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Money, Politics, Yoga: When It’s Time To Close Up Shop

in Yogitorials

by Karin L. Burke

I’ve become one of those studio owners, common by now, who has decided to close up shop. In a very few days, I’ll be teaching my last class in a space I put countless hours and effort into creating. The walls smell of incense. They have footprints all over them and have been brushed by a thousand hands. The blocks and blankets will live quietly, privately, in my basement until I decide what to do with them. Sitting there this morning, watching snow fall, I felt voices and bodies drifting in the room. As much as snowflakes drifted outside. It feels like part of my heart is dying.

Yoga seems inevitably to return to the question of its own meaning. Which is a bit like Alice in Wonderland, turning ups into downs, answers into questions.

I never liked Alice in Wonderland. I am uncomfortable with answers becoming questions. I always preferred the numb me out drugs to the open my mind, ones. But here I am, looking at an accomplishment that is about to disappear. Here I am asking: What is yoga, who am I? I am riddled by questions whose answers are moving targets.

These days, yoga isn’t taught by men in robes, living in caves. It’s taught by institutions. Yoga is taught by colleges, research centers, the medical industry, and the fitness industry. I’m not saying this is wrong. I’m saying this is the context out of which confusion comes. The questions of certification and registration, qualification and accountability, science and spirit, measurability, sales, all have this unspoken prerequisite: ancient yoga was taught one way, modern yoga is being taught in some other way, and there are ramifications. This means something. But we don’t seem to know what.

We can’t replicate the traditional gurukala system. We shouldn’t. It’s dissonant with modernity itself. Attempts to recreate guru student relationships are at the heart of modern day yoga catastrophes.

And yet, we haven’t figured out how to replace it. You can see this in the way professionalized yogis refer to their pupils: some say clients, which lends a clinical veneer; some say students; some say customers. More and more, they are “followers” on Instagram and Facebook, or a “tribe.”

If students are numbers on a mailing list, then teacher is a euphemism for recruiting agent, sales person, or evangelist. Parallel this: if students become patients, teachers become healers. Treatment (or do we mean learning?) is dependent on accessibility and health insurance. Prognosis and measurable outcomes will trump inquiry and on-going, ness. Let alone, student teacher relationship.

I’ve been struggling with these questions since the beginning of my practice. There is a frustration in having to ask them, still. The frustration is like an acid, burning and staining the fabric of things like throat.

MONEY

Just over seven years ago, I founded a non-profit. I was teaching in half a dozen different studios of the boutique, flow, and fitness variety. On the side, I taught in church basements, domestic violence shelters, and youth crisis centers.

Often, while volunteering, there was paperwork involved. I had to tell these places who was offering the yoga, and me personally as an individual wasn’t always the best answer. I learned an organization would streamline the whole process. So I founded a non-profit.

Then I hit a point of being unable to stomach teaching in commercial, studios. There were many reasons. The John Friend scandal, my being told to ‘align’ with one of the studios I taught at, and my refusal to do so pushed me to a final break. It felt like a renunciation.

This renunciation became, completely without my knowing what I was doing or any planning whatsoever, the opening of my own studio, under the aegis of the non-profit. Its motto was “yoga is not a business.”

I had a vision—if I can say that without sounding facetious or giving the impression I’d been vision boarding my dreams into reality. I wanted a space open to all bodies; a space specifically working with underserved populations both in studio and in outreach; and I wanted “real yoga.” I don’t know what I meant by “real yoga.” The definition is only a definition by negation. I didn’t want to teach for numbers, for example, or for fitness, or as an entrepreneur. I had and still have theories about personal transformation, integrity, and authentic interaction. I had and still have a belief that our teaching needs to both situate itself in the tradition and make modern day scientific sense. I had an incorrigible suspicion that part of what made yoga transformative was its ethical backbone. I had sincerity. But again, these concepts are better described by what they are not than by a mission statement.

Yet I had one, a mission statement. I wrote it up in drafting the non-profit. It reads:

The mission of Return Yoga is threefold:
a) to teach the skills of yoga and meditation to under served communities,
b) to collaborate service opportunities and qualified yoga teachers, and
c) to offer high quality public yoga classes at a real life cost. Yoga is not a business.  Yoga is a revolutionary practice on both the personal and the community level.

It worked. People came. The studio outgrew two locations and settled into a third. It started training teachers.
Except that it didn’t, work. I was never able to make an actual salary, let alone buy health insurance, and I had no money to pay other people with, either. It went on in an idealistic, by the sweat of my brow kinda way. Sometimes I could buy groceries, sometimes I couldn’t.

To maintain a store front I’d have to sell out.

POLITICS

The vision may have made it, in a different community. By donation studios are popping up in metro areas, and by donation drop in classes have been a standard, outside studios, from the get go.

It couldn’t make it, in my community. Saint Cloud is either a relatively small city or a relatively large town, depending on how you look at it. It’s a sharply divided demographic either way, a little mirror image of Minnesota as a whole. Minnesota is, after all, both Michelle Bachman and Paul Wellstone. There is diversity. But it’s not a diversity that is celebrated. Block by block the town is visibly Somali, or white. Schools struggle. Storefronts and restaurants, and residential cul-de-sacs, are sharply divisive, not diverse. Public places—parks, malls, churches and mosques—are sketches of contrast. And if you are struck by the presence of a Somali/white split, you might realize that other demographics are completely invisible, though present. Questions of visibility, identity, representation, and inclusion are palpable.

One the one hand, yogis have asked me what this has to do with anything. Isn’t yoga, after all, about essential unity? What’s wrong with a white person wanting to practice mindfulness? Or people wanting to exercise?

On the other, it drives home a point: yoga is not so inclusive as it claims or wants to be. While yoga uses the language of inclusion and self study, the practice itself is one of privilege and self-distortion. My studio remained a space of white, entitled bodies, even though its expressed intention was one of service. While the mission was to teach real yoga (again, I fully accept the ambiguity of that concept), the reality of getting enough bodies into the room meant I was teaching exercise.

I think these words are important, being so central to yoga teaching and tradition, even to yoga neuroscience: intention, service. When words don’t mean what they’re supposed to, we’re sliding into Alice’s wonderland again, tangled into delusion. Delusion is an important concept in yoga, as well. Delusion being, essentially, the reason we need practice and the thing practice is intended to change.

The presidential election a few weeks ago proved that we are a much more divided and dangerous country than we had believed. The co-incidence of closing with the election sticks a finger in the wound. But the studio has been failing for over a year. They aren’t related.

And, I’m not so sure they’re unrelated, either. Donald Trump isn’t really the problem; a culture in which he’s voted into the presidency, is. A yoga studio needing to sell out isn’t a problem, either. Except that it reflects a wider undercurrent. An open, disorienting question: What is this culture in which neo-liberal care-of-thine-own-damn-self is so prevalent that the yoga industry is booming, while democratic processes fail?

I am opening questions, rather than answering them. The results burst a bubble: it’s not enough to have liberal ideals. It’s not enough to take care of ourselves.

YOGA

Of course, we do have to take care of ourselves. Saying self-care is not enough hardly devalues self care.

It does, however, open the question to what self care is.

So here we are, back with the question: what is this, yoga? What is happening? What do I do?

Yoga appears to be a set of postural exercises. It appears as studios, gear franchises, festivals and teacher training programs. Yet we realize, after a little while, that yoga is something other than that. It’s is something we didn’t expect and can’t quite put words to. It is intimate. It is subtle. It changes; what it was at the beginning isn’t what it is to us, any longer.

To say yoga means union—euphemistically or etymologically —is wrong. Yoga doesn’t mean union: it means ‘to join’, to relate one thing to another. Yoga is relationship. To say yoga is what happens in a studio is like saying sex is what happens in bedrooms, with the lights off and the timing right.

Sex is complicated. And when we really fall in love, or really feel sex, it tends to happen all over the place, under brightness. Yoga isn’t what happens on our mat, but the way we start to make changes in our lives.

I am sad to close the doors to a room where people gathered, where they related to their breath, their bodies, to themselves and to each other. I am sad to close the space where I related, to others. But I don’t want to conflate that space with the relationships. Nor can I really say that my heart has died.

It’s moved.

There have been very important floors, and doorways, and addresses in my practice. I remember looking up at certain ceilings and having gut wrenching or euphoric insights. I remember the weight of certain doors against my shoulder or hip, in different seasons, at different turning points in my development. In Brooklyn, there was a thin industrial carpet covering a cement floor that shook when the subway passed below. It smelled of tea tree oil and eucalyptus. In Chicago, I fell in love with a stained glass window. In Santa Fe, I needed to drive for miles after sitting for hours. But it wasn’t exactly the place, the door, or the carpet that mattered.

It was, always, relationship. If a relationship can’t survive a change of venue, it’s unhealthy.

The nature of knowing you’re on to some truth is the way whole paradigms shift and become unsteady. When you’re really in the heart of a question, dancing on or thrown by the pulse of it, there aren’t any answers. There’s only heart. Pulse, and release.

Yoga used to be taught in traditional contexts. It’s now some kind of research, something of a commodity and something of a status symbol. We’re not sure if yoga is science or spirituality. We’re not sure if it’s fitness or therapy. We’re not sure what yoga teachers, are. I think this is okay.

I think some of the best yoga teachers are leaving the fold and exploring new spaces. Text. The internet. Interdisciplinary body work. Scholastic work with ur texts. Asana are becoming open ended questions, rather than contortions. We’re exploring the thresholds of physiology and psychology, the bleed of personal growth into wider lives. My teachers have become people I talk to, ask questions of, turn to and bring my best and scariest questions. I left taking 45 minute sessions years ago; so why would I go on, teaching them? Some of my teachers encouraged my opening the space, years ago, pointed out it was truer to my sincerity and closer to the experience I was having. And some of them have supported my ending it. None of them ever gave me any clear cut answers. The only ever supported me in going more deeply into experience. They ask me, questions.

There is a frustration to the way these questions persist. The persistence is like a pulse.

~

Karin L Burke has been called a Master teacher, a teacher’s teacher, and a revolutionary. These days she’s deconstructing asana, teaching to folks who’ve been disillusioned or injured by standard yoga fare, and learning Sanskrit. She’s writing and she’s teaching online. She can be found at returnyoga.org.

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25 comments… add one
  • What a fascinating, heart-felt post. I am a certified Iyengar teacher who taught for a few years, but never to make a living. Though I got my start before the advent of current-wave yoga – I was certified in my early 20s in the early 90s – I knew it was a path of commercial confusion that I would not be poised to navigate (and really, I got there early enough to have benefitted from the third-wave popularity). It only got worse as the 90s progressed. These days, I don’t know how anyone affords to teach. I hope that you find a new career that you will love, and that pays you for your skill. And in the meanwhile, you will always have yoga to guide you personally. This is what I’ve learned over the last 30 years.

  • Claire

    Beautiful piece. Your description of yoga (with the sex analogy) was completely stunning and so right on. I quoted you on my FB page and linked to the article, I hope that’s OK 🙂

  • I think one of the many problems yoga faces today is think it has to be one thing or another. Science OR Spirit, Fitness OR Therapy. Perhaps the challenge is the joining of these two things.

  • Jack

    ” An open, disorienting question: What is this culture in which neo-liberal care-of-thine-own-damn-self is so prevalent that the yoga industry is booming, while democratic processes fail?”

    I used to wonder a lot on that too. Then a realization was shared for me, which was liberating as well as disturbing.

    We are brought up to think in a progressive world, where there is a curve toward the perfect. The belief in Technology or Capitalism, neo-liberalism, epitomizes this viewpoint. Progressive evolution. Even the stuff like think global act local has it in it, that we are the world, the 100 monkey, etc…

    But the Yogi position is different, it is a belief that there is a balance in the world. Where there is light, there is darkness; where there is more light, there is more darkness. So the world gets both extremes at the same time. If there’s not an extreme, then the masses of people are not really doing much with their existence opportunity.

    We are coming out of a period of when very few had the light/practice/teachings, and now it has gone public. That is why there we are so crowded too. Every being in existence wants a shot at materializing amidst the explosion of opportunity to become spiritual light. But the opposite is also true then, that there will be just as much a pull to the other extreme. The extreme of hate, anger, ignorance, which all turns first on the one doing this action.

    Just choose to go to light. Practice, meditate, drop aversion and wish everyone goodwill, then all the good things will come back to you. You won’t even know how it works, just that it does.

  • Karin,
    I so felt the sadness and heaviness of the situation you are in (personally) and we are in (as a community). The questions your piece raises I think are unanswerable. Our model for modern yoga that is as long lived as the ancient practice/science, is yet to be uncovered. A system/model for today will have to be as diverse as our geography, economics, and spiritual need. I believe that yoga is a fad in the fitness realm like spin, dance aerobics, etc. It is not a fad as a lifestyle, attitude and path. Perhaps you will find the way in your geographic community to continue your service in yet, a new way.
    Thoughts, energy and blessings to you.

  • Thank you for your heartfelt post. I can completely relate. I started teaching in 1986 and was certified by Iyengar in 1989. I never planned to make yoga full-time work, and yet, from the mid-1990s until about eight years ago, I was able to just teach yoga. I taught at a Unitarian Church that let me store my props in their closet, so my expenses were quite low. My situation was blessedly simple. When the “yoga boom” hit, this all changed. The proliferation of studios, all with teacher trainings, has produced a huge glut of teachers, most of whom are well-meaning, but undertrained. New students have no idea that there’s a difference between a person who just graduated from a 200-hour training and one who’s been studying for more than 30 years. While my students have been amazingly loyal—some have been coming to classes for more than 20 years—attrition happens, and new students look to shiny studios and gyms rather than classes in a church multipurpose room.

    I thought about quitting when the Unitarian Church remodeled. The renovations would take four months, and I knew that if I cancelled classes for that period of time, it would break the continuity I’d nurtured over so many decades. I ended up finding a space that I could run as a collective. Eight of us share the rent by paying an hourly rate. That way the teachers can pay a nominal fee and keep whatever they make over that amount. It’s not a money-making model for me—I have to work two other jobs besides teaching in order to pay expenses that aren’t covered by the rent—but it is also a much lower risk model than most studios.

    I admit that I’m very tired of living hand to mouth. It’s been a very long time, and sometimes I long for the simplicity of a job that pays a salary and health insurance, especially now that health insurance for so many of us is in jeopardy. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to give up my community, as you have done. I wish I knew the answers to the questions you ask, but it seems that we all have to navigate these issues in ways that fit our individual communities. I wish you happiness in your next phase.

  • Anne

    Karen, I stood in your similar shoes in 2004, closed a studio that had been open in NYC since the late 90s. (I still have a few props left over from that time!) I’m a business person, and the business couldn’t run: the barriers to entry were too low, especially so for the gyms. That was then. And yet, much of what you talk about here is very, very similar.

    Godspeed.

    And to others reading: as a yoga practitioner with solid business skills, in the past I talked with many people who wanted to open studios. Some would ask me about a not-for-profit model. In terms of creating a sustainable brick and mortar community spot, whether you’re a business or a not-for-profit, you still have to pay the rent, electricity, and so forth. Money is the energy that keeps the doors open, regardless of the legal structure of your organization.

    (And I don’t talk with these folks any more, I don’t know if it’s because I have a reputation for telling the truth: it’s not a sustainable business model! And thus being “negative.” Or if more people just know this, because of brave posts like this one. Thanks, Karen.

  • Anne

    Karin, I stood in your similar shoes in 2004, closed a studio that had been open in NYC since the late 90s. (I still have a few props left over from that time!) I’m a business person, and the business couldn’t run: the barriers to entry were too low, especially so for the gyms. That was then. And yet, much of what you talk about here is very, very similar.

    Godspeed.

    And to others reading: as a yoga practitioner with solid business skills, in the past I talked with many people who wanted to open studios. Some would ask me about a not-for-profit model. In terms of creating a sustainable brick and mortar community spot, whether you’re a business or a not-for-profit, you still have to pay the rent, electricity, and so forth. Money is the energy that keeps the doors open, regardless of the legal structure of your organization.

    (And I don’t talk with these folks any more, I don’t know if it’s because I have a reputation for telling the truth: it’s not a sustainable business model! And thus being “negative.” Or if more people just know this, because of brave posts like this one. Thanks, Karin.

  • Actually some time ago, it was not a business, now a days people and institutes think it is a money making activities. They don’t care satisfaction of learner, they just want to make money through it.

  • Me too had the sane questions whenever I go deep about this subject.
    As a yoga lover, I only need a personal satisfaction whenever I teach this art. But things are going wrong. I don’t know where it will end up.

    Between nice article.

  • Yoga does not just change the way we see things, it transforms the person who sees. Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured. So you can join 300 hour yoga teacher training in rishikesh, India.

  • Age is Nothing, for Fitness Exercise – Nathaniel Wilkins

    Aging is one thing that no one wants to go though because we always associate getting older with getting sick or getting to have more medical problems and conditions in general. The good news is that we can do things in order to age gracefully; we can get to each stage of the aging process without so many complications as long as we take proper care of our bodies.
    Keep this in mind and you will be able to maintain your health at optimal levels as your aging process begins to take place. The truth is that even people who go from their teenage years to their early twenties experience some changes in their bodies, but when you start pushing your 40’s and 50’s those changes become quite evident and noticeable.
    When you take the best possible care of your body, the changes will seem to be milder and you will be able to still feel young even at ages when most people don’t feel as energetic and upbeat. There is nothing stopping you from maintaining your body and your mind in the best shape they can be. The challenge is to be consistent about it, but it can definitely be done.
    For more advice about Fitness Exercise Please Refer to Nathaniel Wilkins: http://www.natestretchandmore.com

  • Aging is one thing that no one wants to go though because we always associate getting older with getting sick or getting to have more medical problems and conditions in general. The good news is that we can do things in order to age gracefully; we can get to each stage of the aging process without so many complications as long as we take proper care of our bodies.
    Keep this in mind and you will be able to maintain your health at optimal levels as your aging process begins to take place. The truth is that even people who go from their teenage years to their early twenties experience some changes in their bodies, but when you start pushing your 40’s and 50’s those changes become quite evident and noticeable.
    When you take the best possible care of your body, the changes will seem to be milder and you will be able to still feel young even at ages when most people don’t feel as energetic and upbeat. There is nothing stopping you from maintaining your body and your mind in the best shape they can be. The challenge is to be consistent about it, but it can definitely be done.
    For more advice about Fitness Exercise Please Refer to Nathaniel Wilkins: http://www.natestretchandmore.com

  • Through the practices of yoga, we discover that concern for the happiness and well being of others, including animals, must be an essential part of our own quest for happiness and well being. The fork can be a powerful weapon of mass destruction or a tool to create peace on Earth. If you are interested you can join our yoga classes at Hatha Yoga School in Rishikesh, India.

  • Through the practices of yoga, we discover that concern for the happiness and well being of others, including animals, must be an essential part of our own quest for happiness and well being. The fork can be a powerful weapon of mass destruction or a tool to create peace on Earth. If you are interested you can join our yoga classes at Hatha Yoga School in Rishikesh, India.

  • That was an amazing post. I can’t stop reading it. I think you sum up the experiences of many of us and we can all connect to your writing in some way. Wishing you all the best.

  • Flo

    I think it was on Facebook, where someone wrote you display cognitive dissonance for running a studio the way you describe.

    I don´t agree. I think it is admirable that you put your values and principals before your values. I am sure you know that, but failing with a “business yoga” has NOTHING to do with your ability as teacher.

    I, for one, think your story is very inspiring and I am sure other doors will open up for you.

    We all suffer, to some extent, from the tension between the demands of modern capitalist life and our ideals and dreams and hopes. Most people choose the safe path while denying their true feelings.

    I applaud people like you, who dare to stand up for their believes! All the best
    Flo

  • A good post. Keep up the work. I am sure that many people will connect

  • Yoga controls mind by teaching to concentrate on specific parts of body.
    Thanks for sharing .Nice article.

  • Thank you, Karin, for sharing your incredible integrity, and journey. I have a business background and I’m just wondering – once you got to your 3rd and final location, was the studio in the black? Could you have drawn a salary at that time? Were you selling packages or memberships, or were TTs supposed to off-set the cost of running the studio? I hope you had someone advising you during this time.

    I admire your resolute refusal to bow to the commercialism of yoga; I just wish there was a way that you could have continued being of service in a public way and still prospered financially.

    Catherine

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