By Paul Sutherland
Someday my son, Patrick, might wish to be a yoga instructor. He is fascinated by the poses that I have programmed into my iPad and has spent hours looking at them and then modeling the poses. He is very proud of his “boat pose” that his instructor, Aunt Vanessa, taught him. Someday he might wish to be certified as an instructor. This is only natural since I own Yen Yoga & Fitness, a studio in downtown Traverse City, Michigan, offering about 19 different yoga classes, in addition to spinning, Pilates, and kettle bell classes. Oh, yes, Yen Yoga & Fitness also offers Zumba classes, which Patrick and his younger brother, Henry, will dance when they walk next to the studio when classes are in session.
Someday Patrick or Henry might like to be instructors. If they are anything like their dad they will want to try lots of different yoga styles, experience many different teaching methods and wish to understand the deeper, spiritual, and sacred roots of yoga. Hopefully, they will see yoga as service, as a spiritual path, and as a calling to help people be happier and healthier. While I am not an instructor and suck at every pose, I am happy that the instructors at Yen Yoga & Fitness are skilled, knowledgeable, happy, service-oriented, great teachers, and just wonderful people.
But the purpose of this essay is not to chat about Yen (which means “peace”) Yoga. It is to chat about a yoga movement that is currently gaining momentum but that could potentially damage yoga’s spiritual and sacred roots. I am referring specifically to the system of yoga started by Bikram Choudhury.
If Patrick were to go through Mr. Bikram’s classes and become certified in the Bikram style, I would worry that he would sue my son if he taught in my studio or any studio other than a Bikram center. I come to this conclusion because of the fact that Bikram has already tried to sue me and one of my instructors, along with a very long list of other people, alleging that we are practicing and teaching his style (which we are not). According to the lawsuit, Bikram’s style of yoga, which is wildly popular, is very specific: a room temperature of exactly 105 degrees F, no music (he sued one of his former instructors for playing music as she taught yoga), carpeted floors (yuck), 26 poses that must be completed in an exact order, and a scripted 90-minute program.
Yen Yoga & Fitness does not have carpeted studios, we do have music, we don’t follow the Bikram script, we allow the instructors to dictate the poses, and we have 60- and 90-minute classes. Plus, the temperatures vary so much that I don’t ever remember seeing the temp exactly at 105. But Bikram sued us anyway.
After we got the letter accusing us of practicing Bikram’s style of yoga, we invited him, his lawyers, his local Bikram instructor, and any of his other representatives to visit the Yen Yoga & Fitness facility firsthand, attend any classes they liked, and to chat about the matter in person. No one came, just the lawsuit.
I also own Spirituality & Health magazine. Our mission is to help and support our spiritual communities and our spiritual practices. At its core, the magazine is about helping people to live happy, fulfilling lives full of health, inspiration, love, and peace. We have many readers in our community who are yogis and who have a love for yoga.
I believe yoga is for everyone, and it is very personal. I also believe that the key to practicing yoga (rather than just “doing it”) is the personalization that each instructor brings to his or her class. Instructors should have the right to teach as they see fit, taking a little from here and a lot from there and putting it all together as they feel they should express their craft. Great teachers are authentic, sincere, and loving, and they inspire the student to “love to practice.” I believe that the best yoga instructors are also spiritually motivated. They “get” the sanctity of their craft and express vitality, humility, love, and compassion wherever they go. In other words, they try to “live it” 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If Patrick or Henry wishes to have the room at 107 degrees F, not use carpet, and script a session that best suits the class, they should be able to without the worry of someone threatening them, suing them, or trying to put them out of business.
We are devoting a whole section of Spirituality & Health’s blog to the topic of “Who Owns Yoga?” and have included links to documents, websites, PDF files, articles, and essays on this very subject. But we want to hear from you—what do you think? Is yoga for everyone? Should anyone be able to “own” yoga? Does Harvard “own” teaching? Does Yale “own” its instructors and graduates? Should Bikram be able to “own” how his students practice or teach? Should anyone be able to say they “own” even a little bit of the sacred poses or teachings of yoga?
We look forward to hearing your thoughts.