The Pose and the Machine (part 1)

This week, as I perused my e-mail and regular news reading, Google, Yahoo and the New York Times’ algorithms apparently agreed that I would be interested in SoulPose, an outdoor yoga “Freakin. Awesome. Yoga. Party” that’s happening in Waltham at the end of this week.  (note to marketing people, Waltham is not Boston.  Lovely in it’s own right, but half an hour away with no traffic, 90 minutes away at rush hour,  and a different vibe.  We provincial Bostonians take that kind of shit personally)  Do some yoga, get some swag, party.  Hmmm….

Now I’ve been part of various big yoga events, as participant, teacher and other.  Just this month I was an acro performer at a “yoga rave” that was a lot of fun and got some press.  I’ve gladly assisted and donated to Yoga Reaches Out, a local yoga fundraiser that has gotten big and done some big things, and taught and participated in other fundraisers, rock star classes and the like.  And while I haven’t loved everything about every (or any, actually) event, I’m generally on board.  This one, however, feels weird.

For one thing, it seems to come out of nowhere, and it’s not attached to any studio, or Yoga Journal, or, well, anything, it seems.  Wanderlust, for all its flaws, started as an idea of a couple of brilliant and ambitious yoga teachers in New York City, and uses lots of teachers prominent and well regarded in the regions where they camp out.  YRO (Yoga Reaches Out) has had every “Best of Boston” in recent memory, and also bring a big, established national name.  But for SoulPose, I’m supposed to drop twice or more my usual class fee to take with… who, exactly?

Needless to say, I’m not going.  But I point it out because I think SoulPose highlights some of the most pernicious trends that are affecting yoga today:

  1. Big, faceless corporate entities entering what has been a mom-and-pop business.  Until three years ago, Boston was a collection of entirely local, entrepreneurial studios, where one or two people had a big dream and made it happen.  It wasn’t (isn’t) perfect, but it’s pretty sincere.  Three years ago, Core Power, the biggest yoga chain in the country, planted its flag here*, and is growing, and last week, confirming a year’s worth of rumors, Yogaworks, the other 500 pound gorilla of the yoga world, followed suit, buying out Back Bay Yoga and it’s baby Sweat and Soul.  (more on that later)

It turns out (thanks to my colleague Sher Breen for doing the legwork), SoulPose is the brainchild of the company that brings you Color Runs, the exciting but somewhat dodgy 5K plus paint that have popped up all over the country.  Yoga as color run… icky, maybe.  Profitable?  They sure think so.

2. I find it interesting that Soulpose believes like they can sell the event without telling us who the teacher is.  These big events, like the yoga scene at large, have run as cults of personality.  Put a big prominent sexy headliner on the top of the bill and the masses will come (see the recent Lola Tour via Yogadork).  Soulpose seems to think that the event, and “yoga” writ large, is enough.  I think this is a shift worth considering.

First, the cynic speaks- the architects of this event, who I think are no fools, think that the lure of “yoga” and yoga stuff (a swag bag is heavily marketed for this event) are enough to pull people to the event.  But what kind of yoga are we getting? How do I know if the person leading class is even competent to lead a safe class?  How do they teach, who did they study with, how do they think about the body?  Why should I trust them?  (Clearly, I don’t.)

Now the optimist- as people who know or follow me know, I am a huge fan of the movement inside of yoga to dissect, deconstruct and upend the norms of what we’re now calling modern postural yoga, encapsulated best by Matthew Remski and his “What Are We Doing in Asana” project.  This movement is, among other things, casting a healthy skepticism on the “guru complex”, the dangerous symbiotic relationship between charismatic teachers and the students who fall into their sway and are often exploited by them.  Maybe Soulpose, which markets an event without a teacher, is a positive sign, that we can bring big groups of people to yoga without a big guru and all the drama that goes along with him/her.  (though, let’s be real, the biggest drama is always him.)

3. Yoga as event rather than simply as practice.  This is less a development than an evolution.  No doubt that as yoga grew studios anchored their schedule around “it” classes, where the combination of time spot and popular teacher would usually pack the house.  Likewise when a big guest teacher came through, it was a thing- part of the fun of taking with Ana Forrest or Shiva Rea or whomever is knowing I like who I rarely see in the hubbub of life.  I suppose it was only a matter of time before this was further refracted into a “yoga party”, with as much emphasis on the party as on the yoga.

And hey, if once and awhile you want to take your yoga into these bigger stages, I’m all for it.  But- and this is my fear- if this trend of yoga events means people are just chasing high after high from the circumstances rather than the work, well then we’ve turned yoga into a “Mad Men” sales pitch, rather than a real practice with peaks and valleys and divots (and divots).

Full disclosure- over the past two years my practice has been moving in two directions simultaneously.  One, I’m training to do the hard and interesting things that being an AcroYoga base requires- handstands, hand-to-hand (which I’m getting slowly) and standing basing (which I’m not sure I’ll ever get).  That requires certain skills, which requires certain work.  Two, I’m really interested in the idea of novel functional movement, drawing in different ways from Tom Myers, Katy Bowman, Aaron Cantor and Ido Portal.  If you follow me on Instagram, I’ll be documenting some of my experiments, basically playing with functional range of movement, creating (or stealing) movements and games that play with range of movement and mobility.  Because to me, it’s fun.  But these are not things that translate easily into drop-in classes or large-scale events.  I’m fortunate to have employers that let me experiment rather than follow a script, and students who will at least indulge, and often encourage my curiosity.  But I don’t think it’s an approach that lends itself to teaching at SoulPose, at least not yet.  (and maybe not ever)

That is the long way of saying- my practice at this moment is not particularly interested in “event” classes on big estates.  Should yours be?  I guess it goes back to the question I ask myself most days, and I hope mature practitioners will- what are you practicing FOR?  Is a swag bag enough?

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