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Yoga Inc.

Is the growing corporatization of yoga moving us further away from its spiritual roots?

The reports are in: We are tired, stressed out, worried, and becoming increasingly unhealthy. That's according to the Global Wellness Institute, which has been publishing a series of research-based reports on wellness since 2007. They show that, globally in the last decade, we've spent more money than ever before on beauty and anti-aging, healthy eating, weight loss, fitness and pricey retreats that offer the chance to reset and realign ourselves.

In 2015, the global wellness economy was valued at a whopping $3.7 trillion, with $999 billion spent on anti-aging, $648 billion spent on healthy eating, $563 billion on wellness tourism, and $542 billion on fitness and mind-body wellness. Fitness and mind-body was one of the fastest growing markets, up 21 per cent over the course of two years.

"Recent years have been marked by global economic contraction and disruptive geopolitical events, but a 'wellness economy' just keeps rising, with an upward trajectory that seems unstoppable," said Ophelia Yeung, senior research fellow for the Global Wellness Institute, in a press release. "And we predict that consumers, governments and employers will continue to spend big on wellness because of these megatrends: an emerging global middle class, a rapidly aging world population, a chronic disease and stress epidemic, the failure of the 'sick-care' medical model (resulting in uncontrollable healthcare costs), and a growing subset of (more affluent, educated) consumers seeking experiences rooted in meaning, purpose, authenticity and nature." 

In 2018, wellness is big business, and that lightspeed growth has been anchored by the last decade's yoga boom. And while its growing corporatization has undoubtedly helped expose yoga to the masses, there are also fears that it has diluted the original principles upon which the practice was founded.

The Business Case

Spend about 20 minutes outside in Whistler during the summer months and chances are you'll see someone doing a Warrior, tree, or dancer pose. Maybe on a stand-up paddleboard, dock or at the summit of a hike. And while neither Destination BC nor Tourism Whistler tracks data on wellness tourism in Whistler, the very fact that yoga studios seem to keep popping up echoes the findings of the Global Wellness Institute: The fitness and mind-body market is on a meteoric rise, and shows no signs of slowing anytime soon. Not only are there six yoga studios in town, but yoga is also offered at three stores, two gyms, three hotels, an art gallery, and at the Maury Young Arts Centre. Suffice it to say, yoga is an attractant to those living and visiting Whistler, and there is no stronger visible evidence of yoga's popularity in the resort than at the annual Wanderlust Festival. A four-day event that is touted as a "transformational retreat" through yoga, meditation, food, music, outdoor activities, and workshops, Wanderlust Whistler attracts approximately 3,000 participants. For $1,050, you can attend all the events and, according to the event's mantra, "find your True North." And while many may find the price tag steep, the festival's co-founder Sean Hoess defends it by explaining that the wide-ranging festival costs a lot to put on.

"It is very expensive to produce," he said. "We're bringing in talent from all over the world and nobody in this business, including us, is making a killing."

While there are varying costs associated with the festival, like the rental of multiple venues, one of the big costs is teachers. Hoess prides the programming department for its ability to secure top name instructors from around the world. Although Hoess couldn't share the amount spent on teachers for Wanderlust, he said that across the industry, instructors can range in cost from as little as $500 to as much as $20,000 for a weekend.

It then begs the question of where the line is between yoga as a business and yoga for wellness.

In Whistler alone, Wanderlust generates $2 million in economic activity.

And the numbers are growing. The festival series started with roughly 700 attendees in Squaw Valley in 2009 and now it sees over 80,000 people each year in 19 countries and five continents.

But Hoess argues that he—and others like him—are not in the business to make money; they are in the business of bringing together a community.

"People who spend their lives trying to create wellness events, whether that's on a small scale by running a yoga studio or on a large scale by gathering 2,000 people together who are interested in yoga and meditation and healthy living—I don't think people are attracted to that because of money. They would go to Wall Street or Toronto," he said. "I always laugh a little when people say that (this is about money) because it's like, I mean, listen: If my goal in life was to go make a lot of money, I would definitely pick something else and not do this."

With all this growth, there are some who question the authenticity of a four-day wellness festival, wondering how much transformation is actually possible in mere days. And although Hoess says that everyone comes out of Wanderlust feeling healthier and better than when they arrived, there is the also the looming question of cultural appropriation: Is it possible that yoga has become so mainstream, with fitness-minded studios and pricey corporate retreats aimed at an upwardly mobile clientele, that it has moved far from its Indian roots, evolving into something entirely different than yoga?

Hoess disagrees.

"If by appropriation, that means people in the West should not be engaging in spiritual and philosophical practices that have been evolved over thousands of years in other cultures, then I think, to be honest, that's just crazy," he said. "Why shouldn't people have the benefits of yoga or meditation or some of these other brilliant human inventions that have developed over thousands of years—just because they were developed in other cultures? I do understand criticism of people who are not serious about the practice and that they are not engaging respectfully in practices that are obviously rigorous and do require study, but that's not what we're doing."

The Eastern Perspective

Dr. Preeti Misra lives in British Columbia now, but she was born in India. Yoga was not something she learned at a studio, nor was it a series of poses she was taught. In fact, for Misra, yoga represents a spiritual journey to unite with one's true self.

"It is to be able to listen to your body, your mind, and your consciousness," she says. A yoga therapist who works to heal others, Misra first learned about the spiritual aspect of yoga as a little girl, from her family.

"There are a lot of spiritual places in India," she relays. "My family would visit these spiritual places and we would learn about the great yogis and chant."

Misra's spiritual education included studying Krishna and Shiva and the other Hindu gods, recognizing that the essence of what she was to learn was already insider of her and in everything. "(Going to these spiritual places) is something everyone in India does," she said. "It is naturally done. It is a tradition."

Now in her 40s, Misra reflects back on her introduction to yoga—and it differs greatly from the average yogi in North America. There was no tight Lululemon pants, no sipping on the latest moringa smoothie, no breezing into an open and well-lit yoga studio for an hour of stretching.

"I think the West, or most people in the West, understand that as soon as they think of yoga, they think of yoga as certain poses and you do it and possibly that's it. But it is much deeper," she says. "Whatever we are doing right now is yoga. We are connecting with each other and then when we are really sad, there are different thoughts and feelings that lead to yoga. It is a lot of understanding of emotions and bhakti yoga (a spiritual practice within Hinduism focused on devotion to a personal god)."

Although yoga is something that has been practiced in her family for generations—back through to her great-great grandfather—Misra doesn't see herself as practicing a more authentic version of yoga simply because of her place of birth.

In fact, she says has met a large number of devoted yogis who are not from India.

"I have had the privilege of being born (in India) but I have seen so many yogis, even better yogis that are not from India," she notes, adding that knowledge—one of the cornerstones of yoga—is available to everyone, regardless of where they were born.

"There are so many practitioners all over the world and they may not (have been) born in India," she says. "Yoga is very universal in that sense."

Misra offers a perspective on paying to practice that runs counter to the capitalistic leanings of yoga in the West.

"Yoga is actually priceless and there is no amount of money you can pay to get the real roots of it. It's not supposed to be about money," she says.

"It is a matter of choice. If I have chosen to attend (a yoga class or festival) and spend that money, and have found the best teacher or the best institute and it has promised me this and that ... then it's just like any other fitness (class) they would join," she says.

She adds that if people are motivated by money, then their yoga practice will reflect that.

"As a practitioner, as a seeker, if your purpose is to go and learn yoga so that you will make some money, then the universe will get you a teacher of that potential," says Misra. "That's how the universe works and it is not for me to say yes or no to it; like teaches like. If you are a deeper seeker, you will get a deeper teacher. You will know. You will know that this teacher is for me because your conscience is driving you toward it—and that's why so many people end up wandering the Himalayas looking for (wisdom)."

And while yoga is priceless, there are many who donate either their time as a teacher or funds for a class. That, according to Misra, is fair game.

"Sometimes people donate, and then there is no limit to what you can get. Donation is donation. Many yogis, true yogis ... are doing their work in the most selfless way," she says.

The Western Practitioner

Tina Pashumati James has been practicing yoga for almost 35 years. Back when she started at 18, yoga was thought of, at least in North America, more as a cult, let alone a lifestyle, and few people were doing it. There was limited access to information from the East, so James went to India to find a teacher.

"I felt that if I went there I could see for myself," she says. "I wanted to study with an Indian teacher and I wanted to find out what that word 'spiritual' meant, what it encompassed, and whether I could bring that home."

A former mountaineer, marathoner, and competitive equestrian rider, James now runs Loka Yoga in Whistler with the hope of helping others on their journey of healing—be it from cancer, depression, anxiety, or any other strife in life. A cancer survivor herself—she had a lymph node removed from her throat in 2014—James lives, eats and breathes the essence of what yoga aims to be.

She wakes at 3:30 a.m. every day to practice her pranayama, a breathing technique she performed regularly during her battle with cancer. She does this for 15 minutes, followed by a 45-minute asana practice. After that, she drives to Whistler from Brackendale to lead her 6 a.m. class. On a typical day, she will teach seven classes, both private and in-studio, before returning home at 8 p.m.

For James, what she does each day is not so much a career as it is a vocation—a divine calling to a spiritual service.

"Most people want a career (in yoga) and mine is a vocation. Yoga is a vocation. Yoga is my life," she explains.

Honouring the roots of yoga is as important to James as helping to build a community of practitioners.

"With great power comes great responsibility. It is ever so important to honour the lineage," she says. "Anybody who teaches anything has the responsibility to uphold whatever it is that they're teaching right back to their roots."

James is very much aware of the commercialization of yoga, but sees it as mostly a positive.

"As negative as some of this commercialization is, which it is, you have to look at the bright side," she says. "The way I look at that is, commercialization has increased accessibility. That's one thing it's done. So now there are many more people practicing yoga, but you and I both know that can be slightly misleading."

Julie-Anne Roy, co-owner of Bear Paw Yoga in Whistler, agrees with Pashmuti. "The rise of popularity of yoga in the past decade is incredible and definitely noticeable, and the reason for that is because yoga is a powerful practice that generates instant results of 'feeling better,' or 'generally good,'" Roy wrote in an email. "It is true that yoga has become greatly commercialized in the past decade, and I think that it's a good thing in the sense that it creates more awareness around this practice and makes it more accessible to anybody who wants to try it out."

To counter the mainstreaming of yoga, and to keep her practice and teachings authentic, James teaches more than just poses. "I try to share everything, not just the yoga," she says. She has taught various classes for Lululemon on the condition they donate the proceeds to breast cancer awareness and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a non-profit dedicated to marine conservation. She also donates proceeds to Wounded Warriors Canada, the Whistler Get Bear Smart Society, Animals Asia, PETA, and the Canadian Cancer Society. She has taken to bringing her students to First Nations communities in the area to expose them to traditional Indigenous practices, and donates her time, money, food and any other resources she can find.

"Unfortunately, people today are a little bit lazy and they want the big package, with meals and the yoga retreat and the First Nations drumming, so it's easy for others to package that. The general public have allowed that to happen. So what we've got to do is say, 'Hey, the First Nations people are only two hours away and they are happy to hold a sweat lodge. We'd love for you to come with us and introduce you to them so that they get involved in wellness—because they are part of the wellness.'"

Both James and Hoess offer affordable options to practice yoga and wellness; Wanderlust has a robust volunteer program granting them free access to events, and Loka Yoga has $10 karma classes every Friday.

Each aims to bring people together, to unite a community, and offer a chance at being healthier. And for James, if a large event is what does it, then so be it.

"Better to light a candle and get everyone to come together and find each other than curse the darkness," she says. "All you can do is offer up what works for you and you hope to God that it works for them."

Indeed, through wellness travel, people are moving about and coming together, spreading their stories of what works for them.

"Whatever the intention is to start yoga, in the end, the results are still the same. Yoga really helps people grow on a personal level, and as more individuals commit to the practice, then we grow as communities, and so on," wrote Roy. "The more people do yoga, the better the world becomes."

And through the sharing, there is hope—from the East to the West—that we can come together and find a way to heal.

Even if there is a price.

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