Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Yoganomics 101: Save-Asana and the Law of Diminishing Returns

Yoga is a multi-million dollar business in the United States, and Pittsburgh, PA, home of steel workers and sports teams with the drive of burnished steel, has followed suit. Like star safety Troy Polamalu blazing his way down the football field, yoga has taken the city by storm.

There are currently six yoga studios within a ten-minute radius on Pittsburgh’s East End alone and many others throughout the rest of the city. This is big business--each promises something a little different to would-be clientele: increased endurance and vitality, weight loss, detoxification, a more relaxed mind--even the elusive ‘yoga butt’ guaranteed to turn heads during spring break in Cabo. (Don’t laugh. Well-sculpted derrieres are the subject of many a yogi joke during class.) Many also offer boutiques stocked with accoutrements of the well-heeled yogi: designer workout clothing, mats, props, baby clothing, and aromatherapy sprays.

Yoga purists decry the commercialization which has accompanied yoga practice in recent years. This is understandable.The ability to purchase an expensive necklace, for example, does not place one on the road to enlightenment. All one really needs for a yoga practice is a body, some clothing and a patch of floor or grass.

Recently, two studio chains in the area have adopted a pay-as-you-wish pricing scheme. On the surface, this would seem an ultimately populist stance, enabling all to enjoy affordable yoga and bringing in students who could not normally afford the $14 per class drop-in fee.

But there is a darker side.

In the long run, this arrangement will be just as damaging to the general ethos of yoga as an exorbitant per class price tag. By driving price into the ground, studios garner a lot of bad karma. First, there will be overcrowding. (I have attended classes so crowded students bump their neighbor’s behinds when coming up from Prasarita Padottanasana). Second: there is a lack of personal attention from the instructor. This is especially dangerous for beginners, who are still learning the poses and may push themselves beyond their body’s comfort level. And, third: in the case of injury, less liability insurance is required for the studio with no set pricing scheme.

This arrangement also damages yoga’s reciprocal student-teacher relationship. The practice becomes a sweat shop, literally, a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am spiritual experience, where as many people are run through as quickly as possible. Ethical questions abound. Is this a business? A public service enterprise? The teacher becomes a little like a drill sargeant wearing trendy $90 designer pants from the studio. Gone are the days of self-study and introspection which are definitely a hallmark of yoga.

In ancient India, yoga was practiced on the bare floor or a mat, by a practicioner clad in the most simple of garments, often a dhoti or cotton cloth. The student is led by a guru, or master. Money did not always change hands in this transaction; instead the exchange is rooted in the theory of ‘kundalini’, a concept which refers to an energy exchange: the teacher expends time and effort in teaching and nurturing a student’s practice. The student, if he is able (students were always male back then), reciprocates in some way--monetarily, or through a donation of time, perhaps assisting the teacher throughout the day. Teachers who freely give of their time and energy to the community are assisted by students to live a decently comfortable lifestyle.

Let’s get real here. We teachers do live in a market economy where cold hard cash, rather than smiles and good vibes, are the driving engines of commerce. We adapt a centuries-old art form (it really is an art) for a stress-ridden, harried modern lifestyle. Teaching yoga can require significant physical, mental and emotional energy on the part of the teacher. People come in all shapes, sizes, varieties and mental dispositions and teaching a class can be a delicate balancing act.

We hope students will place a monetary value on class and donate, but we cannot be certain enough to stake our livelihoods upon it. It is a cardinal rule of business to never expect that a customer (or client or student) will act as you would act. There is an assumption that yoga students will value their experience, recognize the particular brand of the studio and donate to the best of their ability. But, the fact remains: people like to get a good deal when they can--pure and simple. This is human psychology, neither good nor bad. Just how it is.

Relatively speaking, Pittsburgh’s East End is an affluent community. Classes during traditional 9-5 work hours are often packed, which indicates that many can afford not to work or have flexible schedules. Many of the students who attend yoga class here are clad in $90 yoga pants and $50 tank tops. They cover their mats with $50 super-absorbent towels and drive shiny SUVs. By changing the payment scale to donation-based yoga (in an area with a largely upscale financial demographic), studio owners place their teachers in a pickle, perhaps destroying the historical idea of give-and-take which has been part of a yogic spirituality for millennia.

In this way, a student becomes entitled to receive and reciprocity never enters into the equation. It is modernism at its finest but does not promote the idea of spiritual growth or exchange which is yoga’s bedrock. Psychologists often tell us that the most valuable things are those for which we have had to give something up.

(Again, I do not wish to impugn the idea of teaching volunteer or affordable donation-based classes in a home, place of worship or another community space-IF it is the teacher’s decision to do so ( rather than a decision made by his or her studio owner/employer.) This is a wonderful way for a teacher to share his or her practice with the community.
Most teachers are not money grubbers. In the yoga world, money is a tricky thing. Most instructors, whether full or part-time, possess a certain degree of selflessness. We love what we do, but we need to make a living just like many of our students, for whom class serves as a welcome respite from the stresses of the workday.

In America, it is fundamentally accepted that accountants, plumbers, electricians, hair stylists, et cetera, should be financially compensated for their time. It is ludicrous to suggest a simple smile and good vibes as renumeration for a job well done! (The mental picture of smiling and namaste-ing to the plumber who recently fished a shampoo bottle out of my bathroom sink! Or smiling and namaste-ing to my accountant during tax time!)

Yoga-teaching is a skill which costs time and can be expensive to acquire. Training programs run several thousand dollars and require at least 200 or 300 hours of class, study and practice teaching. To retain certification, teachers are required to enroll in workshops with master teachers. Fees for these workshops can run up to several hundred dollars for a weekend, plus travel expenses. Teachers are rarely subsidized by their employers for these expenses.

It is my belief that many a yoga instructor has been reluctant to ask for adequate compensation by an employer because he or she fears doing so will somehow make him or her seem less than ‘yogic’ by fixating on the mundane realities of this world, like rent and groceries. Unfortunately, some employers will attempt to exploit this mentality, driving teaching prices far into the ground. As a yoga teacher, it is not uncommon to encounter similar types of scenarios as one would encounter in the corporate world.

While I never expected to become rich doing this, I had expected to be able to cover a few extra bills. My own journey into the business of yoga has, most certainly, been an eye-opening experience. I have had joyful connections to many students, and the opportunity to share my love of the practice, and a chance to deepen my own practice.

In my two years of teaching, I have also experienced my own share of frustration.

I signed my first contract for a studio in my area. I would be teaching a 1.25 hour class at five dollars per student. I was assured, after an initial trial period, when I was paid $20 per class (a relative fortune), that my class sizes would increase beyond one or two students, but it never did. While class brought me a wonderful emotional pay-off, it also brought me an average of $2.50 an hour, considering I opened the studio up early and stayed late.

After four months, I still hadn’t received a paycheck or any more students.

When I just couldn’t be selfless any more, I explained to the owner the situation, via e-mail, that I would be looking for another job. She replied that I was in breach of my contract and so unreliable an employee (I had sent out a sub request once, a few days early, when I learned out-of-town family would be visiting that evening) that I should never dare to ask her for a recommendation for any future yoga jobs. Shortly after I quit, I received my check for my entire time of employment: $100.

I never expected to become rich when I became an instructor almost two years ago, and would probably vouch for many of my colleagues as well. ( And, again, I don’t wish to impugn the virtue of voluntarily teaching, when the teacher has made the decision to do so himself or herself.) But, come on, cut us a break!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Perfect Storm

According to those who keep such records, this has been deemed the wintriest winter month since 1880. It has been called "Snowpacalypse", "Snowmaggedon" and "Snowtastrophe."

The first snowstorm was fun--lines at the grocery for bread, milk and toilet paper and dire prognostications of tv weatherman pointing towards a coalescing mound of doom, a digital mound marked "potentially paralyzing" extending from Western Pennsylvania through Philly, Baltimore and the DC area.

When all was said and done that first Saturday afternoon, it was impossible to find one's automobile underneath huge snowmounds, but, damn it, was it fun. I emerged midday to find my normally busy Pittsburgh street had undertaken the quiet timbre of a zombie film, just before attack--in what once was a busy shopping street, now an eerie silence. Soon people emerged shellshocked yet smiling--the shambling masses began to saunter down the road, a crazy gleam in the eye, a heavy duty ice shovel in the hand. Somebody once described George Romero's filming of "Night of the Living Dead" in nearby Monroeville in much the same vein.

Then the sun came out, a covenant that God had not abandoned his people. Things got more lively. With stores and shops closed, my street would soon morph from Romero to Rockwell, neighbor greeting neighbor, amateur photographrs everywhere. Couples emerged in their best snowclothes, smiling and drinking hot chocolate. Parents pulled kids on sleds. Groups of South Asian students, for whom it was the first snowfall, united to build a snowman in front of an apartment complex. In a moment ripe with comic potential, an urban cross-country skiier emerged in the middle of the road, sun glinting off his glasses like this was a resort street in a chic Colorado ski town.

"Hello, hello!" Neighbor greeted neighbor. We didn't realize how long things were gonna be like this.

Now, I love snow. And I really don't mind cold, crisp weather either. Winter is a season of introspection, a time for rest and growth, for the kind of turning-inward that leads to spiritual growth and maturity. During cold weather micro-organisms gear up in the soil, and contribute to a hearty growing season in the spring and summer It also makes it that much better when the first little crocuses of spring pop their heads above ground. I think we tend to forget that sort of thing in the west; we want everything here and now.

But, let's be honest here, cabin fever can also make one absolutely f@#king crazy, especially when trying to extricate a vehicle from three feet of packed snow and ice, which should, seriously, become a sport in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. The first time, I did so with a dustpan and garden rake, the second time with a bucket and dishpan, until a cute guy stopped to help me shovel out, apparently coming back from the airport after flying in from Los Angeles. Public service announcement to the men of Pittsburgh: if you find yourself single during a blizzard of Biblical proportions, this is a very, very, very good way to meet ladies! If I were a dude, I would be wondering around with a shovel and de-icer. Seriously.

The snow and ice lends a sort of ridiculousness to daily endeavors. Ultimately, we are reminded that Mother Nature ultimately trumps our desire to get everything we want in there here and now. This is especially apparent in the fine art of operating a motor car on an intersection which possesses the gradient of a Minnesotan ice-fishing lake, such as the one in front of my apartment. This should be another Olympic sport, incidentally. Every five minutes someone gets stuck. (And then they're, like, "Well, I was just going to Target, and..." WHEN THERE'S A BLIZZARD STAY THE F@#K AWAY FROM TARGET!!) When people tire of honking in vain, they push the offending car. Then the helpers slip on the ice and fly up, Three Stooges-like, into the air, landing on their backs. There is much screaming and swearing and even more honking. Then the UPS truck gets stranded on the ice. (The dead will rise and the USPS, FedEx and UPS will continue to make their deliveries.)

The snow is melting now, and things are beginning, less and less, to resemble feudal times. My mother visited after the first blizzard and was amazed to see cars plunged into snowbacks, footprints in snow as walking paths. At just the right moment, somebody actually leaned out an apartment window and poured a bucket of water onto the pavement, like a slop bucket.
Snowmen of all shapes, sizes and sartorial savvy linger over the streetscape, although they are now mellllttiingg. A tall cyclops snowman in front of a tattoo parlor, several Steelers snowmen and my favorite, a beer-swilling, coffee-drinking little guy outside of a sports bar. He wears a visor and sports Mardi Gras beads. At one point, he had been made anatomically correct through the use of a broom handle, although someone soon corrected this--it was a family neighborhood, after all.

(To be continued...)