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Ethan Nichtern Headshot

The Commodification of Yoga: The Perfect, the Good and the Spiritual

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The New York Times Magazine reporter Mimi Swarz recently did a major profile on Anusara yoga founder John Friend. They say all press is good press. I hope that's true and my guess is it will be. Beyond Anusara, which receives at least some positive coverage in the article, the implicit framing of the piece amounts to a hit-job on market-based spiritual enterprises in America in general. It highlights, above all else, the deep and subtle culture of hypocrisy that wellness teachers -- yoga, Buddhist and otherwise -- encounter when bringing a service deemed as "spiritual" into a capitalist economy. Among the strange assertions in the article are implications that John Friend runs a cult, and is a greedy mogul who has turned yoga into a business. The backup for these assertions? Well, his students love him and he pays himself a salary of slightly less than $100,000 per year.

So let's get this straight: one of the most popular yoga teachers in the world, who has helped bring greater health and well-being to thousands of people, earns a salary that is a fraction of what a secretary makes at Goldman Sachs, and that's a bad thing? Well yes, actually, it is. He should be paid more. So should all teachers who have dedicated their life to helping others along a path, even if they have some personal issues. I have no idea if John Friend has personal issues, but my guess is that he is, in fact, human.

Is Mr. Friend's community a little bit cultish? I really don't know. Many of my friends love Anusara. A few have gotten a weird vibe from the community. So what? That's par for the course, and could be said for any genuine community of mind/body well-being, certainly my own Shambhala meditation community. But let's pretend the worst is true (it's not); let's pretend John Friend shepherds a bunch of mindless followers to the asana slaughter. Is this cult, in scope or intensity, anything close to the cult of personality which we call American celebrity culture? Why do we hold some good but flawed entities up to impossible ethical standards, and hold other profit-driven entities up to no standards at all? Hypocrisy much?

Imagine, for just a moment, if rapper Jay-Z had to face the same level of ethical scrutiny in his latest Times review for his lyrics ("I'm not a businessman/ I'm a business, man!/ Let me handle my business, damn!") that Mr. Friend had to face from the Times reporter who covered him. If so, the Times piece on the self proclaimed J-Hova would've been far less rosie and worshipful. Of course, because yoga is framed as "spiritual," and because Jay-Z is a "business, man," we keep on dancing to the beat, while we hold "spiritual" teachers and gurus to a level of perfection which no mortal could ever attain. The Times and our whole culture seem to buy into this false dichotomy hook, line and sinker.

Yes, there have been some instances of corruption in the Western manifestations of "spiritual" traditions, and the vague rumors of foul play have been enough to turn countless students off to the wealth that these traditions offer. John Friend makes this point and other great points in his rebuttal to the Times piece over at Elephant Journal. But these instances are rare. More often than not, if you take up a practice in any of these mind/body traditions and pursue it genuinely, you will find something incredibly rare in our culture: fairly selfless teachers who are really there to help and serve with useful practices and life tools, and communities of like-minded people doing their best to bring more peace and health to themselves and others. Unfortunately, we are just addicted to the bad news, aren't we?

Maybe those of us who are interested in promoting mind/body wellness and who teach in the fields of yoga, meditation, Buddhism, or any form of holistic wellness should stop using the word "spiritual" altogether. There is no way to bring a "spiritual" service into a market economy -- the only avenue to reach a wide audience in the age of multinational capitalism -- without it facing an insane level of unfair scrutiny. Simply put, in today's day and age, spirituality is bad branding.

The root of this hypocrisy is something which the founder of the Shambhala tradition, Chogyam Trungpa (an amazing teacher not without imperfection) was quite savvy about. It has to do with our psychological tendency in contemporary culture (not just the West) to create a false dichotomy between our spiritual and secular selves, as well as different expectations for these parts of our life. Note that this has nothing to do with freedom of religion or separation of church and state. It has to do with our tendency to compartmentalize our life and our work into areas where the appearance of ethical behavior is expected (the spiritual), and those in which unethical, mindless, selfish behavior are allowed and even cherished (the secular, business or entertainment). Fundamentally, this creates a whole society of human beings with split-personality disorder, a nation of people pointing critical fingers in all the wrong places, while worshiping the false prophets of materialism.

In such a world, the perfect is the enemy of the good, and the "spiritual," unwittingly, becomes the enemy of enacting compassion in the real world. Meanwhile, someone who proudly stands for absolutely nothing is coronated as king. After all, it's a business, man.

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