuit. However, some of these new voices have caused me to question my own.

When we criticize the “yoga industry” or “commercial yoga”, who exactly are we referring to? Yoga Journal? Yoga Alliance? Lululemon? Big name yoga teachers who have managed to make a buck? Or perhaps, it’s really just the commodification of yoga that presents us with an unresolvable dilemma and no place in particular to point the frustration. Fact is, regardless of the commodity, industry only exists where there is a consumer to be had. So, it stands to reason that a predominance of educated and informed consumers can reflexively shape an industry.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not so naive as to believe that a bunch of high-minded yogi’s are going to somehow magically refute supply side economics. But we certainly do ourselves a disservice if we simply cede to the corrupting forces of greed and advertising. And while bitching about it may make us feel better temporarily, it’s not all that useful in the long run.

As discussed in a previous post, Yoga Alliance Approved, My Ass, there is no proper trade organization to represent or provide leadership to the grassroots professionals who make up both the underclass and the backbone of the yoga industry. Consequently, corporate interests are entirely framing the equation and often well-intentioned people are forced to bend to the pressure. For those who wish to see Yoga presented with greater integrity and authenticity, our best bet is to offer some form of proactive empowerment directly to the yoga consumer.

Recently, I was in the back of a NYC taxicab and happened to take notice of the prominently displayed: “Taxi Rider’s Bill of Rights.” I can recall a time when this required sticker did not exist and there were a whole lot more taxi riders getting taken for a figurative ride by shady drivers. Perhaps a public service announcement for yoga students might also encourage better discernment of disreputable operations and a more thoughtful consideration among the industry.

Here is a proposed first draft:

Yoga Student’s Bill of Rights
As a yoga student you have the right to:

- Be personally introduced to your instructor
- A safe and courteous instructor who is attentive to your needs
- A knowledgeable instructor who instills confidence
- Decline to be pushed into anything that feels wrong to you
- Not be compared to anyone or made to feel small
- Ask questions and get sufficient answers
- Feel comfortable and that you are among friends
- Be discerning and make your own determinations

When we talk about the “yoga world” or the “art world” and what we are referring to is the cold influence of money on these pursuits, we discredit all the honest and sincere people making art and teaching yoga in their communities who are merely living out their passions and doing their best to get by. We are part of “the industry” too. If there were not people like us just banging it out everyday then there would be no market to exploit.

My point in this has less to do with social activism and more to do with needing to feel that everything is not entirely rigged to only benefit the proverbial bottom line. Even if it is rigged that way, I want to encourage the sort of thinking that at least makes it seem possible for human beings to still do right by themselves.

A lyric by Mos Def about hip-hop comes to mind:

“People be asking me all the time, what’s getting ready to happen with hip-hop? You know what I tell them? You know what’s going to happen with hip-hop? Whatever is happening with us. If we smoked out, hip-hop is going to be smoked out. If we doing alright, hip-hop be doing alright. People talk about hip-hop like it’s some giant living in the hillside coming down to visit the townspeople. We are hip-hop. Me, you, everybody. We are hip-hop. So hip-hop is going where we going. So the next time you ask yourself, where hip-hop is going, ask yourself, where am I going? How am I doing? And you get a clear idea.”

In the spirit of consumers making informed choices, this video blog, offers some philosophical distinctions between different approaches to yoga practice and discusses why attempting to standardize yoga curriculum is inherently problematic:

J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY.  His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy in Practice, Yoga Therapy Today and the International Journal of Yoga Therapy.  Visit his website at yogijbrown.com

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16 comments… add one

  • Satyam

    Greetings J. Brown,

    I think you put forth some good (and needed) proposals and ideas. Those who attend classes should be informed and made aware of standards and expecations for how they are to be treated.

    That said, the onus remains on the teacher to set a model of behavior and conduct that is above any written rules.

    For me, the biggest problem with yoga in the US is that it is often all-too-colored in materialistic values: dress, style, money, looks, sex, numbers, websites, and living a life of mundane pleasures.

    And to be honest, that is not easy to overcome unless and until the teachers themselves have taken a hard and clean look at life and made eaarnest efforts to abide by moral and spiritual ideals – and move away from sensual gratification.

    That is probably harder to do than pass any YTT program.

    It is a process and I do believe slowly but surely we are moving in the right direction – but the mud of materialism is indeed deep in these parts. May we all pull through together.

    Thanks for the read and nice post!

    Namaskar,
    Saytam

  • LaLaLa

    In an ideal world there would be no need for a bill of rights because we would all be so enlightened that we would treat one another with utmost respect and dignity at all times. Our egos would never get in the way, so nobody would ever infringe upon our rights.

    Just kidding.

    I see the bill of rights as a nice reminder about how students should be treated by studios. Now the lawyer in me is stepping up to say that a bill of rights isn’t effective unless somebody enforces it. This bill is too vague to enforce and who would want to be in the awkward position of having to enforce it.

    I think what teachers and studios owe students is honesty and the tools to make informed decisions. I had no idea what was acceptable and what was unacceptable when I first started yoga. I had no way to assess the quality of the instruction, and so I trusted my studio. That worked out just fine for me because I started out at Yogaworks. People complain that Yogaworks is a corporate behemoth, but YW offers a great environment for new yoga students: the teachers have comprehensive knowledge of anatomy; they are trained on how to teach the poses in a safe way; they have to show up on time; and YW doesn’t tolerate flighty, woo-woo bullshit from the teachers. I didn’t need a bill of rights at YW.

    It wasn’t until I left YW and studied in less corporate studios that I felt like I needed a bill of rights…teachers didn’t show up to class; teachers were late; teachers chattered away and didn’t teach; teachers/studio owners were out to make a buck from the students but not delivering quality instruction, which they justified because of the holistic, non-corporate environment; some teachers were demeaning; teachers didn’t have sufficient training; and teachers didn’t know about anatomy and philosophy or how to teach a pose safely. I could have used a bill of rights.

    As students, we all want to trust our teachers. It’s hard to fight that inclination. Yoga certainly does attract an element that is about positivity and good vibes, but let’s not let that get in the way of getting the respectful and honest instruction that we deserve as students.

  • I think that what this is really speaking to is simply professionalism.

    While I had great training and knowledge, the issue of being chatty, late, or even demeaning or pushy were issues for me in the past. And this inhibited my ability to share what I knew, while (what I perceived to be) less quality teachers became more and more successful.

    When I started to behave with what I call “consummate professionalism,” then things really started to take off for me. I was there for the students — and so every decision that I make professionally is to make certain that their needs are met.

    And that also includes running a business so that I can sustain classes for them on-going because that is what they both want and need. It just makes sense.

    Satyam is also right about the culture around yoga in many parts of the west. One of the things that we — as teachers — need to take responsibility for is that we are culture creators. As such, decisions about what we do “trickles down” into what the students do.

    To use the example of clothing, I worked in a studio for a time that, after a bit, opened a shop of high-end yoga clothes. When I started there, they sold mats only (they also rented mats). So, people came dressed in “whatever” and did their yoga and that was that.

    When the clothing shop opened, very little of it sold. I suggested to the studio owner that students would buy it if teachers were wearing it. So, he gave some away to the teachers (I think it was whole sale prices), and they started wearing the clothes, and the clothes started to fly off the shelves.

    At this point, there was a shift in culture. I didn’t realize when I made the suggestion that the culture would shift that far. I just figured that those who could afford it (not me) would buy the clothes and the rest of us would still attend, but instead, it became exclusive.

    In my own studio, I wear unbranded clothing. I’m careful to make sure that whatever I’m wearing doesn’t have a visible brand at all, because I want students to feel welcome “no matter what they wear.” We do have a dress code, which includes keeping bellies and thighs covered as well. And, I encourage my teachers (many of whom have a lot of lulu lemon) to not wear branded clothing or find a way to cover up the brands if they do.

    This has worked really well for developing inclusivity at the studio. Likewise, I’m also really open about how everything works — what the pricing structures are and why, when and how we’ll be adding new classes or not (people often request things that are simply beyond my capacity, I strive to be open with them), and so on.

    I spend time with the students listening to what their needs are, asking them questions, surveying them 1-2 times a year to get a sense of what they want and need from us.

    And, of course, we do our supervision to make sure that we aren’t being chatty or catty or demeaning or basically “working out our stuff” on the student. It’s just flat-out wrong.

    And of course, one of our central values is setting up the students for autonomous, home practice. This is a value that all of us as teachers share, and so we work together to help encourage that students have home practices and that the yoga “belongs to them.” We are only there to facilitate their process and their needs, not the other way around, you know?

    End of the day, we — every single teacher and studio out there — creates the yoga culture, and how we serve our students creates that culture.

    So we really just need to take responsibility for ourselves as teachers — all of our actions and words — and observe how those actions affect others, and in particular, our students.

    Basically, what are we transmitting?

  • VQ2

    What I am talking about are teachers and a studio chain that were plenty professional–they could give some of the old-school teachers lessons in how to be professional. I never got injured by their push-me-pull-you tactics (not foolproof–but still not allowing for the bottom line-*physical* injury) which they hoped would result in continued upsales.

    The issue is not lack of professionalism. It’s greed.

    If so, they should do a good, systematic market segmentation and market their higher-value/higher-profitability services to those that will buy – instead of to poor schnooks like me.

    Also, yes – get rid of the Lulu labels. Get rid of the size tags while you’re at it.

    Case closed.

  • I wasn’t speaking specifically to the issue of greed — that’s definitely there as well.

    There is really quite a lot to speak to on this issue, actually, but you are right in asserting that some of it has to do with finding the correct markets for the specific offering, setting the price point accordingly, and understanding the profit/loss margins carefully, as well as the appropriate sales.

    My primary complaint with this greed is actually the use of yoga language to manipulate people. For example “Please remember that Karma counts! Our no refunds, transfers, exchanges, or extensions policy is your promise to stick to the practice!” I don’t know what that has to do with karma.

    I also read one that said “Practice aparigraha : become a member today!” What? How does handing over $3k up front equal practicing non-possessiveness? Oh, right, I see, I’m not possessing my money so that you can possess my money. I get it.

    To me, that is just madness, and I’ve been observing it more and more lately. It’s unbelievable.

  • VQ2

    Thanks for replying, Jenifer, but please (!) don’t get me started. A whole book–including the scientific and public policy issues involved–could be written on how yoga studios are adept at greenwashing as well …
    in addition to pretending that they ALREADY pay state sales taxes (omg, forgot that you are in New Zealand and that part may not apply …)

    At least, though Mickey D’s give a round figure and backs the restaurant sales taxes out of the final price …. lol

  • Maybe it’s just “yoga-washing” LOL. I think that’s what babarazzi was calling it!

    I think a lot of the reason why it happens is because some people just don’t know. I think owner-operators are the ones to really not grasp what they are supposed to do (such as get an occupancy permit, meet OSHA standards for work, have basic health and safety levels for clients, etc), and that doesn’t touch the surface on the accounting, or basic professionalism (ie, not working out your stuff on your clients), or what have you.

    from a legal standpoint, these businesses are often lucky that they are so small as to stay under the radar, but from an ethics stand point, for those of us who know what the score is. . . well, it begs a lot of questions.

    I don’t mind a person’s simple ignorance, but what does bother me is that when they are educated on the topic and then continue unethically.

  • get over yourself

    seriously…

    - Be personally introduced to your instructor
    go introduce yourself if you need this.

    - A safe and courteous instructor who is attentive to your needs
    if you don’t think they’re safe and “courteous” don’t go back to their class.

    - A knowledgeable instructor who instills confidence
    Become knowledgeable and confident yourself.

    - Decline to be pushed into anything that feels wrong to you
    I think that’s called common sense. Many of us do that in our day to day lives…

    - Not be compared to anyone or made to feel small
    Sheesh…

    - Ask questions and get sufficient answers
    Think before you ask…

    - Feel comfortable and that you are among friends
    Kind of like Facebook.

    - Be discerning and make your own determinations
    no shit…

  • Vision_Quete_Deux

    Whoooosh!

    Is that the sound I hear of dozens and hundreds of yoga teachers who thought they could make a killing by lying, cheating and stealing from their students … suddenly leaving teaching … for greener pastures ?

    IMHO, this list should have been posited and published about five years ago, before the mortgage bubble, et al …

  • Vision_Quete_Deux

    You will know me by the glowing reviews I made of every studio that isn’t yours in your immediate area, and including a gym yoga venue (heavens!) which treated me according to the bill of rights AND THEN SOME!

    But not YOUR studio …

  • Vision_Quete_Deux

    By the way, is there an addendum to this bill of rights that says:

    - When there are teacher trainees in class or in as a class teacher in the course of warming up for a workshop later that day; the right to be ignored if the teacher knows you already, knows by word and deed, that you are NOT game for anything–and that it ISN’T their determination to make that you are to be used as a guinea pig

  • Vision_Quete_Deux

    Finally, I want to thank those teachers who acted as if a bill of rights should never exist, for helping to render me self-sufficient in my home yoga practice. I finally shook off the last vestiges of your personalities and practices that made my home practice any more influencible than anyone else … of course, in your quest for short-run (and I do mean SHORT-run profits), I’d given you a lot more business than the other studios … and decided to let yelp decide that you rate only 3-1/2 stars … sitting shivva for you guys …

  • "j" brown, u REALLY need to do

    something about that constipation.

  • David

    Rights imply that we are owed something, that is that someone else needs to be responsible for what we are owed/deserve/should be given.

    What about responsibility? What if we take responsibility for generating ourselves, what we need and what we create in the world?

    Standing inside of that, the yoga world already has a framework: yama & niyama

  • Toddy

    Love Mos Def, Love JB. Keep it up chief; excellent stuff.

  • Lenora

    Hi, J. Brown,

    What a lot of comments this triggered.

    Well, I think it’s a great idea, especially for new students to yoga – or any fitness program, for that matter.

    I though it would be cool to design and print sort of like a parchment paper look…

    Would you allow me to do that with your text? I’ll credit you, of course, and I wm just interested in making one or two for my studio and students. Not for sale. Let me know, please. Thanks!
    lenoradegen(a) msn.com

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