Thursday, November 5, 2015

Yoga and Capitalism Throwdown

"Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it." 
~ Frantz Fanon

20 years sounds like a lifetime to my students, when they learn I’ve been practicing for 20 years, and teaching for 15. In the world of fly-by-night American yoga, that qualifies me as a senior teacher. We live in a society where yoga has been commercialized to the extent that, with zero experience, I could pay a few thousand dollars to be certified and teaching in less than a year.

But in the Iyengar tradition, a 20 year practice ain’t much. My teachers have been practicing for 35-40+ years, and BKS Iyengar himself had an 80 year practice when he passed away at age 95. They say you are as old as your years of practice, so you’re a 1 year-old if you’ve been practicing for a year, a 5 year-old if you’ve been practicing for 5 years.

That qualifies me as a college sophomore when it comes to the practice of yoga, whereas my mentors are middle-aged “professor”-level practitioners. Even so, in the city of Detroit, where Iyengar Yoga teachers are few and far between, I’m considered one of the most experienced teachers.

How ironic is it then, that the more I progress on the yoga path, the less money I earn? Through decades of study, I’ve gained a mid-level certification, one of a small handful in Michigan, yet I am earning less money than ever. What gives?

Capitalism just can’t capture or reflect the real value of certain practices and products. In Detroit, you can buy a house for $10,000 that in any other city would cost $100,000. Similarly, I may net $50 for teaching a workshop, that in other cities would net $500.

But you can’t squeeze water from a stone, and if I live in a city of 40% poverty, where many of my students are unemployed and underemployed, I can’t charge top dollar without alienating them. If I seek to meet my students where they are, and engage in an earnest exchange, I need to be at their level myself. Otherwise, teaching becomes a top-down gesture of charity, rather than solidarity.

I realize I could move out to the suburbs, where the money tends to be concentrated and where there is far less unemployment. I could receive market rates, and earn what my peers in other cities are making. But I didn’t move to Detroit to serve Bloomfield Hills. If I want to stay in Detroit and build kinship and offer healing to my friends and neighbors, I need to make financial compromises.

I make ends meet by taking brief forays into monied communities. Basically I use out-of-town gigs to subsidize my work in Detroit. I ask those who can pay more to pay more. I welcome alternative currencies, including barter and time exchange. I embrace voluntary simplicity, growing my own food, living rent-free by exchanging work, and expanding my range of do-it-yourself skills. I choose to spend 90% of my time and energy in my own community, which means accepting less money.

10 years ago, as a beginner teacher in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I would never have agreed to teach for the city recreation department for $25/class. I thought it was a travesty to receive $5/student for a studio class. Although I am a far more experienced teacher now, I settle for these terms. Sometimes, if a class is small, I even receive less than the minimum hourly wage. Financially, I’d be better off flipping burgers or washing dishes.

Why do I accept these (what many would consider demeaning or insulting) wages? In my heart of hearts, I know that my work is valuable and immeasurable. I’m following my call and doing my life’s work. What more can I ask of myself? I’m offering my very best to my community and doing what I believe I was born to do. I know a little about the body and mind, and how to heal ourselves through yoga, although there is so much more to learn. I offer my teachings to people like me—activists, artists, healers, farmers, community organizers, people pursuing their life’s work, friends and neighbors.

I don’t measure the value of my work through the lens of capitalism. That’s Donald Trump’s arena, not mine. Capitalism teaches scarcity. Community-based alternative economy teaches abundance. Despite teaching for less, I have always had shelter and have never missed a meal. I have time to practice yoga everyday, I contribute to the community by offering a healing practice. I have time to study, to play, spend time with friends, make music, write poetry, cook, and garden.

I have no need for vacations, because there is nothing to vacate. I balance my teaching schedule with time for rest and reflection. I don’t plan to retire, because yoga teaching is a life’s work that gets better and better with maturity. I have opportunities to travel, where I can offer my teachings to new communities.

Getting back to Fanon’s epigraph, what is the mission of our generation? One friend claims that the disease of our age is materialism. That is, we have lost touch with the nonmaterial soul and spirit forces in our midst. She has coined the phrase “materialism of thought,” to describe the hardening of ideas into schools, dogma, and partisanship, for financial or political gain, while ignoring the spiritual depth and complexity of our thoughts and actions.

Others would say we urgently need to dismantle capitalism, which has run its course, become more extreme, and has created an increasingly destructive gap between haves and have-nots, while wreaking life-threatening environmental havoc.

Almost everyone seems to agree that we need to create systems anew, that we must create a more sustainable, equitable world.

What, pray tell, does yoga have to do with any of this? If I must be the change that I am seeking, what does that look like for me as a yoga teacher? The answer will be different for each person, and cannot be dictated from above, but only from within.

When I first arrived in Detroit, I was determined to teach completely on a community gift basis. The plan was to gift my services to the community, who would in turn, give funds, goods, or services in exchange. In doing so, I hoped to re-establish yoga as a spiritual practice, rather than a commodity in a commerical world.

This experiment did not totally fulfil my hopes. Iyengar Yoga was so new for so many people that they did not know how to value it without a price tag. Because we have all been brainwashed by capitalism, the fact that I was essentially giving this service away meant, unconsciously to many, that it was worthless, like government cheese. In an era when absolutely anyone can buy a yoga teaching certificate, what I was offering was not, to the casual observer, any different from the free classes at the gym or at church, taught by the average 200-hour-trained teacher, even if I have more like 5000 hours of training under my belt. At the same time, it undermined the Iyengar Yoga teachers who were already teaching and charging in a traditional manner.

If I am not succeeding at being the yoga teacher to the masses, sustaining myself through the generosity of a broad community, I could instead sell my services to the highest bidders. This is the way capitalism works after all. Scarcity is created by charging a premium price to an elite audience, and creating status by courting unattainability and exclusivity.

In doing so, would I be betraying or fulfilling the mission of my generation? Frankly, I have no problem charging more for those who can pay more. What I will not do is give them more than I am already giving to everyone else. That is, those who can pay me $100/hour are encouraged to do so! Then, come to class like everyone else. I will continue to be the best teacher I can possibly be, to the monied as well as the un-monied. I will continue to give everything I’ve got, sharing the wisdom that I have received from the Iyengars, my Senior Teachers, and gleaned through my own practice.

What I will not do is differentiate my services depending on ability to pay. All my students receive the same exacting, thorough, deeply attentive group instruction.

Will you support me? I have not wavered in my determination to offer yoga to the widest possible population, while recognizing my own needs, without lapsing into scarcity mindset. Truthfully, I have not had health insurance since 2012, because it is unaffordable. I have no retirement fund. Thank God for Gigi, my ultra-reliable 2001 Honda Civic, which I do not plan to replace anytime soon. I’m still committed to the path of the yoga nun, badass as ever, I hope. Iyengar Yoga Detroit, in my humble opinion—and the opinion of our devoted students—the very best yoga studio in Detroit, is still struggling to become fully sustainable.

Can yoga be the means through which we can discover the mission of our generation, and fulfill it, and not betray it? We can demand no less.


Angelina Hong said...

Just rediscovered this little insightful blog of yours...and I love every bit of it. It seems like life lets us only meet every decade or so, but reading about your adventures in Detroit keeps me company in the meantime! One of these days I'd really like to sit down with you over a cup of kombucha and hear your two cents on the trippy Trump/Paris/Anchor Baby situation that currently occupies 2015 America. Daddy, Jackie and I may label ourselves as "conservatives," but even Rush Limbaugh would have to concede that you're one badass yoga nun ;)

Love you! You're (favorite, I'm assuming!) niece,


peggy kwisuk hong said...

so good to hear from you! i am in korea and we just spoke of you yesterday. thank you for your comments and hope to see you sometime soon. i would love to know what is happening in your life. much love.