by J Brown
Yoga Journal has announced that it is doing a “reset” on all of its annual conferences. There will be no more Yoga Journal Conferences for the rest of 2017 while they attempt to re-imagine the model and figure out a way to make them relevant and profitable again. For those who are invested in the yoga profession, it’s not clear whether the crumbling of this institution is a canary in a coal mine or a crow outside our window.
I remember when the conferences first started. They were definitely a big deal. It was before anything resembling a large-scale yoga event ever existed, and was the first time yoga teachers were presented in a frame of celebrity. The increasing popularity of yoga, and soon-to-explode market, lent themselves to creating a forum where people could discover new information and the industry could expand. No different than, say, insurance sales people or doctors, now there was a place for yoga folk to congregate on a more national level.
People came in droves.
Almost as soon as the conferences emerged, large groups of people started attending. There was a hunger for more exposure, and aspiring yogis from all corners would go to great lengths to make a mecca of the new frontier at the intersection of yoga and commerce. It didn’t matter that the classes were in a hotel on a carpeted floor, or that the large numbers meant you were only getting a “sampler” of what a teacher offers, Yoga Journal conferences were the only game in town and the momentum that was building towards everything to come after was palpable and exciting.
Yoga careers were launched by Yoga Journal conferences. There was no worldwide web yet and it was the perfect symbiosis between hosting live events and publishing a print magazine that created the ultimate media platform for the yoga industry. Many, if not most, of the teachers who garner any amount of celebrity status today cut their teeth and developed their following on the YJ circuit. These early gatherings inspired and empowered people to go back home and open centers in their own communities with the hopes that they might some day also take the stage among a crowd and spread the good word of yoga far and wide, not to mention land a DVD deal along the way.
Conferences are boring, music festivals are cool.
Once the electricity of a multi-day live music festival was combined with celebrity yoga teachers commanding large group classes, the conferences quickly started to lose their luster. Windowless rooms in the basement of the Hilton, ensconced in an air of high art and education, simply cannot compete with the freedom and fun of partying like rock stars in sunny exotic locations. People have been only too happy to replace the old stuffy trade organization convention with the frolic of a lollapalooza-style show where you can come and go as you please, smoke weed, and still get your yoga on.
The move away from conferences to festivals parallels other trends. As guru-driven lineage holders passing wisdom on to their devotees has given way to the rise of western entrepreneurship and mass marketing of yoga, so the interests and desires of the yoga aspirant and/or consumer have changed. Sure, Ravi Shankar was at Woodstock and all but I think you would be hard-pressed to find record of a yoga teacher with a headset mic on anytime before 1995. The newer generation of practitioners have grown up with arena-style yoga and consider the early adopters who shun the spectacle, or begrudgingly accept the inherent trade-offs, as either close-minded or behind the times.
Changing times means finding new methods of delivery.
Those with a deep passion for studying yoga, who have observed the trends with a degree of dismay, find it profoundly difficult to appreciate how it has come to pass that Rachel Brathen, aka Yogagirl, can leverage her millions of Instagram followers and bring hundreds to an event but Richard Freeman, perhaps one of the foremost teachers on the planet, only has thirteen people sign up for an appearance at a Yoga Journal NYC conference. It’s not a shocker that, just as Yoga Journal is announcing the dissolution of the conferences, they are launching a new series of online workshops featuring their most established teachers.
Certainly, to some degree the market is moving to the internet, and this is likely to continue as digital technology becomes even more ubiquitous than it already is. Online offerings will provide great value to many people who do not normally have access, as well as much-needed revenue to struggling teachers (that is, of course, those who are savvy enough to avoid getting fleeced by the portal monopolies). However, the analogue world of people actually coming together in the same room to inquire about their shared humanity and health, to foster deeper community and friendship, will inevitably become more in demand as the limitations of our virtual connections become more apparent.
What remains to be seen is how grassroots professionals will weather the uncertainty of these rapidly changing paradigms, and what new methods of organizing will need to emerge in order to deliver yoga education to those who are looking for something deeper from practice than a fleeting peak experience can offer.
p.s. While YJ is getting out of the conference game because there is no profit in it, independent players are using the model to create educational and community building experiences instead. For instance, the Accessible Yoga Conference NYC is happening May 19-21.
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.
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