by J. Brown
In the last twenty years, yoga in the west has gone from a guru-driven model to a market-driven model. Decisions still often come from atop a pyramid. But now, the directives are based more on aggregated data than on the presumed authority of an ancient wisdom. One small manifestation of this turn can be found in the way that yoga classes have gotten progressively shorter. As yoga teachers are newly questioning old models for what and how they teach, industry mores also deserve examination.
When I first starting teaching, yoga classes were always one hour and forty-five minutes long. I remember using a watch to time fifteen minute final rest periods and observing how some folks would get fidgety come ten minutes. But It was considered an integral part of the practice, and teachers reveled in the time spent, challenging students to relinquish effort. Eventually, there was a shift to a ninety minute class. Exactly why that happened is a mystery but my theory is that it was largely logistical. It just allowed for a cleaner schedule of daily classes. Then, after yoga had become well established within gym culture, the sixty minute “express” class emerged.
Recently, I happened to take a stroll around the internet sites of all the local yoga centers in my area. I was looking at making some changes at the center I own and operate and wanted to see what is going on with my competitors. I was surprised to discover that the majority of places have almost entirely switched to seventy-five and sixty minute classes. There are a few ninety or one hundred-twenty minute offerings scattered as special items, but the regularly scheduled classes are now seventy-five minutes or less, and “express” classes are down to forty-five minutes.
If you are interested in more than just the physical exercises, participation outside of regularly scheduled classes is becoming required.
Were a survey of general yoga class attendees to be taken, I suspect there might be a lot of people who think that ninety minutes is too long. Maybe if I shorten the classes then it will make it easier for people to fit them into their schedules and increase participation? I’m betting someone has done that research and proved it true, otherwise you wouldn’t see everyone doing it. But as a teacher, I have already so distilled and truncated the amount of teaching that can be offered in the course of a drop-in class. Most teachers who are really getting into stuff with people come up against time constraints, and are always struggling to avoid running five or ten minutes over.
Granted, the question of having enough time only really comes into play if we consider a yoga class to be more of a learning environment than a service being provided. And that really is the big switch. The days of regular attendance in group classes allowing for a comprehensive yoga education have perhaps passed. People are not generally looking for a yoga education when they are coming to a yoga class anymore. Yoga is regarded more as a paid-for service, comparable to the work of a personal trainer, where the expectation is not necessarily to learn the nature of the exercises so much as to be taken through the proper reps.
There is a difference between skillfully leading someone through a series of exercises, and teaching something about how exercises might be utilized as a means to serve a human system beyond just its physiology.
I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who are genuinely interested in learning about yoga beyond the physical practice. And I’m also betting there are about as many others who just want to move for sixty minutes and think I should shut my pie hole. Truth is, it would actually lessen my workload and make my life easier if I reduced all of my classes to sixty minutes. But I can’t help feeling it would be a disservice to the people who come and pay hard-earned money in the name of yoga. Perhaps there needs to be a better way to distinguish between classes that are more directly concerned with the broader aspects of yoga, and those more geared towards an exercise regimen which potentially hints at something found elsewhere.
Regardless of my feelings about it, the market is becoming determinate. If the people who pay for yoga classes want them to be shorter, sticking to my principles might just mean going out of business. No more do we see the same dutiful deference to the teacher of old. Rather, it now behooves yoga professionals to focus on fashioning exceptional customer service, even sometimes at the expense of maintaining a purity of purpose or message. However, in the process of adapting and accepting changing realities, communicating our offerings and intents with greater clarity, and taking a stand for what we believe, might just be the best thing we can do to shape markets in unexpected ways and provide more real value for everyone.
J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer, podcaster and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and across the yoga blogosphere. Visit his website at jbrownyoga.com.