Real Life: Yoga loses its balance
Disagreements over poses, trademarks, teaching methods -- while yoga continues to grow in popularity, at the same time it's struggling to come to terms with its commercial side
Yoga teacher Lisa Wilkinson is tense. Since 2004 she has offered hot yoga classes at The Elbow Room in Dublin's Stoneybatter (www.the-elbowroom.com).
Now she has discovered that the trademark for 'hot yoga' in Ireland was registered last year by a Galway studio.
The decision leaves Wilkinson and many other Irish yoga studios in a tricky legal position. By continuing to advertise hot yoga classes - in which students do yoga poses in specially heated rooms - they are potentially infringing the trademark held by Tracey O'Mahoney of Galway Hot Yoga (www.hotyoga.ie).
Wilkinson, like many other teachers, is annoyed that the trademark was ever awarded.
"Allowing a term like hot yoga to become a trademark is like making 'hot tea' a trademark," says Wilkinson. "Hot yoga has been really popular for years in the US and I've been offering it in Ireland for the last six years. There's nothing unique about it. The room is hot and that's all."
But it's not just Wilkinson and her students who are getting hot and bothered about yoga these days. Irish trademark disputes are the least of it. Throughout the yoga world, tempers are fraying over what many see as the rampant commercialisation of what is supposed to be a spiritual discipline.
The more popular yoga has become, the more money there is to be made. Yoga is a multibillion dollar industry and, despite the recession, it's getting bigger every year.
Americans spend an estimated $5.7bn (€4.25bn) a year on yoga products, 87pc more than they spent in 2004. All the big-name clothing brands have introduced, or are about to introduce, a yoga range. New yoga companies are founded almost weekly, flogging everything from so-called high-performance mats to yoga water bottles costing €15 a pop.
Judith Hanson, founder of the influential magazine 'Yoga Journal', recently lambasted the publication for featuring pictures of naked women advertising yoga socks.
"These pictures do not teach the viewer about yoga practice or themselves. They aren't even about the celebration of the beauty of the human body or the beauty of the poses, which I support. These ads are just about selling a product," she wrote.
Yoga marketing reached a frenzy recently with the release of the movie 'Eat, Pray, Love', in which Julia Roberts starred. In it, she discovers inner peace through yoga while wearing what are now the most fashionable yoga brands. Merchandising included necklaces, prayer beads, tea and candles, all flogged on the Home Shopping Network in a 72-hour selling marathon.
Even 'Playboy' magazine has gotten in on the act, flogging a DVD of a naked playmate doing yoga poses. Eminent Hindu statesman Rajan Zed has pleaded with the publishing conglomerate to stop, pointing out that yoga is a revered system in Hindu philosophy. But so far, his words have fallen on deaf ears.
Meanwhile, legal spats are routine. Bikram yoga, a form of hot yoga founded by Bikram Choudury, has aggressively pursued hot yoga teachers through the courts in other jurisdictions. He has also attempted to copyright yoga poses but the Indian government has reacted by creating a database of poses and declaring them the property of the people of India.
At The Yoga Room in Ballsbridge, Dublin (www.yoga.ie) -- another studio offering hot yoga -- founder Ciara Cronin says that the popularity of yoga makes a commercial approach inevitable.
"It used to be mostly a cash business with teachers giving classes in local halls and community centres. Now we have dedicated studios and that costs money. We have to get insurance, for example. So we need to take a more business-like approach."
Aside from classes, The Yoga Room sells a range of yoga clothes and accessories, including the 'Vogue'-featured clothing range Om Girl, as seen on singer Cher and actress Helen Hunt. The tops alone cost between €50 and €60.
"I suppose my students want to buy into the yoga lifestyle," she says. "Hopefully, they'll keep doing yoga and find more meaning," she adds.
It isn't a big part of her business but it's clearly one which she and presumably some of her students enjoy. "Look, girls like wearing nice clothes," she says.
"But money isn't my primary concern. I care for the individual. I care for their soul."
Anusara yoga is among the styles taught at The Yoga Room. It's one of the fastest growing schools and its founder, Texan-born John Friend, has attracted criticism for taking an unashamedly commercial approach to enlightenment.
Anusara Inc makes a profit of $2m (€1.49m) a year and, according to its latest prospectus, revenue could double by 2012. Friend owns it outright and pays himself $100,000 (€74,750) a year, hardly a fortune by corporate American standards, but serious money for a yoga teacher.
According to one reviewer, Friend's 'open heart' style of yoga is influenced as much from Dale Carnegie's uniquely American style of self-improvement as it is from ancient yoga texts. With his global 'Melt your heart, blow your mind' tours, he's also been compared to big-name American evangelical preachers.
Michael Ryan, an Anusara teacher in Ireland (www.michaelryan yoga.com), is happy to admit that Friend is a shrewd businessman.
"I don't see anything wrong with living an affluent lifestyle. I realise that the commercialisation of yoga is a tricky area. There are definitely people who will take advantage. But I genuinely believe that John (Friend) is an enlightened being."
Ryan has taught yoga for 10 years and, like many within the Irish yoga community, is happy to see it become more popular.
"The bigger yoga gets the better," he says. "Even Bikram. People start with Bikram and then move on to another type of yoga. It serves a purpose.
"I think we all need to live and let live a little. We're so obsessed with 'this is right, this is wrong'. We all want to keep it pure but it's not about pointing fingers. If you get caught up in that you get angry inside. It's hardening."
While the yoga world seems a little fractious these days, it's strangely nothing new. Before starting out on his own, Friend held a senior position in the Iyengar yoga organisation. Iyengar and Ashtanga are both Indian-originated schools that have become popular in the west.
Their respective founders, BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, shared the same teacher when they were young but they were famously at odds later in life over the right way to practise yoga. (They settled their differences and were pictured together before the death of Pattabhi Jois last year.)
In Phibsboro, on Dublin's north side, Margaret Cashman has just opened a new Iyengar yoga studio (www.iyoga.ie). Like other teachers, she is pleased by the increasing popularity of yoga but admits some of the excesses make her wince.
"You can become fixated on this alternative view of yoga where you go off into the mountains. But the ancient texts make it clear that practitioners should take part in daily life.
"That said, if you come to yoga in a very superficial way -- with the idea that you can buy it -- you're only going to get superficial benefits. What is available from yoga is so deep and so broad, you don't want to miss out on that," she says.
Iyengar is still regarded as one of the strictest schools of yoga, particularly when it comes to its teaching programme. Iyengar-certified teachers are protected by trademark and the organisation takes action against other teachers who describe themselves as Iyengar-trained.
Cashman makes no apology for the way the Iyengar organisation polices its teaching. "It's a very good system of teaching and I think that's really important. There's a wealth of knowledge and experience there. I think that's particularly important as more people set themselves up as yoga teachers," she says.
As for trademarks on postures or on the term 'hot yoga', she believes that's "nonsense". "It's like Gordon Ramsay trying to patent how to make an omelette."
O'Mahoney, the owner of the Irish hot yoga trademark, did not want to comment for this article. According to testimonials on her website, students enjoy her classes and find them beneficial.
Yoga is a growing business in Ireland. Finding a balance between making money and being true to its spiritual quest will be increasingly difficult here, as it is proving elsewhere. But then yoga is all about tricky balancing acts.