Tag Archives: yoga business

Crime of the Century

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As the 21st century has unspooled yoga has increasingly taken on the after look in a before and after crime-scene photo. One hundred years ago it looked like a lot of class. Fifty years ago it got a makeover and looked better than ever. Today it looks like something dolled up to be better seen from a distance of a hundred years.

Yoga used to have something to do with simplicity and self-discipline, non-attachment, and the spiritual life. Hatha practice and karma in the world were means to an end, steps on the way to an expanding awareness. It had more to do with what went on off the mat, especially in your head, than the asana postures done on it.

“It’s been less than fifty years since the first group yoga class happened, but in that short time the content of those classes has veered so far off course that it falls well outside of even the most open and generous definitions of yoga practice,” wrote American Yoga School founder James Brown in ‘The Colossal Failure of Modern Yoga’.

In many respects awareness isn’t what it’s about anymore. It’s about exercise classes with folks all doing the same thing. It’s about a little bit of ad hoc spirituality and a lot of anatomical science. It’s about whatever works for me, never mind the past fifty centuries.

Sometimes it seems like modern yoga can’t get any respect, especially since it’s gone the way of mass merchandising, sticker shock sticky mats neat-o clothes to match cutting dreams down to size, the butter and egg man Bikram Choudhury, and the bigness of big events at big venues.

However, if you’re flying out to Burning Man, don’t bother bringing yoga attire, since loincloths and hot pants are more appropriate at the 70,000-man-and-woman festival.

There isn’t anything simple about organizing thousands of yogis to flip up on their heads at the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland or Times Square in New York City. It takes organizational skills and business smarts to assemble sound systems, food trucks, and port-a-potty’s.

Om’s and namaste’s ain’t going to get it done.

While the postmodern world streams ahead, the shape of yoga tradition has shifted, so that a CGI vision of the practice has morphed the once flesh-and-blood story to the flat screen. The new yoga body and new yoga lifestyle have become the new Truman Show.

Once people came to the practice looking like they’d just climbed out of a wreck. They were hungry as schoolboys. Now they come in Lexus SUV’s. They’ve had their grass-fed beef brisket sandwich and kale salad and aren’t hungry, at least not in the same way.

Even meditation, which was once a quiet practice meant to make silence even more silent, has become a for-profit enterprise, sold as a balm for the wailings of the wealthy. They empty their heads for an hour-or-so, making like a church collection plate on a Wednesday morning, and once refreshed it’s back to business as usual.

There is a business branch office of yoga, known as Padmini Vidya, which is devoted to one purpose, which is making money. It’s the yoga of pleasure and prosperity. “It is said that people who rapidly amass enormous wealth must have been yogis in previous lives who devoted themselves single-mindedly to Padmini Vidya,” Linda Johnsen wrote in ‘Be Wealthy, Be Wise: Yoga’s Guide to Prosperity’.

Although it’s true that there’s always some good in everybody, there is often only a little in those who never have enough. There’s hardly ever any sympathy in their smiles, like they’ve never forgiven anyone for anything.

It’s as though yoga has become an ever-smaller rowboat bouncing around in a squall while cruise ships sail in their own tranquil seas. Some cruise lines, such as Radisson Seven Seas, offer yogic-centric voyages starting at $2,987.00 a person, double occupancy only and no refunds.

After stretching and sweating on the mat, the ship’s four restaurants, where waiters and wine stewards outnumber passengers two to one, are a gangplank to champagne buckets and plates of sea bass. “As a luxury yogi I would never neglect dinner, indulging in everything,” wrote John Capouya, author of Real Men Do Yoga, in Travel and Leisure.

The travel destination of yoga used to be the union of oneself with the true self, which is why the word yoga is defined as union. It wasn’t the largely non-union staffed Royal Carnival dropping anchor in the Bahamas. It wasn’t a luxury. It was a necessity.

But, what used to be one man’s meat and potatoes is now another man’s indulging in everything. The sense of yoga’s purpose can go dark under more than a tropical moon, subsumed by the tastiness of a hundred-foot-long buffet spread. Just like yoga, luxury is a state of mind, although bloat can be a problem.

Yoga was once something that meant everything to somebody. Now it means anything to everybody, so long as the teacher is groovy and the soundtrack is rocking, or mellow, as the case may be. The catch-all phrase “It’s All Yoga” has become commonplace to the extent that it has become meaningless.

It’s like reaching for a life preserver and grabbing liquid nothing.

“The problem is that it is framed within a paradigm of self-improvement,” said Ed Conley, a meditation teacher in Blackstone, Virginia. Before posture practice became the rage the subtle body, not the mechanical body, was the rage. The transformation of yoga to YogaWorks is the transformation of a series of small things leading to equilibrium to The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Yoga once had a longing at the heart of it, a mystery no one lived long enough to educe or forget, a reckoning of the right stuff the man and woman on the mat tried to find for themselves. It wasn’t conjuring up a laundry list of getting from ineffective to effective, which can be just another way of losing your way slowly.

“It has become space and time without the black hole,” said Mr. Conley.

Back in the day yogis slept on beds of nails, walked barefoot on hot coals, and even endured being buried alive. They meditated on mountaintops. They were loner mendicants who might or might not have had a ministry. Joining up with them was like hitching a hayride with Frankenstein.

It was a hard-core commitment, not a stop on the side of the road for a soft cone. Yoga was a risky business practiced by dodgy people. It was impossible to discourage them. They didn’t give a damn what anybody said. Anything could happen.

Today’s state-of-the-art yogis are bendy charming plausible entrepreneurs flying in jet liners to retreats at sunny resorts and arriving at Estes Park in Caddy SUV’s. The practice they preach is like a never opened box of razors, gussied up and bloodless. The business has got the face of an angel and a heart of silver dollars

Lady Gaga performs what looks like yoga, tattooed and hairless, in the nude, videotapes the antics, and posts the bright and flashy for one and all.

The hole at the heart of yoga is that it has been buffed polished sparkled and turned into a commodity. It’s not about anybody anymore. It’s on the grocery shelf for everybody, a sensible product packaged by sensible people for sensible consumers.

Once upon a time it was Hanuman, a great big daring jump into a burning sky, but now it’s a dancing monkey at the beck and call of an organ grinder. Progress isn’t possible without change, although that doesn’t necessarily mean historical revisionism is the lens back to the future. Sometimes it’s best to get a second opinion of the fast forward dreams you’re trying to make come true.

“Teachers tell their students all about the magical things that happen when you do as they say,” said James Brown of American Yoga.

It’s meant to make you roll over on your back with your paws in the air while your belly gets rubbed. “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters,” warned Bob Dylan.

The black hole at the heart of yoga is the self.

In the workaday world the biggest mistake you can make is thinking you know who you are. It uses up the future. In the yoga world the biggest mistake you can make is thinking you can’t find out who you are. It leaves you teetering between the nothing that isn’t there and the nothing that is.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali propose that the body mind senses are not the self. The reason is that the body, mind, and senses all change over time. Although everyone has aspects of their lives that change in the ebb and flow, what the Sutras call the guide, the inner voice, or the true self, is unchanging.

“The most important relationship you will ever have is your relationship with the self,“ wrote Kate Holcomb, founder of the Healing Yoga Foundation, in ‘How to See Your True Self’.

Yoga classes are full of relationships, with the receptionist, the teacher, and everyone else in the class. Anyone can create or re-create themselves in the yoga room. No one can find themselves. There’s always somebody else telling you what to do. There’s always mind chatter as you peek through your legs in down dog at the person behind you. There’s always somebody snoring in corpse pose.

The true self is a loner. It’s not a version of somebody else. “Be that self which one truly is,” said the existentialist Soren Kierkegaard. It’s when you’re alone that you look at things differently than other people. Who finds their true self when they’re mashed up in the mosh pit? Everyone needs to be left alone when they’re lonely. It’s only when someone is most solitary that they are most exceptional, most themselves.

Nobody is ever lonely in a yoga exercise class, or eating a pastina salad, for that matter, because they both require so much attention to detail. Yoga is about a fire in the belly, but you can’t fill yourself up until you empty yourself out. Everyone breathes in yoga classes, although there’s never a minute to catch your breath in class because it’s so busy.

No man or woman can be unmistakable, can be their clear-cut self, can go to a place they’ve never been, if they tag along with the crowd. It’s been said that the loneliest place to be is lost in a crowd, like a case of mistaken identity, another face in the House of Mirrors. It’s like being alone without being alone.

In the postmodern 21st century many people think the past is like the scene of a crime, that there’s nothing left to find there. What matters are now the next now and the one after that.  But, it always catches up with you, like shoes that are a half-size too small. Sometimes it’s called karma, which can be a pair of tight shoes, cement shoes.

There aren’t many places to find your body mind spirit in the world as we know it. A good place might be wherever you are, because no matter where you go, there you are. A better place might be yoga, since that’s what the practice has always been about. The best place is probably what the Yoga Sutras call the true self. If you’re not there you’re not anywhere, not really all in.

“When the agitations of the mind are under control,” according to Patanjali, “it has the power of becoming whatever form is presented, the knower, the act of knowing, and what is known.” There is no ghost in the machine. The way in which yoga has been sliced and diced in the past fifty years is not the answer, assuming there is one.

Which begs the question, what is the answer?

The answer is right there, somewhere in the noise hubbub industriousness, where you don’t have to answer to anybody. It’s not on a store shelf or on TV, or even in a yoga class. You don’t have to be the Arrow or Iron Fist to dig it up, either. All you have to do is be quiet enough to hear it, and never mind the honky-tonk.

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Boomer Yoga Swarm

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“Why don’t you all fade away, talkin’ ’bout my generation, don’t try to dig what we all say, talkin’ ’bout my generation.”  The Who

It’s been said everybody loves yoga nowadays. The love wasn’t always the case, at least not in the United States, which was a problem. It is the case today, which might be a worse problem. Yoga is good for everyone, but not everyone is good for it. Even yoga masters like John Friend and Bikram Choudhury, who created practices of great benefit, have not, because of the sex, drugs, and money scandals surrounding them, been altogether good for it.

Yoga in the western world has faced many challenges, from its philosophy being decried as a menace to society to the corporatization of the practice, but the latest threat may be the most menacing. That threat is being posed by the horde of Baby Boomers, as time catches up to them, swarming studios coast-to-coast.

Just fifty-some years before the first Baby Boomers came into existence, at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, lectures and a subsequent speaking tour by Vivekananda inspired many Americans to see the light. They also led to trouble, to yoga being decried as a cult. “Police Break In On Weird Hindu Rites,” blared a New York City newspaper. Twenty years after Vivekanda had come and gone, feature articles like “The Cult of the Yogis Lures Women to Destruction” were still commonplace.

In 1928, Yogananda, the author of Autobiography of a Yogi, was hounded out of Miami, Florida, by hundreds of anxious and angry husbands and fathers who saw him as a sex threat. “Not with my wife or daughter!” they complained and threatened with shouts and clubs.

Throughout the 1930s so-called yogi crimes were a staple of headline writers. During the Cold War some Americans worried about yogis teaching Russian cosmonauts breathing techniques. But, in the 1960s the practice gained traction. It popped up on TV and the Beatles crossed paths with it. By the 1990s new converts were discovering it daily and yoga was off and running.

Baby Boomers led the charge, especially the cadre of Boomers who became teachers, from Sharon Gannon to Ana Forrest to Richard Freeman. “The defining moment when the medical community started taking notice of yoga occurred in 1990,” said Kathryn Arnold, the editor of Yoga Journal at the time. It was also the moment when yoga began to shape shift from a practice of awareness and freedom to a get on your mat get fit get strong sweat out the toxins check out those buns exercise routine.

Postural yoga, a stand-alone practice in pursuit of health, became the vogue it still is today. In A History of Modern Yoga Elizabeth De Michelis fleshed out posture practice as a “secularized healing ritual.” Ben Houhour noted in his History of Yoga in America that the “consolidation of yoga coincided with the coming of age of the Boomer.”

Early on in their reign Boomers got loose on acid with the aim of changing themselves through drug use. The later Boomers of the 1990s flocked to yoga studios and flipped up into headstand with the same resolve. “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” said Timothy Leary, the 1960s guru of LSD. “Drop in, tune in, turn on,” said John Schumacher, a long-time American yoga teacher who spent three decades studying with B. K. S. Iyengar.

In the oughts yoga became the fashion among the better off seeking to become even better off. In the 1970s and 80s the Me Generation had invested in health and exercise fads, self-help programs like EST, and New Age spirituality. As the new decade of doom and diversions unfolded it was yoga’s turn to cater to the Baby Boomers as the practice morphed into exercise for the elite.

Since then yoga has had to go head-to-head with one thing after another, from teachers behaving badly to capitalists doing what they do best. Bikram Choudhury did both, behaving badly and beating the moneymen at their own game, while boasting about it to boot. Some teachers became hatha celebrities, racking up frequent-flier miles, preaching from the pulpit about a practice supposedly sans pulpit.

The corporate world, always looking for the next big thing, licked its lips, liking what it saw of yoga swerving into the mainstream.

Lululemon Athletica, noted for its hundred dollar separates sewn for pennies on the dollar in third world countries, built its apparel empire piggybacking on the practice. In 2012 its sales were $1 billion. Three years later, in 2015, its sales almost doubled to $1.8 billion. Meanwhile, in the birthplace of yoga, most people still wear street shorts and casual t-shirts and women even wear everyday sarees when practicing. They aren’t accessorized for the yoga runway because they don’t push themselves up into shoulder stand on a rock star runway.

In 2002 Trevor Tice founded the CorePower Yoga franchise after taking a class in Telluride, Colorado. “I was very underwhelmed by the facilities and the delivery,” he said. “It was lacking anything a good customer experience should have.” Good yogis now pay up to $170.00 a month to be overwhelmed customers at CorePower Yoga.

Forecasting for 2016 the Advertising Specialty Institute recommended to its promotional pros that the time was ripe to tap into the ever-expanding yoga market. The practice has increasingly been defined, inside and outside its ranks, as a high-end leisure activity, a perception that Rodney Yee in 2011 described as “ass-backwards.”

Backwards never had it so good.

Although commercialization is a problem for a practice that on the face of it eschews commercialization, the immediate problem yoga faces in the next several years is who’s knocking on the door. According to a recent survey conducted by Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal, nearly 37 million people now practice yoga in the United States, up from 20-some million in 2012. More than half of that recent growth has come from older practitioners, 14 million adults over age 50, up from 4 million in 2012.

It’s the Baby Boomers banging on the door.

As time catches up to them, dragging them down into rocking chairs, they are trying to stay on their feet. “It’s improved my flexibility and balance,” said 66-year-old Len Adelman of Herndon, Virginia.

“The majority of my classes are filled with individuals over the age of sixty,” said Michele Coker, a Certified Yoga Teacher in Maryland. “Many have had injuries and are fed up with physical therapy. They come because their physician suggested it.”

“More doctors are recommending that their patients try yoga to help with healing,” said Carin Gorrell, editor-in-chief of Yoga Journal.

Yoga isn’t Muscle Beach, fortunately for those entering their golden years. No one gets sand kicked in their face. There isn’t the notion of turning anyone away, no matter what, in yoga’s DNA. But, Baby Boomers come bearing baggage. It might be best to open the door slowly and cautiously since what’s on the other side could go boom.

Baby Boomers soaked the economy for all it was worth through the 80s, 90s, and into the 2000s. Greed is good, they chanted, and then left everyone else’s finances a wreck. Gen X is in worse shape than their parents and Millennials are worse off than them. The best Baby Boomer brains built fortunes for themselves on Wall Street. They then drove the country into the worst recession in 80 years. 34% of Boomers believe their own children will not enjoy as good a standard of living as they themselves have now, according to the Pew Research Center.

No one in Washington, D. C. ever says Social Security will be a problem for current retirees, in other words, the Baby Boomers. After that, all bets are off.

When the Greatest Generation had finished its run in the Nation’s Capital, it was time for the Boomer-in-Chiefs, Bill Clinton and George Bush the 2nd, to take up the reins. From his breezy approach to spending and debt to his philandering, Bill Clinton was the Boomer-in-Chief who the Baby Boomers deserved. Besides, they had transitioned from dropping LSD to dropping Viagra.

George Bush the 2nd, who was indulged as a young man, indulged himself in the Oval Office with fantasies of Weapons of Mass Destruction and money growing on trees. When the wars he started stalled he proclaimed victory. When the housing market collapsed he was on his way out of the White House, anyway.

Only Barak Obama hasn’t suffered the black eyes of Boomermania. The 800-pound gorilla with the souffle hairdo will not, hopefully, be the next Boomer-in-Chief.

The worst legacy of the Me Generation is still unfolding, which is the legacy of their burning all the cheap fossil fuels they could get their hands on, and then denying for as long as they could that climate change was happening. They will be long gone and not have to pay the piper for the heat-trapping gasses they’ve left behind. Hurricanes and floods are only now starting to rain on their parade.

It might be appropriate to bring a lump of coal to their memorial services.

Before they go to their just reward they are getting up from the stoop of old age and beating a path to yoga studios. Baby Boomers used to crow about never trusting anyone over 30. Now that more than 10,000 of them cross the threshold of 65 every day, the typical Boomer believes that old age doesn’t begin until 72. In other words, “Never trust anyone over 72.” They are putting their trust in yoga.

“It’s never too late, you’re never too old, you’re never too sick, to start again from scratch,” said the yoga master Bishnu Charan Ghosh.

Everyone who takes up yoga has their own reasons for doing it. It’s often the case that they are dissatisfied with something. If that’s the case, Baby Boomers are primed for the practice. Fully 80% of them are not satisfied with the way things are going and as a group are more downbeat about their lives than all other age groups.

They’re in a collective funk.

It was Baby Boomers who brought into life the health club era. Health is the motivation driving most of them to yoga studios, although calming their crazy minds is also a factor. They are less healthy and more stressed than other age groups, according to the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are looking for ways to stay energetic and vital in the latter part of their lives. Fortunately for them, yoga can be practiced at any age, since there are so many kinds of it, from action-style Ashtanga to no-impact chair-style.

It’s a no-brainer for the Baby Boomers. Yoga builds strength and balance, keeps excess pounds at bay, and protects joints, according to the AARP. “It’s important to start caring for your joints, to help maintain your independence and preserve your ability to perform daily activities as you get older,” said Amy Wheeler, a yoga professor at California State University at San Bernardino.

As a last resort, there’s always corpse pose, “which is a totally relaxing option everyone can do!” says the AARP.

Better late than never.

There are so many Baby Boomers taking up yoga that some teacher training facilities like the Yoga Sanctuary in Florida have classes where almost all the trainees are themselves Boomers. It takes one to know one seems to be the idea behind the curriculum.

Although Boomers represent a grave threat to the practice, because of their mercenary states of mind and narcissism, yoga’s motto is “Everyone is welcome here.”

It is literally true, to the extent that if you can’t make it to a studio the studio will come to you. The Prison Yoga Project has taught tens of thousands of jailbirds the practice, bringing mindfulness to cell blocks. “Use your body to teach your mind,” is how James Fox, the founder and director of the project, describes their mission.

Hardened criminals are one thing, but Baby Boomers are another, even harder thing. Nevertheless, yoga is a 5,000 year-old practice that has seen it all over the past 50 centuries and is probably up for the challenge. Most Boomers are taking up the practice in order to fix whatever it is they are being confronted by. They may get more, however, than they bargained for.

“I like to emphasize that we’re already completely whole,” said Niika Quistgaard, a clinical Ayurveda specialist in New Jersey. “We can enjoy ourselves even when everything isn’t physically perfect. It comes down to loving ourselves just as we are, which bring its own healing.”

It’s a way of chilling out and doing your best, rather than forever pushing and stressing out about how to become Masters of the Universe.

Baby Boomers may rediscover themselves in ways they never anticipated as they discover yoga. Although they and the practice seem like star-crossed lovers, it could be their way of staying true to themselves. In the end most people can’t be taught anything fundamental. They can only discover it within themselves. Much of life is a do-it-yourself project.

Maybe the Baby Boomers are up to the challenge of negating the self in order to discover the self, finally.

“They are the most self-centered, self-seeking, self-interested, self indulgent, self-aggrandizing generation in American history,” wrote Paul Begala in “The Worst Generation.”

Yoga is about all the aspects of being, which are the body, breath, and inner self. The practice establishes the person in the self. It leads to self-awareness. Awareness of the self is the way to freedom, the freedom to choose and change. The Me Generation, even though burdened with all their special needs, after the long, strange trip they’ve been on, have one last chance to become the Self-Aware Generation.

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Kill Me Again

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Most people, unlike cats and their legendary nine lives, only die once when they pass away. There’s no going back for a do-over. The art of living well and the art of dying well are often thought to be the same thing. Kim Fowler is not most people. She lives well, but doesn’t die well, although if she were a cat she would be down to six lives and counting.

She is the founder and owner of YAS Yoga and Spinning Fitness Centers, with multiple locations in Costa Mesa, Venice, and Los Angeles, California. The first center opened in 2001 and featured the first fitness program wedding yoga and certified spinning. “Both together are an amazing combination of yin-yang,” she said.

Ms. Fowler’s Yoga for Athletes melds elements of Iyengar and Ashtanga practice to enhance athletic performance and reduce the risk of injuries. YAS classes are typically 30 minutes of indoor cycling followed by 30 minutes of yoga. “It helps you go deeper into and benefit more from each pose,” she said.

She is a successful innovator, teacher, and businesswoman. She is a resourceful yogi, and one tough cookie, too. She has learned to roll with the punches, literally.

In the early 1980s she was competing in a bicycle road race outside Dallas, Texas, when a car smashed into her. She rolled over the front of her bike.

“I bent the handlebar of my bike with my face.”

As late as 2013 there were close to a half million emergency room visits because of bicycle-related injuries and almost 900 bikers died. Texas is one of the deadliest states in America in which to ride a bicycle, ranking only behind Florida.

After recovering she worked with a physical therapist, a woman who happened to be an Inyengar Yoga instructor on the side. “She gave me yoga poses to help me.” A near death experience turned into a far and wide life experience.

“I guess yoga found me,” she said.

Whether it’s exercise or meditation, yoga is about trying to apprehend the inner being, what in the Yoga Sutras is called drastuh. It’s a burning away of what in the end doesn’t matter. Eternity isn’t something that happens after anybody dies. It’s happening all the time to everybody.

Kim Fowler was raised in an impoverished South Jersey neighborhood, the eldest of five children. “I grew up extremely poor. We didn’t have food or heat. My father had a bad car accident when I was young and ended up with 88 stitches in his face. He never pulled out of it. He became an alcoholic, didn’t work, and left us to fend for ourselves.” She had to make her own way.

Sometimes the freedom to be yourself comes from old-fashioned gumption.

After putting herself through school and earning a degree from Boston University she enrolled in law school. In her final year, in the middle of her final semester, she was diagnosed with a rapidly growing tumor the size of a golf ball in her brain.

“I had a bright career in front of me,” she said. Lawyers get a bad rap. Some people even believe most of the trouble with laws is lawyers. “No one wanted an attorney that had a brain tumor.“

Her doctors told her the problem was inoperable. “We could try to get it out,” one of the team of doctors told her. “But, you will lose your speech and sight. You probably won’t make it past thirty.”

Life can be rocketed into a new orbit by a doctor dispensing bad news from a clipboard in a bland voice. “I’m in my last year of law school!” she exclaimed. “This isn’t an option for me.” Once diagnosed, she had to decide whether or not to listen to their medical advice.

“I’m not going to let this happen to me,” she decided. “There’s got to be something else, something different.” She called a friend who helped her check herself out of the hospital. “Nurses and doctors were screaming. If I would have listened to them I would be dead by now.”

Dead again.

She refused, however, to give up the spirit and buy the farm.

“It’s mind over matter,” said Kim. She began training for and taking part in endurance contests. She ran marathons, rode all-day races on her bicycle, and finally progressed to triathlons. “Someone telling me I was going to die caused me to go the whole other route and become a pro triathlete.”

She also made making it on the mat a habit. “Practicing yoga while battling cancer taught me the importance of balancing strength with flexibility. Focusing on my breath helped me stay centered.”

She gradually recovered. “It was hard, but I was full of piss and vinegar at the time.”

Although doctors are often crucial, recovery is more often brought about not by them, but by the person in danger. In many respects we heal ourselves, by means of our thought and breath, and sheer will.

After graduating from South Texas College of Law she stayed in Houston, going to work for a law firm. In 1990 she moved overseas, practicing international business law in Monaco. Five years later, back in the United States, she joined Winning Combination, a health and wellness business, as their Chief Operating Officer.

Then one day she went hiking.

The Mt. Charleston Wilderness Area in Nevada is gnarly, riven by narrow slot canyons, and laced with steep hillsides. The mountain is called Sky Island because of its elevation and isolation. While free climbing she slipped on a patch of ice, lost her balance, and fell more than twenty feet. She landed on an old tree stump.

The stump stayed rooted. She took the brunt of the encounter.

She cracked several ribs, punctured a lung, and severely lacerated a kidney. “I’ve been through worse,” she thought. She was a half-hour away from the closest medical help. She dragged herself off the stump. ”I knew I had to get to the hospital. It was mind over matter and I just did it.”

The kidney on the side that had taken the blow from the fall was leaking urine and blood into surrounding tissue. At the hospital she was told it had to be removed.

“No,” she said.

Kim Fowler was, again, determined to go her own way. It took her a year to recover. The Winning Combination let her go long before year’s end. “I lost my job as COO.” Getting fired can be like a bomb going off. It can also be a way to get on with your life. You only get to make one mistake with bombs. Firing Ms. Fowler was the Winning Combination’s mistake, although for her it turned out to be liberating.

“When I was rehabbing I would go from a yoga class on one side of town to a spin class on the other,” she said. “I was very frustrated. I thought, why doesn’t someone put this together and open up a yoga and spinning studio?”

That someone turned out to be her.

She opened the first of her yoga and spinning studios in Venice, California. The day she opened the doors her new business began to fail. “We had opposite energies coming together.” Spinners were looking for an intense cardiovascular workout and yogis were looking for a workout to calm them down.

What do you do if your business plan isn’t working? “In my case I regrouped and changed, fast.” She created a new kind of yoga to fit the spinners and sold the yoga crowd on the complementary benefits of spinning. “It was the best thing I could have done.” She was designated a Nike Yoga Athlete by the athletic and fitness company two years later.

Winning acceptance in the yoga world, however, was another matter.

“I got blasted by the yoga community when I first did it because it wasn’t ‘real yoga’, rather my own style,” said Kim.

It was a matter of building a better mousetrap.

The concept of zen on wheels made it into Yoga Journal, the world’s largest mass circulation yoga magazine, “Spin and yoga have merged into a killer one-hour class, created by Los Angeles-based yoga instructor Kimberly Fowler. It’s cropping up across the country.” It named the now better mousetrap one of the hottest fitness trends of 2014.

Since then Ms. Fowler has expanded her brand, moving beyond company-owned locations, and franchising her fitness regimen. “Indoor cycling gives you the best cardio training and yoga provides the best stretching, relaxation, and peace of mind to prepare you for the challenges of life,“ said Hugo Auler, new owner of the franchised YAS Fitness Center in Manhattan Beach, California.

Resurrecting her life led to resurrecting her career, and led to finding her business partner, too. Sherri Rosen is her partner in life, as well. “We were set up on a blind date just a few months after I opened YAS,” said Kim. “We are still together.”

“I’ve stayed in an operator’s mode,” said Ms. Rosen, former vice president of a fashion company. “Kimberly is the visionary. It is amazing what she has accomplished.”

Even though Kim Fowler has gone from cutting edge to business-savvy, even though she has transformed her business model to an investor approach, and even though she has gone corporate, she still lives in her sweats.

“I basically live in workout clothes,” she said. “I only wear green, gray, black, and white. Well, with a smattering of skulls.” She is the designer of an apparel line whose tag line is “Two parts functional, one part bad ass.”

Kim Fowler continues to see her doctor once in a while. “I went and he looked at me like I was a freak when he realized I’d been off medication for 20 years, like I shouldn’t have the life I have. The mind is pretty phenomenal when it comes to its power over the body.”

At the end of exercise sequences on the yoga mat something called corpse pose is traditionally practiced. It’s the easiest and hardest pose. It’s easy because all you have to do is lay on your back with your eyes closed for 5 to 15 minutes. It’s hard because who wants to lie on their back like a dead person, doing nothing, for 5 to 15 minutes.

Corpse pose is about letting go. But, it’s not about zoning out or taking a nap. Even though it’s about letting go, it’s a pose meant to foster connection and clarity, or awareness. Many people struggle with it, however, and some classes look like popcorn popping the minute class ends and corpse pose is announced.

Other people have no problem with it. Kim Fowler is one of them. It keeps her in touch with life. “It’s a different awareness of your body,” she said. “I think for stress it’s amazing. Nothing’s better.”

She knows when to lie down and when to get back up. There are no surprises waiting for her in corpse pose. She’s been there before.

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Exercise for the Elite

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All women carry a purse on their persons, with their money, car keys, cell phones, and paraphernalia close at hand. They buy their bags at big box marts or department stores or on hundreds of web sites. Their handbags range from seventy-nine cent beaded totes ordered on e-bay to luxury-crafted Louis Vuitton’s found in quiet malls in select cities.

One late afternoon after work I unrolled my yoga mat at a nearby yoga studio, early for class, and settled into child’s pose to loosen up my back. Laying my hands palms up on the floor beside me and letting the business day drain away, I idly listened to two ladies next to me talking. As I rolled up and reached for my toes in a seated forward bend, one of the young women asked the other one about the purse she had secured behind her mat.

The lady with the purse, sitting cross-legged, explained that she didn’t want to leave it in the lobby at Inner Bliss in Rocky River, Ohio, but preferred to have it near her, where she could keep an eye on it. She looked back at it.

It was still there.

“It’s a really nice purse,” said the other one, both of them now looking at the leather bag.

“Thanks, it’s Italian.”

“Oh, where did you get it?’

“In Italy, when I was in Florence. I just had to have it when I saw it.”

I straightened up, sat back on my heels, and snuck a peek at the purse. I can’t really tell one purse from another, but I can tell cheap from expensive.

The purse from Florence oozed expensive.

Inner Bliss, just west of Cleveland, draws its customers from Rocky River and Bay Village, two suburbs on the south shore of Lake Erie. The median household income of Rocky River is $61,000 and the median household income of Bay Village is $83,000. The median income of Cleveland households, just one suburb away to the east, is $27,000.

Almost no one practicing yoga at Inner Bliss is from Cleveland.

In fact, very few Clevelanders practice yoga at all. There are only a handful of yoga studios in the city itself, and those are downtown or near the big universities, catering to the hip and privileged. Yoga in Cleveland is not in Cleveland, but rather in the suburbs, in up-scale neighborhoods like Westlake, Beachwood, and Hudson.

On the other hand Cleveland’s most populous suburb, Parma, a working-class community of auto and steel workers three times bigger than Rocky River and Bay Village put together, does not have a single yoga studio inside its borders.

Inner Bliss, meanwhile, has more than forty classes on its weekly calendar.

Yoga studios in cities nationwide, from San Francisco, Austin, Chicago, and New York reveal the same demographics.  “In general, yoga is a work-out pursued by the well-off,” says Amy Beth Treciokas of Yoga Now in Chicago. Yoga is practiced by the upper classes, not the middle class, and even less so among minorities like blacks and Hispanics and the poor.

“Yoga has become almost a household word now in the United States,” says Aaron Vega of VegaYoga, a struggling studio in a sizable Hispanic neighborhood in Holyoke, Massachusetts. “But it’s an exclusive club.” When Michelle Buteau, the stand-up comedienne, wrote on her blog Who Said It, “Yes, I said it, I’m going to yoga. A black woman, who is not Oprah or Gayle is going to yoga, say what?” it was funny in a way the funniest things are: it was true.

More than a third of the people who frequent yoga studios in the United States have household incomes of $75,000-or-more, while one out of six have an income of more than $100,000. Their levels of education are equally high: 72% of them college-educated, and 27% of them holding post-graduate degrees. Rich people are more likely to exercise than their poorer neighbors, according to a 2009 Gallup poll, partly explaining why yoga studio parking lots overflow with BMW’s and hybrid SUV’s, rather than Fords and Kias.

American yogis spend upwards of 6 billion dollars a year on classes and clothes and designer mats. “Something that has bugged me about yoga for a long time,” writes Yogi Sip on her blog Confessions of a Wayward Yogi, “is that it is unashamedly aimed at the upper classes.”

They take workshops taught by celebrity teachers who command a high fee, spend four-day weekends at regional gatherings and yoga conferences, and vacation at yoga retreats in the mountains or on seashores around the world. Some yogis even jet set coast-to-coast to practice at select studios.

Practicing asanas at yoga studios in America is, if nothing else, an expensive form of exercise that only some can afford, in more ways than one. “I think it’s right to say that the people who typically take yoga are white, with disposable income, and more importantly with disposable time,” says Courtney Bender, a professor in the Department of Religion at Columbia University. “They’re in jobs and professions that allow them enough time to take classes. So there aren’t a lot of working class people, for example.”

Many yoga teachers and studio owners agree that it is the rich who practice yoga. “For the most part, yes, it’s an expensive pursuit, and seen as something for the elite,” says Janet Stone of Janet Stone Yoga in San Francisco. Where studios are located supports her contention. They are in the better neighborhoods of Boston and Los Angeles and all the places in-between where the upper middle class and rich live.

“No one can argue that the Americanization of yoga has taken place and that people with disposable income make up a large percentage of the base that supports the yoga industry in this country. It is true yoga appeals to a predominately white, upwardly mobile segment,” says Gabriel Halpern, founder and director of the Yoga Circle in Chicago.

Some teachers disagree that it is only the rich who can afford to practice at studios. “In my own personal experience of teaching yoga and Yoga Therapy in rural middle America,” says Mary Hilliker of River Flow Yoga in Wausau, Wisconsin, “I have found that my students are rarely elite in income, but that they are certainly rich in heart.”

Even at big studios in big cities there is the sense that a wide stratum of society participates in the practice. “While many of our students are financially well-off, I would guess the majority are middle class and some even lower class,” says Annie Freedom of the Samadhi Center for Yoga and Meditation in Denver. “I see a lot of regular folks in lower tax brackets practicing yoga for greater peace and spiritual awakening.”

But, it may be that the average American cannot afford to exercise at yoga studios. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, the overall median personal income for all Americans over the age of 18 is approximately $26,000. Going to asana classes at a yoga studio three times a week at $12.00 a class would cost $1872.00 a year, or a projected 7% of the average American’s gross income.

“If I wasn’t a teacher,” Deanna Black, an iconoclastic instructor at Fitness One in University Circle, Ohio, told me, “I’m not sure I could afford to practice at a studio.” The average American can join Fitness 19 or Anytime Fitness and work out every day for $29.95 a month. Michael Hellebrekers, a financial consultant for Wells Fargo Bank, estimates that at best monthly and yearly rates for practicing at a local yoga studio are 4 to 5 times more expensive than lifting weights at a franchise gym.

Yoga studios, no matter what else they are, are businesses that need to pay the bills. They may be labors of inspiration and compassion, but they are sole proprietorships and limited-liability corporations, too, and must make sense in terms of profit and loss.  “Creating a studio setting, where the overhead is extensive beyond a student’s comprehension,” says Tammy Lyons of Inner Bliss, “and hiring the staff it takes to even open the doors, isn’t possible without charging what may be outside some people’s ability.”

The economic challenges studios must meet are the same that confront all businesses. “Let’s face it,” says Knekoh Fruge of Yoga Circle Downtown in Los Angeles, “you need a large space and you need to fill it, the rent is high, and teachers have to get paid. That’s why in large part the poor can’t afford it.”

Not everyone believes practicing at yoga studios has anything necessarily to do with yoga. “You’ve got to be kidding,” Ginny Walters, a Cleveland-area Ashtanga teacher said. “Maybe the studios are for the elite, but the practice is for everyone, money or no money.” Putting her pocketbook where her mouth is, Walters teaches many summer evening classes at a Rocky River city park overlooking Lake Erie, charging only a nominal fee.

Tammy Lyons of Inner Bliss, who taught herself yoga from a book checked out of the library, says:  “The practice itself can be done without anything, or at the very least a mat. When I started I went to class maybe once every couple of weeks, and spent less than $12.00 a month.” Yoga asanas, once learned from books, classes, or DVD’s, can be practiced almost anywhere. You don’t even need a roof over your head. Unrolling a mat in the backyard and doing 108-or-less sun salutations is as free as free gets.

Many teachers concede the costs of practicing yoga in a studio setting, but insist it is not a roadblock. “I have always reached out to students who are sincere and need financial assistance to take classes,” says Craig Kurtz of the Iyengar Yoga Center in Denver. “I strive to not let money be the issue that holds students back.”

Many teachers do pro bono work in their communities, at schools and shelters, and even in prisons, because they believe in the good yoga can do. “I would never turn anyone away,” Knekoh Fruge says, “and I guarantee you 90% of the yoga studios would never refuse someone who genuinely needed to practice but didn’t have any money. I offer work exchange, and I teach classes for free to people recently unemployed.”

There is, however, a wide divide between schoolchildren and prisoners, and the rich, and straddling that divide are the working and middle classes. Budgets and necessary economies are everyday issues in their lives. Not disadvantaged enough for charity and not rich enough in time or money to easily take three or four yoga classes a week, they are squeezed from both ends, pressured by desire and conformity. The rich among us may have the means to practice all the asanas we want, but the mass in the middle has harder choices to make.

When I asked Kristen Zarzycki of Inner Bliss whether or not yoga was an elitist activity, she reluctantly agreed it was. But then she added: “Everyone can be elite. Seriously, stop buying junk at Target and take a yoga class instead. Anyone can do it if they want to. I have coffee at Starbucks with my father two or three mornings a week. I could have bought a new sofa by now, with all the drinks we had last year, but I think it’s important to spend time with my dad. It’s the same with yoga.”

What we do with our time and money is what defines us, not what we have or don’t have. What we do, how we act in this life, determines who and what we are. No one practices yoga because they are yogis. They are yogis because they practice yoga. Everyone is a melding of his or her own choices. They are what their priorities have made them. Otherwise they are not themselves; they are someone else’s priorities.

Jean-Paul Sartre said we are all condemned to be free, to choose and to act, adding that we are responsible for everything we do. Not choosing is itself a choice. It is the accepting of conditions as they are. It is choosing the option of letting someone else shape you into a consumer or spectator.

“There is nothing with which every man is so afraid as getting to know how enormously much he is capable of doing and becoming,” said Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher. What he meant is that the ontological problem we all face is to find out who we are and what to do with ourselves. It is only in our decisions that we are important. In other words, the choices we make are ultimately what we are made of.

Practicing yoga is not predetermined. We can stay at home watching The Biggest Loser on HD instead of going to a yoga class and doing warrior poses. Americans watch 250 billion hours of TV a year, mesmerized by sports, car chases, and endless commercials for fast food, pharmaceuticals, and the next fad. We can cheer on our favorite celebrities and athletes, buying tickets to their movies and spectacles. Or we can decide to go to a yoga studio and pay $12.00 for a one-hour lesson in how to live our lives as an experience rather than a dog and pony show.

Maybe going to a yoga studio doesn’t have as much to do with money, or the lack of it, as it seems. Maybe it is just a matter of priorities, of deciding what to spend one’s money on. The most recent estimate by Street and Smith Sports Business Journal is that Americans spend upwards of $213 billion annually on sports events, or more than $700 for every man, woman, child, and baby in the country, watching men in bright uniforms throw, bounce, kick, or hit balls with a stick.

We drink $74 billion dollars of beer a year, more than 12 times the amount of money spent on this one alcoholic beverage than all the money spent practicing asanas at a yoga studio. According to the New York Times Magazine, even pornography is more popular than yoga. Americans spend an estimated $12-14 billion dollars a year looking at pictures of naked people.

“Many people avoid yoga because they perceive it as elitist,” said Frank Barnett, a former Cleveland, Ohio-based kirtan teacher.

But, anyone can practice yoga if they want to, not just the elite. Even tight-fisted budgets are only about what we can’t afford. They are not about keeping us from buying what we really need. One way of looking at choices is that they are ways of turning stumbling blocks into stepping-stones. Almost everyone’s resources are limited to the extent that priorities have to be set.  Going to a yoga class is not so much a line item in a budget as it is getting in line at the check-out counter of the mind, body, and spirit store.

“Anybody can afford to take a yoga class if they want to,” says Kristen Zarzycki. “It’s a matter of making it a priority.”

When McDonalds uses yoga and meditation in its advertisements to sell Happy Meals, it does so as grist for the mill to achieve its only goal, which is to generate profits for its shareholders. Yoga is different. “It’s not about getting rich,” says Melissa Johnson of Yoga Ananda in Avondale, Florida. “This is a labor of love for the community. No one is turned away for inability to pay.”

Yoga teachers take empowerment, spiritual, physical, and even economic, out of Sherwood Forest and make life better, not poorer. They even make the rich richer. “I agree it is exercise for the elite, but with certain qualifications,” says Graham Fowler of the Peachtree Yoga Center in Atlanta. “We help everyone become more well-off, more self-aware, confident and balanced, with qualities of heart.”

In the long run we shape our lives and ourselves by what we do. At the Yoga Hive in Atlanta, Renard Mills, a personal chef, started his own yoga practice just as the recession began to impact his business. Bad business or not, he continues to take two classes a week. “I used to be a worrier,” he says, “but I don’t do that anymore. I just breathe. I walk this earth differently now. In my family budget, yoga is the second line item, after food.”

Yoga changes people’s lives for the better, not for the worse. “It’s wonderful to see people get stronger, healthier, more vibrant and happy,” says Tara Rawson of Adashakti Yoga in Riverside, Florida.

Yoga is not about taking from the poor and giving to the rich. It is about making everyone rich. Having disposable money and time is one thing. What we do with the money and time we have is another. It may be true yoga is largely taught in the better neighborhoods of America, but the real goal of American yoga teachers is to make everyone’s neighborhood better.

“Yoga is not elitist!” says Dr. Rajvi Mehta of India’s Yoga Rahasya. “It actually breaks all barriers of economics, religion, class, geography, and politics. Once in a yoga class, we have a driver adjacent to the CEO of a company.” If the practice of yoga were really a matter of money, then the practice wouldn’t really matter. It would just be another commodity. But it isn’t, no matter what the thousand billion dollar advertising engine of the world believes. Choosing yoga is to stop resolving life as a problem and living it as a journey.

Yoga is a practice, not a product. Stepping into a studio is not about buying something – it is about becoming someone. Yoga is many things to many people, but fundamentally it is a pilgrimage. In Mark Twain’s book Innocents Abroad, when the American religion tourists on their luxury steam ship finally reach the Holy Land, and get to the Sea of Galilee, they protest against the cost of the two gold Napoleons for renting a ride on one of the local boats. The boatman, instead of haggling with them, sails away and the pilgrims are left stranded.

Practicing asanas at a yoga studio doesn’t have anything to do with walking on water, but at the end of many hot vinyasa classes one or two yogis will look like they’ve done exactly that, if only because they are totally exhausted or totally refreshed. Yoga does have everything to do with believing in what you do, and being willing to make the sacrifices necessary to become what you believe in, even if it costs one or two gold pieces.

“Nothing in life is really free. If you are serious about something, you are willing to pay for it, “ says Paul Jerard, the director of teacher training at the Aura Wellness Center in North Providence, Rhode Island. “If you truly love yoga, and want to learn more, support your local yoga teacher, or your local studio.”

Teachers keep yoga alive, bringing it to life for their students. Their studios are way stations on the pilgrimage that the practice is.  “One of the things necessary for yoga,” said Swami Krishnananda of the Divine Life Society, “is continuous study under a guide.” Giving ourselves to a yoga teacher is to choose to be elite, because that is what yoga does. It privileges everyone who chooses to make it even a small part of his or her life. It makes anyone who unrolls a mat at their yoga studio as elite as it gets, which has nothing to do with money, but everything to do with awareness and consciousness of self and others.

Even though yoga is not just exercise, asanas are the best known and most accessible of the eight-part path of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. “The needs of the body are the needs of the divine spirit which lives through the body,” says B. K. S. Iyengar. “The yogi does not look heaven-ward to find God for he knows God is within.”

Practicing at a yoga studio is never easy physically or financially. It means choosing to be in the company of people who think yoga matters, and not in the company of people who don’t.  It means standing up and making a commitment of time and money. Where we spend our money, rich and poor alike, is where our priorities lie. Ultimately it is not what is in your wallet that is important. It is what you do with what’s in your wallet that really matters.

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